September 20, 2021
By Zack Walton
Most people spend mid-December huddled in front of the fireplace, making plans for the holidays. I am usually one of those people. That’s what made this past winter strange for me, because instead of being bundled up at home, I was sweating in a ground blind with the desert sun beating in through the small window of the blind. The reason: desert mule deer.
Putting it lightly, this past year was a challenge. If anyone knew what 2020 was going to be like, we would have treated it like a Netflix show and hit the fast-forward button on our remotes until the next season. Due to the pandemic — and the fallout that resulted from it — the hunting year was flipped upside-down for tens of thousands of bowhunters. Travel restrictions and economic turmoil made long-held plans obsolete.
It was through sheer luck that I didn’t have my bowhunting plans upended by the virus. I had already decided 2020 was going to be a year for getting back to my bowhunting roots, and that meant chasing deer.
I have been a deer hunter since childhood. After traveling all over North America for the past 25 years after the five deer species, I realized that even though I had been able to arrow a “Deer Slam” multiple times, I had never done so in a single year. I had never even attempted it.
As a kid, I read about a bowhunter trying to achieve a deer slam in one year, and that idea has intrigued me ever since. But I never thought it was something you could plan out. If it ever happened, it would be something that came about in exactly that way — it would just happen.
As I got older, I knew guys who had hunted all five deer species in one year, and even a couple who were successful — my dad being one of them. Even for those guys, there were so many things that had to fall into place just to tag one of each species, that I still considered it improbable.
Pre-pandemic, I had a trip to Mexico planned with a group of buddies to hunt Coues deer. I have hunted the tiny desert deer many times over the years, but always in Arizona. For many reasons, I had never ventured south of the border to hunt them. In January, I made my first trip, and I knew as soon as I arrived in the vast deserts of Sonora, Mexico, it would not be my last.
Although conditions were not ideal for hunting over water because of rainstorms that hit the area a few days before my hunt, the weather was warming up and water sources were seeing more deer activity with each passing day. After three days, temperatures rose back into the 80s, and I had three different bucks water at midday. I passed up the first two eight-points, which took a lot of willpower. But it paid off, because at noon, a mature buck came in for his last drink.
My well-placed arrow put the biggest Coues buck I’d ever shot down for good less than 50 yards from the water.
The first trip of 2020 was in the books, and it had worked out perfectly. I was looking forward to what the rest of the year would have to offer. If I only knew…
Everyone knows what spring and early summer were like last year. Uncertainty, panic, paranoia, fear, and many other emotions controlled daily life. By the time archery season started here in California, I was more than ready for an opportunity to get away from the craziness. After Mexico, I had already planned on focusing a lot of my time and energy on blacktails, but after several months of insanity, I really dedicated my attention to hunting near home.
Near is a relative term, because I made the eight-hour round trip many times last summer trying to locate and arrow a mature blacktail. Unable to do so while bucks were still in velvet, I continued making weekend trips until I was able to find a tall-tined buck bedded in a bad spot for him, but a good spot for me. One arrow at close range and I was dragging out a dandy Columbian blacktail buck. It was the end of August, and I had managed to tag two very nice bucks of different species.
For years, I had wanted to kill a whitetail buck in velvet. Being a Western bowhunter, I lean heavily on the advice of many Midwestern friends to help me before any whitetail hunt. My desire for a velvet whitetail meant even more reliance on said friends than normal — and one close friend in particular.
I’ve said many times if it weren’t for good buddies, most of the good and bad things in my life would never have happened. This was one of the good things. I was invited to hunt opening week in North Dakota in hopes of arrowing a mature buck that my buddy had patterned. Despite many things working against me — later season dates, sporadic buck sightings, poor wind direction, limited time, etc. — things somehow aligned in my favor on the second evening of my North Dakota hunt.
I was in my blind early that afternoon, as it would be my only chance to hunt this area due to wind direction. Right before sundown, I watched two small bucks trot across the small opening in front of me. It looked as though they had spooked, so I checked the wind again, worried they had come from the wrong direction and busted me. Knowing this was my only chance in this location, I was pretty bummed to think that the next hour would be a waste and was already considering options to lengthen my visit.
Suddenly, all of those negative thoughts quickly vanished when I saw antlers pop out of the field edge. Before I knew it, the mature buck to which those antlers belonged was standing 20 yards away from me, licking a branch. I stopped breathing in fear that I would spook him. If he continued on his current path, he would cross 12 yards in front of me. But like so many mature bucks often do, he sensed something was off and jumped through the treeline in an attempt to skirt my setup.
