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Mimbres River Magic

By Craig Gillock

Temperatures throughout most of the country are still warm enough to require air conditioning and the trees are still wearing the green leaves of summer. But the evening breeze and the fog of early morning foretell the coming of autumn. The first hint of fall triggers something in the minds of hunters. It evokes an emotion that can only truly be felt as the season approaches. No matter how much time is spent putting in food plots, training for that climb up the mountain, or honing your skill behind the trigger, it’s different from knowing you will soon be in the field, chasing the game you love.

For me, this phenomenon usually occurs in the first few weeks of September. My focus shifts to the hunts I have planned, and I relive past adventures in my head. As I work on this month’s newsletter, I’m only a few weeks away from travelling to Idaho with four other members of Team Peterson to pursue mule deer in the Caribou National Forest. As I prepare for that trip, I thought I’d share the story of my muley hunt to New Mexico last season, when I was still a new part of the Peterson Cartridge family. I hope you enjoy it and I hope you get the chance to travel afield this fall and make your own memories.

When I went on my first mule deer hunt it was because it came bundled with an Alberta elk tag. My intention was to shoot the first decent muley I saw then spend the rest of my trip running down big bulls. Nine days later you couldn’t pull me away from the glass as I scoured the Canadian mountainside, picking apart every bush and shadow trying to locate one of these grey ghosts. I was addicted.

Since that first trip to Alberta, I’ve hunted mule deer in two Canadian provinces, the Sonoran region of Mexico, and three western states. It was my passion for mule deer that brought me to New Mexico in January of 2021 where I arrowed a beautiful four by four, and it was that same passion that led me to put together a small group of friends to return to the Land of Enchantment this past November on a mule deer rifle hunt.

One of the many blessings I’ve had in my life has been the amount of time I’ve spent afield with my father, Mike. He has been my best and most constant hunting partner for over three decades, so I knew he was up for this adventure. Rounding out our little band was my friend Tyler Stepp, who has hunted all over the western US and Canada, William “Doc” Hope, a longtime friend to both Dad and I who used to tell me about his own adventures when I was a novice hunter, and my dad’s good friend, Tye Loy, who often joins my father when traveling in to the backcountry. Given the history I have with this group I was excited to be introducing them to the hunting opportunities New Mexico has to offer.

Another area of my life in which I’ve been lucky is my job. I have the good fortune of working for Peterson Cartridge, a family-owned company based in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA that specializes in the manufacture of ultra-high quality brass casings and rifle ammunition. My job is in quality control, but the ownership believes in testing our products in the field, so I am afforded the opportunity to go on my adventures and prove the effectiveness of what we make. A lot of products in the outdoor industry make the claim that they won’t sell a product unless they use it themselves. We believe in that promise and will always do our best to show our customers we use the exact same products they are buying. For this hunt Peterson Cartridge provided Tyler, my dad, and I with 6.5 PRC ammo and outfitted Doc and Tye with 300 Win Mag. This was my first hunt with the 6.5 PRC cartridge, and I couldn’t wait to see how it performed.

Our arrival at camp was nothing out of the ordinary. We unloaded our gear, shot our rifles to make sure they survived the trip unscathed, ate dinner, and made our plans for the next day’s hunt. Dad and I would be hunting with head guide, Glenn Gibson. Tye, and Tyler were paired with guide Josh, and Doc was being guided by the owner of Desierto Alto Outfitters, Noah Silva. After the post-dinner safety briefing our guides showed us several pictures of some great bucks they’d seen in our hunt unit. There was a tangible buzz of excitement in the air as everyone readied their gear then slipped into their bunks, trying to grab a few moments of sleep before dawn on the first morning of our hunt in the foothills of the Gila National Forest.

I can’t say with any certainty if it was the appetizing aromas of fresh coffee, bacon, eggs, and southwest spiced potatoes that rousted us from our beds or if it was the anticipation of the day before us. Either way, we were all awake before any of the alarms we had set went off. We devoured our breakfast with the fervor of men ready to do battle. Our gear was loaded onto side by sides, and we rode out into the dark wilderness in which dwelt our prey.

The first rays of sunlight to peak over the Mimbres Mountains found Glenn, Dad, and I atop a ridge that bordered the Gila. As soon as there was enough light to utilize our binoculars we set up and began glassing the deep ravines, cuts, and coulees that make up the landscape of southwestern New Mexico. A few minutes later Dad was the first to spot a buck, a small fork horn making its way along the dried-up creek bed that bisected the valley floor. Over the next hour several more bucks were spotted as they moved from areas of feed and open prairie to the shaded cover of juniper and mesquite trees. Temperatures were already on the rise and the deer knew it was time to find their beds for the day.

Nothing we had seen measured up to what we were looking for, so we moved on to another location. As we were relocating, Noah’s voice came across the radio letting us all know that Doc had drawn first blood. He and Noah had decided to hunt a ridge where the other guides had been seeing a massive old three by three. Apparently, they’d been seeing this particular buck every season over the past few years but no matter how much mass or width he put on he never grew a fourth tine on either side. He was a buck they wanted removed from the gene pool and Doc said he was the man for the job.

