November/December 2011 EBJ (Issue 68) - Hunting mule deer has always been a tradition in our family. My dad was never a trophy hunter, he just enjoyed getting out there with family and friends - we had a huge deer camp and that’s the way most everyone hunted back then. The equipment we had was very limited, two-wheel-drive trucks, poor optics, old leather boots and clothes that absorbed more water than they repelled. However, after all these years, three memories from back then stand out - we were always cold and wet, most of the big deer got away, and we learned to love hunting mule deer together.
In the early 1970s, I spent most of my time following my older brother, Donnie, around. He was a trophy hunter, willing to work hard, and walk all day searching for big bucks. I was right on his heels trying to learn everything I could from him and when I finally reached the legal age to hunt, the mule deer hunting in our area was sub par. It seemed like we had to hunt harder to find big bucks and when we did, I would almost always find a way to mess it up. By the early 80s, deer herds dropped, regulations changed and most of the big hunting camp family traditions were gone.
We started applying for deer, elk, and sheep in most of the western states in the early 90s. We started drawing tags and had some awesome hunts for elk and sheep all over the West. Trophy deer however continued to be the toughest animal to harvest in the West.
Fast forward to the summer of 2010, and I had maximum points in Arizona along with a loyalty point. We were all out of town and the applications needed to be in the next day. My new daughterin- law, Brittany, scored some huge points by getting the applications and checks all into the AZGFD on time. When the checks cleared, I was relieved; we would at least keep pace with points.
The odds of drawing the Strip are a long shot at best. I was aware of some dandy bucks coming out of there with archery equipment, so with that in mind, I dared them to give me a tag – and wouldn’t your know it, I drew one.
The Arizona Strip is a huge piece of country with mountains and dozens of canyons falling off into the Grand Canyon. Despite living less than 100 miles from most of it, I had only been there a handful of times, so I started making phone calls to gain information. I’m pretty sure I drove Luke Thompson of the Arizona Game and Fish Department and Kevin Schoppman of the BLM, nuts with hundreds of questions.
I located most of the BLM, saved them on my laptop and started scouting. I also talked to several guides and outfitters - many of them had taken hunters to great bucks. However, in the end, I decided to scout hard and hunt on my own.
Luke helped me out with some places he felt I could get away from the crowd, but what I wasn’t expecting to see was all the trail cameras. It didn’t take me long to realize I was definitely not the only one out there competing for a big buck. There were three to five cameras on most waterholes and as many as eight on some of the best.
I started scouting more remote areas and the canyons that fell off into the Grand Canyon. In three scouting trips, I had found three bucks I was really interested in. Two of them were over 30-inches wide and one was only about 25-inches wide – here’s the kicker, they were all non-typicals. Now I was looking forward to opening day when Donnie, my son, Ryan, and a friend, Burk Smith, would all be there to hunt.
The night before the opening day, I found a big non-typical just before dark and had my heart set on trying for him on opening day. Donnie, Ryan and Burk learned the lay of the land quickly and checked some of the spots I had mapped out. Opening morning turned out to be a bust for me, but all three of the others spotted big bucks and decided we would hunt them until we found one bigger.
On the first evening, I could never get the wind right, so I backed out. The next two days I got within 45 yards, two times, but could never get a good shot. On the third evening, Burk had to go back to work, but he was already looking forward to coming back on the weekend. Ryan and I tried the same bucks again and Donnie checked a remote water hole with a burn nearby. Once again, I got within 45 yards but the wind swirled and I was busted. It was time to give these deer a break and try something new.
That night in camp, I lay awake and restless reading a story about bowhunting mulies on the Strip. The article said that a couple of hunters would harvest huge deer, a few more would take good bucks, but most would have a tough hunt and go home empty handed. I told myself stay positive, hunt hard, and have fun. Little did I know what the next day would bring.
