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How To Make The Most Out Of A Once-in-a-Lifetime Tag

A mule deer hunt on the coveted Arizona Strip brings a group of hunters together to help a friend fill his tag.

How To Make The Most Out Of A Once-in-a-Lifetime Tag

The row of cedars exploded in front of us. It caught me off guard, and I was only able to catch a glimpse of brown hide and one tall tine before the buck disappeared through the branches. “That’s him!” my buddy James exclaimed. Without exchanging anymore words, we immediately ran in the direction the buck had gone. We didn’t need to waste time speaking—we both understood what had just happened and how every second mattered. This would be our only chance.

The mule deer buck had been watching us from the shadow of his bed under the cedars, a place that was safe from unsuspecting eyes and that gave him a full range of view of the area. He knew he was being hunted and was smart enough to stay hidden. He had let us hike within 30 feet of him before his instincts kicked in, sending him running.

The other side of the cedar bush was wide-open terrain, giving us a good view of sprawling sage-covered hills. We searched in vain, but hope started to fade as the buck was nowhere to be seen. Then the clack, clack, clack of hooves on the loose shale rang in our ears. The buck emerged from the valley, making his way up the hill opposite us. James threw himself into a prone position and attempted to find the buck in his crosshairs. The muley paused for mere seconds, giving me a view of his caliber. Undeniably, he was an Arizona Strip buck, his monster frame glistened in the sunlight. He hadn’t survived this long for lack of instincts. Before we could breathe again, the buck turned and trotted down the other side of the hill and disappeared.

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THE ARIZONA STRIP

Unit 13B, the coveted Arizona Strip tag is known as the unit in Arizona to hunt trophy-class mule deer—maybe even the world. It is coveted by residents and nonresidents alike and is a tag that mule deer hunters can only dream of drawing. A limited number of tags—around 80 to be exact, 20 designated for archery—are given each year, making the odds of a rifle hunter drawing the sought-after unit less than two percent.

Sitting in Arizona's northwest corner, Unit 13B is vast and unpopulated. It boasts over 2 million acres—97 percent of which is public land—making it as backcountry as they come. Rugged and remote, hunters who are lucky enough to draw the unit are faced with the daunting task of locating a mature buck in the millions of acres of sprawling Arizona desert. Tall mesas and low-lying valleys cover the unit, while cat claw, junipers, and sage brush tear at clothes and exposed skin. The unit sits at higher elevations in some spots, so hunters are faced with varying weather conditions. Hunters are burdened by raging sun and hot temperatures and even snow showers that bite at the bones, all while thick cedars and ponderosa pines aid in concealing mature bucks from view.

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Amenities and civilization are miles away, forcing hunters to camp off the grid with all necessary survival gear. Dusty trails cut through the unit, but when afternoon rain showers pop up or snow melts, those dirt trails turn to slick mud, making access damn-near impossible without the use of off-road vehicles. It’s a normal sight to see a truck blocking a road and jacked up with a tire torn to shreds from the sharp rock littering dirt“roadways.”

Mule deer numbers in the unit are low in density, but the quality of bucks in 13B is high. The Arizona Game and Fish manages the unit under alternative management guidelines, meaning they encourage hunters to only take older-class, mature bucks. The unit is so vast that those lucky tag holders can go days without seeing a mature buck, or a buck in general. It’s not unusual to cover hundreds of miles of the unit without seeing a shooter. But for those who are lucky, true monsters call“The Strip” home—mature bucks in the unit typically showcase racks that spread 30-inches and up.

A CALL TO ARMS

When James Dudley, friend and avid Arizona backcountry hunter, called to tell me he had drawn a rifle tag for “The Strip,”and asked if I would come help glass, it was without question that I would pencil out the dates in my calendar and haul my gear down to help.

A Coues deer hunt with James and his motley crew of guides back in 2018 ignited a friendship and many big-game adventures together since that first (successful) hunt. Over the course of the week I spent in Coues camp with James, I discovered his guides were just his friends who shared the same passion as himself to hunt and help clients share in the unique experience of hunting Arizona. A band of brothers, you could say, I was honored to be included in hunt camp with these hardcore hunters to help James fill his once-in-a-lifetime tag on a Strip muley.

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My truck and trailer slowly rolled over the dirt and gravel, heading deep into the Arizona backcountry as I followed the GPS to the exact OnX waypoint James had sent. A light snow fell as my lights turned into camp, illuminating a sight to behold. Multiple pickups had beat me there, and a wall tent glowed in the fading light.

