High-Desert Paradise-Part I

Posted on January 7, 2014

 

High-Desert Paradise-Part I

When it comes to big mulie bucks and remote country, nothing tops a hunt to Arizona’s Strip district.

By Dick Tone

Jody and Kip are all smiles behind Jody’s giant "strip" mule deer.

Jody and Kip are all smiles behind Jody’s giant “strip” mule deer.

Part of the lure of hunting in Arizona is the diverse terrain and the number of different species that are available to hunt in this state. Getting a tag to hunt, however, is more and more difficult to do. The population increase and its encroachment on the land has forced the Arizona Game and Fish Department to limit the number of permits available.

Choosing the animal you want to hunt and the area or unit number becomes more and more difficult each year, but one of the areas that has always held a special place in my heart has been the Arizona Strip District.

Untouched Terrain

When you cross the Colorado River on the Navajo Bridge just south of Lee’s Ferry there is a large sign on your right that says “Welcome to the Arizona Strip District.” This area encompasses everything north of the Colorado River all the way to the Utah border, and includes the hunt units 12A, 12B, 13A and 13B. Some of the more notable areas are the Kaibab Plateau, Saddle Mountain, House Rock Valley, the Buckskin Mountains, Mount Trumble and Mount Logan.

This a vast area with tremendous amounts of space for animals to reside has not seen the effects of human encroachment. There are no housing projects, no golf courses, no large towns and a limited number of forest service roads. In other words, the animals have not changed their patterns for hundreds of years.

This entire area has produced some of the finest mule deer hunting in the world. The Kaibab Plateau has been known for its wide-racked non-typical monsters that hunters dream about. Every year for as long as I can remember, some lucky hunter shows up with another one of these majestic animals on the cover of a hunting magazine. Photos of quality bucks from all of these hunting units show up on the internet and in stories every year. Some years the antler growth is better than others, but it is almost inevitable that some bow hunter or rifle hunter will manage to find that huge buck.

My first experience of hunting the Kaibab was in the early 1950s. I turned 12 years old the day after the rifle season opened and purchased my first hunting license at Jacob Lake so that I could hunt the next day. Armed with a lever action .30-30 it was not difficult to harvest my first mule deer during that hunt. This area became a special place for me and continues to be that one place that I love to visit even if I don’t have a tag.

‘Not Drawn’

Waiting for the information on draw results from the Arizona Game and Fish Department is always an exciting time but also a little on the stressful side. As usual, my results were “Not Drawn.” Most of my hunting buddies had the same results, and I was relegated to another year of finding an over-the-counter tag that I could try to fill.

One of my friends, however, had some great news. It came via text message from Jody Davis, an ex-Chicago Cubs catcher: “Holy Toledo—I drew a strip tag!” My response was pure excitement with a little jealousy mixed in. As it turned out, both he and his girlfriend, Jamie, had drawn a strip tag and neither one of them had ever harvested a mule deer.

Neither Jody nor Jamie had any idea what lay ahead and how much planning and preparation would be needed to hunt the unit they had drawn. Their unit bordered Mt. Trumble and is accessible by travelling over 60 miles down a dirt road that can sometimes be impassable. It was not an area that could be scouted over a weekend unless you lived in Kanab, Utah, or Fredonia, Ariz. We were going to need help if the hunt was to be successful.

Guides and Supplies

A handful of guides work the strip looking for monster mule deer and guiding clients during the archery and rifle hunts. One of the best is Tory Brock. Tory lives in Kanab and spends countless hours each year checking more than 200 trail cameras and flying hundreds of hours in his ultralight plane just looking for one or two big deer. Tory usually works with the auction hunters each year but is so knowledgeable about the area that other guides always seek him out for information.

Kip Fattaleh is a good friend of Tory’s and a friend of mine. Kip has guided up on the strip for almost 30 years and knows the territory like the back of his hand.

As it turned out, Richie Hogan (another very good guide) had the same tag as Jody and Jamie, and Kip would be up on the strip helping him. Kip invited us to join the camp and said he would be happy to point us in the right direction to get us started. Because I had hunted the area in 2010 I did know a little, but only enough to scratch the surface. We would be very happy to take any advice that Kip, Richie or Tory had to offer.

