I love it when the air gets brisk and the frosts start to come to the AZ high country because that means hunting season is here and my long wait is over. In Arizona, if you are lucky, you have drawn a tag. If you are even luckier, you have a great group of hunting partners to share it all with you; the ups and the downs, the excitement and the letdowns, the work, the fun, the sweat and the blood.
Deer prep starts in June with applying for the draw. This year started in the usual way. We all coordinated the hunts to apply for and we got our applications in. Except, that is, for Alex. He started by putting off the application process until the deadline day. As he sat at his desk that day trying to deal with the online application process, he grew frustrated. He didn't have time for this nonsense, with a baby on the way and deadlines to meet etc etc. So he marched into his brother's office across the way and said "here's my credit card, this is ridiculous, just put me in for something I won't draw."
The draw happened and ostensibly everyone checked for charges from Game and Fish. Nothing. Morale was low. About 6 weeks later Alex was going over the budget with his wife and they were arguing over a charge neither of them made for exactly $300 from "AZGFD." Clearly a scam. A quick google search of the vendor said it was from Arizona Game & Fish. Huh. Further investigation revealed that Al had drawn a very good deer tag and the scramble was on to coordinate getting 3 NY residents and one OR resident to AZ for a good old deer hunt. Morale was high again!
I have to hand it to Al, he prepared like crazy for this hunt. The NY guys made a great team effort and got him ready to go. Every weekend the group chat had results of the range sessions and by the time the hunt rolled around Al was confident to make a 500 yard shot if he needed to. He put a lot of time behind that rifle with his brother and cousin dedicating a ton of time helping him out. Hunting NY all his life he'd never killed a deer past 100 yards and wanted to be ready to make a longer western-state shot.
I think we were all pretty much chomping at the bit to get out there and find Al a buck. His brother Paulie and cousin Andrew made the trip with him from NY and his brother Mark from Oregon flew out as well. My little brother and I acted as resident guides. Total of six guys (one hunter, five dedicated glassers) in prime AZ mule deer country. We were bound for a good time.
We made the trek, got camp set up
As the morning dawned on our first day we were all on high points glassing for bucks, which is pretty much my favorite place in the world to be:
Al could only take 5 days off for the hunt so we had to make them count. The first two days were tough. It was cold and windy and there were few deer. We were short on deer and long on people; everywhere we went there were other hunters and few deer. We maximized time by glassing during peak hours and finding new glassing spots during slow times. We passed a pretty good buck on the first day that we found bedded. His frame was the right size but his forks were crabby. We logged that spot as Crab Claw as a spot to find bucks bedded mid day and continued our search.
After the cold spell passed, it got hot. Typical AZ weather. Decked out in winter gear for the 10 degree glassing in the morning and then angrily shedding it as the sun beats down and it's 65 degrees by mid day. We got sweaty. We got smelly. We got thirsty. Still, we persisted:
Our persistence paid off in the end. We started finding the deer but the class of bucks were were after still eluded us. Al passed a pretty good 4x4 on day 3.
After some discussion we decided to gamble and head back to a spot that has been historically good for us but had yielded only other hunters the first day.
The decision paid off. As the sun came up we had deer all around us and the buck ratio was higher. We were still trying to get eyes on a shooter though. I told Al to glass the ridge behind us because typically there are deer over there that are easy to overlook. Immediately he had a deer. As I tried to get eyes on that deer for identification I found a different herd of deer. We got all the eyes we could on them as they were all moving into a bedding area. The loner Al spotted was a buck and by the quick look we got at 1300 yards, he was probably a shooter. The other 3 deer were bucks and the biggest bodied deer in the herd didn't give us a look before he made the trees. With only a day and a half left to hunt we decided that Al and I would creep through that bedding area while the rest of the boys would see if they could find Crab Claw or something bedded.
After they dropped us off Al and I creeped through the thick stuff. About half an hour in Al stopped and got his rifle up and whispered "give me the word."
I was a step behind him but could see the buck staring at us, about 50 yards away. I had a pinon branch blocking part of my view but I could see his frame was right, width past his ears and good height. I put the Leicas on him and could see plenty of tine length and good enough front forks but had to shift to see his backs. Al was in my ear, and he seemed excited:
"Should I shoot him?"
As I shifted I saw what looked like huge back forks characteristic of a real slammer. We were fifty yards from an alert buck and I knew he wouldn't be there long and we were short on time. Al was in my ear:
Al: "yes or no?"
I saw those huge backs and my eyes got big. "Dump him."
A split second after that my eyes focused on the whole picture and could see that I had mistook his G2's and G4's as huge backs and that he was actually a big three missing his G3's. I opened my mouth to stop him for another pow-wow but it was too late, Al lit him up.
I'm disappointed in myself for the mistake, but, this is a good buck and we stalked him in the thick stuff and killed him under 50 yards in his bed. That's not easy. We had six guys hunting hard and this was a tough hunt. With a few days left we are happy with this buck and we were able to get the truck close for an easy packout
Reading through this now, I can't understate how fun and important this hunt was for us. For me. Many things can make or break a hunt. What made this hunt is the guys we had together. I couldn't ask for a better group of guys to work with. I am glad we got a buck but what I'm really thankful for and excited about is to have a dedicated group of guys, with similar goals, who get along and are on the same page, who can have meaningful discussions and opposing ideas to bounce off each other without fighting, who work for each other, and who are willing to come get dirty and sweaty and bloody together. You just can't beat that. This picture sums up the hunt the best for me. Six guys, six smiles, everybody in on the action. I literally cannot wait to hunt with these boys again (and that will be soon, some of us have bull elk tags in a few weeks!):