It's over.


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sixgunner455
December 1, 2011, 12:20 AM
Well, it's official. My 2011 quest to take a Coues Whitetail in southern Arizona ended today with nothing on the meat pole, but a mind full of memories.

Technically, I have one day left on the tag I drew, but I have to go back to work tomorrow.

This hunt, as all big game hunts do in Arizona, started in the spring when the hunting proclamation came out. I looked it over carefully, looked at the hunts offered for the unit the ranch I had already gotten permission to hunt on was in, and then entered my preferred hunt numbers, starting with December and working my way back to the early season being my least-favored choice.

The whitetail rut starts in mid-December here, so the hunt that coincides with it is the most successful, traditionally. Also the hardest to draw out for.

Well, then I had to wait to see if I got a tag. Sure enough, I didn't get the December hunt, but I got my second choice, Thanksgiving weekend through December 1st. Nobody I knew drew out for the same unit at the same time, so I figured I'd end up doing this solo.

I had never owned a centerfire, honest-to-goodness hunting rifle. I grew up hunting, but my dad was into muzzleloaders, so that's what I got and what most of my hunts have been. Besides my muzzleloader, most of my rifles have been milsurps, and I still own a K31, a muzzleloader, and an AR15 in 5.56mm. In doing my research, I discovered that ... Coues are hard to hunt. And close (muzzleloader) range shots are rare. They live in steep, high, rough terrain. Getting to within 400 yards of one is considered good stalking. A long-range, accurate, scoped rifle is almost required to take one, according to most of the research I did. Quality binoculars are a must. A spotting scope is recommended by most, as is a quality laser range finder - to ensure that the animal you think is in range actually is.

I thought about using my K31 with a scope, since it is a capable, accurate, hard-hitting rifle, but after researching that option, realized that (1) putting a good mount on it and getting a good scope and rings would cost me about what a Savage 11F would cost, and (2) the Savage weighs about half what the K31 does, so I determined to get a Savage. The caliber is .243, since the .243 is more than adequate power-wise for a 100lbs live weight animal, and it shoots flatter than most belted magnums. I sold off a Colt revolver to fund the rifle purchase, and paid cash for it.

I got dies, bullets, powder, and started working up loads. Lots of fun. I ended up liking the 100gr Hornady Interlock Boattails best, over 35.5gr of IMR 4895 as that load grouped exceptionally well. I can ring steel to 400 yards with it, so the rifle was taken care of.

The Bushnell scope that came on the rifle was adequate, but ... had a 4"+ POI shifting issue when switching between magnification levels that left me sour, so I got a Nikon Prostaff 3x9 that is a better scope in every way I can think to measure it. Orders of magnitude better.

I already had a spotting scope, but added a better tripod, and then started shopping for a range finder.

Dang, this hunt got expensive! I ended up getting a Bushnell Legend 1200 Arc range finder. It is simple to set up, use, and works very, very well. I ranged a rock formation with it at 1295 yards.

In the midst of all of that shopping and equipment prep, I spent days glassing and hiking in the areas I intended to hunt, hunted doves and quail with my dog in some of those areas, and decided that I needed to lose some weight to survive the strenuous hiking better.

I didn't actually lose any weight (I'm 5'10'', 205), but I can spend most of my lunch hour on an elliptical trainer without collapsing, so despite my disappointment at the inches on my waist not decreasing, I felt like I had prepared myself as much as I could.

So. The Sunday before opening day, my uncle called to invite me and my family to a Thanksgiving gathering - the day after Thanksgiving, which was the opening day of my deer season. Cousins I haven't seen in years. Oh well, they didn't see me again this year! :D

Thanksgiving morning, I made cornbread for the stuffing, and then ran off to haul the camp trailer up to the ranch. Kids didn't get to come with because they had homework and "it's-Thanksgiving-help-mom" stuff to do, so it was a long drive by myself.

After all the feasting was done, I packed up the truck and drove back up to the ranch. It was late, overcast, the wind was blowing, and after I got to bed, it started raining.

A lot.

It rained all night. One of the windows on the trailer leaked a bit of water, which was a shock when I put my feet on the floor the next morning. My alarm went off at 0445, but it was still raining buckets and blowing hard, so ... I rolled over and went back to sleep. At 0600, my backup alarm went off. It was still raining.

