- Lynn Burkhead
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"Spend time among the elk in September, and there will be mornings when you simply will not believe your ears."
E. Donnall Thomas, Jr., in "Longbow Country"
In this golden age of modern elk hunting, conventional wisdom from wapiti hunting experts dictates that to kill a 400-inch world-class bull, several things need to happen.
First, you need to draw a virtual once-in-a-lifetime tag from one of the megabull units of Arizona, Utah or Nevada.
Second, you need to leave the elk bugle at home, and maybe even the cow call, too, instead slipping quickly and quietly into bow range to down one of these whopper wapiti.
And, finally, to do that, an archer needs to tote a high-tech compound bow and be proficient arrowing out to 50 yards or so, since short shots on megabulls are about as rare as a July snow.
And, yet, every autumn, a big bull falls somewhere and in some way that shows conventional wisdom isn't always what it's cracked up to be.
New Mexico bowhunter Bill Clark found that to be true, and then some, while elk hunting in his home state Sept. 11.
That's when the Albuquerque-based archer used a recurve bow to drive home a carbon arrow and two-bladed broadhead into the vitals of one of the largest typical bull elk ever arrowed in the Land of Enchantment.
The 6x6 bull, taken in the arid, central part of the state, tallies at 411 1/8 inches on the Safari Club International scoring system, according to Clark, who is a master measurer for the SCI program.
The Clark bull also would appear to have a good chance to score highly in the Pope & Young Club's scoring system, once the club's mandatory 60-day drying period for the bull's rack is complete.
"It's a huge bull," said Jim Welles, an Albuquerque-based big-game hunting outfitter with JFW Ranch Consulting. "If it's not the new (Pope & Young Club) state record, then it will be awful close."
For the record, a mid-week check with the Pope & Young Club in Chatfield, Minn., shows the state record typical elk from the Land of Enchantment is a 7x7 bull from Rio Arriba County.
That 2004 monarch, taken by archer Robert North, has a net score of 398 7/8 inches.
But records are made to be broken and it appears as if the Clark bull, taken at a scant distance of 10 yards, has a chance to be the new typical wapiti king in New Mexico.
"When I walked up on him, I was really thinking to myself, 'There's no ground shrinkage here,'" said Clark, who manages "The Shooter's Den" in Albuquerque.
"Of course, I was elated. I've taken some other bulls with my bow, probably six or seven; but this is without a doubt the biggest."
That Clark was even in a position to take this monstrous bull is a unique story in its own right, since the archer didn't draw a tag this year from his preferred Gila Wilderness Area units.
Instead, his mailman delivered his third-choice tag in a dry, mid-altitude area that Clark admits probably has "more rattlesnakes than elk."
"My first choice? Not at all," Clark said. "Ironically, a number of years ago, this unit started to get a little bit of notoriety and I tried to draw it but couldn't."
But that was then, this is now, and Clark was less than excited when he found out where it was that he would be hunting elk this fall.
"I had put it down as my third choice," Clark said. "I was actually disappointed when I did draw it. In fact, it was hard to get enthused about the hunt, and I almost gave it up to go on a bear hunt."
Lest you think Clark isn't a serious bowhunter, think again.
His trophy collection includes wallhanger specimens ranging from African kudu and plains game to Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer and antelope taken across the West.
And when he decided that a New Mexico elk tag even one in a less desirable unit was better than no elk tag at all, it didn't take long for Clark to load up his truck and make hunting plans.
"I decided I had to get out there and take a look, and I'm sure glad I did," Clark said.
Going afield Sept. 10, Clark planned to do some scouting in an area he was familiar with, then come back to hunt the final days of the elk season hard and heavy.
When his look-see into that area didn't pan out, Clark relocated to another spot the next morning.
After eating a sandwich and holding out through a 2½ hour thunderstorm that left the hunter wondering if he would even be able to drive out, the skies finally cleared.
Buoyed by the sunshine and clear air, Clark finally was able to get to a remote canyon to do a little calling and glassing.
When he saw no action there, he moved to yet another canyon and that's where his elk-hunting luck changed once and for all.
"I started calling and after about 15 minutes, I got a response," Clark said.
"I figured he was about a mile away below me in the lower end of the canyon, so I responded back and got another call."
That started an intense cat-and-mouse routine between Clark and the unseen bull.
As the bowhunter continued to call and stalk into range, Clark finally caught sight of his quarry at about 900 yards.
And that sight took the 57-year-old archer's breath away.
"When I saw him step out, I was surely surprised," Clark said. "I knew that he was a 380- to 400-class bull."
After that encounter, Clark didn't see the bull again for some time.
But he kept the hunt moving forward by bugling, cow calling and aggressively imitating a lesser bull raking branches in a forest of pinion and juniper.
Every time Clark acted or called aggressively, so did the unseen bull, as it slowly closed ranks.
Finally, the veteran archer decided to move a little closer to a potential ambush spot.
And when he did, more than an hour after this encounter began, Clark detected a faint noise that may soon rewrite the New Mexico archery record book.
"I heard something over my shoulder and looked and (the bull was coming out)," Clark said. "I dropped to both knees, he stopped right there, I drew back and picked a spot, and let it go."
At 10 yards, the lethal archery shot drilled the bull in the heart, leaving an eventual tracking job of only 100 yards.
"I was truly blessed on this hunt," Clark said of 900-pound bull, estimated at perhaps a decade in age.
"Had it not been for my love of hunting elk with a bow, I probably would not have gone on this hunt and would have missed out on this opportunity."
Despite his previous successes in hunting bull elk, Clark remains humbled and awed and says he has been so excited he had trouble sleeping a couple of nights after his historic hunt.
"It just happened that I was in the right spot at the right time, and I have enough experience when I got there that I was able to do something," Clark said.
"Everything had to go right and only one thing had to go wrong; but, this time, it went my way."
Even on a third-choice elk-hunting tag.
Albuquerque recurve hunter turns lower-tier tag into potential state-record archery bull.