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Ben’s First Buck December 2020
Dan Martinez

My son Ben and I were drawn for our second choice for the deer hunt this year. This would be a new area for us. It was way out east near the New Mexico border. This is one of the areas where I tried looking for Scaled quail back in January. Instead, I found a healthy population of Gambel’s quail. But I also found two young, but shootable bucks. I spent only a day-and-a-half there, so finding bucks this easily was a good sign.

The area where I went was where a large creosote flat meets hills and mountains. By researching the area on Google Earth, I found only one reasonable camp spot in the area, out in the creosote flat, but it was a relatively short drive from there to the hills. This is where I camped during the quail hunt, and where I wanted to camp on the deer hunt.

To make sure that I could secure the spot, I went out there on Wednesday, two days before the opening day, which was Friday. Ben could not meet me until Friday night. It was about a five-hour drive from home.

So opening day, I would hunt alone. I left camp in my truck just before first light. On the way to a valley between the hills where I had seen those bucks back in January, I found that other hunters did indeed find places to camp. One was along the main road that led to a ranch; the other was a large camp of four or five trucks, plus quads and side-by-sides. These guys were camped along a fairly rough side road that traveled along the base of the main hill that I was planning to hunt.

Just before I passed their camp, two hunters on quads headed out in front of me. After a while, they pulled over to the side, so I rolled down my window to ask them where they were planning to hunt. They said that they were planning to hunt the flats from here. Great. I told them that I was going to park at the gate which was still about a half mile from here, and that I was planning to hunt the valley which was just around the point of the hill. We wouldn’t be in each other’s way.

After parking, I found myself drawn to the rocky hill. I started climbing. I found a nice rock shelf that was a great place to just sit and watch for a while. The truck was still in sight about 215 yards away. The spot afforded good views up the valley to the south, and into the creosote flat to the west and north because it was at the point of the hill.

About mid-morning, I packed up and headed further south, along the steep side of the hill, heading deeper into the valley. There I found another nice spot to pull out my backpacker’s chair to sit and glass for a while.

As the sun climbed higher as the noon hour approached, I was no longer shaded from the sun. I had already decided to head back to camp for lunch anyway, so I packed up again and headed back to the truck.

After lunch at camp, I didn’t feel like driving again past the camp of those hunters, so I decided to walk due south from camp, heading toward some different hills that I had not explored before. The hills were about a mile and a half from camp. After hiking the creosote flat for about a mile, I learned that it really wasn’t flat at all. There were a number of gullies that I had to cross, and between the gullies, low rises. This hiking was during the warmest part of the day with no shade in sight. I was feeling cooked.

After making that first mile, I decided that I really didn’t want to shoot a deer out here. I was not going to drag a buck back through the terrain that I had just crossed through this roadless country. I turned around and headed back to camp.

OK, so I chalked up opening day as a sort of scouting day. I was not really feeling the need to shoot a buck yet without my hunting partner here.

Ben did arrive around 10:00 pm. I told him not to dally too much in getting his gear ready to hunt in the morning. Our wakeup call would be at 5:45, so we really needed to get to bed already.

We both packed MREs into our hunting packs, and enough liquids to allow us to stay out all day. I was not planning to drive back to camp for lunch. My plan was to head back to the rocky hill where I had hunted from on opening morning, and where I had seen the bucks back in January. If we went back to camp for lunch, we would have to drive past the hunters’ camp too many times. I wanted to avoid aggravating them.

We left camp as the first rosy light illuminated the eastern sky. In the ten minutes or so that it took to drive from camp to the base of the rocky hill, the sky had lightened considerably. Then it took just a few minutes more to ascend the hill to the lookout point that I had first found yesterday. We leaned our rifles against an ancient juniper and set up our backpacker’s chairs on top of the rock outcrop.

I love these times of just hanging out with my son, talking about whatever comes up - quiet time together out in the natural world. The binoculars would come up to our eyes whenever we saw something that needed a closer look.

To the northwest I pointed to Mt. Graham. On top of that “sky island” sat a huge cube, brightly illuminated by the rising sun. I told Ben that is the Mt. Graham Observatory. What I couldn’t explain was why the observatory appeared as a large cube rather than as a classic observatory dome structure.

Modern technology to the rescue! We had excellent 4G signal where we sat, so I looked it up on my phone. Mt. Graham is home to the Large Binocular Telescope. It has two mirrors of 330-inch diameter, spaced 47¼ feet apart on center. They are housed in that cubic structure. The whole cube rotates to point the telescope. It is the largest binocular telescope in the world. Cool stuff.

We saw some hunters across the valley to our west. They were going up and down the trail on quads and a Honda Talon side-by-side. They must have been the hunters from the camp we passed. When we passed the camp this morning, it was already empty. Rather unexpectedly, we watched them leave and head back to their camp around 9:30. That seemed kind of early to already be giving up the morning hunt. We heard no shots fired. We watched them pass behind our parked truck on their way out.

About that time, I told Ben, “Come on, pack up.” I wanted to go to the second lookout spot that I had found on Friday morning – same slope, just a couple hundred yards further south, deeper into the valley.

