Kaibab has treasures for hunters who are patient
One of the top three mule deer tags in Arizona that are available to sportsmen is the late 12A West hunt.
It is on the world-famous Kaibab Plateau, and this wondrous place has been the historical home to some of the largest mule deer in Arizona.
Each year between 3,500 and 5,000 hunters apply for one of the limited tags issued by the Arizona Game and Fish Department for the late hunt there. In 2013 and 2014, there were only 135 tags issued.
In 2015, the number of tags was reduced to just 100. These tags are available to residents and non-residents alike.
Under Arizona law, no more than 10 percent of those tags (10 tags) can be issued to a non-resident sportsman.
So when California resident Duane McIntosh called me and said he'd drawn one of the coveted tags, I was surprised and happy for him.
Duane, like many sportsmen, was interested in hunting mule deer in Arizona, especially the Arizona Strip Unit 13B, but there was no way that under the current rules in Arizona he could draw a tag there. There are just too many other non-residents who had the maximum number of bonus points, and he would never get a chance at one of those tags.
I advised him to apply for a late west side Kaibab tag,and Duane's number came up. He had tag No. 8 out of the 100 issued for the hunt, which would be from Nov. 20-29.
It would be a time when the mule deer bucks on the Kaibab were starting to go into the annual rut. Unfortunately, it would also be a time when there would be a full moon, and that would mean the deer would be active at night and would bed down early in the morning.
McIntosh had previously taken an 8x6 buck in Colorado and a 4x4 mulie in California that measured 29¾ inches wide.
He said he wanted a buck with big deep forks, and if possible, he wanted a buck with some "trash," which is a term hunters use to describe extra non-typical points.
He informed me that he had no qualms about taking his tag home unfilled if he didn't see a buck like he described. I could tell he was serious, and as an outfitter/guide, these are fun guys to hunt with.
Joining Duane on his hunt was his father, Larry. Larry was a heck of a nice guy and a lot of fun to be around. He too could find deer, and knew what a big buck was.
My good friend Jay Chan was also coming up for a few days and he brought Golden Valley resident Laura Borden up to help with the glassing duties.
Laura had never been to the Kaibab, and she wanted to see for herself what is was like to see from 50-100 deer with five to 15 bucks each day. It is mule deer paradise.
Friends from St. George, Utah, would also be up for a few days and helped glass. Colby Adams, Bryan Beckstead and Daniel Driggs shared our camp and volunteered their time and talent and were a tremendous help. These guys are mule deer aficionados and come out every year to share in these exciting experiences.
Our hunt went just like we thought it would go.
Lots of glassing produced a lot of deer sightings, including a number of mature bucks being seen that I'm sure others would have been glad to take.
But when you are selective, you are going to have to pass up a lot of bucks before you find the one you are happy with.
As it turned out, we hunted for eight long days before Duane saw "The One."
We had gone to a spot about 27 miles from where we were camped, acting upon the advice of fellow Hunter Education chief instructor Jim Rich.
Jim has drawn a few tags up there and he didn't hesitate to share his thoughts on where we might find a special buck.
Day 8 was cold, and periodically it rained, snowed, sleeted or hailed on us. In other words, it was a perfect day to hunt deer.
Duane looked on one side of a big drainage that was covered with about an inch of snow while I went to the other side to check out a drainage there.
It started snowing so hard that you couldn't see through binoculars or a spotting scope.
Time was running out and it was going to be dark soon.
I said a little prayer asking for some divine intervention. "Please Lord, let the snow stop for just a little while," I asked.
Little did I know, but Duane was saying the same prayer.
And it worked.
All of a sudden it just quit snowing, and it got very still.
I started seeing deer pop out from the thick timber in the drainage. Light was fading fast, and I knew this hunt would be over in less than 30 minutes.
Then I heard the radio crack and I heard the magic words. "Don, I think I've found my buck!"
Duane spotted a group of about 16 deer having a party about a half-mile away. There were at least three mature bucks and two smaller bucks in the group and they were chasing each other around while the does and fawns fed on the cliffrose, just waiting to see who would be the victor of this annual battle that has happened for eons.
Duane wasted no time in heading toward the deer. When he got to within 300 yards, he got into the prone position and set up his Harris 25S bipod.
He would have just one chance, and this was buck number 136 that he was looking at!
I didn't hear the shot, but I did hear, "Buck down!"
I headed over to where I had last seen him and it started to snow - and snow hard.
I had his backpack and mine too, and the light was now gone.
By the time I reached Duane and his trophy it was snowing so hard that I was unable to take any photos of his buck.
We decided to field dress and hang up the buck in a pine tree. It was too treacherous to try to pull the big buck the half-mile back to the truck.
And the buck - yep, he was a dandy. He sported five points on each of his rack though he had broken off one of his "cheater" points.
His antlers were fully developed and the points were high and very deep.
He even had two small eye guards on one antler.
The next morning the temperature was in the low teens. It took us almost two hours to make it to the deer.
After the obligatory "Grip N Grin" photos, Duane and Colby dragged the buck through the fresh snow back to the truck.
At the check station, Game and Fish seasonal employees Ray and Sue Lee inspected the buck and took down the data.
The buck was young; Ray aged him at 3-5 years old. His rack, even with the broken point, measured 28 inches wide and 23 inches tall.
Had that point been intact, his outside spread would have exceeded 31 inches, which would have made him the second-widest buck taken on the hunt at that time.
As it was, the buck was tied for fifth.
There had been one 5x5 buck that measured 32 inches wide, and three bucks that were 29 inches wide.
But it really didn't matter to me or Duane. We had taken one of the top bucks on the hunt and had a great time!
Duane is going to have the buck scored after the mandatory 90-day waiting period, but it is believed that he will score between 180-190 inches.
The Kaibab is a very special place for sportsmen who can beat huge odds to draw and then have the patience to hold out for what may be the best buck they take in a lifetime.