This is Arizona. It rains some, but mostly in the summer. Rain and wind on opening day, combined with a cloud layer down to almost the base of the mountain above the ranch house, made me just want to curl back up and sleep. But then a few other hunters showed up and started rolling out, so I got up and started getting ready to go.

When I got out of the trailer set my ruck on the ground, the cloud layer had retreated ... slightly. The rain had tapered to spits and drizzles, but the wind hadn't abated at all and didn't most of the day. The low clouds just kept racing through like a train that had someplace to be.

It was time for plan B. I had no intention of going into those mountains with weather like that going on, so I turned north and started walking.

This ranch is a slice of land owned by the same family for generations going back to the mid-to-late 1800s. There is National Forest land all around it, and the mountains are actually south of the ranch house. North of it is also National Forest land. As soon as I saw a map of the place, I labeled the ground north "the Breaks" in my mind.

The Breaks is an area of low hills, draws, dry washes and riverbeds, trees, brush, and so forth. To me, it looks like deer country back home, a place where you can hunt with a .30-30 or muzzleloader and plan to connect on opening day.

The first thing that happened when I crossed the fence into that section of National Forest was, I flushed a covey of scaled quail.

The day was off to a good start.

The next thing was, I came across deer sign, lots of fresh sign. The deer (and several horses from the ranch) had been hiding out in those draws all night, to get away from the weather. Just as I had suspected! I was pumped.

I continued to see that sign all day, but never saw a live deer. I did come across an old mine shaft:

http://i30.photobucket.com/albums/c334/sixgunner455/Coues%20Hunt%202011/mineshaftframe.jpg

Note the water bottle tied to the frame? Left by an illegal border crosser (:cuss:). Not the only evidence of them passing through, either. I also spooked an owl from his roost 3 times, discovered a fox (up in a tree!), saw several coyotes - including one that nearly landed in my lap as he came over the crest of a hill, and spent several hours staking out a game trail crossing one of those draws that looked like it was being used as a highway.

Overall, day one was a good day in spite of the foul weather, but, ultimately, a bust: no deer.

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sixgunner455
December 1, 2011, 01:17 AM
Day two, I rolled out early. I talked to a couple of other hunters the evening of day one, and they said the mountains were cold, windy, and very wet the day before, with very limited visibility, confirming my decision to stay out of the high country on opening day. But now, it was time to climb.

The major lesson of day two I will dispense with now: don't carry stuff you don't need on a high country hunt. It will make you hurt. Just trust me. You don't need to carry three or four knives. One or two will do. You don't need a DSLR to take awesome pictures of the hunt and the deer you hope to kill.

And a bipod is really a great way to set your rifle down, and a great aid to distance shooting, but ... carrying a rifle with one mounted is no fun at all. And it unbalances the weapon for carrying and reactive shooting, and did I mention it adds unnecessary weight to your load, and carrying stuff you don't need up there sucks.

I drove in until the road got too scary for my F150, drove back to a high-point that had some clear glassing lanes, and spent part of the morning with my spotting scope, looking at the mountains. Some guys in a lifted Bronco nearly came off the trail where I turned around, which made me feel really smart. :D Don't get stuck, and don't break your truck. It won't make your hunt more fun. The guys who were using OHVs did fine anywhere they wanted to go, though.

I don't need one. I don't. It will make my hunting more expensive. Too expensive. Have to remember that. :D

Anyway. I didn't spot any deer, but laid out my route for getting up high, loaded myself down with gear, and headed up into the hills.

I stopped several times along the way to glass, but eventually, got here:

http://i30.photobucket.com/albums/c334/sixgunner455/Coues%20Hunt%202011/SkyIslands.jpg

Loverly place. I glassed the remainder of the morning and most of the afternoon. At about 1530 (I don't have pictures of this) I had just sat back down to glass one of the hills across from me, and suddenly, there they were. They appeared like ghosts out of fog, honestly. 2 deer were picking their way daintily down this huge slope. I was using the binoculars I borrowed, tracked them along, and got on my spotting scope.

http://i30.photobucket.com/albums/c334/sixgunner455/Coues%20Hunt%202011/huntinggear.jpg

9x binoculars are great for this kind of thing, because the field of view is big enough to find stuff, but they magnify enough to be useful for identifying things.

