On Our Own on the Arizona Strip
by Armando J. Ruiz
I couldn’t believe it happened. We had applied for the coveted Arizona Strip, and we drew tags. I was beyond disbelief; yet, I was excited beyond words for the opportunity to chase giant mule deer bucks in one of the best units in North America.
Before the Hunt
We had exactly four weeks from the time we were officially notified until the first day of the hunt. That didn’t leave much time to put everything together, but planning began immediately. Whether admirable or foolish, we chose to go without a guide service. We have always taken some satisfaction in being “DIY hunters.” We knew success or failure would be the result of our own efforts and we were okay with that. Despite our decision, we were never truly on our own because our local hunting community is amazing. We were given some great information from friends, detailed maps and equipment that would help make our hunt a success. To those people, I am truly grateful. It was enough to get us started and we began planning for our first scouting trip.
On a map, AZ GMU 13B is relatively close to our home in Flagstaff, AZ, but until they build a bridge over the “big ditch” (The Grand Canyon), we would have to travel five hours around, just to get to the unit. The unit itself is extremely large. As one of Arizona’s largest, most remote units, you could travel for hours on dirt roads–at lightning speeds–just to get from one side to the other. Our goal for the first scouting trip was simple, to see and learn as much as we could in the four days had. As we drove in, the first thing we saw was a broken-down truck. We stopped for a second, but we got the “thumbs up.” They were okay. The second thing we saw was an SUV completely smashed coming out on a flatbed. I began to think to myself, “What the hell am I getting into?” We had been told several times, the Strip was a rough place and to be prepared for anything. I knew we were going to be without cell service for four days and I hoped the three spare tires, 32 gallons of water, 48 gallons of gas, and everything else I could think of were going to be enough to get us out successfully.
Our first night on the Strip was almost magical. We sat around the campfire joking about what we would see in the morning as the sky lit up around us with lightning and thunder rumbled all around. Eventually, the heavy winds rolled in and we decided to head to bed and hold down the tents. I didn’t know if it was the storm or the excitement, but I barely slept. Regardless, the next morning we were up with the sun and we began our journey. Over the next few days we traveled to different parts of the unit, set trail cameras, studied maps and explored the terrain around us. We traveled through juniper, rolling sage brush, oak patches, small sections of tall pines and dry, desert landscapes. We saw a lot of country, just not a lot of deer. On our last day of our trip we settled on a place to camp for the evening and came across a buck, a good buck. We sat and watched the biggest buck either of us had ever seen until it was dark and we couldn’t see him anymore. It was exactly what we needed to revitalize the excitement we had lost over the last few hard days.
Even though we saw few deer, I still felt the trip was successful. We learned a lot about the unit and we were able to identify some possible areas we wanted to hunt. I know they say there aren’t 200-inch bucks around every corner, but the fact that we hadn’t seen many deer still bothered me. So, I decided to make a trip back up to the unit the weekend before the hunt. On that trip, I was able to spend more time in the areas I liked, and it paid off. While I explored, I came across a handful of amazing bucks–the kind of bucks the Strip is famous for, and I was excited. Unfortunately, I had to make this trip solo, so I was anxious to get back into cell service and share what I had seen with the others. I set up camp close to where we would hunt opening day and began the long journey home. There was still so much to do and opening morning was only four days away.
The area we had chosen to hunt put us right in the middle of two big guide camps. On one hand, we knew we were in a good area, and on the other, we didn’t know how the extra pressure would affect our hunt. Despite this, we chose to stick to the plan. I was fortunate to have more time to hunt, so the plan was to get my wife Jaime and her brother Greg, tagged out first. Opening morning came and the coffee was percolating. We loaded ourselves into the truck as the sun began to peak through the trees and off we went to the first area I had seen bucks just a few days prior. As soon as we left camp, all eyes were glued to the trees. It wasn’t long until my wife Jaime said, “deer, it’s a buck!” Sure, enough, back in the tree line was a good 4×5 feeding. We gave it a quick look through the binos, made a plan, and Jaime and Greg began to put on a stalk. As they inched closer, the buck became more difficult for them to see through the thick vegetation. From where I was spotting, the buck was less than 60 yards in front of them. I knew it, the buck knew it, but the hunters couldn’t see it. When the buck figured out what was going on, he quickly increased the distance, but stuck around for a few good pictures. Back to the truck and off we went. As we continued, we came across a group of bucks feeding out into a sage flat. There were a few good bucks, but one exceptional buck stood out. We quickly made a plan, and again, Jaime and Greg began to move in. They were able to get within shooting range, but the big buck never gave Jaime a clear shot. She chose to not risk a bad shot and the deer walked slowly back into the trees. We had created a few good opportunities opening day. Nothing hit the dirt, but it’s not every day you are able to get within bow range of multiple, 190-inch-plus deer.
