Just My Luck

By Matt Liljenquist
Arizona, 2010, Guided, Public Land
Just My LuckFeb/Mar 2011 EHJ (Issue 123) - The buck stepped out of the clearing 50 yards to the right of where I had thought he would. I had no time to range him before he disappeared into the mesquite thicket. As the buck was closing the distance to the thicket, I eased my bow back and made a quick guess on the yardage, with the buck still unaware of the danger that awaited him. I grunted and stopped him three feet from the thicket. Convinced he was 55 yards, I released. My heart sank as I watched my arrow sail a few inches over the largest Coues’ deer I had ever seen in the wild.

This buck would have easily fallen in the top five typicals ever taken with a bow. Physically defeated and mentally depressed about the miss, I called my dad on my way home and filled him in on what happened. The next day was Sunday and I try not to hunt on the Sabbath, so I told him to go ahead and see if he might have better luck than me. Luck was on his side and the buck gross scored 120 and netted 119, which will put him around #3 or 4 in the world. I’ll save that story for another time, but had I tagged that buck in January, I wouldn’t have been able to put in for the fall draw and would never have been able to share my mule deer hunt with you today.

Drawing a tag in northern Arizona for mule deer is the first obstacle in hunting these magnificent animals, but to find one and get close is the greatest challenge. Luckily, I drew, as did a close friend of mine from Montana, Dyrk Eddie. With his busy schedule, he decided to hire a guide. He knew I was friends with Chad Smith of Vaquero Outfitters, so he talked to several other friends of ours and chose to book with Chad.

With work being slow, I decided to take time off for the entire hunt and focus on finding a big buck. Chad was nice enough to show me a few areas that would be out of the way of his hunters and give me a chance to see some quality bucks. Prior to the season, I did several scouting trips with my dad, Randy, and we located a few great bucks. I really wanted to do this spot and stalk, but the terrain was going to make it difficult.

Just before the season, we took up a pop-up blind and set it up for Chad’s hunters. This year’s antler growth was so amazing that it could be argued this was the best season Arizona has seen in the last 15 years. While scouting, I found a particular buck that I decided to set my sights on. I felt the buck would surpass the 200-inch mark as a 5x4.

My dad and I ventured back up to the unit five days prior to the season in hopes of finding the buck we had named “Stretch”. As luck would have it, Stretch was hanging out within a quarter-mile of where he had been three weeks prior. We kept a close eye on him as the season grew closer. Unfortunately, he was hanging in an area that would prove difficult to put an effective stalk on him. I had nothing but time, so I would wait him out or hope that something better came along.

Opening day started off with my dad and me sitting on a small hill glassing and sharing old hunting stories. As the sun started to crest over the horizon, my dad glassed three young deer below us 250 yards away. The deer were in an excellent spot for a stalk. Unfortunately, the biggest buck was about 185 or so – not quite what I was looking for. The morning was slow after that, with nothing else moving except a few coyotes. We decided to go to camp for a few hours and enjoy a decent lunch before coming back.

When we got back to camp, we noticed that Dyrk’s equipment was all packed up in front of my trailer. It turns out he had taken a magnificent buck that morning that would score around 200.
Matt Liljenquist

Since Dyrk had tagged out and his guide, Blake Chapman, had a day to spare before leaving, we all went out together into an area I hadn’t spent a lot of time in. It was more of an exploratory trip, but sometimes those are the best ones. Before leaving, we talked to Chad. He was going to go look at a new area before he had to leave the next morning. We made a plan to meet up later and discuss what we found.

As the morning rays started streaming out across the emptiness, we were able to see the country unfold. It was filled with junipers and had multiple hidden valleys surrounded by small hills. A different outfitter and two of his clients’ family members showed up to glass from the same hill we were on. Brec had a hunter sitting in the blind I had brought up for Dyrk. We all had a great time getting to know each other and share a few hunting stories while glassing. We ended up seeing some of the most impressive bucks I had ever laid eyes on. Unfortunately, they got spooked by our presence and disappeared into another area. We said our goodbyes and drove over to where Chad had been glassing.

