Three In Thirty: Come Along on this Exciting Journey as this Bowhunter Takes Three Nice Mulie Bucks, in Three States, in a Span of just Thirty Days!
Posted on April 10, 2014
I moved to Arizona in 2005. Growing up hunting Utah, I never would’ve imagined how abundant the wildlife is here in the desert. The terrain, climate, species, etc., are 180 degrees opposite of what I was accustomed to.
I heard through new friends about the liberal archery season that covers most the state. Hanging out at the bow shops, I quickly learned that not only was there mule deer around Phoenix but there were some toads amongst the cacti!
My first few seasons were spent hunting the high mesas and glassing “up” like you would when hunting for alpine mule deer. I ran into more Coues deer than mule deer. Arizona hunters keep their spots very secretive—even general areas to hunt were tricky. I fortunately met a neighbor that happened to be one of the most accomplished archers in the world and an expert desert mule deer slayer! He gave me some invaluable insight into where/how to find them and went out with me several times to get me cranking.
The 2010-2011 December/January archery season left me with my first real desert deer season. I hunted within 30 miles of metro Phoenix before work, after work, during work, etc., almost every day that January. Seeing numerous 170-inch-plus rutting bucks roaming the desert. It finally paid off on January 31, last minute, as I was able to harvest a wide, unique 3×3 that I had seen on and off for five weeks.
Because I harvested my buck in January 2011, I was not able to hunt the following December. I was not able to connect in January 2012, but found a batch of new deer and gave them all new names!
Setting the Bar
This summer, I committed to harvesting a velvet mule deer. With sunrise around 6 a.m. and temps already in the mid 80s, I wasn’t sure where the rutting bucks I chase all winter would even be.
The desert is nothing like alpine terrain. It’s relatively flat, with the occasional “knob” ascending slightly above the floor. Mesquite, palo verde, ocotillo, cholla, etc., entangle and twist across the valleys that can swallow a roaming buck in seconds.
I began in my rutting spots, hitting them bright and early. With Outdoorsmans tripod in hand and my Swarovski 15x56s, I gridded out all of the usual cuts and pockets I’d seen deer in the past. I scrounged up a few does here and there and maybe four little bucks. The evenings were worse due to the temps being around 110 until about 8 p.m. Bouncing around day after day, I was not able to find anything respectable bucks.
One evening, I finally glassed my deer from about a mile away feeding parallel to the top of one of the few “mountains” towering above the desert. He was with another buck and I could tell that both had four-point frames, eye guards and were definitely mature deer. The time was 6 p.m. and I knew they were feeding for the evening so I devised a plan and began to make my move.
The wind held steady and gave me a great, shielded parallel approach. My good desert buddy Jake was right behind me as we worked our way up an adjacent draw. I had marked a big split saguaro as the approximate elevation of the feeding deer and we were within 100 yards by 6:45 p.m.
I threw on the “sneaky feet” booties and we crept up over the shoulder scanning for antler tips in the shaded side of the hill. After about ten minutes, I could see where the bucks had been at first sight but they weren’t there any longer. I scanned every bush and shrub looking for any movement.
With an arrow nocked, I moved another two yards to get a different angle and saw the back fork of a buck about 15 yards straight below the ridge I was on! As quickly as I picked him up, his sidekick busted me as he was feeding a little higher and to closer to us.
Both deer busted for the saddle at the top of the mountain. Jake waited for the top buck to stop and as the deer paused he ranged him at 63 yards. It wasn’t two seconds and the FMJ topped with a 100-grain Swhacker was through the buck’s ribs and broke his opposite shoulder! As the arrow passed through, the buck was disoriented and stumbled quickly up the saddle and out of sight.
After customary expletives, celebrations, and mass texts we calmed down and assessed the shot. Both agreed the deer was done but we waited the necessary 30 minutes before trailing the deer.
As I approached the buck, only 20 yards over the saddle, I noticed his right horn was a big 2-point but then I caught the profile of the drop-tines melting off of his main beam! This deer was perfect. Great frame on his left, four side. Heavy bases and eye guards. His right horn has seven scoreable points that twist and drop in every direction.
We got the deer off the mountain by about 10:30 p.m. soaked to the bone and still enduring 100+ temps. I was more than worth it. I now have to wait until Jan to carry my bow down here but you can bet I’ll be glassing until then!
The second mule deer hunt took place in Utah. I actually found this buck the week earlier. My good friend, Cavett, and I packed into a basin and had a rough time sealing the deal. This was a buck we called tripod. His little inline on the G2 looked pretty cool in velvet. He was actually our third or fourth choice deer. We were not able to connect that first trip but my Arizona buck had my confidence soaring!
