Arizona Backcountry Desert Mule Deer Hunt

Arizona Backcountry Desert Mule Deer Hunt
As soon as anyone starts telling you to be “realistic,” cross that person off your invitation list.
— John Eliot

There is only one certain thing in life and that is the certainty of change. Over the last two years I’ve had a son, bought a house, dissolved a successful company, taken a full time job, quit a full time job, made a 180 degree change in career paths, punched a squirrel and learned that Donald Trump might be the Anti-Christ himself. Yea, life changes and it does it pretty fucking quickly.

I stand here two years later. On the same mission, in same wilderness, the same desert, ready to walk into something that hasn’t changed in eons. To find my sanity in the isolation and its consistency, and with a little luck, kill a prehistoric sized mule deer. Simple enough quest.

I’m not sure if I’m just a hippy at heart, headed out to the flatlands on a vision quest or it’s the fact that I’ve yet to find an equal when it comes to the absolute isolation that the wastelands provide. Or maybe it’s my hatred of the cold and the heaping portion that Colorado provides this time of year.

Whatever it is, I look forward to it more than any other hunting trip of the year. A solo hunt deep in the backcountry of an unforgiving environment that is Arizona’s deserts. Now that’s my idea of relaxation. Let the obese, kid on a leash, buffet seeking, lounge chair laying populace go on their Carnival cruises for their vacations. That ain’t my world. The struggles of the backcountry is.

I delayed my trip about a week because of torrential downpours that have been reeking havoc on the area. Flash flooding has taken on a new meaning, as new arroyos are carved out of the flat landscape that sits below once volcanic mountains. Though a bummer to have to reschedule, I know the stream bottoms with their life giving potholes will be full of water. This should significantly cut my pack’s weight as now I can filter water that’s collected out there, not carry it in. Any chance I get to lighten my pack, I do.

The wilderness area I’m in is known for abnormally large mule deer, though the population has been severely struggling due to it’s rather large population of mountain lions. Yay.

This becomes a topic of conversation at my household. The .45 Sig strapped to my leg was a mandatory, according the lady sitting at home with our four month old son. She doesn’t like house cats let alone mountain lions and she isn’t fond of the idea of our son growing up without a father because his daddy decided to go pet “the big kitty” in a place he probably doesn’t belong to begin with. Small concession. I decided it’s against my best interest to tell her about the drug smuggling concerns raised by a wildlife manager I talked to about the area I’m to hunt.

The hike in is relatively painless. Living at elevation has it’s advantages. I feel like I have an oxygen mask blasting energy into my lung at this low elevation.

The destination is a ridge that sits about four hundred feet off the desert floor, giving me a terrific 365 degree vantage point. When the earth was being forged, this ridge was designed with hunters in mind. There is a small flat area about half way up to set camp. Two-hundred feet above camp sits a towering turret of basalt rock begging to be glassed from. The plan is to use this observatory to peak into the winding arroyos that scar the barren desert floor like the varicose veins of grandma.

Backcountry camping in the Eagletail Wilderness

Backcountry camping in the Eagletail Wilderness

During the day, if the deer are moving, they use these narrow runoff channels to smuggle themselves from outlying farmers’ fields to the mountains within. This is where my eyes fall for about 98% of the day. Before sunrise and just before it gets dark in the evening, they get a little more ballsy and venture out into the open flats. That leaves just enough time for frantic scanning before they dissipate into thin air.

No modern digital camo pattern holds a candle to what was blessed upon these creatures. This is why I’m hoping this trip times itself out perfectly with the rut. Finding them individually is about as easy as finding truthful word coming out of Hillary Clinton’s mouth, so hitting the rut is crucial.

The first few days go by with little action. As it typically happens in this situation, I start second guessing the hunting grounds I picked. Patience has never been my strong point.

“Give it time, give it time.” I tell myself through a clenched jaw.

I know there aren’t the populations a hunter usually looks for in here, but rumors of racks rivaling Dolly Parton’s are just too tempting. I stick it out.

On the morning of day three, I hit paydirt.

“Good Lord.” I say during a deep inhale.

There he is. Part mule deer, part Texas Longhorn. This fella is wide, I mean like thirty-two inches wide. I mean like, I don’t care how many points he’s styling, he’s a shooter type wide.

I watch him for about forty-five minutes before he heads where I happen to have no chance of putting a stalk on him. Straining through my spotting scope I see him look back at me knowing that I know, that he knows, that I have no chance of following him.

The game is set. He’s been playing it for years and has the clear advantage in every possible way. What he doesn’t know is that I’m terribly stubborn and take obsessions to unhealthy levels.

