The buck stepped out of the clearing, 50 yards to the right of where I thought he would be, giving me no time to range him before he disappeared into the mesquite. As the buck was closing the distance to the thicket, I eased my bow back, guessed the distance at 55 yards, grunted to stop the buck, and released. My heart sank as my arrow sailed over the largest Coues deer I had ever seen in the wild. Physically defeated and mentally depressed, I called my dad on my way home and gave him all of the details on the whereabouts and size of the buck.
The next day was Sunday. I avoid hunting on the Sabbath, so I told my dad to try for that buck. He did, and he killed the deer. With a gross score of 120 inches and a net of 119, Dad’s Coues buck will likely rank in the top five in the world.
What does that have to do with mule deer hunting? If I had tagged that buck in January, I could not have put in for the fall draw and would not be able to share my mule deer adventure with you now.
The odds for drawing a northern Arizona mule deer tag are very low. Not only did I draw, but so did my friend Dyrk Eddie from Montana. With his busy schedule, Dyrk decided to hire a guide. Dyrk knew I was friends with Chad Smith of Vaquero Outfitters, and after talking to several other friends of ours he opted to book with Chad. Since work was slow for me, I decided to take time off and focus on hunting big muleys for Dyrk and me.
Chad was nice enough to let me share camp with Dyrk, and he even showed me a few areas that held some quality bucks. Prior to the season I made several scouting trips to these areas with my dad, and we located a few great bucks. I decided to set my sights on one of these bucks in particular — a 5×4 that I believed would surpass the 200-inch mark. We named him Stretch.
Dad and I ventured back up to the unit five days before the season in hopes of finding Stretch, and we found him hanging out within a quarter-mile of where we had spotted him three weeks prior. As the season neared, we kept a close eye on him. Unfortunately, his hangout was a tough place for stalking, but I had the whole season so I would wait him out or hope for something better.
Opening day started off with my dad and me sitting on a small hill glassing together and sharing old hunting stories a half-mile from where we had last seen Stretch. As the sun crested the horizon, Dad glassed three young bucks directly below us about 250 yards away. They were in an excellent place for stalking, but they were not what I was looking for.
The morning was slow after that, with nothing else moving around but a few coyotes. We decided to go into camp and enjoy a decent lunch before coming back. When we got back to camp we noticed Dyrk’s equipment was all packed up in front of my trailer. That first morning, he had taken a magnificent buck that would score around 200 inches.
Since Dyrk had tagged out and his guide, Blake Chapman, had a day to spare before leaving, we all went out together the next morning into an area where I had spent little time. For me, it was an exploratory trip, but sometimes those are the most productive. Before heading out, Chad told us he was going to check out another new area as well, and we made a plan to meet up in late morning and compare findings.
As the dawn sky turned orange, we watched the country below unfold. It was filled with junipers and had multiple hidden valleys surrounded by small hills. 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.
When we met up with Chad, he had good news for us: He had found two bucks in a great place for a stalk. It didn’t take us long to get into the area where he’d last seen the bucks. Once there, it took us 90 minutes to relocate the bucks.
When the bigger of the two finally showed himself, our jaws hit the dirt. “You’re looking at a potential new world record, Matt,” my dad said. Of course, being his son, I had to argue.
“He’s big, but I don’t know about that,” I said. “I’ll give him 220 gross.”
The big buck and his buddy moved to the top of a hill and disappeared into some thick junipers. It was now midday, so we figured they must have bedded in the thicket. Chad asked me if he could accompany me on the stalk. I would let only a few people ever stalk with me, and Chad is one of them. Besides, what kind of friend would I be to say “No,” when he had found the buck?
Dad and I went over a few new hand signals, and Blake went to another knoll to see if he could get a better view. Little did we know Blake was going to be able to watch the whole stalk unfold from his position.
As Chad and I made our way toward the bucks, we swung around to get the wind in our favor. The wind was blowing hard and steady, which made it great for sneaking close to the buck but could present shooting problems. We came out below where the deer had disappeared, and I got Dad’s attention with my orange signal flag. He signaled that I was about 150 yards from where the buck had disappeared, and he pointed the way. As we progressed, I continued to stop and check with 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. This would be the last time I would be able to see Dad for signals. Slowly moving through the edge of the thicket, I continually glassed into the juniper jungle and across the tops of the thick sagebrush, hoping to see some sign of the bucks. The wind was strong, and the sun had pushed the temperature to near 100 degrees. Knowing a world-class buck lay within bow range, I would not allow the sun to distract me.
As I focused my binoculars just above the sagebrush, I noticed what looked like two cattails awkwardly rising from the sage. They weren’t moving in the wind, and when they did move slightly against the wind direction, I knew they were antler tines. Slowly I turned to Chad. “I’ve got a buck,” I said.
Fortunately, the antlers I had spotted belonged to the big buck. He was bedded 52 yards away, but I had no shot through the thick vegetation. As I was planning my next move, the buck stood. Immediately I drew my bow. Although I didn’t have a lot of cover, the buck never did see me.
As the old warrior started feeding toward me in a small opening, I could feel my heartbeat throughout my entire body. My pins were settled from the top of his back all the way down his face to his nose. I kept my finger behind the release trigger to make sure I didn’t squeeze it off by mistake. He was coming right at me with his head down. Chad periodically whispered yardage behind me.
As the buck 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 his rack.
Now at 30 yards, the buck made a sharp right turn into another clump of junipers and continued on with his head down, but I had no clear shot and finally had to let down my bow. He was headed toward a small opening only a foot wide, but I had to move about five steps to get a shot through it. So every time the buck moved with his head down, I slowly placed my foot on a quiet spot on the ground. As the buck was about to expose himself through the opening, I slowly drew again.
The opening was small, and the buck came through too quickly. I was going to grunt, but with that small window I would have risked stopping him with no vitals exposed. Besides, he was slowly approaching a big opening, and I knew that would be my opportunity.
Again I had to let down to ease the weight from my shoulders. But just as I did, the buck approached the big opening, and I had to draw immediately. As he came into the opening, he angled toward me. He still had his head down, and he wasn’t stopping. The wind was blowing so strong that my pin was floating from the back ribs to his shoulder crease. Chad must have been reading my mind, because just as I was about to grunt to stop the buck, he let out a grunt of his own that got the buck’s attention.
The buck stopped and lifted his head. My sight pin floated side to side as I applied pressure to the release trigger. When it went off, I watched a hole open up on the buck’s chest.
As the buck bolted out of view, Chad and I started doing a triumphant dance. Then I walked to where I could see my dad. Understanding my signals of victory, Dad gave me celebratory signals of his own, shaking his fist in the air and waving. My eyes filled up with tears and I got choked up knowing I was sharing another very big bowhunting memory with Dad.