From trophy North Kaibab mule deer to record-book Coues in the southeast, hunters and game managers see a productive 2009 season in the Grand Canyon State. (September 2009)
Arizona deer hunters enjoyed an overall success rate of 27 percent last year. That figure is an increase of 5 percent over the norm in the 1990s, and it bodes well for this year.
Consistently successful mule deer hunters in southern Arizona scout before the season, glass from a vantage point and are excellent stalkers.
Photo by Darren Choate.
In general, precipitation across the state was good last year, which meant healthy deer populations, and proved to be good for antler growth as well. Archery, muzzleloader and rifle hunters alike scored on trophies throughout the deer season. The following three hunts helped to characterize Arizona's 2008 deer season.
WHAT WILL 2009 BRING?
Most of Arizona's deer country has benefited from two years of good precipitation. The past two winters left excellent snowpack conditions in the high country, which led to two years of good spring green-up. Additionally, the late-summer monsoons have been enough to provide deer with ample forage through the fall.
Most deer populations are stable or increasing slightly in some areas. Although precipitation is a good thing, it can also make hunting tough.
Lance Crowther, owner of Timberland Outfit-ters, warns that plentiful food and water means less concentrated deer herds.
"Last fall, deer could feed and water wherever they liked, making it difficult to locate and pattern bucks," Crowther said.
Hunters across the state should prepare for similar conditions this fall as well, he said.
Deer habitat in northern Arizona is diverse. Mule deer range throughout the northern region of the state from below the Mogollon Rim to the Utah line.
In the northern region, Coues deer habitat is basically limited to the Mogollon Rim areas, which ranges in elevation from approximately 4,500 to 7,500 feet. The majority of Coues deer are found in the central or interior portion of the state.
This past winter, Region 1 in the White Mountain area received above-average precipitation on the western portion of the region, and below-normal precipitation on the eastern side of the region.
According to Acting Big-Game Management Supervisor Rick Langley, deer populations in the region have fared well over the last few years, and are fairly stable across the region.
"We are still seeing increases in the 3A-3C deer herd six years after the Rodeo-Chediski fire," Langley said.
Mule deer and Coues deer fawn crops in GMU 27 have also benefited from "several landscape-scale habitat projects and recent wildfires," Langley said.
Several mature bucks were field-checked last year. Conditions are ripe, and GMUs 3A, 3C and 27 should provide hunters with a good probability for success again this fall.
For the last two years, Region 2 has experienced above-average winter precipitation, which has led to quality deer habitat. Region 2 is home to the Kaibab and Strip mule deer hotspots.
According to Regional Game Specialist Tom McCall, deer herds in Region 2 are stable or increasing slightly. Like other GMUs, 12 has responded positively to recent wildfires, which have helped to create valuable deer forage.
Several great bucks were harvested in Region 2 last year, including a non-typical that scored 216 inches.
Deer hunters north of the Colorado River enjoyed high success rates in 2008.
"I anticipate similar high success next year," McCall said.
McCall also reported that there was an increase in harvests of 4-point bucks with at least 25-inch spreads in GMUs 12AW and 12AE during the 2008 season.
Units 13A and 13B are likely to produce some monsters in 2009, McCall said.
According to Region 3 Game Specialist Erin Riddering, deer herds seem to be increasing region-wide. In her opinion, this is likely a response to two years of good precipitation.
In 2008, Riddering either saw or heard of approximately 15 bucks harvested within her region that were 4x4 bucks with at least a 24-inch spread.
In the past, GMU 10 has offered hunters a great chance at a quality buck. However, Riddering believes that GMU 18B is the best unit for a general permit in 2009.
Southern Arizona is home to the Coues white-tailed deer and the desert mule deer. Coues deer thrive in mountainous regions here from approximately 3,500 to 7,500 feet. Mule deer prefer the flats of the desert floor, and range from 1,500 to 3,500 feet.
According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, deer populations in Region 4 are rebounding from drought conditions. Deer densities in the desert are extremely low, which means that locating deer can be troublesome at best.
However, the fact that deer are hard to find means that old, mature bucks are present. Many hunters describe hunting mule deer in the desert as extremely tough but with high reward.
Travis Scott, owner of Southwest Hunting Adventures, also notes that precipitation is spotty, and suggests that hunters should start their hunting process by scouting to find those sections where precipitation has fallen. Areas that have received more precipitation than others will appear more "green" in color, and will have higher amounts of plant growth on the desert floor.
Region 4 offers those hunters that are dedicated and willing to accept a challenge, a good hunt with a real chance at a buck-of-a-lifetime.
GMUs 41 and 45 have historically been the favorites of regional hunters.
"Units 41 and 39 have good numbers and some traditionally large deer," said Bob Henry, regional game specialist.
Mule deer populations in most units of Region 3 have declined over the last decade. But Coues deer populations are stable or increasing slightly. Areas in Region 3 and other parts of the state have had considerable precipitation over the last two years.