This gave us a better view across to a sparsely wooded east-facing slope. It looked more deery to me than the country we surveyed earlier this morning.

Lunch time came with no deer sightings. We pulled our MREs from our packs. Whenever I pass out the MREs, I make it a point not to look at the package. I just grab one and do not read the label. That way, exactly what the meal will be comes as a surprise at lunch time in the field. It’s a game I play. Sorry, as I write this several weeks later, I cannot remember what meals Ben and I drew that day.

After lunch, the sun had moved to a point where it was beating down on us. We decided to pack up again, and walk back around to the north slope of the hill in order to get back out of the direct sun. We would finish the day here with no deer sightings.

With the sun now down behind the hills, Ben led us down the slope towards the truck over large steeply inclined boulders. I must say that he was a little more “sprightly” shall we say, in downclimbing those boulders than I was. I had some serious doubts about whether I would make it down unscathed.

But make it safely down I did. After dropping off rifle and daypack in the truck, I wanted to check out the wildlife (and cow) water arrangement near where we parked. It consisted of a large tank, and beside that, a large tractor (?) tire that had been converted to a water trough. Water fed from the tank to the tire which was metered by a ball float valve such as in your toilet.

As I turned to leave, I saw Ben point behind me. There was a large herd of javelina that were coming in from the flat, presumably headed to the water. I guess they saw me and were now running off back into the creosote flat.

As we drove back to our camp, we came up behind the parade of trucks of the hunters who had broken camp and were now headed out. That was another pleasant surprise for us, for it would mean that our Sunday hunt would be without any competition.

Sunday morning found us again repeating our hunt plan of the previous days. We parked slightly farther away from the water feature this time, but still just a short walk to our first perch.

We once again leaned our rifles against the old juniper and set up our backpacker’s chairs. But just before 8 am, things got interesting. Down below me to my right, I spotted two practically identical forkhorns, basically walking down the road. Soon they would be directly behind the truck. What more could you hope for than to drop a buck right at the back of your truck?!

“Ben! Ben! Ready?” Ben grabbed his Browning .30-06 and laid down prone on the rock, resting the rifle on his pack. The deer kept walking as he squirmed around to keep his aim on the bucks. I put my fingers in my ears expecting the shot to break at any moment. The deer kept walking. The shot didn’t come. After a few more minutes, we lost sight of the bucks.

I told him to pull up his chair next to mine, and to give me a download on what happened. At the closest, the deer were about 150 yards from us. As they continued walking, that distance only increased. Ben said that he simply was not confident in taking the shot. He couldn’t get steady.

As we talked, he spotted the deer again. Apparently, they had disappeared down into a low draw about 250 yards from us. They still had no idea that we were there. We watched them for a while longer. They hopped over a fence and continued browsing right at the shadow line that the hill behind us cast onto the land to our west.

Ben decided to get off the hill to stalk up to them. By following the road, he could get near fairly easily. I stayed on the hill and watched him make his stalk the whole way.

On the way, he stopped a couple of times to see if they were still where he thought they were. The deer were staying put, browsing blissfully unaware.

Ben was actually able to stalk to within 50 yards. Grabbing a fence post, he rested his rifle on his hand. From my position, I saw the buck drop before I heard the gunshot. “You got him!” I yelled down to Ben.

The second buck jumped up and froze. If I was aiming on him, I could have taken him from my position on the hill. He was about 280 yards from me. But maybe I am done shooting forkhorns now.

This was Ben’s first buck. This buck has bigger horns than my first buck, so not bad son, not bad.

As we were finishing up the red work, some hunters drove up in a side-by-side. Good conversation ensued. They mentioned that the rough road that we drove in on was an old stagecoach road. He said that the Apaches used to sit up on the hill where we were, waiting for the stagecoaches to come by to ambush them. What a story!

He pointed out that there were metates up in the rocks, depressions in the rock where the Indian women used to grind grain. We came back the next morning and found one of the metates.

One guy pulled out a card for a meat processor in Willcox. Great! I thought that we would have to haul the buck all the way back to Phoenix for meat packing. When the guys left, we pulled the deer up to and under the fence, then lifted him into the back of the truck. Back at camp, Ben finished the job of skinning him out and putting him into a game bag. We then squeezed him into an oversized cooler that we only use for game transport. It was about an hour’s drive to Willcox from camp.

Ben wanted to head off for home, leaving me behind that evening, but I objected. Breaking camp is a lot of work best accomplished with some help. I’ll be damned if I have to both make and break camp, and he just rides in and out in the middle, and takes advantage of my comfortable camp without sharing in any of the work!

I was done deer hunting anyway, but I was working on my Desert Small Game Challenge. That evening walking out of camp, I was able to take a cottontail with my AR-7 to make three out of the five species needed. I told Ben that I wanted to head back to the hill in the morning and wait for the Gambel’s quail to wake up. We could break camp after I tagged a Gambel’s on Monday morning.

Well that’s exactly how it played out. Not long after we arrived, we heard the quail start to chatter and I got one. Four out of five now. Good times, great hunt.

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