Donnie had found lots of sign and some big tracks in the remote area he had scouted. Our plan was to pop up my blind at the waterhole and see what came in. The road into this area was extremely rough and it took nearly two hours in the dark to get there. We quickly set up the blind before daylight and I took a seat. By 11:00 a.m. I was hot, hadn’t seen a single deer, and I didn’t like where we had set the blind, so I called Donnie and Ryan to come have some lunch and reset the blind on the other side of the pond under a pinion tree. Donnie and I were looking around the pond for sign when Ryan had walked back to the truck 200 yards away.
Suddenly, I heard Ryan howl like a coyote, we looked his way and he was squatted down waiving his arms everywhere. He pointed on the other side of my truck, and when we picked up our binos we couldn’t believe our eyes. About 100 yards behind my truck were five bucks - all five were mature, but two were exceptional. Now what? My bow was in the truck and the buck I had searched for so many years was in eyesight. There was a wash heading in that direction, so I started crawling toward the truck, not your normal stalk for sure. When I got to Ryan, he was beyond excited and the bucks were still standing 100 yards away. We eased up to my truck, opened the back door and got my bow - I was so wound up I couldn’t find my release or rangefinder I had lost control and was a mess.
I finally found my release, but no rangefinder and the deer had started to angle closer. The largest buck was in the lead, so I walked toward them with a tree between us. I drew my bow, guessed 45 yards, made a soft noise to stop him and released. The arrow missed just over his back and hammered a pine tree - I felt sick as we watched them bound away. I had botched a perfect opportunity at one of the biggest bucks I had ever laid eyes on.
When I settled down, I realized these deer were very thirsty to walk up on us the way they did at high noon on a hot day. We set the blind as fast as we could, went back to the truck and found the rangefinder and started back to the blind. I was going to sit at this spot for the next month if that’s what it was going to take. Just as Ryan and I were getting in the blind looked up the drainage and the bucks were all coming our way.
The deer seemed nervous now - they stopped under a ponderosa pine 80 yards away and two of the bucks bedded. All five bucks were mature but one nontypical looked over 30 inches wide with seven or eight points on each side. He was a real trophy, but actually looked small compared to the giant typical. Tall, wide, heavy, long, this buck had everything you could ask for. We waited.
Fifteen minutes passed and finally one of the smaller bucks headed for the water. He trotted all the way in to the far side of the water facing us. The buck watered for at least two minutes without raising his head. All at once, the other four deer trotted over the bank toward the water and the big typical was the last to get there - he turned broadside and Ryan whispered, "41 yards.” I drew my bow, held for a few extra seconds and slowly released the arrow. The fletchings buried just behind the bucks front shoulder and all hell broke loose - he raced over the bank with his head low and legs churning. I turned to Ryan and we hugged, high-fived and looked over to where Donnie was watching and he was giving the thumbs up. Ryan and I walked over to Donnie and replayed the last hour the best we could.
We decided to give him some time and walked over to the truck to have some food and water. At the truck, I kept asking Ryan and Donnie if it had really happened, was he as big as he looked, had I hit him as perfect as it looked? Had I finally harvested a 30-inch buck? We loaded up our packs and took up the trail.
I was so excited and confident in the shot I just started toward the way the buck ran. It was mostly open in the ponderosa pines and it only took me a short time to find him with my binoculars - I hustled toward him, howling to the boys the whole way. We slowly walked up to him together, walking all the way around him in amazement - we were truly humbled. We each picked his head up and marveled at just how magnificent he was.
My brother, my son, and the spirit of my father were all present for my proudest moment as a hunter. This buck had everything, 34-inches wide, length, 45 inches of mass and very few deductions. It truly was the biggest typical mule deer any of us had ever laid eyes on. We then realized this buck would go over the 200- inch mark. Nearly 40 years of hunting culminated in this moment, I had finally taken a trophy of a lifetime!
When we returned home I immediately took the deer to show a lifelong friend who I consider the best guide and hunter I have ever known. He took a good long look at this deer and stated words that sum it up, "Brad, that’s the deer we’ve been looking for our whole lives!”
After the 60-day drying period, my deer was officially scored at 217-7/8 gross and 209-1/8 net typical P&Y velvet. The term world record is thrown around freely these days almost everywhere you look, but my mule deer from the Arizona strip is possibly the biggest velvet typical ever recorded.