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I enjoy hunting with my father. It’s always been nice to be able to get away from the hustle of daily life and spend some quality time together. I look forward to these trips every year that we’re lucky enough to draw a tag. Back in the 80s, my Dad killed a decent Coues buck in central Arizona. He hung that buck above the fireplace and set out to kill a decent mule deer. As a result, growing up, I rarely hunted the “gray ghost.”
Over the years, Pops and I developed a routine – we would put in for the famed Kaibab Plateau with our first choice, and Unit 22 with our second. As you may have guessed, we hunted 22 a lot. For a myriad of different reasons, we were never able to drop the hammer on a wall hanger, but damn, did we have some good times trying.
Well, fast forward to the 2021 draw cycle and here Dad and I were, discussing the same old routine. This year, however, was a bit different. My wife was pregnant and our third kid was due during those general mule deer hunts. So, Dad and I decided to put in separately since my schedule aligned better with the whitetail hunts.
I ended up drawing an any-antlered tag with my good buddy, Ryan. I was pretty motivated and excited to get started. Ryan and I had hunted this unit together a few times, so we knew the area well and had some ideas of where to start.
We got out there for the first time in early August and spotted a couple of good bucks right at the get-go. One of the bucks was a hoss and we guessed him at about 110”. We called him “Bruce.” The other buck was a bit different. His antlers sort of angled up more than others. From a profile view, he looked like a dink, but when he turned his head, we quickly realized that we were looking at a mature whitetail. We called him “Colby.”
Now Ryan had a couple run-ins with Bruce the year prior, so we decided that Ryan would focus on Bruce and I would turn my attention to Colby. Over the course of the summer, we made several trips out to keep tabs on the boys, see what else we could find, and begin to formulate some plans for the hunt. The hike to get to our glassing point wasn’t too long by any means, but it was just treacherous enough for us to not want to hoof it in everyday. We made the decision to pack water and camp into the area.
November finally arrived and we packed in the day before the hunt started. We had Ryan’s brother Josh and our good friend Levi along for the ride. We got in about midday on Thursday, set up camp, and started glassing that afternoon.
The temps were still up around the 85-90 degree range and activity was slow that afternoon, however, we were excited to glass up a decent desert bighorn ram trotting across the countryside. That evening, excitement and good times were at a high in anticipation of opening day. We made our plans and dined on freeze-dried meals and fire roasted pepperoni – an unconventional, yet effective backcountry snack.
Opening morning was pretty uneventful. We glassed hard until about 2 PM and decided to take a walk to get a different view of the canyons we had been watching. Josh was up ahead of us by about maybe 300 yards. He followed the ridgeline going west of our camp and ended up spooking Colby and a smaller buck out from their beds, not 300 yards from our camp.
While the next hour proved to be pretty exciting, that excitement was underscored by a feeling of dread that we might have just blown out our target bucks on the first day. We glassed hard until dark, trying to identify their escape routes, but all we saw was a group of javelina with piglets running amok on the ridge adjacent to us.
That night, campfire conversation consisted of formulating plans to split up and tackle the country from a couple different angles. Ryan and I would start where we had been seeing the bucks all summer, and Josh and Levi would bracket us to the north and south.
That next morning was glorious. The weather was a little bit crisp, and I was simply enjoying just being out there glassing with a good cup of coffee. After about an hour or so, Ryan decided he would pop over and glass the country behind us. Within twenty minutes, he had a buck spotted and had called me over.
The buck was bedded under a big saguaro about 630 yards out. However, due to his angle, we weren’t quite sure if he was one of our target bucks or not. Regardless, he was a good buck and one we thought we should go after. In my head, Ryan had first right of refusal since he spotted him, but he was very much still looking for Bruce, so we made the plan for me to take a shot.
I had decided that I wanted to try to get within 300 yards of this buck. As we started getting closer, we realized that we weren’t going to have a good angle at that closer distance. We made the decision to shoot from about 500 yards out.
I had been shooting all summer and was comfortable out to that range. The buck was still bedded and gave us the time to get set up. Due to the terrain, I was not able to lay prone at all. I ended up being able to sit flat on my butt, fully extend my bipod, and use my tripod to support the rear of my rifle. I had an insanely stable shooting platform.
