June 03, 2021
By Eddie Claypool
With summer looming dead ahead, how about allowing your mind to skip forward to thoughts of fall and whitetail adventures? May I take the liberty of evoking images of quiet, wide-open spaces and cool, sunny locales? Follow along with me for a few minutes as I tell you about some high-octane deer action I encountered a couple winters back.
With three months of Midwestern whitetail bowhunting just concluded, I found my mind wandering toward some downtime — not! As January 2019 rolled onto the scene, Peg, Lulu and I hit the lonesome highway toward the arid southwestern U.S. It was time to continue our search for that mystical hunting spot where big Coues deer bucks run unfettered, but did such a place really exist? My quarter-century pursuit of that elusive goal had led me to some good areas, but utopia was still out of reach. Was that why I had remained infatuated with the pursuit for so long?
Yep. As long as the carrot dangled just out of reach, I would be hard after it.
Westbound & Down
Due to a recent influx of people, I decided to abandon my Coues-hunting location of many years, explore some new country and, hopefully, establish a new nest. As we rolled into a remote corner of Arizona, I found a roadside pull-off where I could unhook our camping trailer for a while and do a little reconnaissance. I unloaded the ATV and then headed down a maze of two-track roads in search of a good campsite. An excellent spot eventually presented itself after hours of scouting, so I headed back to get the rest of the crew. We were soon creeping down a rough road with our trailer in tow.
We made it to the chosen spot without incurring mechanical damage and had our little camp set up in no time. Everyone then began lounging around to soak up some of the plentiful high-desert sunshine. Even if the area didn’t turn out to be great Coues deer country, I knew the trip was going to be a success because it was offering us plenty of solitude and a break from the cold, dreary, winter weather that we had left at home.
With 10 days to go before the season opener, I was determined to conduct a methodical exploration of my surroundings. I headed afield each mid-morning after a few cups of coffee and some breakfast, laying the miles down in multiples. I knew that anywhere with two-tracks leading to it wasn’t remotely remote enough for my liking, so I bounced down the roughest of trails to their bitter end and then kept going.
As the days slid by, it became clear that deer were sparse in the area, and the few herds that did exist were quite pocketed. Luckily, I came across a few spots where movement was compressed into small islands of ideal habitat. I quickly switched into micro-scouting mode, with much time spent thoroughly scouting the two spots I had chosen as my main squeezes. The movement pattern of the local herd soon became apparent, as the mature bucks clearly lived in the higher, rougher reaches and made nightly trips into the foothills to carouse with the ladies. Locating a couple of finger ridges that showed buck travel, I soon had a couple of ground blinds placed. I also found several treestand-worthy oak trees along the valley floors. Things were looking up!
The Claypools developed quite the camp ritual after opening day arrived. Peg and Lulu opted for peace and quiet by lounging around all day. Daddy-O, on the other hand, could be found greeting the sunrise from a place of hiding way back in the backcountry. Toward sunset each evening, I would eagerly return to camp to see my girls. A warm greeting, a warm shower and a warm supper were sure to warm my heart. We all wore smiles on our faces from living this simple life — ever seen a dog smile?
The rut was kicking into top gear as the first week of January came to an end. My cameras documented a notable increase in Coues deer movement, and while my personal encounters were few and far between, I knew that could change in a flash. So, I held tight to my pattern of hunting long and hard each day. Twenty-six years of pursuing those little buggers had pounded into my head the necessity of persistence and endurance. The most productive tactic I could employ was to simply put a warm body in a good place under the right conditions and let fate take its course.
I occasionally took a few hours off from hunting to retrieve my trail cameras’ SD cards. Many evenings were spent assessing the resource I was pursuing, with it quickly becoming apparent that there was a healthy Coues deer herd around my chosen hides. A fair number of does perused the territory with a good sprinkling of young and middle-aged bucks in pursuit, and there was one exceptional buck in the area. My attempts to ambush a mature buck weren’t panning out, but one was clearly around. With anxious feelings starting to permeate my mind, I knew I just needed to stay confident and hang tough. I could, and I would!
By the 10th day of the season, though, I was starting to get nervous. Very nervous!
My cameras told of bucks present while I was not. What was my problem? Was it my entrance into my blinds and treestands? Was it swirling winds? Was it both of these possibilities and/or other factors? As I lay awake one night carefully assessing my situation, I smiled as I realized that this matching of wits with game animals was what had first got me hooked on bowhunting. And there I was, still at it, still excited about it, still frustrated by it more than 45 years later. Satisfied to still be in the game, I slipped off to sleep — win, lose or draw, it was all good!
The 11th morning of my Coues bowhunt found me in a treestand overlooking an oak-flat interspersed with manzanita and yellow grass. I took a new route into my hide that day, and with the wind blowing steadily from a desirable direction, everything felt good. Reflecting on the last 10 days, I was content in having passed on a couple of decent bucks while waiting for a chance at the boss of the area. He was proving to be unpredictable in his movements, so I wondered if this might be the day that he shocked me with his presence. If he didn’t, should I continue to pass on bucks that I would be more than satisfied with? The answer: a resounding, “No!” Hurry up, big guy …
Nothing had stirred by midday, so I slouched in my seat and began slipping in and out of consciousness. I had reached the point of not caring if a deer was nearby or not. It was simply good to be afield, healthy, hunting and in the company of two good females. Actually, in my humble estimation, I didn’t really deserve a big buck — I was much too blessed already!
I eventually came out of my daze and pulled a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich out of my pack. Munching contentedly, I glanced at my timepiece: 1:30 p.m.
A ruckus reached my ears just moments later. Two middle-aged 8-pointers spurted from behind my location; when they stopped in front of me, I assessed them both as “90’s bucks.” I barely paid them any attention after that, as I had a strong feeling that the boss was somewhere nearby.
The scuffling began again in earnest, the bucks scattering and a couple of does taking their place. I glanced to my right and spied large antlers — a potential Boone and Crockett candidate was approaching! The big fellow made his way to my front, causing time to seemingly slow down. I began positioning myself for a shot, but as I turned, an unseen doe behind me caught sight of my motion and sounded the alarm. She rushed to her left and snorted, causing every deer in the area to go on full alert. The situation had gone sour, so I came to full draw and tried to make the most of the remaining opportunity. This movement further spooked my visitors and sent them all scattering. The big buck was out of range now and getting farther away, but the larger of the two 8-pointers was standing broadside to me about 20 yards away. It took me less than a second to make up my mind, settle my top pin on the buck’s ribs and touch off the shot.
As my target buck bolted away into the brush, I knew that I had just filled my tag. I took a deep breath and then sighed deeply, amazed at how quickly everything can change. With all of my self-imposed pressure to kill a buck gone, it was party time — bring on the grilled tenderloin, iced tea and camp time with my girls. My favorite part of the hunt was about to begin!