Ever felt like you were stuck in a hunting rut? No, I don’t mean the kind where bucks are chasing and breeding does but the kind where you hunt the same place every year in the same state, same property, and same treestand. While this type of consistent annual hunting is enjoyable and something to look forward to every year, why not mix things up and hunt a new state and species? At first this proposition sounds expensive, time consuming, and daunting; but there are ways to make a western hunting trip very affordable! I will briefly break down the details and costs of a 10 day OTC mule deer hunt I did in Arizona with a buddy last winter and how you can make a similar hunting trip yourself this year!
As with any other hunting trip the research you do on the front end will make the difference between success and failure. We choose Arizona over the counter archery deer hunting because it afforded us the ability to hunt mule deer without a big game lottery. The Arizona license year begins on Jan. 1st and some units have late season hunting seasons open until Jan 31st. So, we bought licenses and hunted the first week of January, but these licenses are still good to return this year without any additional costs besides fuel! Another plus to this hunt is that in south Arizona the mule deer and Coues deer rut in late December and early January. Finally, hunting the first week of January allowed us to miss very few class days while maximizing our hunting time and a return trip in late December will also coincide with some given Christmas vacation days.
We produced a podcast series following our trip with great detail, and you can listen to that here, but I’ll provide an abbreviated version here. We left Starkville MS on December 28th and drove to Tonto Basin AZ, stopping for a 3 hour nap at a public airport parking lot and arriving at our campsite by 4pm on December 29th. We scouted the unit in Tonto National Forest for two mornings and one evening and covered many miles while seeing little deer sign and even less deer.
On the 31st, we drove to a public hunting area South of Tucson and slept in the car at Tucson International Airport because we were forecasted to receive snow that night. The next day we immediately started seeing deer, both mule deer and Coues deer. We saw about 14 that first day, including a solid 70” Coues buck. The next night we got a hotel because we had not set up camp yet in our new area and it snowed a few more inches that night.
Over the next six days we hunted hard from dark to dark everyday and saw 10-20 deer a day along with numerous javelina, coyotes, jackrabbits, and quail. My buddy Kyle had a Coues buck work past him at 20 yards one evening but was unable to shoot because he had not knocked an arrow before sitting down to glass that evening. He also put a successful stalk on a respectable 3pt mule deer buck that was chasing does in the valley near our camp one morning. Unfortunately, his arrow nicked a branch and sailed under the bucks belly. We stalked at least one buck a day including several Pope and Young class Coues bucks. We wrapped up our hunt without any filled tags but did harvest several cottontails, a jackrabbit, and made memories that will last a lifetime.
Most of the deer we saw were Coues deer, but this can be attributed to hunting around the bases of several mountains. If we had hunted the lower desert country, we would have undoubtedly encountered more mule deer. While the Coues deer were fun to see and hunt, they were very difficult to stalk as the narrow box canyons they travel allow them to be visible one second and disappear the next, only to appear again hundreds of yards down the canyon. When we return, we will likely hunt an area at a lower elevation having mule deer in terrain easier to stalk through.
As a side note, we were hunting about 35 miles from the Mexico border. We commonly saw backpacks, trash, and other evidence of illegal activity in the mountains we hunted and around our camp. Border security had a very strong presence in the area and we never encountered anyone in the backcountry besides occasional hunters at a distance. Overall, we felt safe where we were and I will return and hunt the same area without a large concern to my personal safety.
(above) While we never harvested a deer we had a great experience hunting the desert for the first time. It was an adventure with lots of soggy PB and J’s and a few cottontails and jackrabbits we harvested with our bows!
We drove about 3,300 miles at 27 MPG in my crossover SUV costing us a total of $260 for fuel, split two ways for a cost of $130 a person. The general license cost $160 and the deer tag was $300, which is valid for either a mule deer or Coues deer buck. As for food costs, I do not figure these into my travel costs because we camped and cooked most of our meals besides a few restaurant meals that did not cost more than what I would spend any normal week. Lodging cost was minimal because we tent camped most nights besides a couple nights spent in the car while traveling and the one snow night we got a hotel for $80. These expenses brought the cost to $630 a person and our return in trip in December will be even cheaper as our hunting licenses will still be valid!
When planning a trip like this reading articles is a great way to generate ideas and develop an outline for your trip. However, to choose a specific area and develop a basic hunting strategy you should consult with locals and others with experience hunting the area. I suggest joining Facebook groups like Desert Mule Deer Hunting, these guys were very helpful giving me pointers and even suggesting units to target. Call local biologists that work for AZGFD and ask them about unit recommendations and tell them exactly what you are looking for in a hunt whether that’s Coues deer, mule deer, mountains, or low desert.
JUST DO IT!
My biggest piece of advice is to just do it! Too many guys say that they will hunt the west someday but put it off because they fear uncertainty or the idea of being unsuccessful after a lot of travel and effort. I can tell you however that this OTC mule deer hunt is definitely worth it, even if you don’t shoot a deer. It’s a chance to hike cactus-covered mountains, see new wildlife species, and “rough it” with a base camp style desert experience.