Stalking A Major Arizona Mulie

An engineer by trade, but a hunter by birth, recounts the stalk, step by step, that got him close to a mule deer of a lifetime in Arizona's sleeper Unit 5. (August 2007)

Ron Green's hard work paid off when he finally stalked close enough to take this 183-inch buck mule deer in Arizona's Unit 5 near the northern-central part of the state.
Photo courtesy of Ron Green.

Ron Green began his 2007 deer-hunting season with a bow in hand. The 34-year-old engineer from Mesa, Ariz., intended to put his tag on an elusive Coues white-tailed deer during the September archery season in Unit 5.

But by the time the archery season ended, he still hadn't tagged his wall-hanger whitetail.

Green wasn't completely discouraged. He and his dad, Larry, had also drawn permits for the late October to early November rifle season in Unit 5, where any antlered deer could be legally shot. "Things were looking good," he said.

Then, while he was scouting for mulies about three weeks before the rifle season, he saw signs posted by the Forest Service, saying they were about to start controlled burns in the area. "Of course, that concerned me a bit," Green said.

Just before the hunt, he went back to the same area where he had seen the Coues deer bucks. It didn't look good there either. Heavy smoke from nearby prescribed burns filled the air in the higher elevations. There was no fresh deer sign, and even the elk had moved out. "It was a like a ghost town," Green said.

The hunter had spent so much time scouting the area, he felt obligated to hunt it anyway on opening day.

"I have always believed it's important to trust your scouting," he said, adding that he might always wonder "What if?" if he felt he didn't give it at least one good day.

But that day came and went without seeing any signs of deer.

"Right then I decided to forgo my quest for a Coues buck and concentrate my efforts on the lower elevations where the mule deer live," said Green. "Having scouted and hunted the unit in previous years, I thought I knew where I could find some respectable bucks."

Green and his dad spent the first few days hunting a network of canyons. They saw plenty of hunters and heard several shots, but didn't find any shootable deer. After discussing their options, the Greens decided to try an area where they'd been successful in the past. It was public land, but for some reason, not many people hunted it. The men's decision made would later prove to be a good one.

THE BUCK

On Nov. 1, the younger Green watched four bucks for most of the morning, but never got close enough for a shot. That afternoon, he picked up a very nice shed antler from a four-point mule deer.

"When I found that antler, I knew there was at least one trophy buck living in the area," said Green.

Then just before dark, he glassed two good bucks. One, a heavy 2x3 that he had seen earlier in the morning, was about 500 yards away. The second buck was even farther.

Though it was too dark to see them well, both deer's antlers appeared to be better than average.

Hoping that the bigger buck would still be there, Green returned to the same area the next morning and found a good spot to set up his tripod-mounted 15X binoculars. Within minutes, he spotted two does and two fawns. Then as he watched, something caught the deer's attention and eventually caused them to run off.

"I didn't see any hunters in the area, but something made those deer nervous," Green said. "I decided to move so I could glass the area where they ran."

He moved down the hill toward the flatter country, set up his tripod under a lone ponderosa pine tree and started glassing. He had just about completed his first right-to-left sweep when he saw the buck, lying alongside a juniper tree with just his nose and one four-point antler showing.

"My heart began beating in double time," Green said. "Even at 500 yards or more, I could tell he was a dandy buck. He had heavy, deeply forked, dark antlers."

THE STALK

As he watched the buck lying in the open, apparently catching some warm rays from the sun, Green began planning his stalk.

The early-morning breeze was blowing downhill, which made a stalk from where he was almost impossible. Green waited for the sun to warm the hill behind him and for the wind to change direction. But with the sun shining right on the buck, the deer wouldn't stay put for long.

Minutes later, the wind shifted. Green knew he had to move quickly. He hurriedly glassed the area around and beyond the buck, to make sure no other deer were present that might spook it. Grabbing his rifle and rangefinder, Green started his stalk.

About 150 yards in front of him, there was a single pine tree, and about another 150 yards beyond the pine, Green could see a nice wide, brushy juniper tree. If his estimate was correct, the buck was lying 200 to 250 yards past that juniper.

He planned to keep the juniper between the buck and himself. If he could get to the tree without spooking the deer, the range would be quite reasonable for both his shooting ability and his 7mm Remington Magnum.

But the stalk proved tougher than he figured. When he had walked that same area during archery season, the ground had been covered with thick grasses and a carpet of beautiful yellow flowers from summer rains.

But by the rifle season, all that lush growth had dried out. So every step he took made a crunching sound. Also, the taller stalks rubbed against the coarse fabric of his pants.

"As I slowly made my way toward the juniper tree, I stepped from rock to rock, trying to avoid making too much of a racket," he said.

That made the going really slow. It was taking him so long, he wanted to peek and make sure the buck was still there. But "I resisted that urge," Green said.

Eventually he reached the ponderosa pine about halfway to the juniper tree. From there, he had a clear view ahead of him and pretty much knew the deer hadn't left its bed.

"At that point, I felt more confident, even though I was getting a bit nervous at the idea of killing such a magnificent buck," said

the hunter.

"He was the biggest buck I had ever stalked while I was actually hunting, and I knew putting my tag on him was doable, as long as I didn't screw up. I sure didn't want to tell my family and friends a tale about letting this great trophy get away."

As he began moving toward the juniper, he was doubly careful about where he stepped. And he almost blew it.

Green looked up and saw something move. When he raised his binoculars, his hands were shaking so badly that he "had a hard time holding them steady." Finally, he saw that the movement was his buck lying there, looking right at him with his neck stretched out!

