Luke Clayton: Heading to the Land Of Enchantment

Luke Clayton, Daily Light contributor
Luke will be hunting with his friend David Williams (pictured) on his ranch in northern New Mexico this week for mule deer. Atop the mountain in the background runs the Continental Divide. [Luke Clayton / Daily Light contributor]

I’ve been writing a lot lately about fall and all the good times ahead for those of us that love the woods and waters. Archery whitetail season is open and many of us have been honing our skills the past few months. I wrote about a recent wild hog hunt with my bow a few weeks ago. My goal was to take a good eater hog to supply my friends up in New Mexico with some fresh wild pork. There is plenty of deer, elk and bear up on their ranch, which is located on both sides of the Continental Divide in northern N.M. but the closest thing to a feral hog in that country is the javelina.

My hog hunt worked out as planned and next week, my friends and I will be enjoying everything from fried backstrap to cured wild hog ham. Every year, I plan an archery hog hunt or two before the opener of deer season; if I am successful in harvesting a hog as I was this year, there is plenty of ‘camp meat’ in the freezer; if I’m not I still benefit from all the practice and time spent in the woods.

I thoroughly enjoy hunting here in the Lone Star State, we have some of the most liberal bag limits and lengthy seasons in the county but there is something very special about heading to the mountain country of New Mexico to hunt. This will be my third consecutive year to join my friends David Williams and his wife Regina on their ranch near Cuba, N.M. for a few days of mule deer hunting. My friends own Hunters Supply Bullets and crank out millions of lead bullets each year in their plant situated on the ranch. Their land goes to the west side of the Continental Divide which is less than a half mile behind their house. Beyond their ranch lies the vast Jicarilla Apache Reservation which encompasses well over a million acres.

Last year, we joined one of the tribal elders on the Southern Jicarilla for a tour of a small portion of the vast reservation and I had the privilege of seeing some breath taking country that was far, far away from any paved roads or human habitations. This area of N.M. is known worldwide as a Mecca for giant mule deer bucks and we spotted a couple of this back-country drive that would stir the hunting blood of any deer hunter. As my buddy David points out, there are no fences separation this world class mule deer destination from his ranch, all the deer have to do is decide to cross the Divide and come down into his valley to feed.

Mature mule deer bucks don’t get big by being dumb and putting one on the meat pole usually requires wearing out some boot leather and doing a lot of glassing’ with binoculars. I did luck out on my first hunt with my friends here a couple years ago. I had a fine buck on the ground within a couple hours of daylight on my first day hunting.

Last year, I wasn’t as lucky but a hunt is not all about harvesting an animal. I always try my best and spend time in the hills hunting but regardless the outcome of the hunt with my friends; it’s always a good time. We make a couple of trips into ‘town’ each trip. Cuba is only a short drive from the ranch and there are a couple of restaurants there that serve ‘sure nuff’ New Mexico ‘Mexican food’. The chile rellenos are world class and made from the famous Hatch peppers this time of year.

This is “soft” mountain country compared the mountains of northern Colorado where I guided elk and bear hunts for several years. The mountain country around Regina, N.M. is between 7,000 and 8,000 feet in elevation. I am sure some of the peaks are much higher but we hunt mostly the valleys and side hills which seems to be where the majority of mule deer stage before the heavy snows move them to lower elevations.

I have never hunted elk in the area but I can attest that elk are way, way more plentiful than mule deer on my friends ranch or at least, that’s been my observation. It’s common to see elk on just about every hunt but those mule deer have a way of blending into the rough landscape and are much more difficult to spot.

Another big advantage of hunting these lower elevations is the fact that it’s usually possible to get a vehicle close to downed game where up in the higher mountain country I am accustomed to hunting, it’s often necessary to pack the game out to the nearest road.

I thoroughly enjoy a hunt each fall in mountain country and am thankful that as an older hunter (I will be seventy next year), I have friends to hunt with in such an awesome part of the west.

My long time friend Mark Balette will be hunting with me next week. Mark is a veteran outdoorsman and great company whether shooting the breeze around the campfire or in the backcountry packing a quartered elk to the nearest road. He owns B & C Outfitters near Groveton in East Texas. Mark has never taken a Rocky Mountain mule deer and we are hoping he will connect next week. When guiding elk hunts in Colorado, he encounters plenty of mule deer but just doesn’t have the tag or the opportunity to hunt them. Our hunt will be with muzzleloaders and we’ve both been doing a lot of shooting. I feel confident out to 150 yards but a bullet pushed by black powder (or black powder substitute) falls rapidly past that distance. I’m hoping for a shot inside 100 yards but in this big country one never knows and it’s often necessary to prepare for long range and hope for a closer shot!

I’m sure I’ll have lots to discuss with you in next week’s column

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