December 30, 2020
Across the West, the best areas to hunt big deer are almost universally managed by controlled hunts, and the odds that you will draw the hunt you want are often discouragingly long. By this time of year, many hunters have accepted the sad reality that their deer hunting is done for the season.
But all is not lost if you’re willing and able to head to Arizona and hunt with a bow. Here residents and nonresidents can purchase an over-the-counter (OTC) hunting license and deer tag—good for either a buck muley or Coues deer—in nearly every game management unit (GMU) in the state, save for a few premium areas like those on the Kaibab Plateau and the Arizona Strip. Not only that, season dates are generous: In 2020, the open season in most GMUs runs from December 11 to 31, then opens again from January 1 to 31, 2021.
Where to Go?
With so many GMUs open, the first problem is deciding where to hunt.
For a general idea, start by looking at a state map. Draw a line from roughly the Phoenix metro area to the New Mexico border, and another roughly along State Route 85 from Buckeye to Lukeville on the Mexico border. This southeastern quadrant is where you’ll find good populations of both Coues and mule deer on public land.
To the newcomer, it may seem strange to think about hunting whitetails (Coues deer) in the high-elevation mountains and mule deer in the lower desert country, but that’s where these species live in Arizona. The farther south you go, the more you’ll find good numbers of Coues deer in mountain ranges like the Galiuros, Pinaleños, Catalinas and Dragoons, and in the Coronado National Forest. Muleys can be found in the low-elevation desert foothills of these mountain ranges, as well as throughout the region. One notable exception is the high-elevation timber mule deer haunt in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, located along the New Mexico border.
The deer-hunting country across the state is crisscrossed with dirt roads and tracks. DIY hunters need to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle with off-road tires and/or an ATV to be able to get to the best hunting. And at least one spare tire.
Tactics and Techniques
For both Coues deer and mule deer, the rut heats up near the end of December and intensifies during the first three weeks of January. That means bucks will be moving, and the best way to locate one is by glassing. Serious deer hunters in this part of the world spend countless hours looking through a tripod-mounted 15X binocular; a 10X bino is the minimum size to bring. A spotting scope helps evaluate deer spotted at longer ranges.
The way it works is simple, yet complex. You access a high vantage point well before first light, set up your optics and start glassing. You have to spend enough time in one spot to make sure there isn't a decent buck there before moving, but sometimes it takes several moves—often with a truck ride between stops—before you find a deer you want.
When you find a mule deer, it’s time to plan a stalk. It is very helpful if you have a spotter that can give you hand signals as you make your move. Stalking mule deer in the brushy, cactus-filled desert can be challenging. Not only is it difficult to move in a straight line in this country, the brush and terrain make it difficult to see very far ahead when you do get close to the deer.
Stalking a Coues buck in the thick, high-elevation country they call home is extremely difficult. I've often compared it to trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster. I have friends that are good at it, but they've been playing the game for decades and will tell you their stalks fail far more often than they succeed.
Another tactic that can prove successful is setting a blind over a water source or mineral lick. Sitting there for days on end without seeing much can be boring as heck, but when a buck makes an appearance it will not know you're there and will be within easy bow range.
This is a successful ambush technique many outfitters use, both in the late season and during the early season, which runs from late August through early September.
Because the bucks are actively seeking does, both species can also be called using grunt tubes, doe bleat calls and rattling antlers. A great game plan is to spot a buck that’s trailing a doe, get ahead of them, then hit him with the calls. It doesn't always work, but when it does he’ll come right to you.
Unless you're sitting in a blind, odds are you're going to have to be able to make a shot of at least 40 yards—and probably more. It can also be on the windy side. For that reason, you need a perfectly tuned, accurate archery set-up that can place arrows with precision as far as you can shoot. As my buddy, long-time Arizona guide and outfitter DuWane Adams, told me years ago, you have to be prepared to shoot accurately from 40 to 60 yards, either standing or from your knees, up or down a steep hill or across a wide draw.
It should go without saying that before you head out on the hunt, practicing shooting at these distances is a must. It takes some discipline to expand your range and increase your accuracy, but it's far less frustrating to practice on targets before you go hunting than it is to miss deer in the field.
Know Before You Go
The nuts and bolts of a late-season Arizona deer hunt.
- TAGS: A nonresident hunting license costs $160, and the deer tag you'll need is an additional $300 (for residents, a license is $37 and a tag is $45). Both are available over the counter. Season dates vary slightly depending on the part of the state you hunt, but generally run December 11 to 31, and again from either January 1 to 15 or January 1 to 31, 2021 (again, depending on the unit). Your hunting license is valid for 365 days from date of purchase, but deer tags are valid only for the calendar year.
- APPAREL: Though you'll be hunting in Arizona’s desert habitat, December and January can be quite cold in the Coues deer mountains and the high desert where mule deer are prevalent. Snow is possible in some areas, so be prepared to dress in layers with the proper clothing for a range of day-to-day temperature changes.
- OTHER GEAR: You'll need a laser rangefinder and high-quality optics—a spotting scope and/or high-power binocular, plus tripod—as well as broken-in hiking boots.
- LODGING: While many hunters choose to camp out—and there are ample places to do so—you can often find a motel in a nearby town. It pays to be flexible and mobile.
- GUIDES: While public land that holds both Coues and mule deer is plentiful, it can take a lot of looking to find a buck to hunt. Nonresidents may want to consider going guided. If you do, the hunt-booking agent Worldwide Trophy Adventures (800-755-8247; worldwidetrophyadventures.com) can connect you with any of a handful of quality guides. Costs begin at about $4,500 for five days of hunting.