Arizona Strip 13A Mule Deer Experience. Hunting The Arizona Strip for Trophy Mule Deer
by Carl Stubbs
The first year I remember deer hunting was when I was about 8 years of age. My dad had hunted since he was a very young boy and he still enjoyed it for many years as I was growing up. I remember those first few years dressing in Levis, simulated leather boots, a few jackets and maybe a yellow or orange sweatshirt. It was a bit different back then, no Goretex, scent blocker, or ATVs. It wasn’t quite the Blaze Orange of today; it was more like the burnt orange of changing autumn leaves. I do remember a few of those years hunting in the mountains of Utah where the view looked a lot like a pumpkin patch. I can still recall the excitement of riding in the plywood box of our converted late 60’s Volkswagen Dune Buggy. Me and my brother, two years older than me, always got stuck in the back and it wasn’t that bad first thing in the morning, but that ride back to camp with cold, wet, feet, always seemed to take twice as long. The sock driers back then consisted of taking your socks off and placing them on the exhaust of the dune buggy and making sure you pulled them off before they burnt.
I have always dreamed of finding that huge mule deer and visioning something 36 inches wide that everyone just goes crazy over. For many years I thought those deer were just something of the past and they just didn’t grow like that anymore. Then in my 20’s as I started dating my late wife, I sat in her parents family room starring at a huge, perfect four point muley that her Grandfather had killed many years before. This monster muley is thirty six inches wide and is impressive to look at. That was the goal; to some day kill something like that. Something my Grandkids can sit and stare at and dream of hunting some day.
June 14, 2011 was the Arizona deadline for Deer, Bighorn Sheep, Bison, and other Big Game Animal hunting applications. I spent the few weeks before the deadline with my good hunting buddy, Russ Jacoby, going over the draw odds and trying to determine the best Hunt Units to apply for. Russ’ theory, and of course mine also, is to put your first choice hunt as the coveted 13A Arizona Strip Unit. Russ always says, “You just never know, you may draw it.” I filled out the applications for my family and put 13A as the first choice for all of us. Second choice was, well it really didn’t matter. There are those that don’t share the same view as Russ and I. I even had one associate comment that it is crazy to put in for 13A because the odds are against you of ever drawing the tag.
I dropped off the applications at the Arizona Game and Fish Headquarters in Flagstaff on June 13th, the day before the dead line. I am not as superstitious as many of my friends, but I sure wish I knew exactly what time of day it was, what I was wearing, and what song was playing on the radio as I dropped off those applications.
It was now the middle of July; approximately a month after the application deadline and I was busy at work tracking the progress of a remodel project going on in the building I work in. I wasn’t thinking much about the draw results, but there was talk, anticipation, and a bunch of guessing about when the results would be coming out. One morning during this time, I was sitting in my office at about 10:00am and I was checking the AZGFD web page for draw results and low and behold they had just been released. I started inputting my family’s information one at a time. My two daughters were first, “Not Drawn”. My 15 year old son was next, Drawn – 1012. That was unit 12A East Early hunt. I was pretty jealous of Tanner especially because he had already drawn a late rifle elk tag for the year. Then I checked my wife’s results and again, “Not Drawn”. Then I plugged in my information and to my great surprise it read, Drawn – 1020, Tag 49. I knew that I had put in for 13A, but I could not remember the hunt numbers and I did not remember what my second choice was. With my heart now pounding much faster, I pulled the regulations down off my shelf and started looking up the hunt numbers. I scanned down the hunt number column and there it was, Hunt No. 1020 – Nov 11 – Nov 20, 2011, Unit 13A. I had to look multiple times and then highlight the row, because I knew it was impossible to draw this tag. A few minutes later it still had not sunk in and another associate walked into my office and asked if I had any draw success. I told him and he could not believe it and congratulated me. This is not always the reaction you get when you tell someone in Arizona that you drew 13A. In fact, I got the two-handed fingers from one person. A few minutes later Russ called me and asked if I had drawn anything and I told him Tanner, my son, had drawn a Kaibab tag, and I drew 13A. I think he was more excited then I was. Later that evening as I was talking to Russ on the phone, he said, “I don’t think you realize what you are sitting on.” He was absolutely right.
