It is common knowledge among sportsmen that the hardest trophy to get in America is a mule deer.
Though mule deer inhabit most of the West, finding areas that produce true trophy-quality bucks requires a perfect combination of habitat, genetics, feed and the ability for bucks to live long enough to develop antlers to their full potential.
Arizona, and particularly Mohave County, has one of those areas.
It is called the Arizona Strip, and it's located in the northwest corner of the state.
It is called Unit 13B on the Arizona Game and Fish Department's map, and it is a huge unit with more than 1.5 million acres of remote vistas, deserts, pine forests and juniper jungles. It's a place where mule deer can and do get old and very large.
Each year, literally thousands of sportsmen from all over the nation apply for one of the 65 general rifle tags that are offered there. It is estimated that the deer population is only about 3,000 to 4,000 animals. Just do the math; that means deer densities are low.
Though drawing a tag doesn't guarantee that a hunter will bag a huge buck, it does allow a sportsman 10 days in his/her life the opportunity to hunt for a true trophy buck in some very special country.
This year I had the opportunity to hunt with Phoenix resident Chad Jones. Jones is a young man almost half my age who is passionate about the outdoors. He lives to hunt and is a true conservationist. He is going to be the 2013 president of the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society.
Jones has hunted all over North America and in Mexico and has taken some very nice trophies in the past. His best mule deer buck came off a Navajo Nation hunt.
When we agreed to hunt together, I knew that this hunter was going to be very selective and that I had my work cut out for me.
Even though I've hunted this unit many, many times in the past, it still requires preseason scouting, as the weather and other variables can cause bucks to move around a lot from year to year.
With that in mind, I was in the unit eight days before the hunt opened. I set up a few trail cameras on waters both in the north and south end of the unit that I knew from past experience were used by deer.
I spent most of the nights sleeping on a dusty UTV trailer instead of my comfortable fifth-wheel trailer. I had to be in the areas at dawn to watch and photograph deer.
I saw quite a few bucks. In fact, I found three 3 X 3s that each sported racks over 30 inches wide, and one incredible buck I have photos of was probably 34 inches wide!
And while most sportsmen would have been excited about that find, Jones wasn't. Those big three points just didn't get him excited.
In the days before Jones arrived in camp, I looked at 26 different bucks and had trail cam photos of many more.
This hunt wasn't going to happen with just me and Chad. We had some quality help. One of my guides, Dave Bruns, came up for the first six days of the hunt. Friend Mike Hulsey also came up for a few days. Then longtime friend and hunting buddy Jay Chan showed up for the last four days of the hunt.
Two of my friends who live in St. George and are passionate about deer hunting - Colby Adams and Dan Griggs - came out on the weekends.
One very remote area I had found during my preseason scouting really had me interested. There are no roads there. It was a hike-in only area, and a round trip there was just over five miles.
I had made two trips in the area before the hunt opened and decided that if we didn't get a buck during the first week of the hunt, we would spend the last three days there.
So it was at 5 a.m. Friday morning when Chad, Jay and I walked with flashlights through a mix of junipers, sagebrush and pines to what I affectionately called "The Honey Hole."
See BUCK, 7
I slipped out to the edge of a meadow in the darkness and settled in to wait for dawn. Jones and Chan should be slipping through the edge of that meadow at dawn, I thought.
As the night gave way to another glorious day on the Strip, I was pleased to see a giant 34-inch buck chasing a doe about 300 yards away. There were other mature bucks chasing does all over the meadow.
Turned out my instructions to Jones and Chan were less than perfect and that day they didn't get to see the bucks.
Now it was Saturday. With time running out, Jones, Chan and I were joined by Adams and Griggs.
The day started with another long predawn hike.
Adams and Griggs found just one group of deer in a meadow. The buck they saw with four does wasn't one we wanted, however.
Jay and I went to look at a normally dry creek that we knew had a little water in it when I spotted a group of deer 100 yards away.
This buck was obviously old and his rack was heavy. His rack had huge bladed eye guards along with a small drop point coming off a main beam on the left antler.
We told Jones what we found and they eventually found the group of deer. The thick trees prevented Jones from getting a clear shot.
After another long hike out of the area, we knew that tomorrow was our last chance.
It had been nine long days and I had had contracted a bad cold. But that didn't matter. We had one more chance and I was going to be there!
Sunday it was cold and clear as we used flashlights to once again make our way through the thick trees. Stars shined brightly and the sun would be up in another hour.
We decided to split into three groups. Since I was coughing all the time I decided to watch a small meadow on the south while Jones and Jay headed to the middle of a larger meadow. The Utah boys would be on the north end.
It was just turning light when the Utah guys saw the deer. There were at least three bucks out there, and one of them was a boomer I had previously seen.
Two other bucks were also out in the meadow pushing does.
As it turned out, Jones got the old buck we saw the previous day, and was he a dandy! No ground shrinkage there!
He had seven scoreable points on one antler and five on the other. The mass on the rack scored almost 42 inches.
I had the honor of carrying out the head and cape of the old buck to our rig. As I put him into the back I knew it was the end to a very long hunting adventure. In all I had made five trips into this area and had walked just over 27 miles. I was beat, but it was well worth it. We looked at 45 different bucks during our 10-day hunt in this beautiful and remote land.
In my opinion, it had been another successful Arizona Strip deer hunt.
Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2012
Article comment by:
The main reason the best bucks are getting hard to find is because they're the first to get shot by city slickers and bureaucrats who profit from and glorify trophy hunting. Us natural predators go after the weak, old and sick just to survive and feed our pups. This keeps the herds stronger through natural selection. Human predators go after their trophies leaving the scrawny and weak to breed the does. Losing the big bucks also leaves the fawns more vulnerable to predators like me. Those big antlers are there for a reason.