I know most of you probably caught this info on “CNN Headline News”, but, just in case you hadn’t heard, “Bruce filled his deer tag.” I know, I know…. most of you are probably saying, “Well of course, doesn’t he always!?” Believe it or not there have been a couple of times that even my tag went unfilled, but those times are too few to mention. Anyway, here is a brief overview of the events leading up to the blessed occurrence.
It all started last summer when I found out that I had drawn a rifle deer tag in unit #1, my first choice. I had already begun to scout the area for two reasons; one, it is very close to the house, and two, even if I did not draw a rifle tag, I knew I would hunt there during the archery season. Unit #1 is a big unit with lots of elk, turkey, bear, and antelope. There are mule deer also, but in isolated pockets. The Game & Fish Department only issued 175 tags for the entire unit. With a historical harvest at about 20%, that meant that they expected only 35 bucks to be taken in a 10-day season. My pre-season scouting had indicated just what I had heard, not a lot of deer.
I had taken a forest service map, and proceeded to traverse the area. Every time I saw a deer I marked it on the map with a “D”. I also talked with any people I ran into that were familiar with the unit–ranchers, hunters, Game & Fish Department employees, and any of my customers who spent time in the outdoors.
As archery season neared, I had several spots where I had seen deer consistently. I set up tree stands in three locations. The archery season was fun, as always, but my tag went unfilled. I saw a few deer in each of the locations but had no shots. I saw a lot of elk, including some monster bulls! (I’m hoping for a tag next year.) The only shot I got was on a day that I hadn\’t planned to hunt. I had spent most of the day helping my friend Bill build a new Radio Shack store that he was opening in Springerville. I had brought my 7-year-old, Brandon, with me, and we finished working about 3:30 p.m. We loaded up the Jeep and headed for home. As we got near the town of Greer we spotted six does and two small bucks feeding just off the side of the road. I always carry my bow with me during the season, so I drove past the deer and pulled off to the side of the road.
Brandon and I jumped out, and I gave him a quick lecture on the virtues of staying behind me and quiet. We dropped down into a small canyon that paralleled the road and followed the creek that flowed in it. It was a great set-up. The area was thick with aspen and pine, and between the noise of the creek and the soft ground borne of a wet summer, the only thing left to check was the wind. If the deer stayed where we had seen them, our approach would land us downwind.
When we got to a spot that seemed about right we made a left turn and headed up out of the canyon. As we neared the top and slowed, I looked everywhere for the deer. When they finally materialized they had apparently grown weary of the road and were heading back into the woods…..directly for us! I motioned for Brandon to kneel down next to me behind the only small spruce between the deer and us. The deer were less than 50 yards away so I pulled an arrow from the quiver and placed it on the string. When I looked up, the biggest doe in the group had stopped and transfixed her gaze on Brandon and me.
I located the two bucks as the deer all became nervous and began to quarter away. I picked out one of the bucks and drew back. I locked in on an open spot about 35 yards away that he would walk into. As the forked horns shoulder crossed my sights I whistled; the buck froze and looked at me. The shot was perfect. At the sound of my bow releasing, however, I was about to be disappointed. As the arrow started toward the buck he crouched low to spring away and the arrow sailed just over his back and deer scattered in all directions. I was disappointed with the miss but excited that Brandon had been right next to me for such a close shot! He tried to make me feel better, “It’s not your fault, Dad,” he consoled. We both agreed how cool it had been and gave each other high 5s. We found the broken arrow and decided to keep it as a souvenir.
I got out one more time on the last day of archery season and hunted until dark. Only one doe, but I found an awesome place for elk. I saw about 70 total with 11 bulls. The rifle season was six weeks away so I kept looking for deer. About two weeks before the season my daughter, Sarah, had a project at school to do an interview with someone at a government agency. She chose the Arizona Game & Fish Department. Now that\’s my girl! She needed about 30 questions so I helped her out. We both agreed that the last question would be, “My dad has a Unit #1 deer tag. Where should he hunt?”
She ended up interviewing a game biologist, and he cracked up at the final question. But he did pull out a map and showed her three or four locations. He added, however, that they weren\’t seeing a lot of deer this year. Arizona deer populations have been in a down swing cycle for several years due to dry conditions. Armed with new information, I checked out the new spots, still not seeing a lot of deer.
