All photo credits: Josh Kirchner
All photo credits: Josh Kirchner
One of my absolute favorite hunts ever has got to be Arizona’s over-the-counter (OTC) December/January archery deer hunt. For a bowhunter, it is really kind of like Disneyland. Our Coues deer and mule deer are rutting during this time, so the hunt offers non-stop action all day long. It isn’t just good hunting in the morning and evenings either. Bucks will be pushing does around throughout the day. It’s a great opportunity to sit back with your optics and watch the excitement that comes with the rut. Between bucks chasing does around, bucks fighting and seeing bucks that you wouldn’t normally see during other seasons, it’s a hoot. With that non-stop action comes some fantastic weather as well. There is no dreading being out in the hot sun and also no worry of stepping on rattlesnakes during your treks. Like any hunt though, there comes a process. Things to look for and what to do and not to do. This is my process for archery hunting Arizona bucks in December and January.
First and foremost, everything starts with my shooting. This is something I try to keep under control all year long. If you can’t hit the broad side of a barn, you’ve got a better than average chance of coming home with no arrows and your tag still intact. Down here in the desert, spaces are wide open and the country is usually as loud as it can get. For this reason, I try and dial in my shooting as much as possible, especially longer distance shots. If 60 yards is as close as I can get to a buck, I want to be able to take advantage of that. This means that a whole lot of arrows get sent at 80+ yards before the season starts. By taking the time to do this, any little imperfections are going to come to light. These little things make a big difference once the yardage increases from your intended target. Things like face pressure while anchoring, hand torch and follow through. At 20 yards, those things aren’t that noticeable. So, I use long distance shots to hone my archery game before the season. Don’t ignore those 20 yard shots, though, at home. You can get a whole lot done at that distance and even less. Just going through the motions and “feeling” that perfect shot break is beneficial and builds great muscle memory for the big show.
Another thing to mention just briefly here is taking the time to bring your bow down to a pro shop and have them give it a once over. Make sure everything is still in tune, nuts and bolts are all secure and string and cable are in good shape. I’d try and do this sooner rather than later as most pro shops get pretty busy right before the season. Of course, if you know how to do all of this on your own, that’s even better.
Besides shooting your bow, the next thing to pay attention to for this hunt is scouting. I’m not saying that you need to have 10 different spots to go to either. Knowing one spot intimately is better than knowing 10 as mere acquaintances. The better a hunter can learn a spot, the better chance they have of outsmarting a rutty buck. Just knowing the lay of the land is huge and how to negotiate terrain for stalks is a massive advantage. Here are some things that I keep in mind when scouting for this hunt.
There are several ways to go about picking an area to hunt. Hopefully, you’ve got some intel from a friend that has hunted there or from a game and fish biologist who was nice enough to let you bend their ear. Aside from those, what do you do to pick an area? Having tools like goHUNT INSIDER is fantastic for narrowing units down and has changed the way I go about hunting. Harvest statistics are great for general knowledge of an area, but I wouldn't let it be the end all be all of where you go. I hunt plenty of areas with very low success rates but find success. You've really got to go feel stuff out for yourself. After time, this kind of becomes a muscle of sorts. The more you do it, the stronger your instincts and knowledge of spots become. The first thing for me is finding big tracts of roadless country. Doing so eliminates most of the competition. From there, it’s about seeing how the land lays from above. Recalling how the game moves through areas, where the water is, where the likely feeding is and, of course, the bedding. Do not overlook the locations of water. You are in the desert. Where there is water, there is life. I wouldn’t go more than a mile from it. Access is another area to pay attention to. How are you planning to get into a certain area? Is it likely that others will pick that same route? This can definitely be the case at places like trailheads. It would very unlikely if you were to park right off the side of the road and hike into a spot. This isn’t just about picking any country though and sending it. It’s about picking the right country.
As a bowhunter, something that I have learned to pay attention to over the years is not just finding any bit of country, but finding the right country. We need to be able to both glass these rut-crazed deer from a ways away and, then, be able to actually stalk them. Some country is just not conducive to that. The perfect type of country for spot and stalk bowhunting in the desert for me is areas that are broken with high vantage points scattered around. What I mean by that is the country is open, yes; however, that vastness is broken up by folds in the terrain, vegetation, big rock piles, etc. Do you get where I’m going here? Having broken terrain like this will allow you to utilize the terrain to close the distance on game. It also offers better suitable habitat for deer in my opinion. There are more areas for them to hide and feel secure. This means that you too can likely sneak in undetected using the terrain—just like the deer do.