He had found two bucks in a great spot-and-stalk area, but could never get a size on them. It didn’t take long to get into the area where he last saw them, but it took us an hour and a half to relocate them. When the big buck finally showed himself, our jaws hit the dirt. My dad said, “You’re looking at a potential new world record, Matt.”

Of course being his son, I had to argue and told him, “It’s big, but I don’t know about that. I’ll give him 220 gross.”

It really didn’t matter, because he was the biggest buck we had seen. They disappeared into some thick junipers on the top of the hill.

It was now midday, so we figured they were bedded in the thicket. Chad asked me if I would let him follow me on the stalk. There are only a few people I would ever let go on stalks with me and Chad is one of them. Besides, what kind of friend would I be to tell him no when he had found the buck for me? My dad and I went over a few hand signals before leaving and Blake went to another knoll to see if he could get a better view of the hill the bucks were on. Little did we know that Blake was going to be able to watch the whole thing unfold.

We made our way over and got the wind in our favor. It was blowing hard in one direction, which made it great for trying a stalk, but would make for a difficult shot. We came out below where they had disappeared and I got my dad’s attention with my orange signal flag. He signaled me that I was 150 yards from where the buck disappeared and pointed the way. As we approached, I continued to stop and check my dad to make sure the bucks hadn’t come out into the open.

Reaching the edge of the thicket, I took my shoes off and Chad put on his Sneaky Feet. I moved slowly into the edge of the thicket. I continued to glass from 30 to 75 yards into the juniper jungle and just above the thick sagebrush in hopes of seeing something. The wind was strong and the sun was hot - pushing 100 degrees that day. Knowing there was a world-class buck within bow range, the sun did little to distract me.

As I was focusing my binoculars just above the sagebrush, I noticed what looked like two brown cattails awkwardly sticking out just above the sage. When they moved, I knew I had a buck’s antlers. I turned slowly to Chad and said, “I’ve got a buck.”
Matt Liljenquist

As luck would have it, this buck was the big one. He was bedded 52 yards away and I had no shot through the thick vegetation. As I was planning my next course of action, the buck stood up and I pulled back my bow. The old buck started feeding right to me. I didn’t have a lot of cover, but the buck never could see me. I could feel my heart beat throughout my whole entire body, as if it was trying to come out of my chest.

He was coming right at me and Chad would periodically whisper yardages, but with how close this buck was coming, I wouldn’t need yards; I’d need a heart transplant. As he closed the distance, his massive antlers swayed back and forth as if they were too heavy for his neck. I was in disbelief at the enormity of the weight and length of his rack.

When he reached 30 yards, he made a sharp right turn into another thicket of trees and continued paralleling me with his head down. I had to let down after holding my bow back for so long. There was a small opening only a foot wide that he was heading for, but I had to move about five steps to get a shot through it. Every time the buck would move with his head down, I would slowly place my foot on a quiet spot. Chad stayed back and enjoyed the show.

As the buck neared the opening, I drew back slowly. The opening was small and the buck came through too quick. I was going to grunt, but with that small of a window, I would’ve been taking the risk of stopping him with no shot at the vitals. He was now approaching a big opening and I knew that would be my opportunity, but I had to let down again to ease the weight from my shoulders.

I had just let down when the buck continued for the opening. I had to draw back immediately to avoid him seeing me. As he came into the open, he angled toward me with his head down. Just as I was about to grunt and get him to stop, Chad was thinking the same thing and he let out a grunt that got the buck’s attention. The buck stopped and lifted his head. I put more pressure on the trigger and when it went off, I watched as a hole opened up in the side of his chest.

As he bolted out of view, I turned and walked over to Chad and we started doing the victory dance. We were trying to keep our composure, but we couldn’t believe it all went down so smoothly. I had to share this moment with my bowhunting hero, so before anything else, I walked to where I could signal my dad and share it with him from a distance. Within a minute of signaling a victory, my dad was shaking his fist in the air and waving. My eyes filled up and I got choked up knowing I was sharing another bowhunting memory with my dad.