It was as close to heaven as I could imagine. I sat clutching my muzzleloader and listened to the bugles of numerous bull elk cut through the heavy morning fog.
This was the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in northern New Mexico, and I was in for one of the best hunting experiences of my life.
The first day of my hunt ended without a shot fired, but I had no less than a half-dozen mature bulls within easy muzzleloader range. I was looking for a long and massive 6x6, and I found him at midmorning on the second day.
Though archers have the first crack at bull elk in New Mexico and almost all other Western states, bulls typically still are vocal when muzzleloading seasons open in early to mid-October.
These seasons often are the best of the best for harvesting trophy bulls because elk are still rutting and callable, and muzzleloaders extend the effective shooting range of hunters.
Because the bulls are on the move, this is definitely the favorite time of year to pursue big wapiti for Chad Schearer, a former world elk-calling champion and spokesman for CVA Muzzleloaders.
"Hunting with a muzzleloader allows me to be in the woods while the elk are still bugling in certain Western states," Schearer said. "Muzzleloader elk seasons in some of the better elk areas take place during October, when many people feel the elk aren't as callable.
"Just like with turkey hunting, when hens start tending to their nests, the gobblers get lonely and start moving. With elk, once the majority of the cows are bred the bulls start moving looking for other cows. This is called the second estrus, which typically happens 28 days after a cow cycles if she isn't bred."
In many states, this second estrus will take place during the month of October. Cow calling is very effective during this time.
"I have had bulls come in bugling into late October. They aren't as aggressive but they will come to the call," Schearer said.
When calling bulls in October, Schearer recommends using estrus-sounding calls, such as the Knight & Hale Lost Herd cow call or Mega cow call.
"These calls can really fire a bull up late in the rut," Schearer said. "If the bulls aren't aggressive, don't be afraid to get aggressive with your cow calls.
"During the peak rut I call much less then I do during the second estrus."
Tom Watts, elk biologist for the Jicarilla Department of Game and Fish, agrees October is a great time to elk hunt.
"In limited draw areas, private land or special low-pressure areas such as the Jicarilla, the elk rut runs into mid-October," Watts said. "The first week of October finds the bulls here close to their breeding peak, and the hunting action can be phenomenal.
"Of course, high pressure in September and drastic weather extremes can affect the animals. But when things are normal, hunters should be able to hear and see good bulls everyday where there are quality herds."
An added benefit is that temperatures should be cooling off in October, the biologist said, and that makes hunting more comfortable for hunters and elk typically move more during daylight hours.
"In New Mexico, it can be hot and miserable on people and elk in September. I simply love hunting bugling bulls in October," Watts said.
Renowned elk expert Bob Robb, Under Armour pro staffer who has authored three books on targeting wapiti, has hunted elk in every Western state and across western Canada.
"Even though the main rut is over now in many places, in early October you can often find bull elk still bugling in the more southern portions of their range," Robb said.
"That means that judicious use of light bugling combined with some cow-in-estrous calling can bring a lovesick bull running into range."
"Near the end of rut, I concentrate my hunting in two areas — dark timber cover and near water," Robb said. "Here's why:
"First, those bulls that are exhausted from the rigors of the rut just want to be left alone. They find the solitude they need in deep, dark timber hell-holes, where few hunters are willing to pay the physical price to hunt.
"And in unseasonably hot, dry weather, these exhausted bulls need water, and lots of it. Since they don't want to move much to get it, they often bed up close to available creeks, ponds, stock tanks or other easy-to-get water."
Back at the Jicarilla Apache Reservation and after an hour of maneuvers, I was above the herd bull and his cows.
It was 9:30 a.m., but the monarch was still bugling every few minutes allowing me to easily keep up with him during my move.
Slowly I eased closer and closer to the edge of a rock shelf near the top of the canyon, and finally I peaked over. The heavy horned 6x6 was no longer in his bed, where I had spotted him earlier; he was one the move.
The bull was on the other side of the secluded box canyon and headed to the bottom and closer. He stopped and bugled when I cow called, then the huge beast glared straight at me.
I felt as though he could see my eyes just as well as I could see his through the 9X scope, and I knew the moment of truth had arrived. All of my summer shooting practice was about to be tested and, after controlling my breath, I slowly squeezed the trigger.
The regal six-point turned and ran up the opposite hill into the thick oak brush, but my 295-grain bullet had done its job to perfection. After only 75 yards, my Jicarilla bull piled up.
For me, October couldn't have been better.
I heard more than 50 bull elk bugle during the first day of my 2003 hunt. And on just the second morning, I took an 8½-year-old herd bull that sported 52-inch beams and heavy mass.
My only complaint about the trip was that I didn't get to hunt longer.
You can bet on one thing for sure: This October, you will find me back in northern New Mexico pursuing bugling bull elk on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation — and I will again be in hunter's heaven.