Arizona is one of the most popular states on BookYourHunt.com, and at the moment of writing second only to Alaska in terms of the number of hunting trips offered. The state can boast of breathtaking scenery, with deserts, mesas, mountains, pine forests, plateaus and canyons hosting healthy populations of big and small game. Some of the biggest-antlered elk in North America roam the woods of Arizona. Mountain lions lurk in the wilderness and black bears can be seen on the mountain slopes. There is also pronghorn antelope, javelina, and perhaps the most coveted big-game animal at all, the desert bighorn sheep. And deer hunters flock to the state in pursuit of the Coues and mule deer.
Arizona mule deer may not be as famous for size as Arizona elk, but they are still respectable trophies, and quite numerous. Most outfitters promise you’ll see 5-10 bucks a day, with the best ones in the 140”-170” class. However, it is the Coues deer which is perhaps the main reason to consider a deer hunt in Arizona.
The Coues deer is a variety of white-tailed deer. Except Arizona, Coues deer can only be hunted in New Mexico and the Sonora province of Mexico. Coues deer are well adapted to high altitudes (4,000-6,000 feet), shrub, juniper pine and desert environments. Adaptation to these environments made Coues deer quite different from the familiar white-tailed deer found in most other states, and the hunting is also quite different. Suffice it to say that Arizona hunting guides call Coues deer the same name that African PHs gave the kudu: Grey Ghost, and for the same reason. This careful little deer is one of the most elusive big-game animals in North America.
Overall, deer season in Arizona is long: you can hunt from August to January of the next year. Well, not quite. There are three main deer seasons in Arizona. The early archery season runs from mid-August into September. Then there’s a break in October to early November, when deer hunters have to give way to elk hunting. In mid-November, deer hunting returns with the muzzleloader and rifle seasons, and the late archery seasons begins in mid-December and continues throughout January. And each of the three seasons is special in its own way.
Deer hunting in the early archery season may strongly remind one of the Dark Continent, in both the weather and the hunting methods employed. Deer hunting in Arizona begins in August, when deer still have their antlers in the velvet. This offers not only a chance to harvest a unique trophy, but also a unique experience, as the bucks’ summer behavior differs from their winter patterns. The disadvantage of this time is that the weather could be very hot in the afternoons. But on the other hand, you may be able to see literally dozens of deer in the morning, and it’s almost guaranteed that one of them would be a worthy trophy and convenient for the stalk.
Spot-and-stalk hunts usually start in the mornings, with the hunters getting on vantage point and glassing for deer. If a buck is spotted, in most cases you wait until it beds down for mid-day, and then stalk it at its bed. If you don’t see a deer in the morning, many guides recommend taking a mid-day break, so that the hunter can rest his or her weary eyes. This hunt requires not only a lot of walking, but a lot of glassing as well, and while your excitement makes you forget about the fatigue, you’re going to need your eyesight as sharp as possible when it comes to the shot.
Spot-and-stalk hunts are, of course, not the only way to get a deer in Arizona. Experienced guides are ready to use different methods, including waiting on tree stands, in ground blinds, and calling, to get you on the deer of your dreams. The high-country forests can offer some short-range hunting. So is waiting for the deer from blinds over the waterholes – something that is practiced by nearly all outfitters who cater to bowhunters in Africa. In the drier areas this can be a highly successful tactic. Another option for placement of a blind or tree stand is a mineral lick. Bucks with the antlers in the velvet are especially attracted by the minerals they need for antler growth.
Rifle season hunts, especially for mule deer in the desert units, are also an epitome of spot-and-stalk. You should be prepared for 250-yard and longer shots, as most guides would rather have you take a long shot on a spotted deer than stalk it on its bed. Unlike archery season, when tags are available over-the-counter (the same tag is good for either mule or Coues deer), rifle hunts in Arizona are limited draw only. However, the chances to draw a tag are high, especially if you use the help of the outfitter with filing for the draw. Some outfitters provide this service for a nominal price, and it is usually worth it.
While the best time for Coues deer hunting is arguably the early archery season, the last two weeks of December and January are perhaps the best time to hunt mule deer in Arizona. The late archery season takes place when deer hunting in most other states is closed, or uncomfortable due to winter weather, while the temperatures in Arizona are on a comfortable level, although you may expect snow in the mountains now and then.
However, the main attraction of the late archery season in Arizona is that it takes place during the rut. As the bucks can think of little else except the does, their usual defenses – extreme wariness and acute senses of smell and hearing – are somewhat dropped. But even in the rut, harvesting a mature, thick-beamed mule deer a bow is an experience that no archery hunter will ever forget. Prepare for long shots, and invest your time in practice.
There is a lot of public land in Arizona, both state, federal, and national forest. A lot of outfitters take advantage of it and hunt public land. Naturally, you may expect competition there, but good guides know sweet spots where you can count on getting a great buck. Assistance of a good guide, who’s well aware of the local conditions, is invaluable. Good outfitters will invest heavily into pre-season scouting, sometimes utilizing literally hundreds of trail cameras until they have the best bucks on the property they hunt patterned.
An out-of-state hunter can read, learn, and even pre-scout one unit. But experienced local guides can cover and learn about much greater tracts of land. The best outfitters are highly flexible, and may take you from one area and unit to another, if they feel it offers you better chances. On the other hand, private land in the vicinity of popular areas on public land often becomes safe havens for the bigger and more experienced deer, and if the outfitter has access to such land, you may expect a great hunt.
You shouldn’t expect luxurious accommodation with Michelin quality catering, like in many lodges in South Africa and Namibia. Many outfitters and guides in Arizona don’t even have a lodge, and offer their clients a choice between a local motel or hotel, or a tent camp way out in the desert or mountains. But this is not something that could stop a passionate hunter who values above all the genuine and true hunting experience. As a rule, you’ll be provided with basic food, and no alcohol. However, most guides don’t object if you bring the drink of your choice to camp or buy whatever you need at the local store.
Before you book your hunt, it is advisable to think in advance about the venison and the trophy, and how you’re going to bring it home. You can have your venison processed and shipped by a local butcher, and in most cases, you can trust your outfitter in recommending a reliable service. Alternatively, most airlines will let you fly with a dry-ice cooler with venison as extra luggage. On the balance, it could be a cheaper and quicker option than processing. The care of the antlers and cape or skin depends on how you would like to process your trophy, and if you use the services of a taxidermist, it’s a good idea to talk it over with them.
Wide open spaces, often accompanied by scorching heat, but sometimes unexpectedly cold. Grey ghosts lurking in the bush, enormous cat pawprints you may see on the dust of the roads. Spot-and-stalk hunts, or waiting in a bling over a water hole or salt lick. Doesn’t this remind you, at least a little bit, of Africa? But whether you think about deer hunting in Arizona as an exotic or All-American hunt, it’s one of the hunts that should be on every deer hunter’s bucket list.
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