At this point it was about 10:30 AM, and the buck was still bedded. We ended up sitting on that buck in direct sunlight for about two hours. Ryan came in clutch by hanging an extra shirt he had on a nearby Ocotillo. The little shade it provided was a welcome respite from the Arizona sun. I was in my rifle, and Ryan was behind me, filming through the spotting scope. While we waited for him to stand up, we were able to confirm that this buck was, in fact Colby.
Finally, he stood up at about 12:30, and the adrenaline started pumping. He turned to re-bed and gave me a quartering-away shot. I aimed a little back of his shoulder, settled my breath, and squeezed off a shot.
I pulled it. I hit him in the back ham, and he jumped six feet in the air. I quickly reloaded and found him in the scope standing just behind a bush. Now, adrenaline was starting to mix with a sense of urgency. I didn’t want to watch a wounded buck dive off that ridge into the canyon below.
Colby seemingly had no clue what just happened and slowly began to step out from the bush at a steep, quartering-away angle. He then turned perfectly broadside and I was able to put a round directly into his shoulder. He jumped again, turned, trotted a bit, and laid down.
When I tell you this buck was tough, I’m not lying. He crawled under another bush and I thought that’s where he would expire. But Colby had other plans and muscled himself up, turned broadside again, and took another round from my rifle. This time, his whole body shook after the impact from that bullet and he finally went down for good. At this time, I was so elated that all I could think about was getting camp packed up as fast as possible and getting over to this deer.
Wake Up Call
We got our camp disassembled, and as we started heading down the ridge towards Colby, I knew something wasn’t right. I felt off, more sluggish and fatigued than I should have been. We made it down to a small saddle and unloaded our packs. By this time, I had a good feeling that I was dehydrated and feeling the effects of the heat.
By the time I got up to him, my quads and calves started cramping up pretty bad, and I was starting to get nervous that this was going to turn into a situation. This is where it helps to have good friends with you. After we took some pictures, Ryan, Levi, and Josh got to working on the deer while I consumed all the food and water I had on me.
We loaded Colby up into our packs, and started heading back down. Luckily, we only had a small incline to get past before it was all downhill to the truck. I made it back up to that saddle, loaded up as much gear as the guys would let me take, (which wasn’t much) and headed down the ridge towards the truck.
I was moving slowly and relying heavily on the trekking poles as my legs were cramping with every step. Two days prior, we had parked the truck near a dirt cattle tank. My legs were cashed by the time I started climbing that small berm above the tank. I wasn’t able to fully bend or extend my legs and basically waddled across that last 40 yards to the truck. I had not one drop of sweat on me after that hike.
I dropped my pack, laid in the dirt, and rejoiced in the fact that I was off that hill. As we drove home I was overwhelmed with gratitude for Ryan, Josh, and Levi. I truly cannot thank them enough for helping me on that packout. As embarrassing as it was to have put myself in that situation, I am sort of happy that it happened. Since that day, I have been extremely motivated to not let that happen again and have worked hard to change my diet and get into better shape for this upcoming season.
To be honest, I was a little too preoccupied to fully enjoy the moment that I laid hands on my first coues deer. However, as we drove home that night, I had a good view of his antlers sticking out of my pack in the side mirror, and I couldn’t help but smile big as we made our way back to the valley. Of course, Dad was the first call when we got service, I told him we would be hunting mulies again for the foreseeable future.
Joe's Critical Gear:
Wilderness Athlete Hydrate & Recover
Rifle: Browning X-Bolt Carbon Pro 6.5 Creedmoor (Discontinued, new model)
Ammo: Hornady ELD-X 143 grain
Binoculars: Swarovski NL Pure 12x42
Rangefinder: Leica 2800 .COM
Tripod: Outdoorsmans Tall, Fluid Head, Binocular Adapter
Pack: Outdoorsmans Palisade 90
Boots: Kenetrek Mountain Extreme
Tent: First lite Nemo Scout
This article was originally published in Western Hunter Magazine. For more adventure stories like this, subscribe here!