Desert Smoke: Unit 39, 40, 41, and 42 Muzzleloader Mule Deer
Updated: Mar 18
“Boom! Let's talk” Curt sent me a screenshot of his AZGFD portal showing that he had been drawn for mule deer. In our conversations prior to the draw we had made a plan to eventually get him a quality mule deer tag. Not having many points the odds of him drawing were very slim, but as it turned out, he wouldn’t be waiting at all! We would be hunting the very last hunt of the year with a smoke pole in hand.
The southwestern deserts of Arizona are a harsh environment. Arid conditions, scorching summer time temps, and limited surface water, make much of the area appear devoid of life. The opposite is true however, many species including desert mule deer seem to effortlessly live in the moon-scaped creosote flats, ocotillo hillsides, and ironwood lined sandy dry washes. They drift around from location to location making large irregular circuits through the terrain. Deer in the low desert almost seem out of place but they thrive nonetheless. Their bodies slimmer and often smaller in stature than their Rocky equivalents, ears in an often more floppy appearance than the northern cousins, while their antlers are chocolaty brown and yellow from the bark of Palo Verde and Mesquite trees.
Hunting the true desert habitat for these deer can be a challenge, especially when avoiding agricultural areas. In a year like 2020 with record setting drought we did not want to take the easier route of targeting deer that frequented the unnatural feed and water from large scale farming. Deer in these areas had already taken a major hit on earlier hunts. Our goal was to hunt the more remote portions of the units pursuing deer that had largely been left alone during earlier hunting seasons. That was precisely what we did.
Boots crunching across the bone dry ground in the dark, we cut miles into the hills to get to our first glassing spot. Jay, Jordan, Curt and myself worked up a scraggly ridge to look out over the desert floor. “I think there are lights up there.” Jordan stated. I looked up the mountain in the pitch blackness and lifted my binos from my chest. “Thats a cat!” I ranged it quickly. 115 yards above us and moving down the small crest adjacent to us the unmistakable eyes of a cat showed back at us as they reflected off of our LED headlamps. It was an eerie way to start the morning in the pitch black.
After several hours of glassing and no bucks to be seen we hiked out to look in a different area. Once again we climbed up a loose and rocky ridge above the desert. Jordan and Jay were to the north covering that entire valley while Curt and I covered the southern valley. For the last several days high winds cut through the cold winter desert. This night was the same with winds blasting our face. The radio keyed on. One of our other team members was in the general area archery hunting and spotted a potential shoot buck for us. We scrambled down the ridge and took off through the flat. We were losing daylight quickly but we were going to try to get a look at the deer regardless. We rendezvoused with Hank in the flats, past off a radio and kept hiking towards the deer. The faster we moved the quicker the sun faded behind the mountains. We closed the distance to well within effective shooting range but there simply was not enough light left to tell how big of a buck it was so we backed out and called it a day.
Day two began as Curt and I hit the highway and headed towards the desert. We offloaded the Honda Pioneer and began our drive into our glassing hill. Brisk winds whipped through the arid rocky ridges. The morning glassing session turned up nothing so we decided to hike in above the deer from the day before in hopes that we would relocate him. Our eyes strained from the blowing wind and dust no deer materialized. Late in the evening I scanned through the 15’s “I’ve got a buck!” Not 100 yards from where he had shown himself the day before stood the same deer. I swapped out my binos for the BTX and was quickly disappointed. Curt asked “would you shoot that deer?” “No.” I flatly responded. The four-by buck was respectable and mature but it wasn’t the showy classical mule deer we were after.
Our destination the next day was a completely new location. Temps were below freezing in the desert this morning. Jay, Curt, and myself shuffled from vantage point to vantage point in the SxS glassing for deer. Dozens of does and several small bucks were all that showed themself. Nonetheless we would check back on this promising spot later.
The fourth morning Curt and I hiked through the black desert head for a steep mountain glassing hill. We scrambled up the side slowly as we rose high above the washes and arroyos below. Looking miles out into the surrounding area we turned up 18 does but saw no sign of the nice buck living in the area. We climbed off our perch and spent the rest of the overcast day atop another hill but the result was the same.
Day five would conclude the first half of our hunt. If we didn't kill today we could pick back up again for the last five days of the hunt. The intent was to wait for increased deer activity later in the season. Nevertheless our plan was to head back to the area we had seen multiple mall bucks and many different groups of does. It was only a matter of time before one of the mature bucks showed back up. At grey light we glassed the large desert basin of Palo Verdes and cactus. No deer were moving so we packed up and headed for the next spot. En route I spotted a doe way-off standing in the greasewoods and immediately stopped. I hopped out of the machine and set up my glass. “Shooter buck! Let's go get on him!” Curt set up to my right as I grabbed the packs to support him and steady the set up. I ranged the deer and leaned over to adjust the gun. “When you’re ready I’m on him.” Boom! The shot impacted ½” below the body line nearly removing the leg just inches below the deers heart. He stumbled forward and made it out of sight before we could get a follow up in him.
We headed around the mountain to gain a better angle on the area the deer went to. From several hundred yards out we could see him standing in the dense Palo Verdes only 100 yards where we had lost him. He soon bedded in the shade. We had backup on the way. After the first shot I made a few calls and Jordan and another spotter were coming to be our extra eyes and help get the buck down for good. As our spotter got there, I put him on the BTX and Curt and I were off again. We circled to get the wind correct and moved in to get a shot at the bedded buck. After a long stalk we inched into position and set up prone. The buck stood facing us and we waited for him to present a broadside shot. After several minutes he turns. Click! The gun misfired and the buck slipped out of site. Our spotter kept us updated and the buck bedded just a few feet away but completely protected from any approach from the bottom. Our only option was to walk around and pop in on top of him up close and personal.
Curt and I steadily climbed the back side of the ridge and headed for our reference tree. Our spotter would see us once we cleared it. We crested the top and our spotter stopped us. “Too far, turn right.” I stepped a half step back and turned ten degrees right. “There, between us.” I leaned around and could see the deer’s body. “Shoot him, Curt!” He leaned out and squeezed off the shot. The deer lurched from his bed at only 14 yards! We had done it. A flood of relief and joy overcame us. Despite the early morning mishap and a misfire we had the buck on the ground and Curt was thrilled to put his hands on the perfectly symmetrical four-by-four deer. Pictures and butchering followed before we packed him off the mountain and hit the road for home.
Author: Dillon Currie