I was able to talk the wife in to heading back up here for one more go at it. We left Wednesday afternoon from Phoenix, AZ and were in Salt Lake City by 2:30 a.m. My buddy picked me right up and we were en route!
We’d learned a lot watching these bucks the previous week. They were very habitual and predictable. They always started the morning feeding in a big burn and fed to the drainage to the North. We knew right where we needed to be. Cavett was in position in the saddle to the north and I was 100 yards above the burn by first light.
Closing the Gap
After working every angle, glassing every cut, and slipping along the black pine stumps, I finally picked up a big non-typical feeding below me. I was on a shear cliff and he ranged at 120 yards. I knew he was working away from me so I started to pick up other potential deer. He had a few great 4x4s with him and they worked directly towards Cavett. All the bucks had just removed their velvet, which is abnormal in the area for August. I wanted one of these fuzzy deer editions but I wasn’t going to let that be a deal-breaker!
I had basically given up on the morning as all the deer were out of range and migrating out of my shooting opportunities. Then, while scanning the shrubs and lush undergrowth I picked up a back fork! This deer was only 55 yards away, directly below me and completely unaware of my presence. I ranged him, adjusted for the steep angle and drew back.
My first shot screamed across the lazy basin and whacked a tree three inches above his back! The angle was so steep I could only see the fletching as his body concealed the rest of the arrow. The canyon exploded! This buck was completely confused and only ran 15 yards or so and looked right at me.
I regrouped and knocked another arrow. I gave him my 60-pin high on his back and let it fly. The arrow drilled him high in the body and due to the steep angle blew threw his sternum, essentially opening a drain out of his underside! He hobbled around the curve of the draw and bedded right down.
I was able to watch him expire from my position and an hour later we had our hands on him. He’s a cool character buck and I was more than happy to take him on a last minute effort. Despite not sleeping for two days, adrenaline carried that heavy pack home!
The last adventure took place in South Dakota. A team member invited me on the public-land backcountry hunt.
I laughed when they said backpacking for mule deer…in South Dakota! Man was I misinformed! Some of National Forest is as rugged as any high alpine basin, and has the similar timberline characteristic buck brush and scrub pines.
We hiked in Friday night a couple of miles to camp. Early Saturday we hauled to the ridgeline. We methodically worked south along the rim and then started glassing each of the drainages. They went for miles. Every single pocket had deer in it. The full moon had them bedded early but we picked deer up with no problem.
Around 10:00 AM, I found this buck in my 15s. He was out cold! Face on the ground, bedded in a steep chute at the top of one of the drainages. I saw he was only a 2×2 but he looked really wide and heavy. He had the fattest head/roman nose I’d ever seen and judging by his big body I figured he was really old.
Since I’ve gotten in to archery hunting, I have gotten away from score so much as just hunting the best buck in the situation. It is so exciting to stalk these deer that I couldn’t pass up the situation!
I dropped down and out of sight. Hauled across the bottom of the gorge and then climbed the rocky outcropping that shielded the cove he was in. As I took my big Kuiu Icon 6000 frame pack off, I peeked to see if he was still bedded—nope! Up, alert and very aware of my presence. I ranged, ducked down, nocked my arrow, clipped the release and slowly stood up. I had to get my level straight and aimed to slip it right into the crease as he quartered away. The shot screamed across the sleepy basin and entered just in front of his femur and exited his opposite ribs! A little left of planned but devastating. He only lasted 15 seconds or so. The buck exploded downhill and expired 15 yards from me.
We were also fortunate to capture all of it on video. Dave Chapman was there to help de-bone, cape and carry that old beast 4.5 miles back to the truck. His body was enormous! Missing teeth and his molars were ground and cracked to the gum line. I think he was a downhill warrior—which made me even prouder to have been able to harvest him!
As all archers know, every stalk is a potential harvest opportunity. They just don’t always work out as planned! I feel extremely fortunate to have three stalks work out in a short period of time. I appreciate all of my friends that hunt along side and for my wife and girls supporting my habit! You are the world to me!
“I hunted within 30 miles of metro Phoenix before work, after work, during work, etc., almost every day that January.”
“My first shot screamed across the lazy basin and whacked a tree three inches above his back!”
The author is all smiles behind his South Dakota mulie, a hunt that took place in steep, rugged, canyon country.
After a long, tricky stalk, the author was able to connect on this tremendous Arizona desert mulie during an early fall hunt.
This photo shows how the shot occurred while claiming his buck in Utah.
Griffith and his Utah buck, which he arrowed while shooting sharply downward into a canyon.
Packing out the Utah buck was tough, but despite not sleeping for two days, adrenaline carried the heavy pack home!
While hunting South Dakota, Griffith was surprised by the ruggedness of the landscape. Here he is packing out his buck.
Story by Zac Griffith