After a long season of hunting in Alaska I journey south to the desert to attempt one of the more challenging hunts in North America, High Desert archery mule deer. Mule deer are very skittish animals, they have great hearing and even better eyesight. Even during the rut (Animals Breeding Season) it is not uncommon for bucks to flee away from does in order to evade their predators. These animals are sly, able to hide in plain sight and hear a misplaced foot step from a far. My quest for a High desert mule deer starts with plenty of scouting, weeks before the opening day of Arizona’s over the counter archery mule deer season in December. My goal in scouting for deer involves a few things. Number one, find water. There are plenty of ways to do this, you can use maps such as onX Hunt which will show trick tanks that are intended to provide water to grazing cattle. You can walk on the plethora of public land that is offered in Arizona. Or you can ask locals if they’d be willing to share, but in my experience that doesn’t work too often. Water is a great place to start looking for game. The reason behind this is because water is not an abundant item in the desert. Even though water is vital to the animals they will still travel miles in between it. The amount of miles they travel will also depends on the time of year. During the hotter months they will be closer and during colder months they will venture farther away from the sources of water.
During November I found plenty of water sources and would spend time sitting on high elevation points or what I call “glassing knolls” and look and look and look with my binoculars. Preferably I would sit down in the shade with a wide field of few during the morning and evening hours, and try to find deer. The best way for spotting Mule Deer is by looking for the break up in the vegetation that their body is creating. Or by searching for the hunk of white that is their butt. When hunting in such big and open country, sometimes the most difficult part of the hunt is finding the game that is well hidden, or just standing in plain sight.
Once the season comes and you spot a deer that you are interested in pursuing the best thing you can do is be patient and study the situation that the deer and yourself are in. This is what I like to call the ‘planning of your stalk’. This season I observed way too many hunters chasing after deer before they could even pack up their tripod and spotting scope. Typically what I would see is the deer seeing them from hundreds of yards away and fleeing up in elevation as fast as they could. In order to have a successful stalk on these over observant animals, you need to be patient. The first thing I look at is wind direction. Out of all a deer senses their nose is the best. After I determine the direction of the wind, (and remember the wind is always subject to change) then I will pay attention to the terrain. With the terrain observation I am looking at what I can put between myself in the deer to blind my movements in getting within bow range. If the deer is not in a suitable spot to provide this then just be patient and wait. Patience, patience, patience. There are many other factors to add into this mix of planning, where the deer are moving, terrain and elevation, activity of the deer. Are they feeding? Is the buck rut crazy and chasing the doe? Is it soon to be too hot for them to move? Are they going to bed down mid stalk? And on and on. I consider these mixed variables in the plan of stalking. I preach patience so you can take the time to observe the activity before chasing off and possibly losing an entire day of your season.
Now that you have made a plan to make a move on this deer or multiple deer, It’s time to hustle. If you are out of sight you should move with a purpose but at the same time be careful of the noise you produce. Once you have covered 60-70 percent of the distance it’s time to pump the breaks a little and slow down. At this time you should be reassessing the situation. Do you need to move on your course of direction? where is the wind blowing now? Have the deer bedded down? This step is as important as any other. Either slowly peak over the terrain you are behind and re-find the deer. Or if that cannot apply, continue to move to an advantage point quietly and out of the deer’s sight so you can lay eyes on them. Be careful not to silhouette yourself on a high point. Once you have done this and the stalk is still possible, it is time to close the distance and attempt to put yourself in bow range of a buck. Continue to use the terrain and vegetation to your advantage. Remember that stalking is always your best option. The deer can not see your movements as easily, and the wind directions will usually play in your favor. Once in bow range it now boils down to you and the skill you have as an archer. Say to yourself in your head. Pick a spot, smooth draw of your bow, lock it in, refind your target and slow release.
One thing I enjoyed most about hunting in the desert was the vast amount of variables in hunting Mule Deer. Not one stalk I conducted was the same, And every deer is unique in their own way. It was a valuable learning experience not only for me as a hunter but as a person. Bow hunting here has made me a better hunter in so many ways and I will apply these learning points to future hunts I participate in. I think that is what hunting is all about. Putting yourself out of your comfort zone and changing up experiences that you might not have already had. If you want to make yourself a better hunter and human being then I think you owe it to yourself to make the trip to arizona and hunt the landscape that is shared by so many worthy creatures.
By Drew Kress