A New Year's Celebration

A New Year's Celebration

In freezing weather, hunting mule deer over water seems like a crazy thing to do -- until you do it.

The day was January 1, 2008. While most Americans were sleeping off the festivities of New Year's Eve, I was finally doing something I'd only talked about doing for years. For too long, I'd dreamed about hunting mule deer in either Arizona or New Mexico during the late-season January bowhunt. Now I was actually doing it. What better way to start the New Year than by shooting a big buck?

When the weather drops well below freezing, why bother to hunt over water? My New Mexico muley, taken in January, offers one good reason.

A chalk-colored cloud of dust followed my black truck on the last 10 miles of a winding, rocky road in southern New Mexico. The narrow road led to the ranch headquarters where I would spend the next week. The surrounding hills were dotted with rocks, cedars, pinions, and clumps of yucca, cholla and prickly pear cactus. It reminded me of places where I'd hunted javelinas in West Texas. White dust from the country road blanketed the surrounding cedars and unique desert botanicals like graffiti on a masterpiece. Even in winter, the landscape was bone-dry.

What prompted me to finally quit dreaming and go hunting was a conversation the previous year with outfitter Johnny Hughes of Elite Outfitters. Johnny and I talked about hunting elk together, but I failed to draw a tag. Later, Johnny mentioned that he'd seen some good muley bucks on one of his elk properties. Those big bucks seemed to appear from thin air during December and January, when the rut was on.

"Why don't you come, and we'll see how we do on muleys in January with our bows?" was Johnny's comment between talk of elk. That was all the invitation I needed.

According to the Pope & Young Club's 25th Recording Period Statistical Summary, New Mexico ranks ninth in terms of states and provinces with the most total typical mule deer entries and twelfth in nontypical entries. Other facts gleaned from this book include the stat that 60 percent of mule deer entries were taken by spot and stalk, about 11 percent from ground blinds, and 14 percent from treestands. The rest were taken by baiting, still-hunting, or calling.

By comparison, 85 percent of whitetails were taken from treestands, 5 percent from ground blinds, and 2 percent by stalking. Baiting, still-hunting, and calling accounted for the rest.

Also, average shot distance for mule deer was much farther than for whitetails. About 34 percent of mule deer were shot at 40 yards or farther, compared to only 4 percent of whitetails. Obviously, stalking ability and long-range shooting skills contribute to success on mule deer.

Many rubs like this one near an isolated water tank helped convince me to take a stand near water.

Most biologists classify the mule deer of southern New Mexico as desert mule deer. Desert bucks have mouse-gray hides that blend perfectly with the dry, rock-covered hillsides. Typically, desert mule deer grow slightly smaller bodies and antlers than their larger Rocky Mountain cousins. The harsh desert environment where these deer live probably explains the smaller dimensions.

Despite the environment, desert bucks reach some impressive proportions, and a number of bucks show up in the record books. Going into my 2008 hunt, I was optimistic that we might find a desert giant, but I was also realistic. Any mature buck, regardless of antler score, would be a trophy in my eyes.

That first morning, Johnny and I rode four-wheelers in the dark in a face-numbing, icy breeze to our hunting location. I was bundled up like the Michelin Man.

Although desert days might warm up, winter nights can get bitter. The temperature was 14 degrees as I snugged into my daypack, and tiny clouds of frost billowed from my chapped lips as Johnny and I whispered about our plans for the day. A few patches of snow still lingered on the hillsides.

At sunrise, we were glassing a big canyon where the ranch cowboy reported seeing a 30-inch buck just weeks earlier. In the vast canyon, trying to find an individual buck was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, and we did not find the needle.

When we split up, Johnny did spot a wide 2x4 buck harassing does, but the only buck I saw was a spike with eight does. I did jump a monstrous 6x6 elk at 30 yards that almost gave me a heart attack, but I had no elk tag.

Johnny and I rode four-wheelers to our hunting area, then hiked ridges and glassed for deer.

The last hour of the day, I spied a blue water tub in the valley below and went to investigate. Johnny later told me it was the only year-round water in the area. Despite the bitter cold, this was still the desert, where water is always a precious commodity. Most of the tub was frozen, but one small area of open water remained, and a half-dozen elk and deer rubs were visible around the water. Thinking rut-weary bucks would be extra thirsty from chasing does, I sat in the shadows near the water and waited. Late in the evening, a big, beautiful bobcat stalked by the water at 60 yards, but I saw no deer.

Over the next couple of days, Johnny and I walked many miles of rocky real estate, glassing meticulously as we went. The combination of a low deer density and thick cedars made spotting deer difficult. We did find a dandy 4x4 buck, but he was just across the fence on the neighbor's property. I tried grunting and rattling to lure him my way, but he was unimpressed. He was completely focused on one specific, homely doe with a split ear. Unless she came my way, he never would.

At midday on day three, Johnny and I chatted with José, the ranch cowboy. José explained how the mule deer often jumped over a gate at night, right into the barn to gnaw on the stacked alfalfa bales stored there for horses and cattle. Hoofprints on the dusty floor, along with shredded bales, proved the truth of his statement.

José also said a decent 4x4 buck had jumped into the horse corral and drank from the water trough right at the headquarters earlier that morning. He said the buck showed up shortly after Johnny and I sped away at first light on four-wheelers! José's report just confirmed my suspicion that, ev

en though daytime temperatures rose only into the 30s and 40s, hunting over water made sense.

Thus, on t he afternoon of day four, I decided to sit by the blue tub again. Taking wind direction into account, I found a shady spot under a cedar tree on the hillside overlooking the water tub, nocked an arrow, and got comfortable.

No matter how cold the weather, desert is desert, meaning dry! That's why desert deer always need water -- and why this small, partially frozen tub paid off handsomely for me.

At 4 p.m., a spike buck walked right in front of me, jolting me out of a trance. The small buck went to the water tub and drank for at least a minute before dashing away into the thick sage and oak brush. His appearance boosted my confidence on my decision to guard water.

Thirty minutes later I caught sight of a deer to my right as he walked toward the water. A quick glance through binoculars showed me this was a quality buck. His rack wasn't especially wide, but it had good front and back forks. And a white face and barrel chest signified a mature buck, which was my goal. I slid the binoculars into my vest, snapped my release on the bowstring, and prepared for a shot.

The white-faced buck jumped over the fence surrounding the water tank, cautiously eased toward the mostly frozen plastic tub, and started to drink. He was perfectly broadside.As my arrow crashed through his chest, the buck launched himself over the fence like a giant grasshopper, and after a short dash he tumbled in a cloud of dust right in front of me.

The buck's chocolate-colored rack was heavy, with deep front and back forks and good brow tines. He wasn't the 30-inch buck reported to live in that canyon, but he was too good to let walk. Johnny estimated his age at 5 1/2 or 6 1/2 years and his live weight at 180 to 200 pounds. What a great way to celebrate the New Year!

The author is an outdoor writer from Claude, Texas.

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