The smell of charred steaks reached my nose as I walked towards the welcoming tent, and Scott Surman, dedicated chef for the week, greeted me with a large smile as he flipped fillets on the Camp Chef stove. An American flag hung from a tall cedar tree above the community tent, the stars and stripes waving gently in the cold wind. Laughter emerged from the enclosure as I pushed open the flaps to step into the warmth. Around the table sat six sportsmen: James, Brandon Hunt, Brian Bence, Justin Mahalik (who had flown in all the way from Pennsylvania), and Jason and Robert Dishmon. The brotherhood, plus one, was reunited and ready for a week of hard hunting.

HUNTING A MONSTER

The Can-Am X3 ripped around a curve, James releasing the peddle for a split second before pressing it down again, the engine humming across the desert as our headlamps bounced across the red rock and sage brush. We had made this hour-long trek well before sunup the past two mornings. The early bird gets the worm, or in our case, the best glassing spots.

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Bundled in our warmest gear, the band of brothers and I had spent hours glassing the remote landscape as winter winds ripped through the valley looking for the target buck James had been tipped off on from Arizona Strip hunting legend, Clay Bundy. The buck, so far, had not shown himself, and we were battling other hunters in the area looking for the same monster.

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We watched through spotting scopes as other hunters drove the roads through the vast valley we were glass- ing, stopping at water tanks to check trail cameras—in the middle of prime animal movement time. Frustrated, we put our nose to the grindstone and our boot rubber to dirt to hike to the highest mesas around. The elusive monster buck was somewhere in this valley, and we were all determined to help James find him.

After scouring miles of country for 48 hours, it wasn’t until the afternoon of the third day that our luck would change. We split into two groups, James and I heading north, while the rest of the crew would go back to a high glassing ridge to spend hours behind spotting scopes breaking down the landscape piece by piece, waiting for a buck to emerge from the shadows to stretch his legs. We agreed to stay in contact through our inReach devices in case a shooter buck, or the buck, was spotted.

James and I hopped in the X3 and set off for a part of the valley we had only glassed up from a distance. We had seen multiple trucks drive through this narrow part of the canyon, so when James pulled the UTV to the side of the trail, I was skeptical. “Let’s hike to the top of that ridge and set up and glass.” James said to me as I unbuckled my seatbelt. We gathered our dust-covered packs, and James his rifle, and set off into the cat claw and sage.

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THE BUST

We hadn’t hiked more than 100 yards from the road when it happened. That monster muley had been hiding for days, maybe weeks, in this small section of the canyon— just watching from his bed as hunter after hunter, truck after truck, passed him by from the safety of the shadows. James’ instincts that the buck had to be in this side of the canyon, which he would later tell me, were spot on. We hadn’t glassed him up to the south, or the west, or the east, or in the canyon over. He was in this north section.

The buck jumped up from under the cedars, startling both of us. It was as if Godzilla had risen from the ocean, shaking the earth around him. James had been in front of me and studied this buck for months—he knew immediately that we had just busted his target buck.

We were on the same wavelength and ran through the cedars together after the monster. The opposing side of the bushes gave us a wide-open view for a few hundred yards. We ran to the top of a hill, hoping to catch a glimpse of the buck. When I saw the rolling hills around us, I worried he had dipped down, never to be seen again.

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That was until the clack, clack, clack of his hooves gave away his position. He had indeed dipped down the hill we were on but was making his way up the hill opposite us. James quickly stretched out prone while I ranged the buck through quivering binoculars: 200 yards. The buck gave us a split-second broadside look before he cut down the other side of the shale-covered hill. We dropped our bags, and took off again, this time higher up the hill we were on. Out of breath but running on adrenaline, we got to the highest point and watched.

Again, clack, clack, clack met my ears.“There he is!” I exclaimed to James as I pointed across the opposing hill, to the one just behind it. The buck was moving slowly, James moving quickly. He laid prone and found the monster in his scope. My binoculars bounced, but I knew the importance of this moment and my job. “He’s at 250.” I said calmly and kept my eyes on the target as James pulled the trigger on the buck who had paused perfectly broadside.

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I watched as the mule deer ran downward, only to see dust fill the air as he stumbled and fell to his resting place.

A "STRIP" BUCK

Two words were sent to the guys via inReach: Got him.

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The silence of the desert was broken that afternoon with cheers of excitement for James and his once-in-a-lifetime muley buck. The friends stared in awe at its frame, James and I sharing the story of the one-in-a-million chance that we would walk into the exact location the buck was bedded. The comradery would continue, even as the friends helped pack out the quarters through the untamed terrain, and long into the evening as they measured the buck inside the warm wall tent as snow fell gently across the landscape outside.

He would gross 218 inches, with 44 inches of mass, and 33-inches wide—a true Arizona Strip buck. The numbers were important to this group of badass hunters, but the joy shared by the friends turned brothers (and one sister) who gathered in that tent that evening, laughing and sharing stories new and old, was unmeasurable.

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