Sunday, January 11, 2015

Cave Creek Deer Hunt

Some of you may know that I took up the bow recently. I can't believe how much fun it is. I can't believe it took me 36 years to pick one up. Archery deer season began in January, and with it a new reason to get outside. Some people evolve from backpacking to climbing or mountaineering, but for me, I'm evolving toward self-reliance. That's what I've always loved about backpacking: relying on myself for everything. That's why I chose a recurve. It's simple. It takes skill and instinct developed though practice. Hunting, I think, is the next evolution in that self-reliance concept that I'm pursuing. 

Jim and I decided on the Cave Creek area of Tonto National Forest for our hunt. We both know that area very well, and that played a big role in our decision. That area isn't exactly known for an abundance of mule deer, but a trail cam nearby at Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area convinced me that it would bear fruit. I follow Spur Cross Ranch on Facebook and they post regular photos from that cam on their Facebook feed. Besides coyote, bobcat, javelina and mountain lion, I have seen plenty of deer on that cam, including at least one large buck. We hunted the area just north of the conservation area. 
Golite Imogene
Camp for the first 2 days.
It was exhilarating hiking under a full moon late Tuesday night. It was my first time backpacking that I've started at 9pm at night. The desert was alive with night sounds and the many creek crossings kept us on our toes. About 4 miles in we camped high on a saddle near Skull Mesa. The wind was roaring and I was concerned that my tarp would take a beating. I set it up in a simple windshield type configuration with the windward side nearest the ground. I didn't get much sleep with the wind pounding my tarp all night. I kept expecting it to collapse, but it didn't.

It was dark when we awoke. After a quick cup of coffee we geared up and hit a hillside that we expected would be a good position for glassing. We had great views into a large valley that the creek ran directly through. To me it looked like a perfect spot for animal activity, but we didn't see anything all morning. There was an even higher peak just to the south of us, so we decided to climb that to gain a different vantage point. Near the top we saw javelina sign everywhere. Holes in the ground. Half eaten prickly pear. Dug out beds under paloverde trees... And just like that javelina were darting about all around us. We saw big ones, small ones, and even babies. We walked right into a javelina herd that had bedded down for the day. Most of them just scattered, but one particularly large javelina stood 10 yards away from me staring at me. I clutched my bow waiting for him to charge me, but he didn't. Frankly I'm not sure he could even see me very well. I told James that if we had javelina tags we would have filled them the first day of the hunt.

Rusted out old Ford.
Our new vantage point on the mountain-top didn't reveal anything new. The valley appeared void of any animal life. We glassed until around 1pm, and not seeing any sign, we hiked down to the valley to get a closer look. Down at the bottom we saw some really cool Hohokam petroglyphs. Although I've seen them before, I always have to stop to check them out when I'm nearby. It still amazes me what the ancient people of the desert were able to accomplish in this dry, harsh landscape. We spent the rest of the day scouting the valley we had glassed all morning. We saw javelina and coyote sign everywhere. We saw bobcat tracks, and a rusted out old Ford that someone had dropped very purposefully over a drainage to presumably act as a bridge. But we didn't find any deer sign at all. We needed a new plan.
Jimbo glassing
That night I saw my first ever wild scorpion. It crawled out from underneath a rock when I was preparing to start a fire. It only took 2 and 1/2 years of desert dwelling to see one! The wind on that second night was even more viscous than the night before. But despite the 40 mph gusts I slept much better. I think because I wasn't worried nearly as much about the stability of my tarp. I just knew it would hold, and it did. 

The next morning we moved to a spot that Jimbo had picked out from the map. It was closer to the conservation area, and we reasoned that maybe the deer were staying closer to the park because they just instinctively knew it was hunting season, and of course hunting is illegal in the park. Hiking up a hillside Jim spotted a large buck not 30 yards in front of him. He said later that it was the largest buck he'd ever seen in Arizona (and he grew up here). The buck was onto us immediately and literally the second Jim stopped and whispered "buck", it dropped into a wash and out of sight. We came up with a plan of action right away. I would flank high up the hill and try to drive the buck down the wash into Jim's position below. I nocked an arrow and crept up the hill as quietly as I could. It's hard sneaking in the desert with all the pokey plants everywhere. I was stuck by multiple cacti during my maneuver. I reached the top of the wash and spotted Jim below. We both looked at each other and raised our arms as if to say "where did he go?" We spent the rest of the day trying to track that buck to no avail, but the good news was that new spot we were in was full of deer sign. We decided to move our camp lower so we wouldn't have to make the hard hike up and down the mountain the next day,

Our new camp was near the creek and the wind was nill. Some critter made a racket in a wood pile nearby, and the entire area was covered in Javelina tracks. A spider the size of a mouse scurried through the sand near my tarp, and I was briefly concerned that I would be sharing my sleeping bag with it or one of its friends. We enjoyed the peaceful night as we sat by the fire and planned out the next day. Even though we had come up empty so far, we felt good about our prospects for the next day in this new spot.

It's me.
Early the next morning we were glassing from a hill at the same location we spotted the buck the day before. We spent all morning out there searching in vain. The desert mule deer is not easy to find, and we reckoned that the deer were even closer to the park then we originally thought. All in all, our hunting trip turned into a 4 day scout, as we only spent one day doing any real hunting. We simply could not find the deer. But it wasn't time wasted. I learned a ton... The desert is an excellent teacher.

Jim crossing Cave Creek


  1. Where did you park to hike near the conservation? I am also an archery hunter and am curious about this area. Thanks

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