October/November 2011 EHJ (Issue 127) - I hobbled to my computer with a cup of coffee and my ankle wrapped in ice packs. I had badly sprained my left ankle a couple days before and I was hoping that the grapefruitsized swelling was not a fracture. My first email was the results for the 2010 Arizona deer draw. I entered my data expecting to see the "not drawn” that I had become so familiar with over the past 12 years.
I called my wife to verify that my vision had not been distorted by any pain medication. She confirmed that not only had I been drawn for Arizona unit 13B, but also that I had pulled permit number one! She reminded me that I’ve always been very lucky in drawings but I was not feeling the luck as I gazed at my purple ankle. We celebrated the long awaited tag as much as I could on crutches and then I called my hunting partner, Bill Kirkpatrick, to share the good news. Bill and I had burned all of our vacation days hunting the entire season in Nevada Unit 231 the previous year. I knew that neither one of us had enough vacation days to scout and hunt like this zone deserved. Bill regrettably informed me that he would not be able join me for the first time in 15 years and he felt that my best bet was to hire an outfitter. Bill’s help this year came in the form of a recommendation. "Call Chad Smith at Vaquero Outfitters.”
Bill and I are DIY hunters, but I knew he was right. Six years earlier I had made a short list of guides I would consider hiring if I were drawn for this hunt, and I was glad to see that Bill’s recommendation appeared near the top of my list. I quickly navigated to their website, poured through photos, and read the testimonials. When I called, Chad answered the phone. We had a short conversation in which I learned that he would only book four hunters and that I was the first to call. It didn’t take me long to decide to book my hunt after speaking with Chad. He gave me a fair assessment of what my expectations should be and offered me one thing - consistency. I also knew that his phone ringing in the background was likely another lucky hunter calling.
The healing process on my ankle was long and slow. It took six weeks before I could hike with boots on, let alone shoulder a backpack. I knew I had only two months to get back in shape. Visions of the Arizona Strip bucks on Chad’s website kept me pushing on. I called Bill on October 28, a few days before I left for Arizona. I reminded him that exactly a year ago we were packing out my Nevada buck at the end of a grueling 24-day hunt. He wished me luck and reminded me to be very patient. His advice - "It’s not over until it’s over” - echoed all the way to Arizona. No one could understand what he meant better than me. We had tagged my buck in the very last minute of legal shooting time in 2009 after passing up several very nice Nevada mulies.
I arrived in camp right at sunset, unloaded my gear into a spacious tent, and waited for everyone to return from the evening scout. I soon met one of the other two tag holders, Colt, and his dad, Wayne. We shared some supper and I turned in early.
I awoke at 3 a.m. the next morning to begin the first day of scouting with my guide, Matt Liljenquist (who coincidentally was on the cover of EHJ 123 with a huge buck of his own). He knew the zone well and was familiar with its tremendous potential. We matched up well despite our 20-year age difference. Matt asked me what I was looking for in a trophy buck. I facetiously responded, "I want a huge, wide main frame; deep forks with a lot of mass; gotta have eyeguards; some trash would be nice.”
He laughed and said, "That’s not impossible on this hunt.”
The first few days of the hunt were just as discouraging as I had expected this zone could be. We saw only one nice buck and just a few deer in the first four days. I met a couple of hunters, including a very lucky young lady named Kelli, who had drawn a resident tag with zero bonus points. We shared our good fortune and hoped that our luck would last until the season was complete. I believe it was her first hunt and I shared Bill’s advice with her. I knew that it would be difficult for a first-time hunter to be patient. Heck, it was going to be hard enough for myself.
On day five, things heated up as the third tag holder in camp, Bob, tagged a freight train of a buck on what Chad described as possibly the best shot he had ever seen a hunter make. Bob’s massive 6x7 had set the bar very high for Colt and me. Bob was all smiles. I was thrilled to photograph Bob and hold that massive rack in my hands. Spirits in camp were high.
The next four days hunting continued to improve. We were making stalks on deer each day either to get a better look or to position for a shot. Bad timing, other hunters, or short light ended all of these stalks, but now we were getting to hunt the big bucks that I had waited 12 years for.
On day eight, Colt, Wayne, and their guide, Logan, were late coming back to camp and the word was that he had downed a buck of similar caliber to Bob’s. How could that be? Bob’s buck was so tremendous. I had to remind myself that this was "The Strip”. Colt’s deer was a gnarly, heavy 6x9 so characteristic for this country. Now it was my turn with the two best days of the season remaining.
Day nine began with a couple good bucks at first light, but neither was quite good enough. Later that morning, Chad glassed a large buck a long way out. After a comprehensive search for the buck after it bedded, a couple of tines were spotted moving beside a large rock and we were on our way. We quickly covered close to two miles of ground, using the terrain to keep our cover.
We stopped just short of my heart attack as Chad took one cautious look through the glass. He whispered to me the distance and suspected location of the buck. I was amazed that after hoofing it that far and changing our angle of perspective by nearly 90 degrees, Chad in an instant knew exactly where the buck would appear.
Feeling my adrenaline, Chad and Matt reminded me not to shoot until we had a chance to size him up. It was 11:30 and we sat there for the next hour and a half in the hot sun without even a glimpse of the buck. Then, at 1:10, I heard Chad whisper, "He’s up!”
All I could see was a couple of tines. He fed his way along while moving up a coulee, keeping all but his antler tips out of view. Chad exclaimed, "I see velvet on his antlers!”
The buck meandered in that depression for what seemed like a lifetime and I realized that if he stayed in that coulee, we would never get a look at him without moving our position. Suddenly he climbed out to higher ground, walking straight toward us. My mouth fell open in awe and I heard Chad whisper, "He’s a shooter.”
The buck continued to feed, moving slowly in our direction. I strained as I waited for him to get his wide rack turned enough to expose his left shoulder. I squeezed the trigger as he quartered to his right and the shot dropped him in his tracks.
We walked the 180 yards to the buck and I think my feet only touched the ground a couple of times. There was no ground shrinkage here - he was much wider than he looked at 180 yards. His 7x9 rack sports a 36-inch overall width and a green score of 225. As Matt and I hiked back with the antlers and cape, he pointed out that the buck I had hoped for was on my pack, with some velvet thrown in for good measure.
Three enormous bucks in nine days! It was nice to have the whole group there for this final success. We had become somewhat of a family during the last ten days.
I thank my wife and family for supporting my passion to fulfill that primitive instinct to hunt. Thanks to my dad for sharing hunting with me, my brother Bob for lending me his new truck, and Bill for his sage advice. I am a very fortunate guy.
Upon returning home, I was contacted by more than one hunter who had seen, photographed, or hunted this buck in 13A, some 12 miles away. At some point in the summer, like a phantom, he just disappeared and moved to my hunt area.