A Sliver of Hope: Unit 22 Mazatzal Muley
Updated: Jan 1
It was the transition of spring into summer months when I got the news that I drew my General Season rifle Mule Deer tag. I was very excited since I drew the unit in Arizona that I am most familiar with. Posting to Facebook, sending snapchats, and texting friends; it is a fun time of the year announcing that you have been drawn and hearing if your friends drew or not. My plan leading in to this late October hunt was pretty simple. I was already planning on hunting lower elevation stuff in the unit during August for Black Bears. In an ideal situation, I could find a bear to kill while scouting for my upcoming hunt. The summer brought an inconsistent rain and a poor monsoon which I was uncertain how it was going to impact the mule deer in the lower elevations of the unit. The area I was hunting had perennial water through creeks, but I knew that the cattle tanks in the area were also supporting the populations of deer. All of the cattle tanks were still holding water and fortunately for me the cattle had already been herded out. Through August we saw a lot of deer but few mature shooter bucks. As August passed my concerns grew. I found a good group of 6 bucks holding a few nice 3x3’s and I was able to pattern them feeding off of the foothills of the Mazatzal Mountains. Following the contours of the canyons these bucks moved every day but not far from any specific location. Days before the hunt I decided to change my plans. I feared my location was going to be hit hard with other hunters and I wanted to get away from people for the opening portion of the hunt so I moved to the highest elevation of the unit near the Mogollon Rim. Previously I found some rolling canyons that held some nice bucks so I thought it would be a good start.
Thursday night I made it to camp and did not see any other hunters in this area. Opening morning came and I hike about a mile in to my favorite glassing spot. As I scanned the canyons I couldn’t find one Deer for that matter an Elk. I had never been to this spot and not seen big game which left a bad feeling in my gut. I took a closer look and realized the food and water sources here where not what they were the year before. I pondered my options and decided maybe I should go back and hunt that group of bucks I saw in the lower elevations. At the very least I know there are deer with plenty of food sources and water in my original location that I planned to hunt. I packed up camp and high tailed it back to the area I had scouted through August and early October. I arrived Mid-day which gave me plenty of time to prepare for the night.
To my surprise, I saw only 1 other group of hunters, a guide and his clients, a couple of out of state residents looking for their first Mule Deer. The guide mentioned that earlier in the day, a hunter killed a nice 3x3 and said that the rest of the deer were pushed. Not really the news you want to hear when you’re out after a nice 3x3. I kept my hopes up and told myself that there are plenty of other deer in the area knowing the buck I was originally after was killed that morning. I glassed all afternoon and saw several deer including another Buck I had not seen scouting the area. I decided to move a little closer and see if I can create a shot opportunity. I moved in and lost the buck as he moved though the wash bottoms at the base of the canyons. Feeling defeated I decided it was dinner time. I made my way slowly in not to disturb the guide in his clients. Just before I noticed some movement on the hillside and could identify the silhouette of a buck feeding on the hill. I had just enough light left to start moving in.
All of my gear was in my pack strapped to my ATV so I just grabbed my binoculars and my rifle and started moving in. At the 200 yard mark the deer froze to look at me quartering away. This was my opportunity and the closest I was going to be able to get in the dry crunchy desert floor. Attempting to compose myself I took a knee and a few deep breaths and put my Leupold right on the shoulder. Certain I was ready, I squeezed the trigger. A plume of dust far behind the deer made it evident that I missed. By a LOT. To my surprise the deer stayed put, still frozen in time, quartering away from me. A lone skeleton from a dead Cholla cactus was only about 20 feet from my current location and looked like it could be a decent rest. I crawled over to the skeleton, rested my gun, and instantly had my crosshairs on the deer. This time I was steady. I could feel my heartbeat and my confidence started to increase. I composed myself and let a bullet fly. I heard a loud smack and saw a direct hit putting the deer in the dirt! As soon as I saw the deer collapse it was like a balloon had popped. As a hunter, we put so much time and effort in to these hunts it means so much more than adding meat to the freezer, for me anyways. The emotional aspect of it all and thinking back to when I got my tag in the mail and how excited I was. I just accomplished what I came here to do. I was uncertain the size of the buck. When I shot, it appeared to be a mature for buck that had filled out. This was not a worry, I was happy to have killed.
Since I was by myself and had a dead deer to recover I called home to tell someone my coordinates since I knew this was going to be a long night. I hiked in and went to recover my deer. When the hunt opened I was excited that there was not going to be a moon but as I hiked through the cat claw and cactus forest the night got darker and darker making it seem impossible to find anything. I scoured through brush and creek bottoms looking for blood or any trace of an animal. I found nothing. I decided to call it quits and come back in the am hopefully with more help. I hiked back to the Cholla skeleton that I used as a rest attempting to replay the shot and make sense of where the dead deer was. How could this be? A 250 yard shot, and I know the deer fell? I then realized I could get my ATV to this Cholla skeleton so I pulled it up as close as possible for a reference point and headed back in to the canyon to find my deer. There was a sliver of hope that I would still be able to hike in and recover my deer and get the meat without it going bad. The night time temps were in the low high 60’s which likely would have spoiled the meat. Using my ATV like a lighthouse I utilized the headlights as a point of reference from where I took the shoot constantly looking at the ATV and then back at the terrain.
Right as I was going to call it quits a glimmer of my headlight caught two eyes low in the brush. That’s my deer! I approached the deer and could not believe my eyes. I just took the biggest deer of my life. A main frame 4x4 with 4 kicker points coming off of his left, and 1 coming off of his right. To me a buck of a lifetime and I honestly knew I could not ask for much more. Fortunately for me I had some friends hunting the same unit who were able to come help and a great friend Dillon Currie who drove over 100 miles to make sure we got out. All in the same mindset with the same goal, we are not letting that meat go to waste. We got ourselves and the deer out safely and managed good pictures in the dark. A great hunt with even better memories ended my 2016 general season deer hunt.