Outdoors: In the wild with a selective hunter

One of the deer Ken passed on during the late Kaibab hunt. (Courtesy)

One of the deer Ken passed on during the late Kaibab hunt. (Courtesy)

I recently returned from a long and tough mule deer hunt on the North Kaibab with a hunter who, despite seeing over 150 mule deer bucks, brought his tag home unfilled.

As a big game guide, your job is to find animals for your hunter. Then he or she decides if they want to try and take the animal.

Obviously, you want to see your hunters fill their tags. But it doesn't always happen, and it can be for a variety of reasons.

Let me explain the stages that most sportsmen go through, and see if you can identify where you are as a hunter and why this hunter brought home a coveted mule deer tag unfilled.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department notes in their Today's Hunter in Arizona Hunter Education manual that, "It should be the goal of every responsible hunter to become a true sportsman. As a hunter gains experience and skill, studies have shown that he or she will typically pass through five distinct stages of development."

Here are those stages, and it should be noted that not all sportsmen and women go through these stages or in this order.

Shooting Stage

This is a stage that many if not most new hunters find themselves in. The object is to get into the field, find game and get a shot.

Limiting Out Stage

In this stage of a hunter's career, success is often determined by bagging game and filling a tag. The size of the animal's antlers or horns is really not that important to a hunter. This hunter may hunt for antlerless animals where it is allowed. Tagging an animal and bringing home meat is the most important aspect for this hunter's outdoor experience.

Trophy (Selective) Stage

In this stage of a sportsman's hunting career, the hunter becomes more selective and judges success by the quality of the animal taken, rather than quantity. These hunters are more than willing to bring home a tag unfilled, rather than take a smaller animal or an animal that doesn't measure up to their own individual ideas of what a trophy is.

Contrary to what many people believe, these hunters - when successful - do utilize the meat. Meat is never left in the field.

Method Stage

In this stage it is the process of hunting, rather than the success, that is what drives the hunter. Many sportsmen start out using a rifle to hunt with, but as their skill level increases, they decide they want more of a challenge. They may switch to hunting with a handgun or bow and arrow, which pose a much more difficult challenge to be being able to bag an animal and fill a tag.

Sportsman Stage

Success for this hunter is derived by the total hunting experience - not by necessarily tagging out.

Sure, every hunter thinks they are going to fill a tag, but this sportsman sees success on a hunt by being in the great outdoors and appreciating the quarry they are pursuing. These hunters enjoy the entire process of hunting, camping, being with friends and family, and sharing the hunting experience by mentoring others.

In the case of my Kaibab deer hunter, Ken, who is 74 and lives in Bullhead City, he has been hunting longer than many others have been alive.

Ken has hunted in many states in the U.S., and has drawn and filled many tags in his lifetime.

Before moving to Arizona, Ken lived in game-rich Colorado, where he was successful in his pursuit of many different species of big game and small game animals.

After moving to Arizona for health reasons, he decided to continue his hunting career by applying for big game animals here.

He started off hunting javelina, with the challenge of using a bolt action single shot handgun to hunt these grey ghosts of the desert.

Ken has been on several HAM (Handgun-Archery-Muzzleloader) hunts with me in Unit 18B, and has been mostly successful in filling his tags.

He has drawn another HAM javelina tag for 2015, but has decided to use a muzzleloader on that hunt. Again, a new and different challenge.

Kaibab Mule Deer Hunt 2014

Earlier this year, I suggested that Ken apply for one of the 135 deer tags that were offered by the Arizona Game and Fish Department for the late Kaibab mule deer hunt.

Odds are tough to draw that tag, with over 4,600 hunters applying for theses tags, but Ken beat them and drew tag 132 out of the 135 offered. In my opinion, it is the third-best Arizona mule deer tag out there. To me, only a deer tag in Unit 13B or 13A would be better.

Ken has taken several mule deer in his hunting career, and he informed me that he was looking for a "buck of a lifetime, a buck whose antlers were over 30 inches wide and had 'trash' or non-typical points."

I have been hunting mule deer on the Kaibab since 1972,and seeing bucks like that up there is really rare.

On that hunt, most of the bucks taken will be 3-5 years old and will sport antlers that average around 22-24 inches wide.

But with the parameters established, our hunt was set to go.

We found that it was dry and unseasonably cool on the Kaibab, and the mature bucks did not seem to be in rut for the most part.

Day after day, Ken and some of our friends, including Kingman resident Jay Chan, searched for a special buck.

We would see bucks of all ages every day. But since they didn't fit the goal of what Ken was looking for, we passed them all and moved on. One buck we passed on was a 7X6. Though not really wide, this was, in my opinion, a great buck.

Halfway through the 10-day hunt, Lady Luck smiled on us.

It was early morning and we were going to check out a new game drinker that had been built by the Arizona Game and Fish Department in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service. Water is always a premium on the winter range of the Kaibab, and we wanted to see if the deer had migrated down to this area and were using this new water.

Ken spotted the deer first. They were a doe and her two fawns that moved out of the small drainage as we drove by.

We stopped and looked at them and then started to move on.

Chan said, "Stop, there is another deer!" Sure enough, another doe emerged from the brush.

Then as I started to drive away, Jay said, "Stop, there's a buck, a BIG buck!"

Sure enough, a buck that turned out to be the largest I have ever seen on the Kaibab was chasing the last doe up the hillside just 125 yards away.

Initially neither Jay nor I could tell how wide this buck was, but his awesome rack of chocolate colored antlers were thick, wide, and sported "trash." It was a buck that anyone would want!

I got out to look at the running buck and when he turned away I could see just what an amazing animal he was.

Both Jay and I encouraged Ken to take him.

The buck slowed as he came out of some trees at a range of 206 yards.

At the shot, we saw dirt fly up over the buck's back, and in an instant, he and his lady friends were gone, never to be seen again.

We all were stunned at what had just happened.

We checked and found that the shot had indeed missed this magnificent animal.

We mulled over the sequence of what happened.

It just didn't make sense. Ken had done his due diligence and sighted in his trusty .270 rifle prior to leaving for the hunt.

We decided to check out his rifle back at camp and that's where we found out what had gone wrong. At 100 yards, Ken couldn't even hit a 12-inch pie plate!

We found that someway, somehow, his scope had broken after his last shot at the 7 Mile Hill range.

Thanks to the kindness of another couple of sportsmen, we had other rifles to use for the remainder of the hunt, but Ken never fired a shot.

Even on the last day of the hunt, Ken looked at and passed on 12 bucks, including that 7 X 6 buck we had seen earlier. Ken could have easily filled his tag.

Ken had a goal and he stuck to it. Many others would have taken some of the other bucks we were seeing. But Ken was being selective, and when you do that, often times you bring that tag home unfilled.