"I had been concentrating so much on where I was walking that I wound up slightly off course and to the left of the line I meant to follow. I was now in the open, in plain sight."

Green figured the buck would jump up and run off at any second. But the animal stayed put as Green slowly worked back to the right to regain cover. Once Green was out of view again, he paused for a few seconds and watched both sides of the tree.

The buck was still there.

As Green painstakingly closed the distance for a shot, he became aware of another potential problem.

"The sun was still low over the horizon," he said. "So I was casting a long shadow to my left, and it was falling in an area where the buck could easily see it, especially when I was moving."

Although the hunter knew the deer was bedded in the same place, Green still had about 15 to 20 yards to go before reaching the cover of the juniper tree.

"By then, I was getting quite excited just thinking about this deer. So rather than waiting until I was safely tucked in behind the juniper, I began drifting left with hopes of getting a shot at the bedded buck from there."

Finally Green reached a spot where he could see the deer.

It was gone!

"I almost wanted to cry when I didn't see the buck," he said. Then he looked around again and saw him. The deer had started feeding near a distant treeline. Green pulled the rangefinder out of his pocket and aimed it at the deer. It read 360 yards.

Green had practiced shooting at that distance, but a shorter shot would have been closer to his comfort level. At the same time, he knew that getting closer would be tough now that the deer was up and about.

It was crunch time, thought.

"If I didn't take the shot then, I might never get another chance."

Green worked his way to the shaded area on the left side of the juniper, dropped to a prone position, adjusted his scope to the 9X setting and held the crosshairs just over the deer's back. When the buck turned to a 45-degree angle, quartering away, Green shot -- and missed high.

But the buck just kept walking.

Green had hunted with a .308 a lot in the past and unfortunately, held the flatter-shooting 7mm too high.

Luckily, the miss hadn't spooked the buck. As the deer took a few more steps, he turned and provided the hunter a perfect broadside shot.

This time, Green placed the crosshairs right at the top of the animal's shoulder and squeezed the trigger.

"I heard the whap and saw a small puff of dust when the 150-grain Nosler bullet connected," he said. "The buck never went another foot. He dropped right there.

"My buck of a lifetime was on the ground, and I still didn't believe it."

As Green walked toward him, the mulie seemed to grow even bigger.

"I can't even explain the emotions I felt as I admired the magnificent trophy," he said. "Months of planning and preparation had all come together into the perfect hunt. Even though it was not the buck I'd originally set my sights on, this was a buck that dreams are made of."

As Green walked back to where he had left his pack and other gear, he kept replaying the stalk in his mind and still didn't believe what had just happened.

After his nerves eventually settled a bit, he thought about contacting his dad with his two-way radio.

"Even though I didn't want to ruin his hunt, I wanted him to share the moment with me," said Green.

"I finally got him to answer, and he was elated when I told him what had happened."

While he waited for his dad, he took numerous photos, field-dressed the deer and started quartering it so they could get it to their vehicle, which was about a mile away.

Once back at the truck, he compared the shed antler he had found to his buck's right antler and saw many similarities. He's not positive, but he supposes that his deer had dropped the shed the previous spring.

Although Ron Green didn't get his trophy Coues deer, he isn't complaining about the mule deer buck he had to settle on. His typical 4x4 trophy grossed an unofficial green score of 187 and netted 183 inches -- 3 inches longer than the minimum score for the Boone & Crockett awards record book.

ABOUT UNIT 5

Unit 5 is actually split into smaller units for some big-game seasons, such as elk and antelope. The 450 permits for any antlered deer in 2006 were authorized for the entire unit.

The southern boundary for Arizona's Unit 5 starts atop the Mogollon Rim, and Interstate 40 serves as the northern boundary. The Lake Mary-Clint's Well Road is its western boundary, and East Clear Creek is the eastern boundary.

The southern and eastern portions of unit are at a higher elevation, reaching approximately 7,000 feet, with ponderosa pine forest and scattered grasslands. The northern areas are lower and rarely top 5,000 feet. They're filled with grasslands, juniper and piñon.

The unit consists of Coconino National Forest land and state-trust parcels administered by Arizona State Land Department. Amid the state-controlled lands, many private sections also exist and are posted. Access to them is controlled and authorized by the private landowners. You would need permission to hunt these areas.

Both Coues and mule deer roam Unit 5. The Coues deer prefer steeper terrain with thick brush and live in small numbers in the larger drainages. For the most part, the whitetails account for a small number of the overall harvest in Unit 5.

The mule deer population, which has stabilized in recent years after de

clining for more than a decade, is distributed throughout the unit. Surveys in 2005 showed the buck-to-doe ratio had increased from 14 bucks to 23 bucks for every 100 does. The hunter-success rate usually varies between 20 to 25 percent. And the 14 percent chance of drawing a permit is much better than that in some of Arizona's traditional big-buck units, such as the North Kaibab or the Strip.

In the hunting seasons, the highest densities of mule deer live in the transition areas between high-elevation summer range and low-elevation piñon-juniper woodland. These areas typically have an abundance of cool-season forage such as acorn, cliffrose and mountain mahogany, which makes them attractive to mule deer.

These transition areas and openings occur along the rim of Anderson Mesa and its associated drainages that run north toward I-40. Deer tend to concentrate along the larger drainages, such as Walnut, Mormon, Young's, Cherry, Yellowjacket, Padre and Grapevine canyons and Canyon Diablo. Good deer densities can still be found around the Hutch Mountain and Sawmill Hills and areas south of Ashurst and Kinnickinick lakes.

Find more about Rocky Mountain fishing and hunting at RMgameandfish.com

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