I know, I know. People talking about using maps—and Google Earth specifically—might sound like a dead horse getting kicked. The reason it keeps coming up, though, is because it works. I use these things on a regular basis to notate vantage points, bedding areas and feeding areas. Google Earth will give you a good idea—not a great one—but a good one with what view a certain vantage point will give you as well. I say “not a great one” because you can only see so much from the computer. Sometimes, I am hit with a reality check after actually putting boots to the ground in a spot. So, Google Earth is great, but it is not everything. Also, call me old fashioned, but I really enjoy having a printed map. For hours, I’ll stare at these as I look at the big picture. Doing this will really give you a good idea of how the country lays. Once you do find some deer, refer back to your map and look at the topography they were in. This will give you a great idea of how to find other likely spots on your topo.
So, you’ve picked some spots to check out. After hitting some of those, you start finding some does. The biggest mistake you could make right here is to move on. Some folks don’t see a buck and think they need to keep looking elsewhere. If this is happening before the season, there isn’t any sense in looking for the bucks. Those bucks are going to magically show up where the does are coming to rut, I promise you. If this is happening during the season, your best bet is to just stay on those does. I’ll keep tabs on multiple groups at once. Even if you don’t see him right off of the bat, just know that the buck is around somewhere. So many folks get antsy and end up moving locations because “there aren’t any bucks.” Big mistake. Remember, this is the rut. While the bucks may not be under a routine, the does are. Take advantage of that.
Now comes the most fun part—the part where one gets to test your moxie against our Arizona bucks. My perfect morning would go something like this: I’d wake up well before the sun, eat some breakfast, have some nice hot coffee and then get to my glassing location. From there, I’d start scanning some big south and east facing slopes. Right off the bat, a doe will turn up. Then, I’ll see another deer running down the hill toward the doe. It looks slightly different though. Bigger, darker and with more vigor. A classic buck in the rut situation. Next, I’d make a plan and beat feet to get into the rut party and ahead of where I think the deer are going. Once I do, the does will pass by with the buck in tow. You know the rest.
Very rarely will I wait for a buck to bed down this time of year. I do this for a few reasons. The first is that they are just so wound up. I don’t think I’ve seen a buck bed for more than an hour during the rut and, more often, it isn’t more than 20 or 30 minutes. That urge to breed just forces them to get up and start pestering does. If they aren’t with does, they are usually looking for them. Another reason is that they are being aggressive. So, I will return with being aggressive back in my approach. There have been plenty of times where I will run towards deer to close the gap. Of course, after getting within 150 yards or so, I’d slow things down a lot. The reason I do these things is you really just never know which direction the deer are going to get pushed. One can get a general idea by studying the movements of the does, but that isn’t a guarantee. It is a pattern within the chaos, but sometimes the chaos wins.
In my first few years chasing rutting bucks with a bow here in Arizona, I used to wait a lot and watch deer. I did this because that is what I thought I was supposed to do. In no way am I knocking that approach at all. Wait for the absolute right opportunity if you want. For me, though, I saw these as opportunities wasted if I didn’t go. The more I just started to go, the more I started getting into the action and learning what I could and couldn't get away with. This was also advised to me from bowhunters down here who are consistently successful with a bow every year. Figured they’d know a thing or two, so I listened. Magically, my arrows started changing colors. Another thing to note is the only way to get good at stalking animals successfully with a bow is to stalk them with a bow. Sitting there won’t do squat.
The tips I’ve laid out above are not the end all be all of archery hunting deer in the desert by any means. There is more than one way to skin a cat and certainly more than one way of putting arrows through desert bucks. These are just the things that I’ve learned throughout the years and what has worked for me personally. Each of us has our own experiences and I think it is important that we build upon those specifically. After some time doing so, you’ll start to build a foundation that works for you. You can’t do that, though, if you don’t go! For a time of year when nothing else is really going on hunt-wise, a bowhunter would be silly not to take advantage of this. While most folks are held up in their homes with the heaters cranked and hunting equipment long put away, we are down here running after testosterone-filled bucks. It’s a great opportunity to grab some buddies and go have some fun. With any luck, you’ll get to put your hands on one of our desert deer on top of leaving the winter hole that is most of the country at this time.