I hunted at Fishtail Ranch for elk in NM in 2013 and 2014. Just a bit about me first - I’ve hunted with outfitters in Colorado (Elk), North Carolina (White Tail Deer) and New Mexico (Elk) as well as on the eastern shore of Maryland (White Tail Deer). I am an avid Bow, Black Powder and Rifle/Shotgun white tail deer hunter in Maryland and have been a hunter since I was very young (I grew up and hunted in Pennsylvania). I consider myself to be a relatively experienced hunter, and I have had a few not-so-good experiences with outfitters in the past.
Now for my experience with Fishtail Ranch… I went back to Fishtail for a second year after not tagging a bull the first year which should at least be a testament to my overall satisfaction with the first years’ experience. Fishtail Ranch is far superior to all of the other places I’ve hunted so far. When you are at Fishtail, you feel as though you are a part of their family. Their facilities are CLEAN, the food is VERY GOOD, and the accommodations are also well-equipped and clean (BEST I’ve experienced at any outfitter so far). The main lodge is actually their own house (Lee and Valerie Weiss live there), although there are at least 2 other “out” buildings/cabins/houses that are also used for hunters. I stayed in their main house in 2013 and one of the neighboring houses in 2014. I was very satisfied with both of my experiences. If this is your first experience with an outfitter, it will set the bar quite high and I believe the probability will also be high that you will be very disappointed with others after your Fishtail Ranch hunting experience.
All of the guides as well as the entire Weiss family (Lee, his wife Valerie, and their son Jake and his fiancé Heather (and the cooks too) are absolutely fantastic. They are down-to-earth, friendly folks and I thoroughly enjoyed the two years I hunted with their outfit. The guides are extremely knowledgeable of both the land where we hunted as well as the habits and movement of the elk. They are also very safety conscious. They all work together as a team to try to make sure everyone is successful. One example of their efforts is where they will typically start the week with a 2 on 1 guide setup and then break you apart later in the week as other hunters fill their tags so you might wind up 1 on 1 with the guide late in the week as the other hunters tag out (though this does not always happen). The guides do communicate elk movement with each other in order to help position hunters for shots. They have at least one strategic, high-elevation lookout area where they can spot elk on the Continental Divide land in NM for several of the guides and radio to them on where the elk are located and direction of movement as most all of the elk hunting is spot and stalk. Lee Weis (the owner) was my guide in 2013 and Ben guided me in 2014 - and they were both very good.
The difficulty of the hunt will depend heavily on you and how you prepare for the hunt as well as how you communicate with your guide (they are all very accommodating). I happen to live at ~300 ft. elevation in Maryland. Physical exertion at 9,000 - 10,000 ft. elevation is quite difficult unless you are in great cardio vascular condition. The altitude was my biggest challenge - and I even did some preparation... Get in the best physical and cardio shape possible before you venture out to this altitude, especially if you live at a lower elevation. Otherwise it WILL kick your butt. The altitude makes for a real challenge when you are hustling up a mountain at 8k-10k feet trying to head off a moving elk herd for a shot…
They do have at least one easily accessible blind for those that are physically challenged and it produced results for at least one of the hunters in 2014 during the week I was there. The guides do listen (at least mine did) to you breathing and slow or stop to allow you to catch your breath. The pace can also be varied based upon your abilities. Just talk to your guide. I had a fitbit with me this year and I walked a little over 10 miles on the peak day and averaged about 8 miles a day overall. If you have physical limitations they will work with you. The difficulty of the hunt is really up to you, your physical condition, and really what you would like it to be. They have many different areas to hunt - everything from "billy goat" country to open high plateaus and everything in between. The scenery is spectacular.
Shot opportunity is based upon my experiences only, and remember - it is free range hunting. Some of the hunters during my two hunts with Fishtail were frustrated because they didn’t see any or have any shot opportunities. Some only saw a few elk but no shooters. Both years I was fortunate and saw elk. Both years I had shot opportunities. I had more opportunities in 2014 than 2013, and saw more elk in 2014 than 2013. At one point in my October 2013 hunt, me, Lee and my hunting bud (Tom) were surrounded by at least 3 bugling bulls. It was Tom’s day to shoot so he and Lee proceeded ahead, I stayed back in case any of the bulls circled us. Lee called one out of the brush by bugling and raking the trees, and Tom shot a nice 6x6. This was on the 4th day of our 5 day hunt. I was not as successful that day or that year although a spike bull (not a shooter) walked right past me while I was standing against a tree (within about 10-15 ft) as Lee was calling the big buglers right before Tom’s shot – what an experience. It took me 3 years, but I finally got my first bull elk in 2014. I hunted elk in 2012 with a different outfitter (who I will never go back to...but not because I did not get an elk) in the Raton Pass in NM. I didn’t see a single elk all week (2nd wk of October). Being at the right place at the right time is everything. Remember – it’s called hunting. Sometimes you will be where the elk are not… As long as you go into the hunt with the full understanding that it is truly a free range hunt, and you enjoy it whether you shoot one or not, you will not be disappointed.
