A 2% Success Rate – OTC Archery Mule Deer

That’s what I was told was the average rate of success on harvesting an Over The Counter (OTC) Archery Mule Deer Tag in Arizona for the early season while the bucks are still in velvet. I wasn’t actually told this until I got to camp.

The journey started when we landed in Las Vegas last Wednesday to a less-than-welcoming 109° degrees dry sauna. This was a bad omen. We (Baker and I) rented a car and arrived in camp Thursday evening and were immediately whisked out to sit some water since it hadn’t rained in nearly 100 days before our hunt. Being this was my first hunt in the desert, I was in awe of the raw beauty of the area.

Rocks, dirt, cactus, dust, more rocks and dust, and some junipers cover the MASSIVE country of flats surrounded with spiking peaks. This place is ROUGH. It takes no prisoners. It dries you out. It’s like living in a convection oven that’s sucking all the moisture out of your body. All of the animals that live here are hard asses, the people too. So as we are riding (read bouncing) through the hills along roads made of rock, I am really getting a feeling for just how insane this hunt is going to be. It then becomes painfully obvious why the success rate is so low.

Sunset captured while glassing for OTC Archery Mule Deer.
Sunset captured while glassing for OTC Archery Mule Deer.

Being that this was my first spot and stalk hunt, I had quite a bit to learn. Luckily, the team was right there to show me the way. Most hunts go like this: Wake up at 4 am (ouch), get hot coffee, and get out the door. Get to your spotting location and get set up with spotting scopes. As the light creates more and more visibility, you’re scanning the hillsides and flats to find deer feeding into their morning bedding area. As the heat starts to kick up around 7:30 am, the deer start to look for a place to lay down. This is obviously the easiest time to find them. Once they lay down, you are legitimately looking for hours under every single tree on a hillside that may be miles long. Once you spot one, the hunt is on. This is where I’ll pick up my hunt.

The First Stalk

The first morning, spirits high, energy through the roof. We get out the door around 4:45 (late) and get set up around 6:15 or so. We spot a couple of bucks feeding into some trees and I give the first stalk rights to Baker. He gets going and after he gets halfway up the hill, another guide comes and grabs me to glass another area. As we pull up, it’s about 8:30 and another guide, Carter, has been on the glass for a while without seeing anything. After about 15 minutes, I hear a muffled exclamatory “Got a buck. Got a buck” from Carter. You can hear the excitement in his voice. So I run over to his spotter so see.

It’s (as they call them) a JUMBO, a beautiful 4×4 (5 points on each side, confusing) with HEAVY Mass. He is feeding into some bushes and then lays down. IT’S FREAKING ON! So we start to devise a gamelan on how we are going to attack this deer. You’ve got a couple of very important variabilities to grapple with. 1) Their Position- How are you going to get to them. 2) The Wind- can you stay downwind of them and still get to them? 3) They Visibility- how far can they see? Which direction are they facing? 4) The Sun- how long before the sun moving across the sky puts them back in the sun and they decide to get up and move?

After reviewing all of these different variables, we put a pretty good plan together. I will be able to come in behind him over a hill and have a downhill view of him while he’s facing the opposite direction. So I start out on my stalk. About a mile in, I noticed the wind is beginning to shift a little from being perpendicular to starting to blow more like 45° from me directly into the deer.

500 yards further in and I’m about 250 from the top of the hill. I can’t get any radio comms to know what’s going on so I take a minute to sit down and slow everything down. It’s right when I sit down that I feel the all-too-familiar feeling of the chill on my ears and I know that the wind has shifted directly into the deer. I immediately get up and start backtracking away at a 45° angle from the deer and head to the starting point.

The Second Act.

Generally, when the sun gets up, the wind becomes pretty stable. It’s now about 9:30 and we’ve got another gameplan. I will go the opposite direction from my first stalk about a mile away from the spotting area. I will take a 45° angle and follow a tree line to the hill to the deer. I’ll get up to the spine of the ridge and use trees between me and the deer to get to a tree we believe is about 40-60 yards from the deer. My main man, Hot Rodney (one of the guides and the guy on my radio walking me in), and I have a solid plan so I strike out again.

I walk in about a mile where I am supposed to start my 45° angle to the deer. Unfortunately, you figure out very quickly that terrain looks NOTHING like it does a mile away. As I got closer, I realized there was a huge open grassy knoll between me and the deer. So I decide I need to take it another mile in to get to the next tree line. As I am hiking in, I continue to triangulate between me, the spotting location, and where I believe the deer is. I am checking the wind about every 100 yards to make sure it’s not moving directions on me. Everything seems good, so I keep pushing in.

This is the grassy plain I had to cross. The deer was bedded on the lower tree line near the middle. This is what you have to cross for an OTC Archery Mule Deer Tag.
This is the grassy plain I had to cross. The deer was bedded on the lower tree line near the middle.

“Take a minute to relax and catch your breath…”

After about 2 miles, I begin my inward angle to the deer, but I am about 500 yards past him now. I get up on the deer’s ridgeline and being the final 20% of the stalk. It’s about this time I hear Rodney come on my earpiece and tell me to “stop.” My heart almost explodes. He then slowly eases out the next words in a calming voice saying “let’s just take a break here. Get a drink of water, get your mask on, and take a minute to relax and catch your breath.” I almost have a heart attack. I just knew the deer had gotten up. DAMNIT, Rodney. So I do as I’m told. I catch my breath, let my legs get some rest. Now we are in the zone.