Opening day finally arrived. It was a Friday. Shelly was working, and the kids were in school so I took the day off and decided to hunt the Escudilla Wilderness Area. My logic was that in an area with no motor vehicles allowed, if I hiked far enough back in I would probably tag a trophy 4X4 or bigger the first day! Nope. I was wrong! I did see six carpet heads but no bucks and very little sign. Saturday, Shelly and the kids and I did fun Halloween stuff but no hunting. Sunday, the boys and I got up early and headed out.
We went to an area where there was a lot of sign, but I had seen only a couple of actual deer. It was very close to the house, only 25 minutes away. We got there before first light, and as we drove in we immediately began to see deer. We parked and hunted an old burn. On a ridge line we saw 17 does. Later in the morning a coyote jumped out ahead of us and began to ran about 100 yards away. I swung the old .270 up and led the varmint about two feet. As I squeezed the trigger I really didn\’t expect to hit him. To my surprise, at the crack of the rifle the coyote tumbled! The boys let out a whoop and proclaimed that I was “The Man” and, “The best shot in the west.” I didn\’t want to ruin their fun, so, even though I felt more lucky than skilled, I heartily agreed that I was, “The Man,” and maybe “the best shot in the whole world”. But I did it just for the boys sake, mind you.
We headed down to skin out our trophy, but when we got there we discovered he was infected with a bad case of the mange, with big sores and hair missing. I told the boys not to touch him, and that we\’d get a coyote pelt on another day. It was getting around 9:00 a.m. so we headed back to the Jeep. As we began to drive out toward home we met two older guys hunting. They had seen seven does and some elk, but no bucks. We wished them luck and headed out.
About a 1/2 mile down the road four does and a 3×2 buck ran across the road. I pulled over and grabbed the .270 out of the rack. “Wait here,” I told the boys and headed up the hill. “Get him, Dad! ” John yelled as I ran up the hill. I spotted the deer, but they were spooked bad and running through thick timber. I was feeling cocky after my running neck shot on the coyote. I led the buck, but, between the thick trees and the glint of the eastern sun in my scope, it wasn’t meant to be. My shot missed. I turned to get the boys. They had heard the shot and were jumping up and down when I got there. We went up to search for blood, just in case, but it was a clean miss. The boys were disappointed, and, although I kept the title of “The Man.” the title of \”Best shot in the west\” was definitely in question. They told me it was “okay” and that they still loved me. We headed home and told the girls about our great day in the field.
I was scheduled to work at 9:00 each morning the rest of the week, so my plan was to be up at 5:00 a.m. and out hunting in this spot until 8:00 a.m. That way I could get to work on time. Monday I hunted as planned, but saw only five elk and a huge bobcat. No chance for a shot at the bobcat as he was spooked when I saw him. I ran into the older gentlemen hunting the area again, there were three of them this time. They had seen elk too, but no deer. Tuesday I was out before light again. On the way into the area I saw a herd of 35 -40 elk, with 5 bulls. The lead was a dandy 6×6. I parked the Jeep and waited for legal shooting time. When my watch said it was okay, I headed out.
As I came over the first small ridge I flushed three does and a forked horn. I hesitated for just a moment, thinking that maybe there were bigger bucks in this area. It was halfway through the season and I hadn\’t seen a lot of deer. The does began to file away through some shoulder high brush about 80 -90 yards away, and the buck was behind them. As the buck entered the brush he was moving straight away. I put the crosshairs on the back of his head and pulled the trigger. My deer season was over. He dropped like he had been pole-axed. I walked over to make sure he was dead and unloaded my gun.
As I field dressed him, the three hunters I had met before came walking up. They had heard my shot. “We were hoping you had gotten one,” one of them said. They offered to help me finish field dressing him and carry him back to the Jeep. I told them thanks anyway, but it was only about 200 yards away and I was almost done. They congratulated me again and headed out after their own bucks.
I got the buck loaded and pulled in the driveway at home at 7:45 a.m.. The boys hadn\’t left for the school bus yet. When they saw my buck they began to whoop and holler and dragged Mom outside to see. The best part of the whole season was that before they left for school they had officially restored my title as “the best shot in the west”.
“Life is a journey. Sometimes the road is steep and rocky, sometimes level and smooth. Enjoy the journey”