2017 Archery Mule Deer Hunt
As I woke up on the morning of December 29th, I told myself that today was going to be the day. Today would be the day that I closed the distance, and filled my archery tag on a mule deer buck. The 29th would be my 5th day of hunting mule deer here in my home state of Arizona. This time of year here is a time that has grown on me and dug its roots deep into my core. Year after year I take to the field with my bow to chase both mule deer and coues deer. Every year I have a few successes mixed in with a ton of failures. Of course I like to look at those failures as lessons learned and opportunities to grow. That goes for all walks of life, not just hunting. This year would prove no different in the “lessons learned” department.
Opening weekend for our OTC(over the counter) archery deer hunts landed on December 15th this year. Luckily, work panned out to where I had that weekend open and could get away for a few days. Prior to this, I had already scouted out about a half dozen groups of does in preparation for the coming rut. I like to do this every year. Folks often ask me if I’ve located any bucks during my scouting. I tell them “No, and I hope I don’t.” My focus for scouting is finding does. That is for one reason. When the rut starts up, the bucks will come to the does and I will be waiting for them when they do. I heard someone say years back that you need to hunt deer where they are going to be, not where they are. This is a prime example of that.
If you are a hunter, you cannot deny your anticipation of opening day. Up until this point you’ve been working hand and foot to be prepared for the hunt. Between shooting your bow, hiking your butt off, and glassing for hours upon hours, you’ve been putting the work in. Opening day is that day to test all of that out. My plan was to stay back and watch a large area in which I had been seeing all of the does preseason. From there, I would wait and hope a buck would come walking stiff legged out of a thicket in pursuit of love. I didn’t have to wait long. What I saw though wasn’t what I was expecting. I indeed found does and many of them. I also spotted a giant buck. However, they were not together in the least bit. This monarch was alone. Nonetheless, the stalk was on.
The closest I could get to this buck was 250 yards. He just happened to keep feeding away from me. After a few hours of trying to close the gap, he disappeared into a thicket. My plan was to wait him out and hopefully catch him coming back out in the evening to feed. This plan would be fruitless in the end. “Maybe, the buck stayed bedded until after dark? He possibly could have snuck out of that thicket without me seeing him do so?” These are the things that I kept asking myself. All questions aside, this buck was sure to walk in my dreams that night. Another question I posed would be if I would even see this buck again outside of my dreams?
Another day and another beautiful sunrise in Arizona. Seeing this in the morning as I sat behind the glass fills me with optimism for the day. Today would be pretty similar to the day before. I would see deer all day long and have a great time doing so. There was one difference though. No buck in the morning. The evening was a different story. An hour before dark I spotted the giant buck from the previous day that had eluded me. He was about a mile out from my glassing point. I decided to make a run for it. To my knowledge, the buck would be feeding slowly within a small bowl. When I got up into where I had last laid eyes on him, I saw nothing. I crept forward, step by step, trying to peer through the dense brush. Light was fading fast and because of this, I probably pushed in a bit too quick. CRASH! The buck erupted out of a thicket just 50 yards ahead of me, but I didn’t actually see him until he was 100 yards away. This sly dog had bedded and that was why I couldn’t see him during my approach. Watching him hop away was pretty bittersweet for me. What a magnificent animal and now it was time for me to go home. Until next time.
It was December 27th and time to hit the mountain again in pursuit of mule deer. My family and I had a great Christmas with tons of laughs and way too much food. With that being said, my hopes that the rut would have started by my return were sky rocketing. Those hopes were fulfilled on the first morning. On my previous hunt, I saw tons of does and one lone buck. This first day would yield tons of does and 5 different bucks pushing them. It was a different world in the desert and one I had been looking forward to for quite some time now. Out of those 5 bucks, I would get 2 stalks for the day. One was on the big buck from the previous trip and the other was on a big 3×3 that evening. Out of those 2 stalks, the closest I would get would be 114 yards. For one reason or another, I just couldn’t close the distance on this day. That’s ok though, because I had 5 days to hunt and tomorrow was a new day.
The next day for me was a complete head trip. As I said, yesterday I had a ton of action and saw lots of deer for most of the day. Today though…….WOW. I glassed from sunrise until sunset and saw ZERO mule deer. In all of those hours I turned up one coues doe. I couldn’t believe it. Had I spooked all of the deer out of the area? Was the weather a factor? It had been unseasonably warm. Were the bucks just pushing the does into areas where I couldn’t see? I had a backup spot, but up until this point had been seeing deer consistently in this area. Doubt started to set in and my confidence in my prized hunting area was sinking. I decided that I would glass for the morning the next day and if nothing turned up, I would relocate for the evening and rest of the hunt.
