Best to be Blessed! Family Tackles the Arizona Strip for Mule Deer
by Josh Ragan
It all started with the declining mule deer population here in Arizona. My dad, my brother (Nate) and I had decided that if we wanted a legitimate shot at a monster muley, we would have to commit to applying for only one or two hunts north of the ditch. Nine years later, we were ecstatic to have drawn two tags on the Arizona Strip! My brother would have to sit this one out, though; he was getting married the weekend before the hunt and would not return from the honeymoon until there were only two days left in the hunt. Good luck next year bro!
Meanwhile, the preparation began. This is where I have to give thanks to my Uncle Brad and John Brown. They were very diligent in helping me gather intel. John had an archery tag in 2010, as well as a close friend who had one in 2011. He really got me off to a great start. My first scouting trip in late August was a real eye opener. The Arizona Strip is the definition of “big country”. When one mentions the Strip, I automatically envisioned 190” bucks running rampant. I quickly learned this was not the case. With all the info I had received from John, I was expecting to be able to locate some mature bucks. I didn’t even see a buck in the four days I was up there. However, I was a little handicapped having my 6 year old son with me, and the main focus was to just get familiar with the unit. Upon my return, I decided I had better step up my networking. It was 515 miles from where I planned to hunt to my front door, and 125 miles of it was dirt. A ton of scouting was not an option. Dad would be guiding in Alaska for the entire month of September, and due to Nate’s wedding, we would not be able to head out until three days prior to opening morning. I contacted the Wildlife Manager for the unit, and he was more than helpful with areas to check out. He also gave me the GPS coordinates of every trick tank the AZGF Department had built in the unit.
I wanted nothing more than to see my dad put the drop on a 200” buck. He is definitely deserving of a trophy buck. My most vivid hunting memory is the time we took a 177” buck back in 1999. I will never forget the excitement in his voice and the sparkle in his eye that day.
Opening morning found my uncle and I atop a big rock bluff glassing the most incredible mule deer country around. I was totally discouraged by 10AM, though, as we had yet to even glass up a deer. It wasn’t until we were ready to leave that we finally located a few does and a smaller buck. They were feeding at an unbelievable pace, which made me even more weary. If all the deer were moving around at this rate, then they should be pretty easy to spot through the 15’s.
We woke up to a blanket of snow on day two. Everything was white with almost five inches on the ground. It was a welcome site, as the roads had been hammered, and the dust was just simply out of control. We decided the best plan was to cover as much country as possible to try to cut a big buck track. We covered almost 25 miles, and much to our surprise, we had only found four different sets of tracks…none of which was a mature buck. We did, however, meet up with the Wildlife Manager, and I was able to shake his hand and show my appreciation for his help. That evening was a real morale booster as we watched a nice 170” class buck for almost two hours before the sun disappeared and the moon lit up the sage brush flats like a Monday Night Football game. The lunar cycle was killing us! That, coupled with the added moisture, left no reason for the deer to leave the cover of the cedar thickets.
Day four brought another winter wonderland, six more inches of snow on the ground. We decided we had better split up, since we had yet to locate a shooter. Dad and Uncle Brad were going to hunt a spot closer to camp. I opted to spend the AM trying to find a glassing point overlooking a burn I had located on Google Earth. At about 9AM, they cut a huge track and followed it for three hours when the stalk ended with the smashing and crashing of hooves and antlers.
Back at the Jeep, they decide to stay the course and see if the road would reach a canyon they wanted to check out. They ended up finding a great glassing point over-looking some of the more open and huntable terrain. It only took 30 seconds after set up to locate “Double Daggers” as he would come to be known. There he was, lying right out in the open, 400 yards away…totally unaware of their presence. After a few quick snapshots of the sleeping giant, the bark of the “cannon” (as I like to call dad’s 300 Remington Ultra Magnum) sent deer running in every direction. He disappeared after the shot, and for a second, they thought he missed. But all that time spent behind the Lead Sled would pay off. The buck tumbled to the bottom of the canyon and was down for good. Unfortunately, I was not there to witness the recovery. But four hours later, back at camp, the smile on Dad’s face was undeniable. I knew that his tag was on a monster buck.
The next morning, we loaded up the quads and headed out to retrieve Double Daggers. We had high hopes of locating a huge 190” typical four-point that Uncle Brad caught a glimpse of after the shot. An hour of glassing turned up nothing, though, and I just couldn’t take it any longer. I had to see this buck, and man, what a toad…so unique…truly a once in a lifetime trophy.
A day and a half was wasted watching and planning a stalk on what we believed was a shooter. On the morning of day seven, Uncle Brad had successfully guided me right to this buck’s bed from almost a mile away. As the deer busted out and circled around to about 150 yards, I quickly began scanning the hillside for the buck I was after. After going so long without a deer tag, our long distance field judging just wasn’t up to par, and I decided to pass on this 170” 4×5. He definitely had the mass we were looking for, but the height just wasn’t there. My Dad was about 300 yards away when the deer made their exit, and he confirmed that was the only buck in the group. That evening, we decided to change country and hunt an area we didn’t think anybody had been.
We were right, but man, that road was rough! However, anticipation was high, because we could tell no one had been down this road in at least four days. As I sat there trying to keep my eyeballs from bouncing out of my head, I saw a little three point standing 50 yards from the road. As he continued to feed, he kept looking back, and we instantly knew there were other deer in the area. We decided to back out and go in on foot. After thirty minutes of agonizing anticipation, the little buck finally appeared about 200 yards away, but nothing else. Pops wanted to sit tight, but I wanted to gain some elevation so that we could glass the whole clearing. Twenty minutes of cussing and discussing had conjured up the plan for me to circle the small clearing around to where the buck had come from. Only five minutes and 100 yards later, the stars had aligned, but they weren’t going to stay that way for long. I quickly dropped to one knee, put the crosshairs right on his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. He was on the ground before I could recover from the recoil. He would not meet my goal of 200 inches but he was bigger than any buck on the wall back home. With only two days left in the hunt, I am not sure too many people would have passed him up. The final blessing had been granted for all the patience, time, and hard work put in to drawing and filling a tag on the Arizona Strip.