The Rocky Mountain mule deer is the king of the hills. But Arizona hunters are looking south of the Mogollon Rim and putting the challenging desert mule deer on their A-list. (November 2009)
The Rocky Mountain mule deer is one of the most sought-after big-game trophies. For centuries, hunters have pursued the mule deer in its range across the western U.S.
This 180-inch desert mule deer buck taken during the challenging but rewarding late archery season. Photo by Travis Scott, Southwest Hunting Adventures.
In Arizona, trophy-seeking hunters congregate in the Kaibab and Strip country of northern Arizona each year in pursuit of trophy-caliber mule deer bucks.
But in addition to the northern deer herds, Arizona is home to some big desert mule deer, too. And in recent years, the desert mule deer has gained popularity among hunters.
CHALLENGES OF THE DESERT
In his book, Deer of the Southwest, Jim Heffelfinger defines the desert mule deer as inhabiting west Texas, the southern portions of New Mexico, Arizona, California and south into Mexico.
In contrast to their Rocky Mountain cousins, desert mule deer have adapted to the harsh climate of the desert southwest.
In Arizona specifically, desert mule deer inhabit the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts south of the Mogollon Rim. These arid environments reach extreme temperatures in the summer and sub-freezing temperatures in the winter. Yet, the desert mule deer thrives in this inhospitable environment. Desert mule deer are partially nomadic and meander through the desert to find the most plentiful forage available.
Deer can be found in the foothills of desert mountain ranges, which are dominated by saguaro and other cactus species. However, the majority of Arizona's desert mule deer are found on the desert floor, referred to as "the flats" by local hunters.
Wise, mature bucks prefer the thick cover of the desert floor and are almost invisible to the untrained hunter for most of the year.
The idiosyncratic patterns of desert mule deer -- partially because of their changing desert habitat -- make them a challenge to scout and hunt.
Travis Scott, owner of Southwest Hunting Adventures in Salome, grew up hunting these desert-dwelling deer, and makes a living of it now.
"The differences in habitat, behavior, weather and populations can and will test the ability of any hunter," Scott said.
The desert is hot and dry, especially during the fall hunts. Glassing for deer in the heat of the day can be futile. "It's an uphill battle, but well worth it," Scott said.
While hunting desert mule deer, Scott offers this advice:
- Don't get frustrated when the hunting is difficult.
- Look where you least expect deer to be.
- Be patient and persistent.
The keys to finding big bucks are patience and luck. If the hunter is patient, the rut may provide the luck.
Mature bucks can be spotted throughout the year, but it requires that the hunter is perched behind quality optics in the right spot at the right time.
Paramount to glassing for desert mule deer is gaining enough elevation into the cover of the desert floor. To improve your chances during the hunt, glass all day long. Though it's hotter than blazes, deer will travel to water during the middle of the day, especially during the rifle hunt.
When glassing in the heat (which means heat waves), quality optics are a must. Higher magnification is good: Use at least 10X. But quality is the most important factor.
WHERE TO GO?
Desert mule deer can be found throughout most of southern Arizona, and quality bucks are in every GMU. In recent years, several hunters have taken exceptional trophies in the southwestern portion of the state, specifically Region 4. Headquartered in Yuma, Region 4 offers hunters the chance at a great desert mule deer buck across several GMUs.
Hunting there can be a challenge, but can also be rewarding as well. The climate, vegetation and topographic elements of the region keep hunter numbers low and provide habitat where deer have plentiful cover. In turn, this allows bucks to reach maturity, which means trophy racks.
The following list provides vital information on trophy-caliber areas within the region, and offers insight on where to start scouting for your hunt.
Although deer densities are low, this unit offers a chance at some of Arizona's largest bucks. Several habitat types occur across the unit, including river bottom, desert and agriculture areas. A good number of deer inhabit the edges of the Gila River.
In the desert, deer tend to navigate through washes and in canyon bottoms. During dry times, deer will frequent agriculture crops found in the area.
