The T4 ranch was established in 1902 in New Mexico and spans an incredible 225,000 acres. Scott’s great, great, grandparents owned and operated the local General Store. At the turn of the century, whether due to drought, the appeal of the gold rush or hardship, surrounding homesteaders turned over the deed to their land to settle their grocery bill. The family acquired more land during the Great Depression as people traded land for food and essential goods. A historical and quintessential western ranch, T4 holds a special place in my heart and feeds my soul with the goodness that only comes from being nature and surrounded by amazing people.
My hunt was to begin on Saturday morning, but I arrived midday because I was not going to miss a Halloween celebration with my wife and boys. Family first. I arrived midday to find the cottage exactly how it was the previous year, Scott taking a siesta in the worn recliner directly behind the only door to the cabin. Kitchen table with eight chairs around it, eight empty bunks for the cowboys or us, a small shower and the adobe walls still holding all the stories and memories that have been shared, told and created at the ranch. I woke Scott up once my gear was unloaded and we shared a hug that old and new friends receive; I’m a hugger, plain and simple. Scott and I proceeded to reminisce about our hunt together this same weekend last year, when I tagged out day 1 with a 3-day snow storm impeding upon us. We laughed about how cold we were and how this year the deer having barely been moving during the day due to the warmer temperatures, their winter coats and full moon. This added to our excitement that we made the right choice to peruse not only my first bull elk, but the first bull to ever be taken on the T4 Ranch. When Scott informed me of this little fact, I was shocked, honored and grateful for the opportunity to take the first bull in T4 history.
After catching up, I brought in my KOR 13er which held my rifle, a 28 Nosler with 26” barrel and Leupold Mark 5 HD Scope, my bipod, and my suppressor. As I began to unlock the four latches, Allan and his son Timmy walked in. I introduced myself and began to explain and demonstrate how KOR differs from other cases. The VRS System worked perfectly on my eight hour drive from Phoenix to Montoya and that all my gear was exactly in the same place as I arranged it. The perfect case, custom made for every trip. Allan and Timmy were in camp to harvest Timmy’s first buck. Another first and one that got even more excited than my opportunity to harvest a bull. There is something magical, unique and truly a lifelong bond that is created when you get to be present for a monumental moment in a young hunter’s life like this. And I will share every moment of that hunt shortly. After unloading and assembling my rifle, Scott and Allan picked up the case and were blown away by how light, yet durable the 13er is. The perfect case, custom made, every trip.
We tried to nap after a quick sandwich, but we all were too excited to go glass for critters. We headed out mid-afternoon and separated so we could cover more country: Scott and I looking North, Allan and Timmy glassing South.
Scott and I arrived at our glassing spot looking over the vast country with Mount Tucumcari as a landmark on the horizon. Man, I never tire of that view. We set up to glass as the wind howled up to 40mph at our backs. The wind wasn’t cold or chilly, just annoying as dust blew into our eyes and made holding our binoculars stable difficult. A couple hours passed and I spotted a muley. Just his bum quartering away in some timber, but man did it get my blood pumping. These are the moments I cherish; the moment you find an animal and know that you’re in the right place. Of course, as soon as I called Scott over the buck disappeared into the timber, never to be seen again. Shortly thereafter, Scott found our bull. He was across a canyon about a mile or so away. We texted Allan to see if he could see the bull or had seen any deer, his response was negative to both. Scott and I headed back to the truck and went for a short jaunt to try and close the distance on the bull and set up for a shot.
We drove for about 15 minutes and quietly approached the rim of the last canyon we saw the bull. Crouching as we went and careful to avoid making any unnecessary noise or stepping on deadfall, we snuck to the rim undetected. We began glassing and within a short amount of time we located the bull. He was bedded down about 460 yards away while a younger bull with him was up feeding. We had my rifle setup for a shot, but with limited light, crosswind gusting unpredictably between 20-40mph, and bedded bull, Scott and I decided it was best to back out, let the bull be and come back at first light in hopes the bull would be there, the wind would die down and we could get a more ethical and effective shot off.
That night, as we returned to camp to share our encounter with the bull, we were greeted by Scott’s son Kitt, his basketball coach, Jason, and his son Johnathan. Scott and I could not contain our excitement and began to describe the old, unique bull we glassed up, that we have affectionately named Trident, due to the three points capping off his right antler. As everyone settled into camp, I came to learn that it was Jason and Johnathan’s first time hunting ever! I was elated to hear this and that this father-son duo had the gumption to take the opportunity to come hunt for a weekend and see what hunting is all about. To most non-hunters, hunting is the taking of an animal; but to us, it so much more. Hunting is the camaraderie between friends and fellow hunters, it is being out in amazing country with no distractions, it is creating memories and friendships that last a lifetime, and most of all, for me, it is refreshing my soul and spirit in a way that is hard to describe in words.
