On the hunt: Helping veterans a wonderful experience
One of the perks of owning my own hunting and fishing guide businesses is that I get to choose who I go with into the field.
Recently I had the honor and pleasure of assisting a disabled veteran on his first big game hunt since coming back from the war in Iraq.
His name is Johnny Montoya, and he was a proud member of the Marine Corps.
Johnny served several tours in Iraq and was twice severely injured. He suffered not only brain injuries, but he was also left walking with a cane. Johnny, like many returning veterans, suffered through some tough times after he returned home.
Through the help of loving and caring friends and family, he is now living a normal life, which includes a renewed interest in the great outdoors.
A friend suggested Montoya contact the Arizona Elk Society and see about becoming part of their Hunts for Heroes program. Montoya easily qualified for the program, and his first opportunity was to go on a general mule deer hunt on the Kaibab.
I was contacted by Tom Wagner, program manager, who asked if I was interested in taking a disabled veteran on that hunt. I immediately said yes and preparations were made. These kinds of hunts need a lot of support and two of my friends, Marc Schwartzkopf, who lives in Waddell, and George Robledo, who lives here, offered to go along.
The tag Montoya had was for the early Kaibab hunt, which started in late October. There were 500 permits issued for this hunt. The Arizona Game & Fish Department does not classify this as a “Trophy Hunt;” instead it is a hunt designed to remove excess bucks from the population.
When I spoke with Wagner about the hunt, he said AES does not tell veterans it is a trophy hunt. It is a hunt they can experience and enjoy the great outdoors.
Wagner said that on this hunt any buck that was a 3x3 or better would be appropriate for the new hunter.
With that in mind, George, Marc and I went up a few days early to set up camp and do some scouting.
We did see some deer and even a few bucks, including a 24-inch wide 3x3 that we felt would be a perfect buck if we could find it again.
Due to other commitments, we decided that we would hunt the last five days of the season. My thought was that a lot of the other hunters would be gone and there would be less competition for a buck.
I met Montoya and his father, who is also named Johnny, at Jacob Lake Inn.
We went to our camp and introductions were made.
The next morning found us in the Ponderosa pine forest in the transition area on the west side of the Kaibab.
I had wanted to set up a popup blind near AZGFD water that in the past produced a number of good bucks for my hunters. But the Kaibab had received a lot of rain and every low spot seemed to hold water. The deer didn’t have to go to the drinkers.
Johnny, who said he would follow us anywhere he was asked to go, was a real trooper. I knew that he had limitations, and I sure didn’t want him to overextend himself during the hunt.
So we were mobile, moving from place to place and doing a lot of glassing. It proved to be a successful tactic, and at the end of our first day in the field, we had seen over 50 deer, including six bucks.
Day 2 I decided to take a different tactic and hunt lower. While we were sitting in the dark waiting for the sunrise at least six different trucks came by us. “Must be a good place,” I thought, for so many other vehicles to be in the same general area.
At sunup we started glassing, but we didn’t see any deer. I thought we might have moved too far down the mountain. I decided to head back up to higher ground when Marc told me to stop.
He had somehow, someway, seen a single deer in the brush 250 yards away while the truck was moving. We all got out and started glassing across the canyon. Sure enough there was one, then two deer, but they were looking back so we just kept glassing.
It was Marc who first saw other deer moving out onto the brushy hillside. Suddenly he said, “There are two bucks coming out!”
And then I saw them. One was a spike, but the other was a tall 3x3, a perfect buck for Johnny.
We set up a tripod for support and waited until the buck was in full view. Johnny said he was on him and fired a shot at 260 yards. The buck dropped and expired in a few seconds.
Johnny got his first mule deer. Marc and I caped out the buck as Johnny said he wanted to mount his deer. Then with Marc and Johnny’s dad carrying the deer and George carrying the cape and head, we headed back to the truck.
We took the buck to the checkout station at Jacob Lake as required by AZGFD. Ray Lee, who is one of the most knowledgeable persons I know when it comes to aging mule deer, said the buck was three years old.
I then had an idea. Johnny wanted to have the deer mounted, but that can be very expensive, especially for a disabled veteran. I wondered if the people in the community and on Facebook who follow my posts would be interested in helping pay for the mount. I think it is the right thing to do for someone who gave so much for our country.
So I made a call to local taxidermist Amber Kirby of Down and Mount Taxidermy. When I explained the situation to her, she immediately said she would waive her labor cost to work on the mount.
Several people, including a friend from California and my oldest son in Oklahoma, have stepped up and pledged money for this project. So far Kingman residents Kenny Bellm and Monty Plew have pledged their support.
If you would like to donate to this project, you can send donations directly to Amber Kirby at Down and Mount Taxidermy, 3924 N. Diamond St., Kingman, AZ 86401.