Preparation for that shot opportunity is equally important - practice at 200+ yds. If you can, practice using shooting sticks and bring the rifle "down" onto the sticks when you shoot. If you can do this well in a standing position you will increase your odds of hitting your bull elk....because you will probably be breathing heavily and you will probably not be seated and will not have sandbags or a nice solid table or bench rest.
For the past 2 years I was paired up with a fellow hunter (Tom) from upstate New York (and made a very good hunting friend as a result). Tom and I both shot our bull elks this year on the Continental Divide on the morning of the same day (fourth day into the 5 day hunt – he shot a 6x6 and I shot a nice symmetrical 5x5 (you can see pictures of our bulls on the Fishtail website). While I was not successful in 2013 I had a shot opportunity and missed (all of which was my own fault). Tom did get a nice 6x6 in 2013 as well as his 6x6 in 2014. I saw more elk in 2014 (many dozen – couple bulls and numerous cows) than in any of the previous years/hunts. I hunted the first week of November in 2014 (very little bugling but lots of elk) and the second week of October in 2013 (lots of bugling bulls but less elk seen overall). Most of the bull elk I have seen taken at Fishtail have been what I consider to be very respectable but not necessarily always the big trophy bulls you sometimes see on TV. While they are there as can be seen by some of the pics on their website, the two weeks I have hunted with them yielded smaller bulls – but still good ones. If you would be satisfied with a nice 5x5 or 6x6, Fishtail Ranch is a good place for that opportunity.
The weather varies significantly and is relatively unpredictable. The temp can change 50 degrees from morning to afternoon and then evening. A quick rain squall can come and go in a very short period of time. Nothing too serious like Florida rains but you should have some rain gear. Be sure to check the weather forecast a week or so from the date of your hunt and adjust your clothing accordingly. You need to wear layers so you can shed them as the sun comes up and then put them back on when it begins to go down in the afternoon. I recommend you invest in some thin high tech warm layered clothing before the trip if you do not presently own them. You do not need a full backpack for these hunts either. Not even a day pack is necessary. I suggest a back fanny pack (to carry water and extra ammo, knife, rain gear, etc.) with straps so you can roll and tie up your jacket when you need to shed clothes. I saw a storm roll through in 2013 (October) where it snowed horizontally and dumped about 6 inches in a few hours. Make sure you have some good (BROKEN IN) waterproof boots. I also recommend gaiters to protect your pants and help to keep your feet dry. Note also that the weather impacts the location and movement of the elk. Unusually warm weather will keep them high in the mountains and not moving much...
The guides work hard, especially after the shot - they dress and drag your animal - you don't have to do anything except pose and smile for the camera. If you happen to be assigned a guide who you really don’t get along with (which I doubt), rather than suffering all week, I would speak with Lee and ask for a switch of guides.
The Good – What I liked most Nice and clean accommodations Great food (and lots of it…actually, too much) Lots of private land to hunt Great, friendly, helpful, accommodating, open and honest people, guides, cooks They take very good care of you They get your license for you They report back to the NM fish and game at the end of your hunt for you They work together very well as a team (not out to out-do one another as some outfitters’ guides do…) They have washers and dryers that you may use They are safe There are ELK
The Bad - Altitude and the associated physical challenges – you need to be prepared if you are a low altitude dweller There is no guarantee of success at getting an elk – sometimes you will be where they aren’t – it is real free range hunting… Only one elk processor in town – not much of a choice for the meat products Usually takes more than one shot to put a bull elk down…unless you are very lucky… I am generally a good shot, but, the elk are also usually quite far away and moving. While one very well placed shot will bring down an elk, the rule of thumb is to keep shooting until the elk is on the ground! They are big, tough animals.
Yes, I definitely will return to Fishtail for another elk hunt at some point in the near future. They really are good folks and it is a good geographic location to hunt elk. I also want to see the elk migration I have heard so much about.
I believe I need to communicate honestly and help my fellow hunters. I wish someone would have been as honest with me when I hunted at some of those other outfitters in the past…
You are in for a real treat if you hunt at Fishtail Ranch in NM. They truly are a class act!Karey J. Kimmel Frederick, Maryland