Other preparations for the hunt included taking enough gas, diesel, water and food for the hunt. It is a rough two-hour trip back to town, so it was best to plan well and bring in what we needed for the time we would be there. The area is so vast that it is very easy to go through a quite a bit more gas than you think. Extra spare tires and patch kits are also recommended. This is a very remote area and it is better to be over prepared than to be stranded and facing a long walk.

A Challenge Ahead

The hunt began on Aug. 24, 2012, so Jody and I headed up on Tuesday the 21st to set up and do a little looking around. Richie was at camp when we arrived, and the three of us proceeded to set camp. Our camp consisted of a Fleetwood popup camper, a large kitchen veranda and a smaller spike tent. Richie had a large kitchen wall tent and a couple of smaller wall tents for sleeping. It was a great looking, very comfortable camp. Kip arrived on Thursday and our hunting party was almost complete. Jody and Richie would be ready to go on Friday morning, but Jamie and her sister Gayle were not able to come up until Sunday.

Hunting in this area usually revolves around water. This area is typically very arid, and early rains and monsoon patterns have a great deal to do with animal health and antler growth. Typically the monsoon season is over by early August, and hunters rely on ground blinds and tree stands over water holes or water catchments to be successful. The guides who work this area all know where the best water catchments are and sometimes there are up to 10 game cameras on each of them.

The 2012 monsoon season started late in this area and so it was very wet. All of the animals were spread out and only small bachelor herds of bucks could be found. Because of the late monsoon and very little early spring rains, the antler growth was way down and most of the guides were having a difficult time finding the extra huge deer that usually populate the area. Hunting was going to be challenging.

Setting the Gauntlet

Opening day began with a tour of the area that Kip knows so well. We spotted several small groups of bucks and does but nothing that Jody was interested in pursuing. If I were doing the shooting, the hunt would have been over as Jody passed a nice 170-inch mule deer the first morning. Kip was convinced we could do better, and so the hunt continued.

The first few days of the hunt produced a quite a few bucks but nothing in the category that is usually in this area. We were beginning to come up with a strategy, however, that would hopefully work.

Several areas of private land are in this unit, and it seemed that the deer very much liked to feed in these areas and fields. They would head for their feeding grounds around dark and head back to their bedding grounds shortly after daylight. Because sitting water was not an option, Kip decided that we should set up ground blinds to intercept them as they travelled to and from their bed and their feeding area. The plan was executed and four ground blinds were set up in the area. They were placed about 150 yards apart and covered most of the travel route that we had seen them pass through. The gauntlet was set!

Waiting Game

Richie, Jody and Richie’s brother James had tags and occupied three of the blinds. Jared, another friend of Richie’s, occupied the fourth. The first evening James had an opportunity at a very nice buck but was unable to connect. It was our first indication that this plan may work out.

No one elected to sit in the blinds the next morning, opting instead to do a little spot-and-stalk. When we drove by the area that morning we saw about a dozen deer standing and feeding around Richie’s blind. We learned our lesson. Someone needed to occupy those blinds every morning and every evening if it was going to work at all.

Jamie and her sister Gayle came into camp on Sunday, and Jamie’s hunt was only going to last a week. Neither Jamie nor Gayle had been in a hunting camp like this in their lives. It was going to be a unique experience for them. Jamie had harvested a couple of Georgia whitetail and a book Coues deer from Arizona so she was not necessarily new to hunting. This type of hunting and this type of remote camping, however, is a completely different thing. But they quickly learned the ropes and both ended up having a great time in a very comfortable camp.

The hunters headed to the blinds an hour or so before light each morning. After the deer had passed through to their bedding site the archers would slip out and head back to camp. We did not want to disturb their pattern by pursuing them in their bedding area. After a late morning breakfast we would spend the day checking game cameras and looking for other travel areas that could be utilized. The hunters were back in the blinds about three hours before dark and then back to camp for a good meal and a short night. An afternoon nap was also in order during some of the days.

We continued this pattern for several days and each day the bucks were able to get through the gauntlet unscathed!

Check back next week to read Part II, click here!

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