He tests me for the next several days, throwing out sacrificial offerings of lesser bucks. Staying on the outer edges, showing himself for a moment, then disappearing just as quickly. Testing my fortitude. Outright toying with me.

“Sorry big guy, this fella only has eyes for you only. I’m the monogamous type. Just me and you.” I whisper into the heated desert air, now clearly at the point of talking to anything and everything around me.

By day five I’m getting tired of having my ass handed to me by a clearly smarter sentient being than myself. I usually call a hunt successful if I get a stalk in, whether I draw my bow or not. I haven’t even left the cliff that me and some now overly friendly lizards are perched on, let alone knocked an arrow.

Day six starts off like the others, working my way through gaps in barrel cactus as I scramble with hands and feet up an unholy steep slope to my glassing spot in the pitch black. I settle in uncomfortably, my ass bruised from long hours of sitting on shattered rock that makes up the four foot by four foot pedestal on top of my cliff perch.

The wind howls off in the distance I note to myself.

“Gonna get a bit breezy.” I tell my lizard friend that has found his usual position ten inches off to my right.

“Huh... that’s some localized wind.” I say after a few.

My binocs pick up movement, fast movement. I drop them off my peepers as the object is headed quickly towards me and no longer in need of magnification.

“Incoming.” I tell lizard.

My company in the backcountry.

My company in the backcountry.

A small buck with his tongue hanging out labors toward my position. He’s running and I have doubts that he’s doing it for the local ‘Fight Against Antler Cancer’ deer charity marathon. That’s not for another five months.

“The wind is chasing him.” I reason. Or perhaps that was lizards words. It all happened so fast, my memory has become fuzzy.

A few minutes later I realize I’m retarded. It’s not wind that’s howling, but ‘ol Velvet Ears himself. A hound dog comes screaming into my location with all the subtlety of my old 1968 VW bus.

A long wire dangling out of his collar confirms my suspicions. He’s chasing lion scent and I’m sure his owner is miles away on an ATV cramming down a Krispy Kreme.

“Well this can be good or bad.” I say contemplatively to lizard as the dog fades away in the distance. “He’ll either stir up some action or scare everything away.

No more than ten minutes later I have my answer.

I hear him first. The desert floor might as well be covered in fortune cookies. It’s impossible to take a step without warning everything in a two-hundred yard radius that you’re making an appearance.

I look down off my cliff to see him being led by his girlfriend like he’s royalty.

Massive. Utterly beautiful. His rack suits him well, like a crown on a king. His body is unbelievably big, what I would think would represent an elk, not a mule deer.

His wobbly kneed steps give away his age. His two by two rack is obviously on the downward side of its once magnificent days. But the mass is astounding. This guy has character from tip to tail.

I’m stunned. Perhaps two-hundred yards away as the crow flies and four hundred feet down. Not exactly a shot I’d consider with my bow. Bravehearting arrows in just isn’t cricket.

“You’re up here and well… well he’s down there.” Says lizard.

“You don’t think I know that?” I spit back, hating when the obvious is pointed out to me.

The buck looks up directly at me. I’m in his full sight, but he doesn’t change his pace or direction the slightest.

A wry smile comes over my face and all I can say is, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Outclassed and outsmarted. The monster walks away with his life and my utmost obsession. He knows my time is up. He also knows that we have an exclusive date set for December. I don’t know if he’s ever had a stalker amongst the fine does that frequent his kingdom, but he’s got one now.

“You get anything?” Comes Hazel’s squeaky voice as I load up the truck.

“Yea. I got a new friend. Lizard. I’ll have to introduce you sometime. I got inspired. Oh, and you’ll like this one the best: I got a new obsession.”

“Christ. Another lizard friend. And we’re not moving to Arizona for this deer.” Comes Hazel’s response.

“I didn’t say a deer, I said an obsession.”

“They’re one and the same with you.” She says as I put the truck in drive.

Backpack hunting alpenglow.

Backpack hunting alpenglow.

Outclassed and outsmarted.

Side Note: Arizona’s Over the Counter archery tag, in my book, is one of the best ones out there. You can hunt in January, August, September and December in one calendar year on the same tag. Screw up in January and not put anything on the ground? You have three other months of chasing deer to look forward to. Perfect for trophy hunting.

The beauty of the tag is during the cold months, head to the desert for the warmth. During the warmer months get up above the Mogollon Rim for for the cooler temps. Gotta love a state that has enough altitude variation to keep the temps perfect year round.

// Fred Bohm