The next morning I was checking on the remodel project, and going over some details with the contractor’s superintendant Chad Woodruff. Of course, he and Russ are well acquainted and I knew Chad obviously from this project. I first met Chad when he had gotten out of bed at midnight during the 2010 archery elk hunt and helped Russ and I skin the elk we had both just harvested. Of course I recognized Chad mostly because of his relation to his dad, John Woodruff, who had harvested the well known monster mule deer, Bullwinkle, the previous year in 13A. Chad already knew, from Russ, that I had drawn a 13A tag. He asked if I would like some help and you could tell from the look in his eyes that he could not wait for an excuse to spend some more time on the Arizona Strip in 13A. I was more than happy to accept his help and we started talking of all the preparations from there.
One of the first questions Chad asked me was, “What rifle are you going to use?” I was not sure as I have a few, but realistically I only had two that would qualify and only one that I would consider at that time. When I discussed what I had, Chad said he had a brand new rifle he had purchased the year before and would sell it to me for the hunt if I was interested. He said it was a Christensen Arms Rifle in the .300 Remington Ultra Magnum caliber. As he described the carbon fiber barrel, the Leupold scope with a turret, the tooled action and trigger, I could not wait to get my hands on it and shoot it. The first time I picked up that beautiful rifle, I was sold just on the weight. After shooting it I did not want to let it out of my hands. After a few rounds I already knew the rifle was much more accurate then what I could shoot. The astounding characteristic was the lack of recoil. Chad’s arms are a bit shorter than mine and normally that would have caused me to have a nice semi-circle above my eye after the first shot. After a few shots, I could see that anyone in my family could shoot this firearm with no problem and they since have.
The next weeks went by very fast and I had a lot to do to get ready for what is equivalent to a “Once in a Life Time Hunt”. The second weekend of September I finally made my first trip to the Arizona Strip. I had never been in Unit 13A before and had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. I had talked to Chad and others to get ideas of where to spend some time and I was on my way. After the first 20 miles of dirt road I was thinking this is more of a lizard and rattlesnake habitat and that Chad must have got me mixed up with an Antelope tag holder. After approximately 30 miles of dirt I finally started running into some Pinion and Juniper trees and then some sagebrush. I headed toward Mount Trumbull (doesn’t everyone) and drove around for some time and found some areas to hike and glass from. Driving to the glassing area I had chosen, I saw a doe and two fawns. Little did I know that was the only deer I would see in the unit for the next three trips. Chad’s and my schedules did not line up very well until the middle of October. He would go scouting one weekend and come back with pictures and stories of deer, and bobcats, and snakes, but I would never see anything.
I learned quickly that it makes a huge difference scouting only a few weekends rather than a lot of weekends over the course of six or seven years. I finally connected with Chad on a weekend when we could both go scouting and I finally saw some deer. One was a really nice 30 inch typical deer and then I was getting a little more excited. Chad had pictures of five deer that we were having a hard time narrowing down as to which one to hunt. I finally told Chad that I would like to hunt the one he had named Curly. It was a 42 inch wide deer that had deep forks and was in the neighborhood of 40 inches of mass. It was not as massive and not quite as wide as Bullwinkle that John Woodruff, Chad’s dad, had killed the year before, but anyone that set eyes on Curly could not help but be Wowed.
There were two other deer we agreed that we could not pass on if we were lucky enough to run into them. Both were non-typical deer and both looked to score in the 230 range. Chad had named one Righty and the other one, that had one eye missing, he named Warrior. Then a couple weeks before the hunt, Chad was in the unit scouting and was able to take pictures of an unbelievable typical four point. This deer was incredible with back forks that never ended and fronts that you just don’t see. It was very difficult to try and pick what deer to try and go after, but we kept our plan to hunt Curly.
Some time back in September I had sent a text message to Chad and told him that this had to be my lucky year and that I had to kill on the opening day of the hunt because the date was November 11, 2011 – 11-11-11. That had to be a good omen. Chad agreed.
On Thursday November 10, 2011 I headed to Northern Arizona with everything I needed, hoping that I had not forgotten anything. I checked multiple times to make sure I had the tag and I looked at it even that last day just to make sure it read “Unit 13A”. It was still hard to believe. The only thing I really left behind was my wife and kids. My wife, Eileen wanted to go so bad that she could not stand it. She had killed her first ever deer, a nice four point, the year before on the Kaibab. That experience hooked her for life. The biggest mistake I made was not bringing her along. I was worried about the walking and the cold. She would have been by my side the entire time and I know I would have never heard a word of complaint. I think that is what worried me the most. The combination of cold temperatures and hiking long days results in cramps (Charlie Horses) in her legs. They get so bad, that she can’t sleep and has a hard time walking for days. Selfishly I just did not want to see her in that much pain. So I left Flagstaff alone that day and headed to 13A to meet up with Chad, John, and Shane Woodruff and of course my hunting buddy Russ Jacoby. I found Camp late in the afternoon and we were ready to plan the activities for the morning of the opening of my dream-come-true mule deer hunt.
