Trigger Warning/Spolier Alert: No deer were harmed in the making of this blog post. However, as you might have guessed from the title, this is a blog post about people trying to kill deer. If you don’t like reading about people trying to kill deer then don’t read it.
Our deer hunt started 10 weeks ago.
Curry, Golab, and I had drawn tags for a late November Coues Deer hunt in Arizona’s notoriously difficult, and difficult to describe, Unit 24b. 24b butts right up against Phoenix. For a normal unit this would mean more people than deer. However, 24b isn’t a normal unit. Nearly all of 24b is within the Superstition Wilderness, which is big and rough enough that it’s core is seldom visited. Deep canyons, steep hills, absolutely no roads, little water, and “trails” are what make the Supes one of my favorite mountain ranges in the world. Even better, Coues are only dominant in the Eastern side of the unit and even obsessives like me don’t know the far eastern Supes very well. Have you figured out that I love this unit yet?
24b essentially requires you to backpack, and hunting with a pack on your back requires scouting. Like everything else in the world, hunting is a numbers game. Based on the quality of the habitat every moment every inch of ground has a certain probability of containing your quarry, and therefore, if you want to maximize your chances you have two options: 1.) cover lots of ground; or, 2.) go places with a high probability of having what you are looking for. The Polaris Nation can solve this problem by driving around a lot. Us pack hunters have to focus on option 2.
Pouring over all our maps, we quickly zeroed in on two areas. A trip revealed many deer in the first, but also few shooting lanes.
The other drop in point was much more promising. More open, with much longer sightlines, the scouting began in earnest the next week.
And continued almost every week for a month.
With many deer glassed and our campsite picked, we had to deal with the consummate Arizona problem: water. The canyon did have a few pools here and there, but they were all, for the lack of a better word, gross. Under the pretense of deer steaks should they come, I conned Padre and my old scoutmaster, Earl, into hauling water for us. With a week to spare, we were ready.
All hunts must conflict with a holiday or family engagement (so sayth the Lord). As such, we had both Thanksgiving and Angie‘s birthday to contend with, which meant both missing opening morning and splitting the hunt in to two weekends. After a quick flight home from Thanksgiving on Friday night, Golab, Curry, and I hit the road and hiked in overnight. We meet up with an old friend and recovering hunting guide, Eddie, at camp and in the morning we split up with some glassing and some sitting. The morning sun brought great hope…
…but few deer. Curry and Golab had done better than Eddie and I, seeing 4 does between the two of them. We hunted the same way in the afternoon, but had similar luck. With no deer in sight, I did the only logical thing: take pictures of my gear.
In the morning we loaded up our packs and hunted our way out of the canyon, sure that things would be better upon our return.
Curry and I hiked in later that week and on the way in we stopped to glass a few of the hills near the trailhead. This revealed a great many does, but also very uncomfortable seating.
After a morning of glassing we made our way to camp…
…and in the afternoon I climbed to my usual perch. Again, somehow, I saw few deer. Puzzled, I snapped a few pictures, gathered my gear, and descended back to camp.
The next day I returned, completely positive that this was the morning we would break through. The closest thing to a deer I saw was this cloud…
…which looks kinda like a deer if you squint hard enough.
It was at this point that I began to feel concerned. We had dozens of hours of glass on this hill and we had always, always, found deer. On my way back to camp, things got a little worse: I spotted some simply enormous, only hours old, deer prints in Curry’s usual haunt but saw no deer down. At lunch Curry explained what had happened. The area he was hunting was full of bushes with two, non-overlapping sightlines. You have to roll the dice and pick one or the other, but activity in the area was enormous and it was worth the risk. The deer had come into the area, only 10 yards or so from where he was, feed there for 15 minutes but never came into his line of sight. He waited, figuring it was better to hope than stalk among the low bushes, but the shot never came. He was a little dejected, but at least we knew he was on deer.
I, on the other hand, decided it was time to change tactics. Knowing we’d seen many deer on the hills near the trailhead, I hiked almost all the way back to the car and set up for a long evening of glassing. The doe count continued to rise, but still no bucks.
Golab met us in camp that night and the next morning he joined me glassing near the trailhead using Curry’s glass. Unfortunately, though Curry remembered to give him the tripod, he forgot the adapter. We improvised with this very high quality mount:
Did they fall off a few times? Maybe. But that’s why you buy the glass with a no questions asked warranty.
Again, we saw deer, but again, no bucks. We were dumbfouned. I’d seen more deer in the last week of hunting than in any other week of my life, but not one buck.
With only one night left, I decided it was fitting to give my perch a final chance. I glassed for hours, but as the light died I had to concede defeat. The guys had similar luck, and we hiked out that night.
So what do you make of a deerless deer hunt? I’d be lying if I said we weren’t a little disappointed. We’d worked our asses off…
We’d seen so much…
…and learned a place the way you only can by visiting it again, and again.
Yes, this was a deerless deer hunt.
But that’s not so bad, is it?
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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, occasionally for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.