We couldn’t believe how unreal opening day was and we hoped our luck would continue. As we began our morning hunt, we came across the same group of bucks from the day before. This time,
it was Greg’s turn and he immediately took action. The big buck from the day before was by himself and standing broadside. Greg quickly drew his bow and found his shot. Seconds pass that feel like eternity and then it happened. His arrow was in the air and found its mark. The buck began to peel off, but quickly lost traction and dropped in right there. Soon, it was all over. As Greg approached his deer he says, “There’s literally zero ground shrinkage!” Indeed, Greg had arrowed a giant. We took a few moments to celebrate with Greg and took a few good pictures to preserve the moment. Word traveled fast and some of the hunters and guides stopped by camp to congratulate Greg and see his deer. It was official, the first big buck had hit the dirt.
With one buck down, it was time to get back to work. Over the course of the next eight days we came across numerous deer, put on some epic stalks and even snuck into beds with some real giants only to be disappointed when hours of work didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to. Sometimes we would make a critical mistake that would blow our opportunity and sometimes the opportunity was perfect, but the deer just didn’t do what we needed them to do. As a new hunter, Jaime was getting a crash course in hunting mule deer and at a rapid rate at that. On one hand, we were frustrated over the multiple failed attempts, but on the other, it was so amazing to be so close to the biggest deer we had ever seen. In the moment, it’s difficult to appreciate the experience when you’re focused on the end result and only inches away from success. Unfortunately, after 10 straight days of hunting, Jaime’s time had come to an end and it was time for her to return home.
The big camps began to clear out and the once bustling dirt roads were now silent. I’d had been hunting solo since the crew left three and a half days ago and I hadn’t seen many deer, let alone been able to get close to a buck. The rain had returned and pushed the bucks back into hiding. I didn’t know what to do, so I called home. I remember talking to Jaime trying to hold back some of my frustration. I really didn’t want her to worry about me any more than she already did. I shared with her my conflict, “I really wanted a buck, but I was also ready to be home.” After numerous late nights preparing before the hunt, multiple back and forth scouting trips and 13 straight days of hunting, I had been pushed to my limit and I felt defeated. I sat in the bed of my truck, in the pitch dark, thinking about what I would do. With only four more days left that I could hunt; I chose to keep pushing until my time was up. At the end of my time, regardless of the outcome, I would know I had given it everything I had, and then some. I headed back to camp, took a swig of whiskey, and went down for a good night’s sleep.
In the following days, I was able to create a few good opportunities and even missed the big 4×5 from opening morning, twice. That hurt twice as much knowing my time was coming to an end, but unfortunately my nerves had gotten the better of me. On day 16, I decided to focus on an area that I had consistently seen bucks moving in the evening. The sun was beginning to set in front of me and I knew I had little time. It was then that I saw them; two bucks moving on the edge of the tree line. I moved from my glassing spot and immediately planned my approach. With the light fading, I moved as quickly and stealthily as I could with only my wool socks on my feet. At first, I just saw the smaller buck, then as I slowly rounded a juniper, I saw him. A tall framed buck with his head down, slightly quartering away. It was the perfect opportunity. I remember having to range multiple times because my hands were shaking. I took a deep breath and drew my bow. As I exhaled, I felt calmness come over me. I told myself, “it’s now or never, pick a spot and make it count!” With that, I settled my 50 pin and began to squeeze the trigger. The shot broke and the arrow was on its way. The buck jumped straight up into the air and kicked out his back legs like a mule. I was confident it was a good shot. I stood there in shock for a long time until all I could see was the darkness.
As I walked up to my buck, I was hit with a flood of mixed emotions. It was hard to believe that all the ups and downs of the hunt would lead to this moment. I was incredibly thankful for the buck that was in front of me and overjoyed to achieve what I set out to accomplish. This was my first buck and an experience I won’t ever forget!