That evening we talked of where John, Shane, and Russ would set up and glass from and where Chad and I would start hunting. It was easy to see that Chad and Shane were brothers and they both knew what the best plan was. It was interesting watching John sit back and let them dispute about where to start and what direction to go. John was the master of not saying much except to add a little fuel to the discussion at just the right time. Chad had spent the most time on the Strip in the last six months and had the most data of where the deer were. It was still impressive to me that Chad always offered what he thought we should do and then respectfully ask his father what he thought. John has spent more time wandering deer habitats then most of us have spent sleeping. John never disagreed with his son; rather he added his experience to bring credibility to the plan.
November can bring a chill to the Strip that could make many a hunter think twice about getting out of a nice, warm sleeping bag. It was in the teens on the morning of November 11, 2011 as we started the trucks and got ready to head to our predetermined spots. It was dark as we drove out of camp. There was some snow on the ground, but it was a week or so old. We came to a fork in the road and it was time to say good-bye to John, Shane and Russ. They headed off in different directions as Chad and I headed to the area Chad had decided we should hunt. We drove down the road maneuvering between the juniper and pinion trees and we finally came to a spot where Chad said, “I think this is where we should start.” I wasn’t going to argue, I had only seen about 10 deer in the whole unit over the last few months.
We donned our packs, I got my rifle, and we headed out. We were walking mostly in frozen snow that crunched with every step, so we were taking our time. We walked down the ridge a few hundred yards and crossed a draw to gain some advantage of elevation on the other side. We navigated through the PJ until we came to an opening where we could see most of a large drainage. We started glassing the drainage and hill sides hoping to find one of the notorious Strip Mule Deer. We glassed for what seemed 30 minutes or so and we didn’t see anything. We started walking again and Chad found a nice little four point shed. We kept walking along the drainage glassing the entire area. We finally came to a point where we had to make a decision of where to head next. We stopped and Chad indicated we could go off in the direction toward the next drainage or we could go back and glass from the area where we were earlier. I told him I was open to either one and we should do whatever he felt stronger about. He decided we should go back to where we first glassed that morning. We arrived in the opening about 20 minutes later and started glassing. Chad immediately picked up some deer. There were four does and large buck across the drainage. I spotted them in my binoculars and the buck was a really large three point with a number of cheaters. It was not a deer we were interested in, but it was still one of the largest deer I had ever seen while hunting. The buck bedded down, but it and the few does kept looking down the slope in the trees. We kept watching and then all of a sudden the three-point got up and started down the slope. We soon found out why.
The three-point started into a small clearing and coming out of the trees on the other end of the clearing was Righty. The two challengers passed each other and the three-point turned and started following – chasing Righty. Chad and I were ecstatic to say the least. He said we need to shoot him. Chad proceeded to range Righty and he indicated the distant to be 680 yards. I did not have a very good rest so we stood a pack up and I used it for a rest. I turned the turret on the scope to 675 and steadied the best I could with my heart pounding almost out of my chest. I fired the first shot and it missed. Chad said I shot about an inch under him. I jacked another round in the chamber and started the process again. The three-point was still chasing Righty all over the hill, in and out of trees, up the slope, down the slope; it was hard to keep on them. Of course, Chad kept saying, “Don’t shoot the three-point”. I was not so pumped up that I couldn’t keep track of Righty and it wasn’t hard to tell them apart. The problem is that after that first shot, I was worthless. I took four more shoots before the two deer disappeared into the trees and we did not see them again.
Chad had spent enough time studying the deer in 13A that he could intimately identify many of them. He knew this 200 inch framed, four point deer was the huge muley he had branded as Righty. This was a young, four or five year old Strip Muley with some incredible genetics. Righty had multiple cheaters sticking straight out on his right antler and at least one on his left. His right antler appeared to be more massive than his left, thus the nick name. Chad watched Righty close enough on the slope as I was lobbing copper at him, to see he had a six inch gash on his left side. He wasn’t cut, but he was missing hair, most likely due to combats over does.