Jon Hanna, regional game specialist, said that deer populations have benefited, and mule deer and Coues deer fawn production has increased.
"In general, our white-tailed deer herds have handled the drought better than mule deer," said Hanna. "However, with current precipitation patterns, we are seeing an increase in fawn production for both species."
GMUs 22 and 23 continue to be traditional hotspots for hunters pursuing Coues deer, and GMUs 21 and 24B are also a good bet. All of these units can be tough to hunt: They are steep and rugged. (See Coues record story, Page 12.)
GMU 20B is one unit where the mule deer population has been growing for the last few years, according to the DGF.
Southeastern Arizona is home to a large population of Coues deer, and offers some of Arizona's best Coues deer hunting.
"I am seeing more Coues deer than ever before. It seems like the Coues whitetail is filling in the empty niche where the vanishing mule deer once roamed," said Pat Feldt, owner of Arizona Guided Hunts.
Feldt also believes that the past two years of good precipitation have provided great habitat conditions, and deer hunting should be good this fall. Feldt predicts that antler growth should be just as good as 2008, and believes that some lucky hunters will bag trophies this fall.
GMU 33, near Tucson, offers great Coues deer opportunities. However, hunting pressure can be high.
GMUs 31 and 32 offer excellent Coues hunts as well, with less pressure and more remote areas to get away from other hunters. Although mule deer have struggled in the region, GMUs 28, 31 and 35 offer mule deer hunters a quality hunt.
SUCCESS STORIES FROM '08
Dedicated Coues deer hunter Geoff Lloyd scored on a huge velvet Coues buck during the early archery season. Lloyd scouted most of the summer without locating what he called a "trophy buck." Finally his trail cam recorded a huge buck in the area. Lloyd set up in a tree stand near where the large buck's picture was captured.
At 8:30 a.m. on opening day, the buck appeared near his stand.
Lloyd's friend, Josh Epperson, was on stand with him, filming the hunt. When the buck appeared, the two hunters looked at each other in amazement. Just minutes later the buck was broadside at 18 yards. Lloyd drew his bow, settled his pin, and made the chip shot. After the shot, Lloyd was overcome with emotion.
"I can't believe it, I smoked him," he said.
After a few minutes, the two climbed down and started in on the trail. Although hit well, the buck traveled about 200 yards.
"Look at all that horn!" Epperson said, as they walked up to Lloyd's trophy.
Lloyd's Coues buck green-scored 122 inches.
The minimum score for a non-typical to be included in Pope and Young's record book is 120 inches.
Rifle Mule Deer
Many of Arizona's largest mule deer trophies have been taken on the Kaibab. In 2008, Roger Cook was one of those successful Kaibab hunters. Cook drew an early-season rifle tag and took full advantage of his luck in the draw.
The first few days of the hunt produced sightings of several bucks, but nothing worthy of applying his Kaibab tag to.
Early in the season, a good portion of the deer population can be found in the high country on the Kaibab National Forest. This past fall, the lack of early precipitation and warmer-than-average temperatures kept the majority of deer in the high country during the early hunt.
Cook decided to check some of the high country areas. Right away, he spotted a group of deer. Further investigation proved there was a buck in the group -- it was the largest buck he had ever seen!
The buck was feeding with several does. Quickly, Cook prepared for, and made the shot.
Cook's trophy was a huge typical 4x4 with heavy mass and a good spread.
Cook's Kaibab buck gross-scored just over 195 inches. Just hours after a cell-phone call to tell friends hunting was slow, Cook called his friend again with the good news.
Muzzleloader Desert Mule Deer
While growing up in southwest Arizona, Troy Scott, brother of Southwest Hunting Adventures owner Travis Scott, learned how to hunt mule deer effectively in his desert environment. But searching for what amounts to one deer per square mile in the creosote and mesquite flats can be frustrating. So, he and his brother have learned to key in on several habits of desert mule deer to increase their chances of success.
First, scouting plays an important role. Second, they glass from elevated vantage points to find deer, especially big bucks that tend to remain in heavy cover. Third, a hunter has to be a good stalker to get close enough for a shot in the flat desert country.
This past year, Troy enjoyed a little luck, and was able to put all of the elements together to harvest an incredible desert mule deer with his muzzleloader. He was hunting with Travis and friend Ken Miller.
While hunting with a client early in the day, Travis had spotted a good buck. It wasn't in the cards that day for Travis' client. But Travis kept tabs on the buck. Troy and Ken made their way to his location. The buck was bedded, so the Scott brothers made their stalk. By the time they got to the buck's position, the buck and several does were up feeding.
Troy readied for a shot, and pulled the trigger.
"Click," the gun misfired.
His second attempt met with the same result, another misfire.
Finally, Troy replaced the primer and made a fatal shot on the buck.
Troy Scott's trophy desert mule deer scored approximately 170 inches.