July 24, 2006, started out just like any other day, but when my brother-in-law, Bill Nebeker, called me from Prescott, Arizona, it became anything but “just another day” because he was calling to tell me that we’d both just been drawn for mule deer in Unit 13A on the Arizona Strip.
Bill and I have been hunting together for 36 years and for 30 of those 36 years we’ve been putting in together for the coveted Arizona Strip tag. And for 29 years we were drawn for other units. This year, we applied separately because I’d moved to Montgomery, Alabama, and had to apply for a nonresident tag.
There were just 40 tags drawn the year our numbers were called and 36 of those tags were drawn by Arizona hunters and the other four went to nonresidents. Because of the number of people who apply for this coveted tag each year, there’s only a 1 percent chance of being drawn. So you can imagine the surprise and elation we both felt after we found out we were both drawn. Some might call it luck, but I’d like to think God was looking out for two old hunters who’d been dreaming of this opportunity for 30 years. By the time the hunt would start, I’d be 63 years old and Bill would be 64 and we’d both pretty much given up hope of ever being able to hunt in this unit of the state. Waiting 4 months for the hunt to begin seemed longer than the years we’d waited to be drawn and I was packed and ready to go 1 week after Bill’s phone call.
If you’re a serious mule deer hunter, you know that the Arizona Strip is the “Holy Grail” of mule deer hunting. It’s legendary for the size of deer that come from this area and it’s approximately 1,600 square miles in size, which is roughly the size of Delaware. This area ranges in elevation from 4,500 feet to 8,000 feet and has desert, canyons, mesas and pine-covered mountains. In those 1,600 square miles there are no motels, restaurants or gas stations, which is just the kind of place mule deer need to live in order to grow into the “monsters” that the Arizona Strip produces.
This hunt was so special to us and because we’d never hunted the unit before we contacted a longtime friend by the name of Chad Smith, who owns and operates Vaquero Outfitters. We asked him to supply us with a guide since Vaquero Outfitters has successfully guided many hunters in this unit and the guides know the area very well. We’d meet our guide when we arrived in camp on November 15—2 days before our hunt was to begin.
The months of August and September crept by very slowly, but a deer hunt in Wyoming in October helped Bill and me get our equipment ready and our bodies in shape for the Arizona hunt. When the calendar finally read Nov. 15, 2006, Bill, our friend and hunting partner, John Higley, and I all arrived in camp. John hadn’t been drawn for a license but he wanted to be with us on this memorable hunt and after we got to camp we met our guide, Matt Schimberg, who showed us where to park our camp trailer. After we got settled in, we went to the kitchen and dining tent where Matt gave us directions to go scout for the evening since he was going to go to another area to check for water.
Unfortunately, the only thing that really happened that first evening was me throwing up all over the side of the hill we’d climbed. I hadn’t been feeling well before we left and I was sick all night and for most of the next morning. This certainly wasn’t how I wanted to start my “hunt of a lifetime.” However, I was able to scout the following evening and saw a small 5x4 buck so it seemed that I’d be fine for opening day.
There were other hunters and guides in camp with us and everyone was excited for our first morning of hunting. After breakfast we all went in different directions. Matt, Bill, John (who’d be an extra set of eyes) and I went to the area Matt had chosen for us to hunt. Early on, we saw a really wide 2-point with some does. Later that morning we jumped a big 4-point but lost him in the trees. We hunted that deer the rest of the day, but only saw a few does and another small buck.
Back at camp, everyone gathered in the dining tent and talked about what they’d seen that day. No one had shot a deer that first day and after Trina, the camp cook, made a nice dinner we all drifted back to our tents to go to bed because 5 a.m. comes very early.
The second morning we hunted the spot where we’d seen the big 4-point but we never saw him again. Matt took us to another area where we’d seen several good bucks and I decided to go off on my own and hunt a series of ridges the guides call the “White Fingers.” Matt and Bill would hunt another area and we’d meet back at the road in 3½ hours. During my hunt I saw two small bucks and several does. Matt and Bill said they’d also seen deer but nothing Bill was interested in shooting so we went back to camp and once again talked about our day with the other hunters and guides, had dinner and then went to bed.
We’d just started walking to where we were going to hunt on the third morning of the hunt when Matt found us and said that a “monster” buck had just come out of the trees approximately 150 yards behind us to the east. We walked in that direction and saw the buck cross a clearing and head into the trees. Bill and I grabbed our rifles and took off after him but by the time that we got to the trees, the buck had disappeared. We spent hours looking for him but never saw him again. Matt said the buck was a huge 5x5 that would probably score more than 230 Boone & Crockett Club points. I sat in the same area that night and Bill stayed close to where we’d seen the big buck. On the way back to camp that night, Matt told us this was the warmest November in years and as a result, the deer weren’t moving after sunrise or before sunset. He also said this wouldn’t be an easy hunt.
Day four of our hunt came and went with the same results as the previous days. We saw several bucks but nothing big and the only thing that we really got on day four was exercise. Day five was much the same as the only deer we saw was a small buck in the headlights of the truck on the way to our hunting area. We’d hunted for that big buck for 3 days without any results and I wanted to do something different the next day. Matt said he’d take me to hunt another area the next morning and Bill would go with another guide to the place where we’d seen the big buck.