Chad and I walked over to the area where I had shot at Righty and walked along the top of the ridge. We could see the deer did not come out of the drainage and Chad figured they were still in that area. He said we should go back to camp and get some lunch and we would come back in the afternoon and see if we could possibly get a second chance at a deer of Righty’s caliber. Chad and I did not talk much going back to the truck. I was sick that I had missed the deer of a life time and Chad knew that you just don’t get that many opportunities at a deer like that and especially on the Strip. Once we were in the truck and headed back to camp, Chad looked at me and said, “You know that you are going to get a bit of razing back at camp.” Of course I knew that was true, but what I didn’t know, is that John Woodruff stays up nights thinking up ways to give you a hard time (actually I think it comes much easier than that for John). It was all in good humor and I knew I deserved some of it.
While we ate lunch, I heard all kinds of comments about the copper mines that would be opening up next year, about getting additional help to carry ammo, and many more creative pokes. We finally headed out of camp at about 1:30pm the afternoon of Friday 11-11-11 and I could not wait to get out where we needed to be much quieter. We parked in the same place we had earlier that morning and started out in the same direction. Chad led off with me close behind, but this time we had John bring up the rear. John said he would stay close because he didn’t want me to get too far from my extra ammo he was carrying. After hiking for about 20 minutes Chad stopped dead in his tracks and turned and looked at me with a look that could not be mistaken. He had just spotted Curly. The 40 plus inch wide buck was bedded down behind a huge Juniper tree 20 yards in front of us. Of course, Curly didn’t stay long. He was up and off before either John or I could catch a glimpse of him.
We started tracking Curly and the few does that were with him down to the bottom of the draw. At that point, Chad asked John to start tracking Curly and indicated that he and I would go to the top of the next ridge and watch for Curly to come out on the other side. When we got to the top of the ridge, John called on the radio and said that Curly had turned and headed away from us. Chad and I started walking down the ridge when John called again and indicated that Curly had turned again and was coming our way. So we stopped and started looking up the drainage. Within seconds I spotted a buck walking up the drainage away from us. I could see it was a really nice buck, but had no idea how big he was. I immediately took the covers off the scope and went to one knee. I asked Chad the range and he said, “300 Yards”. I cranked the turret to 300 and put the cross hairs on the buck. He had just crossed a small clearing that was about 30 yards across and was now moving quickly away from us. As Chad started to say, “Shoot that …” there was a loud boom followed by a whack. I knew I had to take that shot, because with just a couple more steps the deer would disappear in the trees.
Chad said, “You hit him good, his whole backend dropped when you hit him.” John was immediately on the radio asking what deer I had shot. Russ and Shane quickly followed because they had heard the shot and the whack from almost a mile away. I had no idea what Chad was saying on the radio, but Shane and Russ were on their way to our position and John was being directed to where I had shot the deer. After waiting a few minutes, I just could not wait any longer. I indicated to Chad that I was going to head over to the last spot we had seen the deer. I found this enormous set of tracks in the bottom of the drainage and followed them to the clearing. I could see the deer’s tracks at the spot where I had shot, but there was no blood. Before going any further, I waited for John and Chad to get to where I was. The three of us started following the tracks and John said, “He is hit, he is dragging his back leg.” Now I was worried that I had only wounded the deer. Then John said it again, but stopped half way through the sentence and said, “Holy Crap”, or something like that, followed by, “Here he is.” There laying in the snow and sagebrush was a huge non-typical mule deer. The thing that surprised us the most was that it was Righty, the same deer I had missed that morning. It is unbelievable how a deer like this can just keep growing as you walk up on it and keeps growing admiration as you continue absorbing the experience.
What an incredible deer. I finally had the deer, that maybe one day, I will have grandkids that can stare at and dream of hunting. I was very excited and could not believe I had just killed one of the three deer we had really wanted to harvest. At the time it all seemed too easy. I knew the odds were against me, but it was still the opening day of the hunt (11-11-11). We were able to find and harvest one of the top three deer Chad had identified. And we had seen, at this point (we saw a third the next day) two of the five monster deer scouted. I was extremely fortunate enough to have hunted the Arizona Strip, kill one of the three deer we were hunting, kill on the day I was hoping to, and to experience it all with some great friends and phenomenal hunters.
The deer scored officially as a 9 by 11 non-typical at 236 0/8 SCI and 223 4/8 net B&C.
Taxidermy: Mount-N-View – Flagstaff, AZ