18x - 36x spotting scopes are better for identifying things. Like the fact that neither of the two deer had any antlers. Not even tiny little goat-sized spikes. Just because I was curious, I started ranging them. Too far, too far, wait, there's a bit of brush down the slope from them ... 1157 yards. Dang. That's far. They are way, way out there. And that canyon is really deep, not to mention how steep both of these ridges are ... um, is it bad to think quietly to myself that I'm glad neither of them had antlers? :D I'll just sit here and wait and see if a buck is going to come along after them.

Nope.

Those were the only two deer I saw that day, but I did find two coveys of quail - one Gambrel's, and one Mearns, besides hearing coyotes all over the place at all hours of the day, and rabbits, and being above the hawks as they hunted ... fun day.

So. I mentioned earlier that I had packed too much stuff. Survival, deer processing, just in case stuff, a camera because awesome pictures are awesome, etc.

A bipod is really a great way to set your rifle down, and a great aid to distance shooting, but ... carrying a rifle with one mounted is no fun at all. And it unbalances the weapon for carrying and reactive shooting, and did I mention it adds unnecessary weight to your load, and carrying stuff you don't need up there sucks.

Anyway. I stayed until it started to get dark, but it had taken me quite a while to get up there, and I wasn't anxious to hike back down by flashlight, so I loaded up and put my jellied legs back to work. It took about half the time to get down that it did to get up.

Odd, that.

I had to go home and take care of some stuff there, so that was the end of Saturday, day two. Day three was Monday.

sixgunner455
December 1, 2011, 01:51 AM
So, I didn't camp Sunday night, just drove up early that morning.

I ditched my camera, the rifle bipod, all the knives I'd wanted to play bushcrafter with and test skinning with, and several other things that made my load much lighter. Most of the weight, aside from the rifle and binos, ended up being water and my spotting scope.

This whole hunt, I never ran out of water. I don't know if that means I didn't drink enough, or if I just fortuitously and wisely packed enough extra. I did run out of Gatorade once, though. Sad day.

So, on Monday, I went on the east side of the mountains instead of the west as I had on Saturday. My body was glad for the break I gave it Sunday, and I was ready to go. The jeep trail I ended up on hadn't been traveled in weeks, so I thought I might connect.

I could tell that it hadn't been traveled because there was a downed old mesquite that had split down the center of its rotten trunk, blocking the trail.

I pulled out my bowsaw and work gloves, and cleared it back enough to get around, but whomever is running cattle on that National Forest lease is going to have to pull the trunk clear.

The only game animals I saw Monday were javelina. There was a group of about four of them trotting along while I was stopped and glassing.

I almost felt badly about this - I drove the trail till I came to a likely-looking spot, and stopped there and glassed until I was bored, and then drove on. I was always annoyed by road hunters as a younger man, but there I was, doing it.

I finally did get away from the road and climbed a nice little hill. I was well-positioned, with game trails in sight, not too far from the truck, and had a lovely view with a great boulder to sit on and glass from. There was an old "Aeromotor - Chicago" windmill at the base of the hill, with a cement tank, but ... I got bored again, and started wondering what was on the other side of the ridge I was glassing.

I talked myself out of going to look three or four times, but finally ... I climbed that stupid mountain.

I am never climbing that one again. My jello legs were back before got a third of the way up, and it was deadly steep. I was terrified of coming back down it.

There was deer sign up there, a lot of it, but I saw no deer. I believe I should have stayed on the little hill and hoped for something to show up in the late afternoon, like what happened on Saturday. I picked my way slowly back down a different face of the mountain. It was marginally safer, but there were a couple of times I looked back up at the game trail I had just slid down and thought, deer are crazy, stupid, and suicidal for going down that ... oh, wait, I just went down that.

Yeah.

Anyway, I had to work yesterday, so while I was at work, a couple of the guys were talking about the hunt. One of them got a deer Thanksgiving evening, and the other's wife got her deer Sunday morning.

I had honestly gotten it out of my system. I was tired, beat, and glad to be sitting at my desk. But I started thinking ... the season doesn't end till Thursday night. I can either be done and wait till next year to hunt deer again, or ... I can take tomorrow off and hunt again tomorrow.