I was at full draw when he poked his head out from behind a large oak. I let my arrow fly, and watched it slice through the back ribs of his quartering-away chest. Sixty yards away, I found the beautiful velvet 10-pointer dead. A dream come true.
Sitka blacktails are my favorite deer to hunt, because they always provide me with a grand adventure and great camaraderie with good friends.
Most Novembers for the past decade, I’ve made the trip to Kodiak with a close group of friends. The thing that was different in 2020 was the bad luck with weather. On Kodiak, weather commands all your actions and limits, or increases your chances of success.
Foul weather is typically a part of hunting on Kodiak. During our week, I did not unstrap my bow from my pack until two hours before dark on the last day, when a nice buck appeared from the alders 300 yards away and mistakenly thought I might be another deer.
The buck and I met in the middle and surprised one another to the point that I made an errant first shot. Luckily, he was stunned enough for me to make a quick follow-up shot, which put him down for good, and I was able to place a locking tag around my fourth species of North American deer for the year. With the struggles we had that week, it was a lucky turn of fate in the last couple hours to have a mature Sitka blacktail to bring home.
To make November even better, I was able to arrow a beautiful 4x4 Columbian blacktail a week after returning from Kodiak. Bonus!
When December rolled around, I knew that I had four different species of deer antlers in my house — all of them easily qualifying for Pope and Young. I also had a several friends reminding me that I was only one buck short of something even more special.
Although the thought of trying for all five species had entered my mind over the past year, I continued to tell myself I would not force anything. Only a perfect opportunity would get my attention.
That changed when a bunch of things happened all at once. A good friend sent me a message about a last-minute hunt for desert mule deer, work slowed for a couple weeks leading up to Christmas, and my wife told me if I was ever going to take a chance on something like this, now would be the time. Throwing my normal prudence aside, I did something I never do when it comes to bowhunting and made an impulse decision. I booked a flight, packed my bow case, and texted my buddy, “I’ll be there tomorrow!”
Luck abruptly changed when my bow made the flight, but I didn’t! Feeling foolish for trying something on a whim and figuring this was my punishment, I considered returning home. I was only going to have three days to hunt before this screw-up. Now it would barely be more than a day’s hunt. Having made it halfway, I decided to continue to gamble. I needed to go get my stuff anyway, so the next morning I boarded another plane and made it to my destination — only 24 hours late. I picked up my bow, and then we rushed from the airport to camp. I changed and quickly shot my bow before racing off to spend the last three hours of the day in a ground blind.
This brings us back to me sweating in a ground blind in mid-December. I sat there in warm, dry conditions with zero wind circulation, waiting for a mule deer to come by. By the time the sun had set, I had seen only thirsty horses and cattle. I was mentally preparing for one solid day of hunting before returning home, when I heard something walking. It was so calm and the ground so hard, that I could hear the buck before seeing him. All of a sudden, a large mule deer was 20 yards in front of me.
I knew this buck was a shooter, but he was facing dead away from me. There was not much shooting time left, and I was afraid he wouldn’t give me a shot opportunity, or worse, he would spook when I drew because it was so quiet.
When he turned broadside, I eased my bow to full draw. Afraid to peek through the open window, I inched over to where I could get a clear shot and the buck was staring directly at me. He knew something was wrong, but I only needed two more seconds, and he didn’t react fast enough. After a clean pass-through, the big-bodied muley made it 50 yards to where we found him dead in the sand. I had never seen a buck with so much mass. It was a humbling experience.
Having been fortunate to travel much of North America in pursuit of some strange critters, 2020 was the perfect opportunity to get back to my humble beginnings in bowhunting. It reminded me how much I thoroughly enjoy hunting the deer of this continent, and how diverse the challenges they offer are. It also brought me back to the special bonds that are made with fellow bowhunters that cannot be duplicated in most aspects of daily life.
Earlier, I mentioned how so many of the good and bad things that have happened in my life were because of close friends. For all the terrible things that 2020 brought our way, it was a blessing to have those people in my life to lean on, and to have bowhunting as the avenue for great things to happen.
The author lives in California with his wife, Anne, and their two dogs, and travels as much as possible with his bow.
Author’s Note: On these hunts I used a Hoyt Defiant 34, Gold Tip Pro Hunter 300 arrows, G5 Montec CS broadheads, KUIU clothing, and Swarovski binoculars and Marsupial harness.