Walking back to the ranch headquarters after an afternoon mule deer hunt last week in northern New Mexico, I stopped to cast a backwards glance at the night sky and the outline of the Continental Divide, the summit of which lay about a half mile to my west. A brilliant bright sliver moon was well above the Divide and just below the moon appeared the most awesome display of multi layered clouds painted in colors that my camera and long lens simply could not do justice to. The sun had long disappeared over the western horizon but still gave just enough light to illuminate the night sky. I had not seen a mule deer the entire day or, the entire hunt for that matter. They were still up high in the wilderness country, by now I am told the chilling weather has began to push them down to the valley I was hunting.
This was my third year to join my friends David and Regina Williams to hunt mule deer on their ranch situated on either side of the Continental Divide. My friends own Hunters Supply and make their living cranking out literally millions of cast lead bullets. Last year during muzzleloader season, David’s trail camera captured the image of several fine mule deer bucks coming to water holes on his ranch. The plan this year was to hunt during the earlier muzzleloader season but for reasons we mere humans cannot fathom, the deer decided to remain a bit higher in elevation this year. That’s hunting and we hunters have learned it’s tough to second-guess Mother Nature and big game movements. There are patterns that remain constant year to year but there are no guarantees as to precisely when these patterns occur.
I’d like this week’s column to be a shining tale of big bucks harvested and mule deer backstrap on the grill but that is not the case. I’ve killed mule deer here on past hunts but this year, I’m taking away more than mule deer backstraps and antlers. This year, my reward is spending quality time with some great friends and ‘soaking up’ the awesomely beautiful wild country in this section of a state that is known for beautiful scenery and remote, wild lands.
My buddy Mark Balette and I made the jaunt to NM together this year and we hunted mornings and later afternoon and spent mid day sightseeing and being exposed to some cutting edge technology pertaining to big bore airguns by David who is a lifelong gunsmith and serious airgun shooter. A year or so ago, David hit a target positioned just over a thousand yards with one of his big bore air rifles, multiple times! That’s a feat for most of us with a centerfire rifle but an astounding accomplishment with an air rifle. It’s one thing to shoot many rounds and with one lucky shot, finally hit a target at such a distance but to shoot a group that far out, well that’s something!
A highlight of the hunt was a mid day between hunts with David exploring a remote Indian encampment that was occupied for over a hundred years around the sixteenth century by a tribe of Indians, the structure is said to have been built about 1,000 BC by the Pueblo Indians. The ‘houses’, were actually rooms built into a cave with a giant rock outcropping that served as a roof. The adobe walls with reinforcing cedar limbs are still standing, although time and the elements have taken their toll.
We walked a pretty rugged canyon bottom for about a mile to reach the old encampment and then made a pretty steep climb to gain access to the actual structure but the sight was well worth the effort getting there. Local Apache legend and archeological studies tell of a massacre here sometime in the 1700s where all the residents were killed by another warring tribe. The dwelling is situated at the end of a huge canyon with no escape route that I could see.
I can only imagine how difficult it was for the Indians to pack meat into their home. Since agriculture would have been impossible in the rugged country, the tribe had to live primarily on meat. Possibly, they hunted the higher ground above their dwelling and lowered the quartered animals down with handmade ropes? The face of the mountain beside the dwelling showed signs of a water fall centuries ago and a dry ‘pool’ lay just below the entrance to the structure. Other than the fact that escape from the box canyon was next to impossible during a fight and the difficulty of getting game meat there, the place appeared to be perfect place to live back centuries ago. I might sound a bit ‘hokey’ but when standing in front of this ancient place miles and miles for the near human habitation; I could ‘feel’ a kindred spirit with the folks that lived there.
Maybe it is the Indian blood in me but I found myself trying to figure out just how these people actually lived. There were what appeared to be storage holes cut into the face of the ledge, just outside the entrance to the cave with overhanging rock ledge. I surmised this is where they stored their meat. It would have been close enough to defend from bears and mountain lions, which are still very common in this rugged land.
Of course, it’s difficult to plan a hunt a year out but the good Lord willing, next fall I will make my fourth jaunt up to visit my friends. We will be watching those water holes in September and if the bucks are coming to water on a regular basis, I’ll plan another muzzleloader hunt. Or, I might switch to hunting elk. This season we saw lots of elk during the deer hunt. Usually it’s the elk that are hard to pattern/hunt but on my friend’s ranch, elk are much more prevalent then deer, at least most of the time. We saw a nice five by five bull and several fat cows during the short time we were there.
Next year’s hunt is a solid year away but I’m already looking forward to it. A hunt with great people in wild country is what it’s all about; meat and antlers is a bonus!
Contact outdoors writer Luke Clayton via his website www.catfishradio.org .