For some reason I woke up on December 29th feeling extremely optimistic. After my alarm went off, I told myself that today was going to be the day. The deer were going to be back and I was going to fill my tag. So, I guzzled down my coffee, through on my pack, and started my hike off through the darkness via headlamp. Right off the bat, I spotted a doe way out in the distance. Good start to the morning and more mule deer than I saw the day before, even though there wasn’t a buck with her. A few hours went by with no other sightings. During this time I was texting a friend about my situation(miraculously, I had cell service). He kept telling me that the deer are probably still there, I just wasn’t seeing them. At 8:30 a.m. everything changed.
I spotted a nice mule deer buck a long ways out. He was slowly feeding away from me, tailing a group of does, over to the backside of a ridge. My thoughts were they were going to go over the ridge and bed down on that face somewhere. It was game time. About 3/4 of the way through my hike, I stopped and shed some layers of clothing to get ready for a stalk that might last all day. First, I crept over the ridge that I believed the deer to be on, in hopes that I would run into them mingling or rutting. My hypothesis was true…..sort of. I glassed up movement way down on the bottom of the drainage I was standing over. It turned out that they were going one drainage farther than I thought and I caught them feeding over to it. “Let’s try this again,” I told myself.
Now, my plan was to make a big loop and come in on the opposite side of where I thought the deer would be held up. I did this so I would be able to see into the face of the hill of where they were, instead of having a repeat of my first trip and jumping the buck up at 50 yards with no shot through the dense cover. The whole time during this stalk, I had no idea if this was going to work out or where the deer actually were. I had my theory, but it was just that, so I held onto my hope and pressed on. On my way down the rocky hillside, there were some cattle moving down the hill opposite of me. Actually, right towards where I thought the deer were. This was both a good thing and a bad thing in my mind. It was good, because the cattle were covering up the noise of my approach. It was bad, because I was worried about them busting the deer out before I got an opportunity for a shot. Time would tell the outcome.
Thank You Cattle
It tuned out that both of my thoughts were true. All of a sudden 2 does popped out of a juniper down below me. They seemed way more concerned with the cattle than me though, so I kept closing the distance, step by step. I gazed into the juniper that they came out of and saw more movement. There appeared to be a big deer down there and I could see him stretching his neck straight out and other deer prancing away. “That’s him,” I said. I knew that the buck would eventually come out of that bedding area to grab the does that popped out from before, so I just waited, arrow nocked, and blood pumping. Just as I predicted, the buck emerged from the shaded protection of the canopy they were under and showed himself to me. I came to full draw and settled my pin. Nerves were high and so was my arrow. I shot right over the buck. Thankfully, he was too enamored with his does. I nocked another arrow, anchored, controlled my breathing and squeezed the trigger. THUMP!
The buck ran 5 yards up the hill and started to hunch his back up, followed by wobbling and not being able to stand up straight. From there, he made his way, much like a newborn fawn not being able to walk straight, back down to the bedding area. The buck tumbled before he got there and rolled down under the canopy where I witnessed him pushing his does around in the first place. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. It was 11:30 a.m. and I had just filled my archery tag after a 3 hour stalk. What an unbelievable experience. I had a mature mule deer buck on the ground, was by myself, and had a long way back to the truck. I couldn’t have been happier.
After calling a handful of people and letting them know of my success, I made my way over to the buck that lay in front of me. I have never walked up on a mature mule deer before in this setting and was soaking it all in. Touching his antlers and admiring his battle scars on them was something I won’t soon forget. Running my hands down his thick coat and body left my awestruck. I took a great deal of pictures and then started the process of breaking him down and preparing him for the pack out. In about an hour, I had the buck boned out and in game bags for the journey ahead. It took me about 3 hours to get back to my truck. When I did, I came to my knees and looked back into the country where I came from, then at my buck. What an incredible change of events.
It’s funny what bowhunting throws at me every season. I never know how things are going to pan out and oftentimes feel inadequate in the process. I stand behind that still, but it isn’t something that I want to change. For that reason, is why I keep doing it. It humbles me over and over again, with a sprinkle of victory every now and then. Bowhunting is not something that can be mastered. If it was, I don’t think as many folks would be drawn to it and its allure. Just enough success is given to you throughout hunts to give you the confidence to come back next time. Those bucks that walk in our dreams call to us and we come running every time, at least I do. I don’t know what next season will bring or what lessons will be learned, but I will be there with open arms and open ears. Until then, I am going to keep running through my dreams.