Specifically, the Eagletail Mountains are a likely area to start your scouting. The Eagletails hold a significant population of deer, and hold a good number of trophy bucks. Almost all of this area lies within a wilderness boundary, which allows the dedicated hunter to get away from other hunters and have a great hunt.
Again, deer densities are low, but deer tend to concentrate in the areas that have received higher precipitation totals. Look for areas that show green vegetation. Several cattle tanks, where deer drink, hold water throughout the year. The majority of bucks tend to use washes, canyons and mountain ridges as travel corridors. The largest bucks remain in the thick desert floor and are almost impossible to hunt.
A significant population of deer can be found in the White Tank Mountains. However, the majority of the area is closed to rifle hunting. This is a great area for serious archery hunters.
The Vulture Mountains are a popular area for rifle hunters, but deer can also be found in a few other mountain ranges including the Big Horn and Belmont mountains.
After a population decline caused by drought, deer populations are now stabilizing, according to the AZGFD. Two years of good precipitation have improved habitat conditions and the deer have responded positively. Unit 44 is sub-divided into three sub-units, but huntable deer populations occur in just two: 44A and 44B.
In 44A, the Harcuvar Mo
untains and the surrounding area have the highest deer densities within the GMU. Another area to search is the Harquahala Mountains.
In 44B, concentrate on the Plomosa Mountains and the surrounding foothills. Even some of the sand dune areas north of the mountain range hold deer. Hunters often overlook these areas because of the habitat.
The majority of the unit lies within the boundary of the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. The Kofa has a reputation among deer hunters as having ample numbers of big bucks, similar to its northern counterpart, the Kaibab. However, poor habitat conditions have resulted in a population decline over the past two decades. Nonetheless, the Kofa still has a good population of deer and quality bucks.
Unit 45 is sub-divided into three sub-units: 45A, 45B and 45C. The most likely areas to scout and explore are the interior areas of the Kofa Mountains. Deer use washes and high ridges to navigate between feeding and bedding areas.
The Castle Dome Mountains also hold a huntable population of deer. Large bucks reside in the flats of the desert as well but are difficult to hunt.
WHEN TO GO
Arizona deer hunters obtain tags to hunt the southwestern desert by application process and through over-the-counter, non-permit purchase. Rifle hunts occur in mid-November, with hunt-permit tags issued through a draw process.
Rifle hunts, which occur before the rut, can be the most challenging hunts for desert mule deer. Approximately 70 percent of first- and second-choice applicants are successful, and draw a tag each year. However, on average, less than 20 percent of those rifle hunters successfully harvest a buck.
In contrast, the muzzleloader hunt in December is more difficult to draw, but the success rate increases slightly. Muzzleloader hunters draw a tag approximately 10 percent of the time with a success rate of 30 percent. The muzzleloader hunt is one of the best opportunities at a trophy desert mule deer. Although the hunter success is low, the archery hunt in late December through the end of January offers over-the-counter tags and a hunt-of-a-lifetime.
In general, as it is with the majority of hunts, whether you are hunting Midwestern whitetails or elk in the Rocky Mountains -- the closer to the rut the better the hunting. The same is true of hunting mule deer in the desert southwest. The heart of the rut does not occur until late December or early January.
When the rut begins, the big bucks come out of hiding.
"I was seeing close to 30 deer a day," Jody Tapia, owner of Bucks-N-Bulls Outfitters, said of the 2008 rut.
The January archery hunt, which spans a total of 31 days, is one of the state's longest hunts for deer. The longevity of the hunt and its proximity to the rut provides archery hunters a great experience.
Tapia hunts by glassing from the highest vantage point possible. Then he has his hunters intercept bucks as they travel along the desert floor. Tapia can attest to the quality of bucks in the area as well. This past January, Tapia put his eyes on at least three bucks that would gross-score around the magical 200-inch mark. In fact, a couple of his archery hunters stalked the big bucks.
Although Tapia provided a 100 percent shot opportunity during the late archery hunt, none of his hunters were able to connect on one of these big desert mule deer bucks.
The temperatures during the archery hunt are much milder than during the fall hunts. Temperatures may sink to freezing at night and may reach 80 degrees, but average around 65 degrees during the day.