The Enchanted Land of Apache Elk

In the early days, animals and birds of monstrous size preyed upon the people; the giant Elk, the Eagle and others devoured men, women and children, until the gods were petitioned for relief. A deliverer was sent to them in the person of the son of the old woman who lives in the West and is the second wife of the Sun. She divided her time between the Sun and the Waterfall, and by the latter bore a second son, who remained with his mother while his brother went forth to battle with the enemies of mankind.–Apache Legend

The Apache spirit—present day and lingering ghosts from the past—was palpable as I breathed in the Jicarilla panorama. It oozed from the rust-colored rimrock canyons, the lush ponderosa pine forests and pinion pine mesas, and the fragrant sagebrush flats. In many ways—in the outback corners and hidey-holes of the tribal lands—the Jicarilla landscape has changed little since its ancestral Apache settlement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

With its official boundaries finally established in 1907, these New Mexico tribal lands put to rest the wandering the Jicarilla people had been forced to endure for nearly 200 years. With abundant water, timber, wildlife and agricultural lands—and with a seemingly more supportive federal government—the Jicarilla Apache were poised to undertake the development of a contributing reservation economy. Today, part of that economy is based on its world-class elk and mule deer hunting opportunities.

I pondered all of this while following the hurried footsteps of Lionel Velarde, my Jicarilla Apache guide, who was doing his best to catch up to a bull elk we’d spotted on a ridgeline an hour earlier. At 6 foot, 5 inches, Lionel’s a giant of a man, with the stride of a runaway freight train, and I struggled to keep pace. Suddenly, Lionel stopped short, and I nearly bumped into him. “Can you smell him?” he hissed. To my surprise, I could—the musky stench wafting through the dark ponderosa pines was unmistakable. “We’re close,” Lionel pointed to my feet, put his index finger to his lips and then waved me forward. Elation quickly turned to despair, however, as a swirling breeze caressed the back of our necks, and pounding hooves signaled the end of our stalk. Lionel gave me a dejected look and pointed in the direction of the truck. “Let’s go.”

I knew I was going to enjoy my short time with Lionel from the get-go. His passion for the hunt, subtle sense of humor and quick wit were contagious. And while we’re worlds apart in regard to our geographic and cultural roots, we shared the common bond of the hunt, having both grown up influenced by fathers and uncles who were hunters.

And, like me, Lionel still lives for the chase. “I’ve been hunting for more than 30 years, and I still get pumped when I get on a big bull,” Lionel warned me on the drive out the first morning. “It makes my heart race, and as you can see my legs are a little longer than most,” he laughed. “When I get excited, most people can’t keep up.”

Lionel tapped my shoulder and pointed at a pair of mule deer bucks that spooked as we crested a rimrock ridge during the lengthy hike back to the truck. He smiled and pointed again as a bull elk—probably the one we’d buggered—screamed an insult a couple ridges over. There was no doubt the Jicarilla was rich in game.

Close Encounter

Things quieted down and we decided to switch it up for the afternoon. As we drove to the east side of the tribal lands, the landscape modulated from the rugged, hilly terrain we’d been hiking all morning to expansive grassy meadows cut by meandering draws and shallow canyons. There was also a change in the air. While it had been calm and warm during the morning, the wind was now kicking up and the temperature was rapidly dropping. Lionel parked the truck and we set out on foot. The panoramic view was like a vivid oil painting, still glistening from its creator’s final touches—sinister storm clouds hovering over golden flowing grass that undulated like waves in a fierce tempest.

Lionel tapped my shoulder and snapped me out of my daydream. “Let’s get up high and try to locate a bull.” We crested a hill at the precise moment a bull elk bugled, and Lionel quickened his pace, hoping to outrun the approaching storm.

We were circling downwind of the bugles when we bumped into a small group of cow elk milling around at the far end of a long, narrow meadow. We hunkered down and sneaked in to within 300 yards, trying to locate the bull. “He’s there to the left of that tree, where that branch is hanging down,” Lionel whispered without looking away from his binos. “He’s bedded down and I can only see one of his antlers, but I think he’s a 6-by-6 … looks pretty tall, pretty heavy.”

With the cows semi-alert, we decided to sit it out and wait for the bull to make the next move. I got on the shooting sticks, ready to act the minute he stood and gave me a shot. Only minutes had passed when Lionel put a hand on my shoulder and said in a hushed voice, “He’s standing up, get ready!” The bull pushed up onto all fours and we got our first good look at the … six-by-ZERO! The big bull had one antler busted off at the base. Lionel and I looked at each other and laughed. It was a fitting end to our frustrating first day afield.