So, that's what I did. We all crowded around my computer and planned out where I was going to go and how to get there, and everyone ragged on me for getting bored. "Just park your butt and glass, dummy. Take a book, so if you get too bored, you won't be tempted to wander off. Find a game trail, or a meadow, park your butt, stay put, and glass under the trees on the hillside above it. Then, just wait."

So, I went where they told me - up high again, but on a sane trail and approach. There were game trails. There was deer sign, both fresh and old. I found a place to park my butt. I stayed there and glassed. I couldn't see reading while I was up there, so I took a sketch pad and drew when I started to get antsy.

I saw no game animals all day. But I spent a great day in the mountains, and I wasn't at work. :D On the drive back out, I talked to a guy who'd been down lower hiking around and glassing all day. He didn't see anything either.

And that was the end. Drove home, ate pizza, and decided to write this. Not as epic as an H&H story, but it's the only one I've got this year. :D

Strykervet
December 1, 2011, 02:38 AM
Nice. But honestly, had it been, I'd have pee'd in that water bottle before putting it back! Actually, I hike out garbage, but in this case, they need the fluids. Don't get me wrong, if I saw an illegal in need of water I'd give it to them, along with a ride back to Mexico or the local BP (and I don't mean gas station).

Better luck next time and you know, I spent some of my best days as a kid hunting with my dad and not getting anything. Taught me to be a good stalker too, because half the time I did see something I couldn't get close to it.

Stalking takes a lot more skill than sitting in a tree stand watching a pile of corn (which I would most certainly do if I needed the food). Usually had to scout the areas way in advance and then mark maps and make plans. Most of what I did was in the woods though, I imagine hunting in the wide open like that is more difficult.

The whole time I was in the Mojave (NTC, Ft. Irwin) I never saw anything but a couple of coyotes, some scorpions, vinegaroons, and tarantulas. What do the coyotes eat!? Never figured it out. Got cool pictures of what could have been thirty miles from the top of one range to another with nothing but blank desert in between though.

Packing light is a must. A camelback is nice too in the field, sure beats canteens. Every ounce counts when you are humping it. Next time I go deep in the forests here, I plan on getting my dog a vest and letting him carry most of it.

Trent
December 1, 2011, 03:52 AM
Damn that makes me want to go highland hunting. Truly jealous. Even if you didn't take anything, spending a few days in that scenery would make my year.

We can only take deer with muzzleloaders, bows, and large hanguns in IL. No centerfire, period (except for coyote). Which makes absolutely no sense, with our vast expanses of cornfields and mellow rolling hills mid-state...

Regarding stalking - I completely agree the chase is where it's at. We're allowed to dress 100% camo here for taking Turkey - when I go, it's full on ghillie suit, painted face, net camo gloves, the works. Not a spot of pink on my person. (Get funny looks at the gas station..). I also throw on class 3A concealable armor under it, because face it, when two people get together in the woods wearing full camo, accidents can happen.

Anyway, I go to private land - don't want to run across another hunter stalking gobblers if I can at all help it. I pick out hillock, and glass with low power until I see "a train" of turkey moving (they tend to move in groups, in a line).

Once I spot them, I plan out a route. Have to take wind in to consideration - big time. They also have superb eyesight and hearing, so you have to consider where you might lose sight of them along the route, and balance it with keeping in cover. It's taken me 2+ hours to close the gap before. Slow and steady wins the dinner. :)

I *really* can't stand sitting. I've tried blinds, decoys, and calling, and it's just not for me. I don't get a rush out of it. Well, maybe for a few seconds. But nothing compares to a 2 hour stalk where every branch is your enemy, and every breath and footfall exciting. :)

sixgunner455
December 1, 2011, 10:00 AM
It was truly a blast. And I found out this morning that I lost a few pounds doing it!

Stryker, I have given water and food to illegals, and called the county sherriff/BP/local PD/ambulance, depending on what the exact situation was. Usually, no matter who I call, BP show up first. They work very hard, and are out there every day.

And I have hauled a lot of garbage out, too.

The coyotes mostly eat rabbits and mice, and berries and such from junipers, hollies, and so forth. I've spent a lot of time looking at animal crap around here, :D and that's the stuff that's in theirs.

627PCFan
December 1, 2011, 10:41 AM
Dear god. Ill continue to hunt my neighbors backyard :D But its cool to see how you hunt out west though.

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