We were super pumped for Doc, and everyone in our hunting party was on the radio asking if they needed help with the recovery. Noah assured us that they had everything covered so we continued to our intended destination. As Glenn guided the UTV along the meandering two–track we would stop and glass the ravines that cut their way back into the ridges.

Just as we rounded a bend in the trail Glenn brought the Polaris to a stop and pointed to the top of the ridge running along our left side. There, perfectly silhouetted in the morning sun was a beautiful seven point.

“That’s a pretty buck,” Glenn said as he studied the deer through his binos.

Dad had insisted that I be first up as shooter so when I heard the twinge of excitement in Glenn’s voice, I wasted no time exiting the side by side and retrieving my rifle from its scabbard.

“Damn, he bedded down,” I heard Glenn whisper. “Come on, let’s get around these trees and see if we can get a better look at him.”

I grabbed my shooting sticks and followed Glenn up the side of the ridge. We moved at a glacial pace making our way from bush to bush. Dad remained with the UTV watching the buck through his binoculars on the chance that we spooked it, and it ran off.

After crawling, sliding, and skulking halfway up the ridge we realized the brush between us and the buck was too thick for us to get a good look at him let alone take a shot, so we snuck back down to the UTV to make a plan. Glenn’s opinion was that the buck was going to stay bedded for most of the day. He suggested that we move on and checkout some other areas. If we didn’t find anything we liked, we could return in the early afternoon and set up for another chance at this deer. Dad said he thought it sounded like a good plan. I had learned a long time ago that it’s usually a good idea to listen to your guide and it’s always smart to agree with my father when it comes to hunting.

We glassed up several more bucks over the next few hours but none of them got my blood pumping the way the big seven had. We stopped for lunch on top of a grassy ridge and as I sat there eating my sandwich and admiring the mountains off in the distance, I made the decision that he was the buck I wanted. I honestly believe a two hundred- and twenty-inch Booner could have walked by, and I would have passed him for the chance at taking my buck. I informed the others of my decision and a few minutes later we were loaded up and headed back to where we had last seen my buck.

We stopped the Polaris a good distance from where we expected the buck to be and continued the rest of the way on foot. As we closed in Glenn motioned for us to stop while he moved a few feet ahead to glass the area. No sooner had he reached a large juniper only ten yards ahead of us and he was waving me up to join him. I made it to Glenn and saw the buck feeding in the middle of a small clearing. “He’s 178 yards,” Glenn whispered. “Get set up.”

With as much stealth as I could muster, I sat down, set up my Bog Pod, and locked in my rifle. I checked my scope to make sure it was properly set, chambered a round, and settled the crosshairs on his vitals. The safety slid silently forward, and as I did my best to recall all the lessons my father had taught me over the years about not rushing my shot and squeezing not jerking the trigger, I fired.

The buck didn’t kick like they normally do or run for cover. He simply stood there as his legs started shaking and then he fell over. My vertical jump of joy would have made any professional basketball player jealous, and my scream of excitement was probably heard back in Pennsylvania. We made our way to my buck, took all our photos, and set to work field dressing him. After all the work was done, we loaded him into the side by side and set out to find a buck for Dad.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully for us. We saw some more deer but nothing that got Dad’s attention, crossed paths with a small herd of elk, and even watched a large black bear make its way off the ranch and onto the Gila. When we pulled into camp for the night, we discovered Tye had also been successful that day. He had stalked in on what is without a doubt the largest forkie I’ve ever seen, and a well-placed shot from his 300 Win Mag sealed the deal. So, with day one coming to a close three of the five hunters in our group had harvested bucks, and we still had four days left to make it a perfect five for five.

The next morning Tyler and Josh watched a wide, heavy four by three drop into a particularly deep and nasty canyon. For the next three hours they inched their way towards the buck. It was one of the most gnarly stalks I’ve heard about. At just over 280 yards Tyler used his 6.5 PRC to put the buck down for the count and make our group four for five.

Later that afternoon, while Tye and I were moving the quartered-out meat to the freezer, we heard the engine of an approaching UTV. Dad and Glenn came into view and from two hundred yards away I could see the antlers sticking up from the bed of the Polaris. At around eleven that morning they were driving to a different hunting area when they spotted this giant four by four, a couple smaller bucks and several does all bedded in a cluster of mesquite trees. After getting set up they sat and waited for almost three hours for the buck to get up and present them with a shot. When it finally did Dad reached way out and made an amazing shot at five hundred and ninety yards with his custom built 6.5 PRC.

That was it. We were done. In two days of hunting, we had gone a perfect five for five and all five deer were really good bucks. Anyone who spends any amount of time hunting knows this almost never happens. This was just one of those extremely rare occasions where all the stars aligned, and everything worked out perfectly. We were all paired with quality, knowledgeable guides. There was an abundance of mule deer in our area. Our Peterson Cartridge ammo performed flawlessly. And all our hunters made good shots.

Some may say we got lucky. Sure, there was absolutely a little luck involved. But I’ve always believed in the words of Roman philosopher Seneca, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” We were all using quality equipment. We had all spent hours at the range learning our rifles and practicing our shooting technique. And we had all booked with a top tier outfitter. So, I like to think that even if we were a little lucky, there was a lot more to it than that. All I can say for certain is that everyone involved had a great time and the trailer being hauled back to Pennsylvania was several hundred pounds heavier with meat and antler.

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