So after about 15 minutes, I get back on my feet and get dialed in. I have ramped my intensity to 1,000%. Every sense on my body is red-lining. I hear every single piece of grass, seeing every limb move in the wind, smelling the rain in the distance, and feeling every single pebble on the ground as I’m stalking in. Every step may be the last one. I am focusing on my feet and how everything feels under them. “DON’T STEP ON A DAMNED CACTUS,” I keep telling myself, haha. I can just see myself now jumping up and down screaming and the deer bounding down the hill to never be seen again. I think I’m literally creeping.

I’m within about 200 yards now when I hear Rodney key in again. “Ok, bud, let’s just hold up here. You need to slow down about half the speed you’re going now. There’s no need to rush.” I’m thinking to myself, “What? Slow down, I’m barely moving.” My heart’s pounding! My hands are shaking, and my bicep is about to explode from holding my bow in a curl position for like an hour. SLOW DOWN….RELAX.

We get our game plan for the final approach.

Ok, now we’re to my first tree to range. We think it’s about 150 yards from the deer. I pull up my range finder, and it clocks in at about 85 yards from me. OK, well, the deer is probably 40 yards past that, so 120 isn’t too far off. I CREEP a little further to the next tree. Range my stopping tree again- 45 yards. I’m within about 90 from him now. I move my spot hog 3-pin sight wheel to 90-70 yards. Things are REALLY heavy. I’ve just got to make it 45 yards to where I will take my shot. Hold crap; this may actually happen.

My brain is on fire. “Alright, buddy, let’s just take another break. Let’s nock an arrow. Let’s get your mask up and get ready to take a shot,” I hear Rodney calmly and quietly say through the radio. I now wish I hadn’t done all that at the 250-yard mark, but better prepared than not. A perfectly timed break from my thought pattern. He gives me some additional instruction that’s situational dependent, and we get our game plan for the final approach.

I start creeping again and FINALLY make it to my tree about two hours after I began. As I was moving, I would dial my sight down by 10 yards after every 10 steps. I knew that he might blow out, and I want to be ready to shoot in that case. HOLY SHIT, we’re here. He’s undoubtedly 40-60 yards away. I get kneeled down under a split trunked juniper, and he’s under the next one behind a bunch of shrubs. I take several deep breaths. Everything I have read says they will generally stay bedded for 2-3 hours, so I know we’re getting close to him moving.

We have arrived…

It’s not 30 seconds after kneeling that I see a bush flicker. I think it must be a bird or squirrel or something. But just in case, let’s range it and everything else around it- 17 yards. Oh man, my legs are shaking, and ankles feel like they are about to explode. I see a perfect little place to sit about 5 feet in front of me. Not only will I be more comfortable, but I will have a better shot angle. I begin to move when a clip of JP pops in my head “You will blow your stalk in the last three steps. Once you can get a shot off, STAY THERE.” So I settle back into my kneeling position and resign to the fact that this will suck, but I will just deal with it.

Another bush flicker. OK, this is the 3rd one. Then another. Then the radio crackles. “Ok, he looks like he’s getting uncomfortable and starting to move around a little. Get ready” Then another flicker, and I see some horn tips moving. “Holy shit, that’s him! He’s way closer than we thought” roars through my head. I draw my bow. He immediately stands up. “HOLY SHIT, he is only 17 yards. AND HE’S HUGE. DON’T LOOK AT THE HORNS.” He’s behind a bunch of bushes, and I have a juniper limb between us.

He’s 10 yards, 5 yards! And then he stops. He sees me. He’s at the edge of the limbs. He’s staring right at me.

“Alright, he must go left or right, and I will take a shot then.” He then takes a few steps out of his bed and is behind only the juniper limb between us. He then does the unexpected and wheels directly to me. I’m thinking, “OH, NO! He’s going to walk directly to my tree. He’s going to bed under MY TREE!” He starts walking to me. My heart is exploding (hell, I’m sweating writing this). I can’t shoot! HIS HEAD is down, and I don’t have a shot. He’s 10 yards, 5 yards! And then he stops. He sees me. He’s at the edge of the limbs. He’s staring right at me. HE SNORTS, his eyes LOCK ON ME.

And then BOOM, in the blink of an eye, he bolts. My bow is on the left-handed side of the limb, and I go into a reflex mode. I swing my bow through him on about his 3rd or 4th step and release the arrows. It was a full-blown traditional bow shot. I see blood spraying and his head starting to tilt back while his legs are getting in front of him. He hits the bottom of the hill and starts up the other side, but only makes its two steps before reeling over backward.

“OH MY GOD! He’s down. Holy shit he’s down,” I scream as my knees become weak with the adrenaline dump. The radio erupts with everyone at once asking what happened. They couldn’t see him go down or the shot, but they hear me screaming, “He’s down; he’s down.”

The culmination of months of arduous work all flowed down through me like a river. I’m not sure if I was in shock or what, but I turned into jello. I’m hooked on this OTC Archery Mule Deer tag and will 100% be back!

And this is what it’s all about.

GO and GROW!