As the young boys played by the fire pit and us dad’s worked harmoniously to prepare dinner with few words spoken, the meal of elk steaks, salad and fresh fried potatoes was coming together. As I went out to sneak a fry from pan, I looked up and was in awe of the full moon and stars that lit up the night sky. Unsure of where Jason and his son lived, I invited him to step outside and look up. He, just like I, was blown away to see Van Gough’s Starry Night painted in the sky as far as the eye could see. After we shared how neither of us rarely get to see this epic view from home, I turned back to the fryer and helping finish out dinner. A few moments later, I heard Jason call his son to step outside and join him. He said to him, “Jonathan, come look at this” and with that, Jonathan looked at the stars and was taken aback by what he saw. The simple gesture and act of inviting Jason outside led the father-son duo to share that moment of looking over the western sky and seeing it lit up like a fairy tale. These moments that we share while in the field, albeit small or momentary, are the exact moments that we, as hunters, cherish and strive to share with others. After filling our bellies on Scott’s delicious elk, compliments of Allan’s marinade, and fresh potatoes and greens, we topped it all off with a slice of cake and headed off to bed. Plans made for the morning on what was bound to be an epic day.
We woke up at 5am Sunday morning. Antelope breakfast sausage sizzling away in the cast iron skillet, a dozen eggs scrambled and breakfast potatoes to feed the growing boys, and ourselves. Scott’s dad, Phil, joined us for breakfast as he was taking Kitt, Jason and Jonathan out to his honey hole that morning. Phil is the kindest, salt of the earth, wisest men I have met. A man of few words, but the wisest words you’ll hear and a heart the size of New Mexico itself to go along. Allan and Timmy were headed to an eastern part of the ranch to glass for deer and be close enough to come aide Scott and I, if needed, to process our bull if we had success. Scott and I were off to the same spot we left the bull the night before. We spoke little on our way as we both thought about the hunt ahead, the challenges, the what ifs, the first’s that were being made that beautiful Sunday in November.
Scott and I drove on until we reached a fork in the road. Scott slowed and stopped short, not picking one road or the other. I looked over at the quizzical look on his face as I’m sure he was debating the what ifs, the possibilities, the impact which fork we took would have on the hunt. So I looked at him and said, “Let’s flip a coin.” He laughed and promptly responded, “ Heads we go right, tails we go left”. I fished into the front pocket of my bino harness to retrieve the quarter I keep in there for when a flathead isn’t available. I looked at him, coin poised to flip and reiterated, “Heads right, tails left”. And with that, I flicked the coin up, careful not to hit the headliner; both our heads and eyes moved with the coin as we tracked its upward, arching travel thru the air and back into my right hand. I flipped the quarter onto my wrist….heads. “Right it is” Scott affirmed as he turned the wheel of the truck towards the dirt tank the bulls had been frequenting. We crept forward and came to as silent of a stop as the truck could muster. We donned our packs, secured my rifle and closed our doors as quietly as the dusty doors would. We were off in hopes of finding our bull exactly where we left him bedded.
Scott moved thru the mesquite and junipers ever so silently and without effort. We hugged the little cover we had as we approached the rim. I remained about 5 yards behind while Scott moved with the terrain to try and locate the bull. As we approached the rim, we immediately spotted the younger bull no more than 300 yards away. My heart sunk for a moment. Did the older bull take off? Did he move to water earlier? Did the branch I stepped on accidentally spook him? But those doubts and questions quickly ceased as Scott turned and said with the biggest grin I’ve ever seen, “He’s right below us!” With slow, deliberate movements, we belly crawled the last few yards to the edge, each move deliberate and a little painful. Now, my heart beat faster than usual as I peered over the edge to get a glimpse at our animal. He was a funky, old monster that I admired. His big right main beam pointing towards the pastel painted sunrise as he munched on prickly pears in a patch of cholla. The bull was heading toward water, taking his time without a care in the world. He continued his slow, relaxed walk to our right when he disappeared out of my shooting window. Scott and I repositioned to the same spot we were glassing from the previous night. I got down behind my rifle and struggled to adjust for the extreme downward angle of my impending shot. Scott tossed his bag under the butt of my rifle and I threw my 1 pound shooting bag on top of that. I began to squeeze the bag, thus causing the crosshairs to move up and down, to slow my heart rate and steady my breathing. Scott, ranged the bull for me and whispered, “125 yards”. No need to dial or hold for wind, I settled my crosshairs on this magnificent bull. As I settled in to take the shot, I was in a state of disbelief: this is really going to be my first bull? This is the first bull ever taken on T4 ranch since it was established in 1902? This is only a 125 yard shot when I was prepared to shoot to 800?! I calmed my wandering my mind and said a quick prayer, “God, please let my aim be true and thank you for this opportunity”. With that, I placed my finger on the trigger and applied the little pressure needed to release the firing pin. Whack! The 195 grain bullet traveled the 125 yards instantaneously and the bull dropped. I kept my eye in the scope and crosshairs on him as I slowly cycled another round into the chamber. The bull went down hard. His massive antlers swayed to and fro as he tried to comprehend what just happened. Thirty seconds later, movement ceased; my first bull was down. Scott and I looked at each other and shared a smile that instantly said everything both of us were thinking! We high fived still laying on our bellies and then stood to embrace, cheer and celebrate what a great moment we just experienced and the gratitude that comes with harvesting any animal and, especially an old bull of this caliber. I looked back over the vista that was before us, I whispered to myself, “Thank you God”. I smiled and goosebumps overtook me as I was filled with gratitude, honor and joy. We made it history that morning, but the day was far from over.