It didn’t seem to matter what we did because day six was no different. Matt and I crossed ridges and valleys on foot for 5½ hours and never saw a deer. Bill and Bryon had no better luck and all we had to show for our efforts at the end of the day were sore muscles and sore feet. That evening, Bill and I climbed a hill not far from camp and saw four coyotes, four does and a small buck. Tomorrow would be the seventh day of our hunt and the last day we’d have a guide.
Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
Day seven was pretty much the same as the others. We went back to see if we could find the buck because we decided we’d try one more time while we still had the guides. Bill put a stalk on a pretty nice buck but was never able to get within shooting range and I hiked and glassed a different area and jumped a buck but all I saw were tracks. That evening, we sat at a tank but we hadn’t sat long before Bill got sick and went back to the truck. I stayed until dark and only saw a bobcat. Bill was sick the rest of the night.
Bill was still asleep when I left camp on day No. 8. I saw four small bucks but nothing I was interested in shooting. What I found was an area that looked really good and I was excited to tell Bill about it. When I got back to camp the last hunter and guide were packing to leave. Bill was feeling better and wanted to go on an evening hunt so we went to two different tanks. I saw a small buck, some does and a fawn. Bill didn’t see anything. When we got back to camp all that was left was a stack of wood and our camp trailer. Our friend, John, had left the day before to go cook at an elk camp. It was very quiet and we built a big fire just to keep ourselves company.
The morning of day nine, we went back to the tank where I’d seen the buck the night before. The area was full of tracks but all we saw was the same small buck we’d seen before. One the way back to camp for lunch, I told Bill that I’d like to go to the area I’d found the morning he was sick. It was next to the last evening and since nothing else had worked for us we decided to go. After lunch and a little rest we left to check out the new area I’d found. We drove for a while and found a small dirt road that led to a hill overlooking a big sage flat. We set up our spotting scopes and started glassing and had been there about an hour when I found a buck standing on a small knob in the middle of the sage flat.
Bill said it looked like a good buck. It was pretty wide and seemed to be a 4x4. It was getting late so I decided to go ahead and make a stalk on him. I got with 100 yards, took a deep breath and fired. He dropped in his tracks! I was shooting a .264 Win. Mag. with a Model 70 action and shooting 130-grain Barns Triple Shock bullets with a 4.5X15mm Leupold scope. That combination had worked well for me in Wyoming in October and worked equally as well here.
The buck wasn’t a monster, but he was the biggest mule deer I’d ever taken and he just missed being 30 inches wide. He was a 5x4 that measured 29¾ inches wide and we guessed that his rack would score between 170-175 B&C and with just 1 day left to hunt I’d made the decision to shoot this buck and I was happy that I had.
On the way back to camp I asked Bill what he wanted to do for the last day of our hunt. He said he had no idea so when we got back to camp we took care of my deer, got cleaned up, ate some dinner and went to bed.
Bill left camp on day No. 10 still not knowing what he wanted to do and when we got to the intersection where the road went to the area where I’d taken my buck the night before, he turned. I asked him why he’d just turned and he said he had no idea and just kept driving. The sun had just come up when a “monster” mule deer crossed the road about 100 yards in front of us and ran into some trees on the east side of the road. Bill pulled the truck off the road and grabbed his rifle. We started running to where the deer had disappeared and when we got to the trees we slowly made our way through them. After approximately 40 yards we came out of the trees and into a clearing. There stood the monster Arizona Strip mule deer! Bill stepped back to get a rest against a tree and used his rangefinder to range the deer at 324 yards. He took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger and when he did the buck of a lifetime dropped in his tracks. Bill put another shell in his rifle, but it wasn’t necessary. We stood there for approximately 10 minutes, shaking from the excitement and the cold before making our way over to the deer. It was a huge 35½-inch wide buck with 7 points on one side of his rack and 5 points on the other with very heavy mass. It was a true “monster” buck and I told Bill “I guess you picked the right spot!” to which Bill replied, “I think I had some help,” and pointed toward the sky. Bill was also shooting a .264 Win. Mag. with 125-grain Nosler Partition bullets and his rifle worked just like it had in Wyoming—perfectly.
When we got back to camp, we hung Bill’s buck in a tree to cool and then started packing up camp. Bill was as excited as I’d ever seen him and he had good reason to be—we knew his deer would score well more than 200 B&C points.
It had been a long, hot, hard hunt and even though we both shot deer after the guides had left, we were thankful they’d been there to show us the country and teach us about the Arizona Strip deer. They worked extremely hard for us and we were very grateful for their guidance and assistance.
We headed home knowing this might be our one and only hunt in this area of big mule deer. It had taken us 30 years to get drawn for this hunt and at our age who knows if we’ll ever get drawn again. We both hunted hard from daylight to dark, pushing ourselves to the limits that our bodies could take. We followed guides half our age who never seemed to be breathing hard and it was exciting, exhilarating and rewarding. The aches and pains have all disappeared but the memories will live as long as Bill and I do.