On Our Own on the Arizona Strip
by Armando J. Ruiz
I couldn’t believe it happened. We had applied for the coveted Arizona Strip, and we drew tags. I was beyond disbelief; yet, I was excited beyond words for the opportunity to chase giant mule deer bucks in one of the best units in North America.
Before the Hunt
We had exactly four weeks from the time we were officially notified until the first day of the hunt. That didn’t leave much time to put everything together, but planning began immediately. Whether admirable or foolish, we chose to go without a guide service. We have always taken some satisfaction in being “DIY hunters.” We knew success or failure would be the result of our own efforts and we were okay with that. Despite our decision, we were never truly on our own because our local hunting community is amazing. We were given some great information from friends, detailed maps and equipment that would help make our hunt a success. To those people, I am truly grateful. It was enough to get us started and we began planning for our first scouting trip.
On a map, AZ GMU 13B is relatively close to our home in Flagstaff, AZ, but until they build a bridge over the “big ditch” (The Grand Canyon), we would have to travel five hours around, just to get to the unit. The unit itself is extremely large. As one of Arizona’s largest, most remote units, you could travel for hours on dirt roads–at lightning speeds–just to get from one side to the other. Our goal for the first scouting trip was simple, to see and learn as much as we could in the four days had.
Our first night on the Strip was almost magical. We sat around the campfire joking about what we would see in the morning as the sky lit up around us with lightning and thunder rumbled all around. Eventually, the heavy winds rolled in and we decided to head to bed and hold down the tents. I didn’t know if it was the storm or the excitement, but I barely slept. Regardless, the next morning we were up with the sun and we began our journey. Over the next few days we traveled to different parts of the unit, set trail cameras, studied maps and explored the terrain around us. We traveled through juniper, rolling sage brush, oak patches, small sections of tall pines and dry, desert landscapes. We saw a lot of country, just not a lot of deer. On our last day of our trip we settled on a place to camp for the evening and came across a buck, a good buck. We sat and watched the biggest buck either of us had ever seen until it was dark and we couldn’t see him anymore. It was exactly what we needed to revitalize the excitement we had lost over the last few hard days.
Even though we saw few deer, I still felt the trip was successful. We learned a lot about the unit and we were able to identify some possible areas we wanted to hunt. I know they say there aren’t 200-inch bucks around every corner, but the fact that we hadn’t seen many deer still bothered me. So, I decided to make a trip back up to the unit the weekend before the hunt. On that trip, I was able to spend more time in the areas I liked, and it paid off. While I explored, I came across a handful of amazing bucks–the kind of bucks the Strip is famous for, and I was excited. Unfortunately, I had to make this trip solo, so I was anxious to get back into cell service and share what I had seen with the others. I set up camp close to where we would hunt opening day and began the long journey home. There was still so much to do and opening morning was only four days away.
We couldn’t believe how unreal opening day was and we hoped our luck would continue. As we began our morning hunt, we came across the same group of bucks from the day before. This time,
it was Greg’s turn and he immediately took action.
With one buck down, it was time to get back to work. Over the course of the next eight days we came across numerous deer, put on some epic stalks and even snuck into beds with some real giants only to be disappointed when hours of work didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to. Sometimes we would make a critical mistake that would blow our opportunity and sometimes the opportunity was perfect, but the deer just didn’t do what we needed them to do. As a new hunter, Jaime was getting a crash course in hunting mule deer and at a rapid rate at that. On one hand, we were frustrated over the multiple failed attempts, but on the other, it was so amazing to be so close to the biggest deer we had ever seen. In the moment, it’s difficult to appreciate the experience when you’re focused on the end result and only inches away from success. Unfortunately, after 10 straight days of hunting, Jaime’s time had come to an end and it was time for her to return home.
The big camps began to clear out and the once bustling dirt roads were now silent. I’d had been hunting solo since the crew left three and a half days ago and I hadn’t seen many deer, let alone been able to get close to a buck. The rain had returned and pushed the bucks back into hiding. I didn’t know what to do, so I called home. I remember talking to Jaime trying to hold back some of my frustration. I really didn’t want her to worry about me any more than she already did. I shared with her my conflict, “I really wanted a buck, but I was also ready to be home.” After numerous late nights preparing before the hunt, multiple back and forth scouting trips and 13 straight days of hunting, I had been pushed to my limit and I felt defeated. I sat in the bed of my truck, in the pitch dark, thinking about what I would do. With only four more days left that I could hunt; I chose to keep pushing until my time was up. At the end of my time, regardless of the outcome, I would know I had given it everything I had, and then some. I headed back to camp, took a swig of whiskey, and went down for a good night’s sleep.
In the following days, I was able to create a few good opportunities and even missed the big 4×5 from opening morning, twice. That hurt twice as much knowing my time
As I walked up to my buck, I was hit with a flood of mixed emotions. It was hard to believe that all the ups and downs of the hunt would lead to this moment. I was incredibly thankful for the buck that was in front of me and overjoyed to achieve what I set out to accomplish. This was my first buck and an experience I won’t ever forget!