As we hiked back to the truck to exchange gear for the cleaning and processing that lied ahead, Scott called one of the cowboys on the ranch, Drew, and asked if he could help us pack out the meat. Drew promptly replied, “On my way”. The second call was to Allan, “We got him”. Scott and I waited for Allan and Timmy to arrive so we could all hike in together. We made our way down the rim to bull, slowly and cautiously. We traversed the rim in zig-zag pattern to mitigate the steep incline, while trying to find a path that was passable for our pack horses. As we got lower, the bull’s massive antler grew out of the cholla like a beacon in the high desert. We approached with smiles, shock and awe: what an incredible animal. The first picture we took of the bull was Allan’s son, Timmy, and I. That is one of my favorite photos from the trip because this young man got to share in my hunt that morning. And, little did I know at the time that I’d get it ten fold later that evening.
We processed the bull in about 2.5 hours. My shot missed his right side tenderloin by about 1.5”, but bruised the left back strap. The bull didn’t suffer and we will eat well for the next year or so. Drew managed to get the hind quarters and shoulders out in two trips with Nitro and Chappy, while Scott, Allan and I successfully got the neck meat, back straps, tenderloins and skull out. We saved the heart to eat that night for dinner and celebrate a great hunt, the camaraderie, the historical moment for T4 and myself, and share in the harvest. We loaded up and headed back to camp.
En route back to camp, we discovered Kitt had shot a nice mule deer and Jonathan had missed his first buck. We were elated and saddened. Both Scott and I wished Johnathan had connected with the buck to make his first hunt out a positive experience, but that is hunting. We reconnected with everyone back at camp and shared the experience of our hunts. Kitt got to hanging his deer with the help of Pappy Phil while Scott, Allan and I went about cleaning and deboning my bull to get him on ice ASAP. With most of our tasks complete and energy running low, it was time to refuel. We all stepped into the kitchen to make lunch before heading out for the evening hunt. We said goodbye to Jason and Johnathan as they had to prepare for school on Monday. I could tell the hunting experience was different than what they were expecting, but I know they truly enjoyed the experience they had and hope to see them in the field again one day.
With Kitt and I being tagged out, Timmy was anxious and excited to get back in the field to find his first buck. We decided to hunt together that evening and reorganized gear so all five of us could fit in Scott’s truck comfortably, or as comfortable as possible. With Allan in the back flanked by Kitt and Timmy, Scott started the engine and we rolled out. The temperatures were warm, the wind blowing a solid 24 mph, the deer were scarce. We drove around to various glassing spots or previous honey holes to no avail. Although, while glassing one spot, the boys began to stir up a black bear from below a cliff as they tested how well rocks rolled down the rim. The bear was jet black and on the move. Always a good sign to me. There is an abundance of wildlife here, and we just need to be positive, patient and pray that we will find Timmy a buck. We drove and glassed to no avail. Not even a track in the road. To help past the time and keep spirits high, I suggested Timmy envision what his first buck looked like. His reply was simple: “He’s a 13 by 13”. The truck erupted in laughter and we all admired his ambition. That’d be a dandy of a first. The sun was going down, the stars were coming up. We were rounding a corner towards one last dirt tank and Kitt yells “Deer!”. Scott slams on the breaks and backs up. We let the dust blow past to discover two stumps that look like deer. We half laugh at the revaluation, but we are all on high alert. As we drive not 50 yards further, there in the dirt leaving the tank from his last sip of water is a 3×4 mule deer. The buck freezes as do we. We back up a little and the deer must think he is invisible. Timmy and Allan hop out of the truck to get set up for a shot. Being in the passenger side front seat enabled me a clear view of this buck in my binoculars. He’s a good looking 3×4 with eye guards that hook up his main beams. A perfect first buck! The buck started to walk away as Timmy was getting steady and building a good rest. Scott and I grunted, whistled and made other various sounds to get the buck to stop so Timmy could have a clean shot. Scott and I got the buck to stop and look at us, no sooner had a shot rang out. The impact was perfect. The buck reared his front legs up in the air and slowly trotted into the brush. We carefully watched and listened…crash. Timmy and Allan pursued the buck with caution. Allan excelled in this teachable moment helping Timmy replay the recents events in his head. Scott, Kitt and I were watching from the roof of the truck. Once a few father-son moments had passed, Kitt and I jumped down from the truck and joined the father son duo. We identified where the buck went in and allowed Timmy and Allan to track it. They did not have to look far as Timmy’s aim was true. Once Timmy spotted the downed deer, his eyes lit up like the night sky and a smile spread on his face from ear to ear. Another first.
I am not sure what was a sweeter moment: tagging my first bull or seeing a young man take his first buck with his father. The later is one I look forward to sharing and experiencing with my boys in a few years. The lessons learned and memories made in the field can, and will, never be replicated in a classroom. The life lessons, bonding, and memories generated in the field are only understood by those of us that do it and we strive to share those moments with others; to invite them into the fold.