Big Game and Upland Game Birds
At the ripe old age of eleven, Peter Romero shot his first mule deer. Three years later, he took his first elk. So began the career of one of northern New Mexico’s more successful hunters and guides. Born and raised in Española, NM, Pete is the shy, soft-spoken sort, not the kind of personality one would ascribe to such a decorated outdoorsman. Peter’s feats have been recognized by the Safari Club International and his home state as well, most notably the 31 pound, 12 ounce state record rainbow trout he hauled out of Santa Cruz Lake in 1999 (fur, feathers or fins, it’s all hunting). His proudest moments as a hunter, however, have come from his daughter Kendall’s accomplishments under his tutelage. Two years ago, at the age of ten, Kendall took a pronghorn antelope, a difficult prize at any age. Then last year, she bagged her first mule deer, an animal so large (over 300 pounds) that after inspecting its antlers, Pete immediately set to looking for a trunk.
I would be remiss in writing a hunting article if I did not seek knowledge of the highest quality, the kind that Peter Romero possesses in spades. In other words, take the following general guidelines about five of our most sought after animals as truth, if not gospel.
According to Pete—and most New Mexican elk hunters would concur—the best place to go for a trophy elk is the Gila National Forest. Pete says that rugged, remote terrain and milder winters down south minimize winter kill in the elk herds (Summer kill, due to water shortages, is a greater concern), resulting in higher numbers of older and larger animals. He prefers units 15 and all of the 16s (on your NM Game and Fish Big Game Unit Map), between the towns of Silver City and Reserve.
The highest densities of elk are found in the state’s north central mountains. Pete likes units 51 and 52 as well as 44 and 45, the high populations being due to vast expanses of private land on which the elk thrive. The closest thing to certainty in the elk hunting world can be had by buying a permit to hunt on these private areas. Cow elk permits generally run from $400 to $1,000, while bull permits can hit you for as high as $8,000.
Pete also vouches for several units in the west central part of the state near Grants. Populations aren’t as high as they might be elsewhere, but he loves hunting there nonetheless; it’s harder work, but there’s a chance for big payoffs.
Kendall Romero got her trophy muley in the northwestern corner of the state, where most people go if it’s a wallhanger they’re after. Units 2a, 2b and 2c consist of prime mule deer habitat, great forage, rugged terrain, and in recent years, more than adequate water. Units 29 and 30 (west of Carlsbad), as well as 36, 37, and 38 (around Ruidoso, Corona and Capitan) are also choice spots. There are few people in those areas, less poaching, and good forage in normal years. One of Pete’s favorite muley hunts is in January near Capitan.
If you hunt for antelope in New Mexico, you do not have a choice of where you’ll go. You will be assigned an area from the Game and Fish Antelope Management Unit Map and must obtain landowner permission to hunt, for you will likely be working private land. If Pete Romero had a choice, he would prefer to hunt pronghorns in the spectacular country near Carizozo and Corona, or to bow hunt on private land. (He would also prefer that you give me lots of pronghorn meat if you are successful.)
There is good turkey all around Santa Fe, since much of the bird’s favorite foods (piñon nuts, juniper berries, clover, and acorns) abound here. Also, in our favor is all the moisture we’ve had in recent years. Many turkey-chasers I know go no farther than Rowe Mesa near Pecos. Other good areas include the Gila Forest, Capitan Mountains, the Ruidoso area, and the Mount Taylor State Wildlife Area.
I once ate a bear burger from a California animal grown fat on blackberries, and I must say that Lotaburgers have tasted like old socks ever since. And ever since, if there was an animal I’ve wanted to eat more of, it’s the black bear, especially the ones that descend every autumn upon my grandparents’ apple orchard near Taos. Pete Romero reminds me, however, that hunting in town would be illegal. Instead, he says, I should go to the Gila Forest for really big bears, or to the mountains near Raton, where private land is as plentiful as the forage. I have a better idea, Pete. Why don’t you go to those places and bring me back a burger?
Be advised that bear hunting in New Mexico is on a strict quota basis, which means that all hunting ceases once a predetermined harvest quota is reached. Hunters must call the Game and Fish Department to check on the quota status before embarking on a bear hunt.
My own hunting career did not last beyond its embryonic stage; I made it to horny toads and grasshoppers but got no further. If I were to set my sights on more romantic (translation: tasty) wild prey and decide to hunt New Mexico, I would heed Peter Romero’s advice. First, I would take and pass a certified hunter safety course. If I weren’t a New Mexico resident, I would hire a professional hunting guide for lots of money. I would make sure that my guide is licensed and in good standing with the state.
Since I do reside here, I would do as Pete does during the off season and put in my research. That would mean talking to my hunter friends as well as landowners about animal migration routes, access points, and observations on past experiences. I’d call the Game and Fish Department and pick the brains of a biologist. I’d talk to guides, drinking up any wisdom or secrets they’d be willing to part with. Then I’d hit the road to my prospective hunting spots. With binoculars handy, I would trek the mountains and valleys on paths worn by the quarries I seek. I would force myself to answer every question that popped into my head. Where is the best eating if I’m a bear? If I’m an elk, where should I rest, and is it safe to do so? Is there reliable water in this area? How do I get there? Where the heck am I, and how do I get back to the car?