A Change Of Fortune

By the time we headed out the next morning, the storm front had rolled through. The temperature had plummeted and the wind had diminished to a whisper. It was still pitch black when we pulled off the main road and slowly made our way through the hidey-holes of the Jicarilla.

Except for the soulful wails of a few lonesome yodel dogs, it was uncommonly quiet at our first few stops, even for the elk post-rut. Lionel’s bugles were met with complete and utter silence. All we could do was keep moving and hope to encounter a vocal bull.

Dawn was slightly more than a promise—a tinge of color in the eastern sky—when we got out of the truck for the third time. Lionel leaned into the bugle, expending all the air in his lungs … and got an immediate response! “There’s a large opening on the other side of this hill,” Lionel said as he reached into the truck for his backpack. “We need to get over there and have a look.”

The bull was tight-lipped for the most part, but just boastful enough to keep us on track. The sun was breaking the horizon as we eased down the edge of a long, narrow meadow dotted with scrub pines. Lionel stopped abruptly and sank to his knees, and I followed suit. “I can see them,” he whispered and raised his binos. “Cows on the far end of the field, in the pines. The bull’s got to be there somewhere.”

We glassed without success for several minutes and then Lionel froze, glued to his binos. “There he is!” I could tell by his reaction we were on a good bull; this was the first time I’d seen the big man genuinely excited. “They’re moving to the right,” he said. “We need to circle ahead of them, before they get into the thicker cover.”

As we angled toward the elk, I caught movement in the pines to my left and dropped to my knees. One … two … three cow elk passed through a narrow opening in the pines, and I readied my rifle, hoping the bull was close behind. Another cow came into view and I ranged her at 165 yards. I was breathing hard from the sprint and drew a deep breath to calm myself and get my nerves under control as cow after cow walked by, and then nothing.

I shot Lionel a puzzled look, and he shrugged his shoulders. Had the bull already passed by? Should we get up and move? I was weighing these concerns when I saw a flash of antlers through the pines and then the magnificent bull elk walked into full view. I had only seconds before he would disappear back into the pines. Luckily, Lionel was quick to respond and gave a sharp bugle, stopping the bull in his tracks. I acted just as quickly, sending a 180-grain bullet elk-bound.

The huge bull bolted, quickly exiting my shooting lane. I caught movement in the pines and then saw the bull’s massive rack tip back and out of sight. I knew it was over. I fell back on my butt, and all the emotion, all the adrenaline, from the chase came rushing out. It was an incredible, exhilarating feeling, as the calm washed away and I started to shake.

Lionel smiled and reached over and slapped my knee, “Let’s go take a look.” My legs were still weak as I got up and hobbled over to get a close-up look at my Apache bull.

Jicarilla Gear Bag

The Thompson/Center Icon, chambered in .300 Win. Mag., I took to the Jicarilla carried Serial No. LA-01, the first long-action Icon produced by the gun company (also available in .22-250 Rem., .243 Win., .308 Win., .270 Win., .30-06, 7mm Rem. Mag. and the new .30 TC). T/C’s new bolt-action rifle is as sleek and stylish as it is accurate and reliable. Crafted from high-grade walnut with intricate checkering and ribbon detail, the rifle features integral Weaver-style scope mounts, stylized interchangeable bolt and T/C’s proprietary Interlok Bedding System.

My Icon was topped with Nikon’s 3-12X42mm Monarch riflescope with a BDC (Bullet Drop Compensator) long-range hunting reticle. This scope is crisp and clear, with excellent light-gathering capability in low-light situations. And the long-range BDC reticle meant I could hold dead-on beyond 400 yards, a distinct possibility in the open terrain of the Jicarilla. Nikon Monarch 8X42mm binos and Monarch Gold 1200 Rangefinder rounded out my optics bag.

Federal’s Premium Vital-Shok 180-grain Barnes Triple-Shock X-Bullet delivered one-shot kills on both my Jicarilla bull elk and Texas pronghorn buck.

With temperatures ranging from 20 degrees in the morning to more than 60 degrees in the afternoon, layers of clothing that included Under Armour under and outer wear ensured lightweight comfort in all conditions. Its Mossy Oak Break Up pattern was a perfect match for the broken and varied terrain of the Jicarilla.