An Arizona high-desert adventure for two species that will test your bowhunting skills.
When hunting desert mule deer, Eddie Claypool likes to locate groups of does and keep an eye on them, because where the does are, bucks are sure to follow.
For most of my bowhunting life, I considered the last day of December the end of my season. By that point -- after having pursued Eastern whitetails for close to three solid months -- my financial and emotional resources would be stretched to their limits, and it would be time to call it quits for another year.
But a while back, I decided to change my approach to my bowhunting calendar in a way that would provide a change of pace and scenery. Nowadays, my Eastern whitetail pursuits end in early December, allowing for a trip "Out West" to soak up the solitude of the desert. So it was in mid-December 2009 that I found myself driving toward new adventure in the high, lonesome country of southeastern Arizona.
This is typical high-desert country in southeastern Arizona. Mule deer usually live in the foothills while Coues deer live from the foothills upward, all the way to the top.
As I rolled down the highway, my heart was filled with excitement. Winter's grip on the Midwest was already tight, and I was glad to be heading away from it as fast as I could go. As I've gotten older, long, cold December days spent in a treestand -- while hoping to ambush one of the highly educated and greatly thinned-out bucks of the Corn Belt -- have begun to hold less charm for me. Always an ardent pursuer of Western species, it has never taken much to get me ready to head that way. Give me an open season, a valid tag, a little fuel and a cooler full of food and you can consider this Okie long gone!
BOWHUNTING Field Editor Eddie Claypool admires the 4x4 desert mule deer buck he took last December in Arizona's Galiuro Mountains.
From years of past experience, I already knew where I was headed -- the Galiuro Mountains and all their foothills. This rich diversity of habitat held a potpourri of sights, sounds and smells. From wilderness peaks to arid desert arroyos, there was an endless amount of country to be explored. Furthermore, I could drive an hour to the east and ascend to the summit of snow-capped mountains that rose to almost 11,000 feet. There I could frolic under the cover of mature spruce and pine while constantly enjoying a panoramic view to kill for. What more could a middle-aged bowhunting junkie want?
Bumping down the rough, two-track road for what seemed like forever, I finally made it to my old camping spot. Nestled under the shade of a cottonwood grove, this remote location had been good to me for many years. After erecting a sufficient base camp, I unloaded my ATV and headed out toward the spot where I'd establish a secondary camp. This spot would serve as a staging area on days when I ventured far into the backcountry. Arriving at the location, I quickly placed a tent, sleeping bag/pad and a cooler with plenty of drinks. From here -- in the days to come -- I'd hike many miles into trackless country in search of mule deer and Coues whitetails.
The Gift Horse
As the eastern sky began to lighten on my second morning in the Galiuros, sweat was already trickling down the small of my back. Though the desert night had been cold, an hour of hard hiking found me anything but chilled. By moon and starlight, navigation had been relatively easy, and thus I found myself well into the wilderness by the time shooting light arrived. It was my intention to cover lots of ground while glassing from prominent points in hopes of finding a group of desert mule deer does. I knew finding a group of females located in a remote area would enable me to keep an eye on them for the foreseeable future. The big bucks would appear as the rut soon set in.
As luck would have it, I soon found myself glassing a group of approximately 15 mule deer does at a distance of about half a mile. After watching the group for nearly an hour, my attention waned. There were no bucks to be seen, so I decided to move on toward new country.
As I skirted the deer at a long distance, something out of place slammed me to a stop. Raising my glasses, I scanned the brush ahead for the object and eyes focused on the glint of an antler. Dropping to my knees, I crawled forward to a nearby sage bush. Rising behind the cover, I glassed again, instantly coming to the realization that I was looking at a group of three bedded desert mule deer bucks, all of which were mature specimens! One buck was a heavy but short-tined and narrow 3x4; another a wide, thin and short-tined 3x3. The third was a really nice 4x4 and the buck I chose to hunt.
Shifting from scouting mode to hunting mode, I shouldered my rangefinder and prepared for the stalk. Slithering forth, I quickly covered the first 50 yards. A light wind was in my favor and the sun was at my back. Belly crawling, while pushing my bow ahead, I slowly closed the gap to 50. At this point, I was faced with a decision. Should I try to get closer or simply take the shot?
Before I could choose, the bucks decided for me by standing up and feeding parallel to my location. I read the distance at 45 yards, settled my second sight pin on the buck's back, just behind his shoulder blade, and sent the arrow on its way. I watched intently as the arrow zipped through the air and the Muzzy broadhead impacted exactly where I'd hoped it would. In a burst of speed, the bucks bolted across the desert floor in a cloud of dust. In a few short seconds, my trophy lay still in the distance.
Later, as I strained under the load of a heavy pack, I found myself deep in soul-searching meditation. I knew that though I lived in a modern world where hunting was no longer a necessity of survival, nothing made me feel more whole and satisfied than what I was doing right now.
Running full-tilt across the expanse between us, I soon stood beside my prize. Kneeling beside the magnificent animal, I let the stillness of the desert settle into my spirit.
The Grand Finale
I soon found myself on my way back to Oklahoma. I was tagless, and Christmas was dead ahead. Arriving home on the 20th, I found myself dreaming of faraway places again. I couldn't believe my previous trip had ended so quickly. Though I'd certainly wanted to fill a tag, if I'd had my way it wouldn't have happened so fast. After all, the entire trip lasted only six days, and that included three days of driving!
With the passing of Christmas, I was soon up to my old tricks -- talking about bowhunting and new adventures. This was old hat to my wife Peggie. She knew exactly what was up and soon gave in to the inevitable by suggesting I head afield again soon after the holiday break.
Pointing my truck southwest again, I made the long drive once more. With a new year dawned and a 2010 deer tag in possession, I was again dreaming of new adventure. Making tracks for my old stomping grounds, I quickly picked up where I left off. Camps were set and I was hunting in short order.
Already knowledgeable about the hangouts of local Coues deer, I headed uphill fast. As I entered the zone where the rolling foothill ridges met the brushy, steeper and rockier terrain of the mountains, I found heavy Coues deer sign. Quickly checking a couple old hotspots, I felt very good about my chances. Of course, I knew that only meant I had a slightly better than "slim-to-none" chance for success! Yet in all reality, I knew filling a Coues deer tag wasn't necessary for a successful hunt; simply getting to try was what really mattered!
On my second afternoon afield, I made my way to a stand I'd hunted for many years. Settling into the oak tree in early evening, I began my usual ritual of dreaming about big bucks to come while reflecting back on big bucks of the past. This evening, however, my reflections were cut very short by the making of some brand new dreams, a tradeoff I was happy to take anytime.
At sunset, movement on a nearby ridge materialized into a couple of Coues does, escorted by a 4x4 buck. Grabbing my bow, I prepared for action as the group approached my hide. Coming into close range, I drew my bow as the buck went behind a nearby juniper. As the buck reappeared on the other side, I touched off the shot. Center punched, the buck quickly disappeared from sight.
This is the nice 8-point Coues deer buck Eddie Claypool took during his January 2010 return trip to Arizona's Galiuro Mountains. Claypool was thrilled to tag his mule deer and Coues deer in the combined four days of hunting. It took him just as long to make the two road trip from his home in Oklahoma!
As darkness settled around me, I couldn't believe my good fortune. I'd taken two nice bucks of two different species with only a few days of hunting involved. Success such as this usually only comes around once in a guy's lifetime, if at all.
I savored the moment.