By Chad Waligura ~
I came home from Wyoming (off of an antelope hunt with the group Outdoor Adventures for the Physically Challenged) just in time to unload and repack for New Mexico! I’d drawn an elk tag for Unit 34 (during the state’s special mobility-impaired season), which is basically the entire Lincoln National Forest… beautiful country.
The hunt was to start on October10th and run for five days. Needless to say, I was pretty excited since I’d never killed a bull elk before… not yet anyway.
Months before, I searched the Internet for places to stay in Cloudcroft that might be accessible, but found no motels that could accommodate me. I did find a bunch of rental houses though, so I called one of the agents in charge and asked if any might be able to handle a chairbound hunter. As luck would have it, they had one with a ramp up to the front door that was supposed to have a roll-in shower (turns out it didn’t – but welcome to almost every remote place in the world where hunters go). We did have an incredible view though of the high school football field nestled in the forest, and we made due like we always do.
My dad and two of his longtime hunting buddies came along to see me shoot my first bull.
Our guide, Brett Hooper, met us the next day, and together we scouted in some of the more popular areas where there were a slew of other hunters. (There was a youth season going on at the same time, which makes it more difficult for mobility-impaired hunters to get a bull, and it’s not easy to begin with.) But no matter, we had perfect weather, a dark moon and a good guide on our side.
The second morning, we headed west down a road that was away from all the traffic. About twenty miles later, Brett said, “Stop! Back up.” There he spotted some cows on the left side of a distant meadow.
He said to get ready that there was a bull down there with ’em, but he didn’t know how big, and oh, by the way, they were 425 yds away. ‘425?’ Now that may seem like a chip shot out here, but the longest I’d ever killed any big game animal was a deer at 307. Again, I had my sniper rifle (a Sako 7mm-08) with a Vortex scope that has a B&C reticle. Turns out the bull was a little 5X5, but farther up the rise emerged a huge 6X6, a real 370 bull! He was a monster elk, and he hung out tight in the pines, bugling his tail off at 700-800 yds away before disappearing into the thicker trees toward the cows. It was an awesome sight. Other bulls were bugling too and that show right there was worth the trip.
After driving away from the meadow, I told Brett I thought practicing a few shots at that distance would be a wise thing, so on the way home we stopped at a spot overlooking a canyon where he ranged a rock for me out at 440 yds. “Alright… let’s do this thing,” I said. After I smoked it twice with two pulls, my guide figured I was good to go, but more importantly, I needed to know I could do it.
He asked what grain bullet I was using, and I said 280… “I’m gonna shoot him twice with a 140 grain.”
That evening, we were back at the meadow. The big bull was still there, and still 700 yds away in the cover… he never came down to the meadow. He and other bulls were bugling and chasing cows around some, but he never got closer, smart old *******.
The following morning, I got to do something I’ve always wanted to do… go after elk on foot in the timber. We were back after the big bull, but when Brett heard them going up the draw, he put me into my rickshaw-style chair I had made (a custom-made design from almost 10 years earlier that I thought I could use to go after antelope across open country). He handed me my rifle and we were off down the road.
Where the road bent around the canyon is where the elk had crossed, headed up into a narrow draw. It was a cold, still morning that day, and we were still in the shadow of the mountains. Behind a locked gate, you could see a dirt path leading into the thick draw; elk were bugling and we were hot on their tail. One of my lifelong dreams was about to come true… we were going in!
We slipped under the cable fence and went up the trail as far as we could go. There we stopped and listened. Three big bulls were bugling. One (the big one) had this low growl that you just knew was him… all within 100 yds. They were close! Brett cow called but none of them would budge; they were
with their cows and it was too dense to go any further. We sat quiet and listened, and it was exhilarating.
Meanwhile, another bull moved in behind us, so Brett turned me around to face the shallow rise in his direction. My guide got behind me and started calling and raking a sapling, trying desperately to sound like another bull. I had the safety clicked off and was looking down the barrel, ready in case he strode up. It was the coolest experience of my life so far.
The bull never appeared, he skirted around us at 70 yds, but he was too small to shoot anyway. Still, I loved every second of it.
That evening, we made a stand along the bend in the road where they’d crossed that morning, hoping we could catch ‘em coming down before dark.
The bulls were still in the draw where we’d left them that morning, bugling like crazy, but they never came down. That was another fun hunt.
The following morning at the meadow, all the elk were way up the mountain, out of reach, so we decided to keep going down the road to find another one. My dad and his buddy Ed rode in the front seat with Bert and I in the back. Brett rode in the back of the truck where he could see better.
A few miles down the mountain road, I was looking through the front windshield and the moment I spotted some elk cows up the steep rise in front of us, Brett knocked on the window. “Turn the truck. Get ready,” he ordered. He knew there could be a bull with the group, and he knew we wouldn’t have much time to shoot if there was.
By the time we got into position, Brett had pegged a bull behind a big pinyon pine; in the truck you could feel that something was about to happen. When he stepped out, he looked like a big mature bull to me, exactly what I was after.
“He’s good. I think you ought to take him. He’s at 325,” Brett said. “Take him when you can.”
When he got broadside, I was solid and sent one in his shoulder. He ran downhill and the cows went up as I bolted in another round. When I got back on the scope, he was broadside again. I settled the
crosshairs and put number two in him just as I’d predicted… he was done!
Brett carried me on his back up the mountain so I could get up close with my first elk bull and of course take some pics. (Thanks, buddy!)
This wasn’t just another hunt for Brett as a guide. “Words don’t explain my latest experience,” shared Brett. “Chad Waligura and I had an exceptional hunt. These are the kind of hunts that really make a guide feel accomplished. Chad is super determined and a go getter! Chad is mobility impaired, unable to use his legs. We put in a lot of time chasing a giant bull, however we were not able to close the gap on him. We still got it done on a great 5×5! This has been an experience of a lifetime. I so much expect a lot of great times to look forward to! Thanks Chad, Randy, Burt, and Ed! I’ll never forget it!”
[New Mexico is one of the few states, maybe the only one, that offers mobility-impaired seasons every year through the Public Draw System. These are excellent opportunities for Challenged Able Sportsmen to experience some outstanding hunts. A mobility-impaired card must be acquired before you can put in for the draw. For details on how to apply for one of these hunts, go to the New Mexico Game & Fishing site page for Elk and Antelope Hunting for People with Disabilities.]