Bowhunting Mule Deer in Arizona

Posted on December 14, 2011

Mule DeerIt was late December 13 years ago when I embarked on my first journey to Southern Arizona to hunt desert mule deer. My hunting buddy and I each had an over-the-counter archery deer tag in our pockets, and with other hunters’ stories in our heads, we were positive we would be wrapping that tag around some bone in the next few days.

After a couple days, I started to realize that finding and hunting these desert mulies was not as easy as we had thought. We looked hard for days, but we both ended up eating tag soup that year and again the next. As a new bowhunter, I knew nothing about when or why to hunt water and nothing about bedding down a buck before you put a stalk on him. I had no clue about what I needed to do.

I know now that the stories that I had heard about hunters’ successes in Arizona didn’t do me any good. Where do I go? What do I do? How do I find the deer? When is the rut? Because of the tight lips of other hunters, I had to answer these questions for myself.

Thirteen years later, I have answered these questions, and I will share them with you. I am not going to give up any secret spots or honey holes, but I will point you in the right direction so that your first hunt in Arizona won’t be a waste of time and money. I can’t promise that you will fill your tag or even get a shot, but I can promise that you will see deer if you use the tactics and information I am sharing.

bow hunters

The author and his brother with a great buck taken over water in Unit 17B.

The beauty of this over-the-counter hunt is that you can do it every year. You don’t have to build up points for years and hope to get drawn. Also, with this one tag, you can hunt three different times of the year. So if you don’t fill your tag during the first season, you will still have two more opportunities. In addition–although some may not agree with this–spike bucks are legal. So if you are a new bowhunter or just a meat hunter, you can have even more opportunity with deer that are not yet educated.

Some of the units in Arizona hold the elusive coues whitetail. You can shoot these deer with the same over-the-counter tag. Check the Arizona Game and Fish regulations to see a map that shows where these deer are present. Units in which I have seen them are 6A, 6B, 8, 36A, 36B and 36C.

Buck Hunt

The author shot this buck during a winter hunt in Unit 36C.

First Hunt of the Year

January 1–31, 2011 (see current regulations). Open units: 8, 9, 10, 15A, 15B, 15C, 15D, 16A (except Mohave County Park lands), 17A, 17B, 18A, 18B, 19A, 19B, 20A, 20B, 20C, 21 (except Cave Creek Recreation Area), 22, 23, 24A, 24B, 25M, 27, 28, 29, 30A, 30B, 31, 32, 33, 34A, 34B, 35A (except Fort Huachuca), 35B, 36A, 36B, 36C, 37A, 37B, 38M (including Tucson Mountain Wildlife Area), 39, 40A, 40B, 41, 42, 43A, 43B, 44A, 44B, 45A, 45B, 45C and 47M.

Units 29, 34A, 34B, 35A, 35B, 36A, 36B and 36C are great units to hunt this time of year. The desert terrain, rolling hills and buttes in these units make it easier to glass up deer and put stalks on them. Daytime temperatures can sometimes get into the 70s, which makes it nice for a winter hunt. But keep in mind that it’s winter, and cold fronts can, and will, come in. Also remember that you CAN hunt and camp in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Units 36A, 36B and 36C. Unit 36C also contains Santa Margarita and the Kings Anvil ranches. These are both private ranches that will let you camp and hunt for free. You simply have to sign in at the gate. All three units have great water holes and hold a lot of deer.

This is my favorite time to hunt in Arizona because of the rut, which usually starts during that last week or two in December and carries on into the second week of January, depending on which area of the state you are in.

During this time of the year, I spend the mornings glassing. If I find a buck I want to pursue, I will bed him down and try to put a stalk together. If you find some does that don’t have bucks with them, you will need to keep checking up on them. Eventually, bucks will join the group as the does come into estrus.

I like to hunt water during the afternoons. Success on water will depend on the last time it has rained in the area. You can also brush out the fresh tracks around the water hole to see how frequently the deer are coming in. Alternatively, you can set up a trail camera. Finally, try to get into your blind or treestand at least four hours before dark.

Google Earth is a great tool for locating water holes in the area you are planning to hunt. You can also get a book from Arizona Game and Fish that shows maps to most of the game- and fish-maintained water sources.

Note: There is a lot of illegal immigration activity in these units. Although I have never had any problems, I have heard stories of hunters and game wardens having issues with drug-runners. You just need to be aware of your surroundings. It’s LEGAL to carry a sidearm in the southern part of Arizona while bowhunting.

Also, if you are planning on hunting during December (third season) and January (first season), make sure you have a 2011 tag for December and a 2012 tag for January.


A great buck hits a Game and Fish water catchment in Unit 19A.

Second Hunt

August 19–Sep 8, 2011 (see current regulations). Open Units: 1, 2A, 2B, 2C, 3A, 3B, 3C, 4A, 4B, 5A, 5B, 6A, 6B (except Camp Navajo), 7,8, 9, 10, 11M, 15A, 15B, 15C, 15D, 16A (except Mohave County Park lands), 17A, 17B, 18A, 18B, 19A, 19B, 20A, 20B, 20C, 21 (except Cave Creek Recreation Area), 22, 23, 24A, 24B, 27, 28, 29, 30A, 30B, 31, 32, 33, 34A, 34B, 35A (except Fort Huachuca), 35B, 36A, 36B and 36C.

You can find a velvet buck this time of year. I like to hunt units 6A, 6B, 7, 8, 9, 10, 17B, 20A and 20C because the summer temperatures don’t get too high in these northern units. I sit a lot of water during this season because of the heat, but spot-and-stalk opportunities are abundant. I normally start hunting in the most northern of these units, checking water holes for fresh sign. If it has rained recently, I will move to the southerly units, which don’t get as much rain. Again, use Google Earth or the Game and Fish book to find these water sources.

If there has been a lot of rain, or you just don’t want to sit water, the terrain in most of these units is suitable for spot and stalk. I strongly recommend putting your binocular on a tripod while glassing. I can guarantee that you will see more deer doing this.

If you are new to the spot-and-stalk method, the goal is to glass up a buck and then put a stalk on him. The most common thing to do is to wait for the buck to bed down for the day and then plan your stalk. Keep in mind that the wind will normally blow uphill in the mornings as it warms up. This means that you should get above your bedded buck and make a stalk downhill toward him. This is not always the case, so always be aware of the wind direction.

There is a lot of private land in Arizona. However, most land owners don’t post their property and don’t care if you access it.

The Arizona trespassing law states, “Hunters are permitted to enter onto land unless lawfully posted. Signs must be at least eight inches by eleven inches with plainly legible wording in capital and bold-faced lettering at least one inch high. The sign must have the words “no hunting, no trapping or no fishing” either as a single phrase or in any combination. The signs must be conspicuously placed on a structure or post at least four feet above ground level at all points of vehicular access, at all property or fence corners and at intervals of not more than one-quarter mile along the property boundary. A sign with one hundred square inches or more of orange paint may serve as the interval notices between property or fence corners and points of vehicular access. The orange paint shall be clearly visible and shall cover the entire above-ground surface of the post facing outward and on both lateral sides from the closed area.”

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