Thankfully, The Global Sportsman booth was only a short walk down an aisle at DSC’s 2022 Annual Convention and Hunting Expo.
That’s when John Landgraf, a fellow Texas Aggie, said in response to my questions about hunting Baja California, Mexico, “Late October works for me! We’ll finalize our agreement and get gun and passport information to Patty when we get home.” (Patty Curnutte heads The Global Sportsman booking agency. John and I had frequently used her and her husband John’s agency to book trips throughout the world in the past. )
John and I sat down with Patty. Said told us that Armando Klein or a camp manager for his Sierra Madre Hunting Adventures would be responsible for taking us across the border and to the camp. She continued to obtain our personal and gun information, as that would be required for us to cross the border and return. Then she added, “Armando asked me to remind you the Blacktail sub-species you are hunting is quite rare. You will likely not see many deer, and you may not see a buck. However, he and his staff will do their very best.”
In years past, I had hunted mule deer, Coues Whitetail and desert bighorn on the western, rocky slopes bordering the Sea of Cortez, which separates Sonora from Baja, California. But I had never been on the Baja Peninsula. Wanting to do so, I was willing to take the risk of not pulling the trigger on a Baja Blacktail.
A Few Hiccups
We did have some “hiccups” before leaving San Diego. I learned that the permit for my .280 Remington rifle, topped with a Trijicon 2.5-12.5×42 AccuPoint and sighted in with Hornady’s 150-grain ELD-X Precision Hunter, had not been approved. This was the case even though I had sent all the appropriate paperwork and information along months earlier.
In response to the situation, I was told, “The general has been out of his office,” and that “Bringing a gun into this part of Mexico is becoming more difficult. We have started recommending to our clients to use one of our rifles.” (Note: John had earlier scheduled to use one of Armando’s rifles.) Our outfitter also told us, “You will not be able to bring your rifle into Mexico, but we will have a rifle for you.” He also said there would be ammo. It’s always good to have ammo for the rifle you are going to be hunting with!
Several hours of windshield time included travel along the same path as the famed Baja 1000, known as “the most dangerous race in North America.” It was easy to see and understand why it is rated so dangerous! We finally met the camp cook and four guides, then picked up enough Pacific lobsters for several meals.
Meeting Our Guide
At our village jump-off point, we also met Martin Ivan Zepeda, who would serve as our assistant guide and interpreter. I knew Martin by reputation as a veterinarian and wildlife manager who had helped several friends of mine find desert mule deer and Coues deer properties in Sonora. Martin proved to be a great hunting partner and a fountain of knowledge about local vegetation and wildlife.
It was dark before we arrived at camp, which consisted of a series of comfortable cabins. Initially, we were supposed to be in a tent camp on the hunting property. Over a delicious meal complete with a wee dram or two of safe water/attitude adjuster, we learned we would be driving to different ranches in the region to hunt, rather than staying in tents on one particular ranch.
Greeting the Morning
A strong cup of cowboy coffee helped me greet the morning. Approaching the breakfast table, Martin handed me a rather well-used bolt action rifle chambered in .30-06. It was topped with a scope I could not identify. One of the guides handed me two boxes of Hornady ammo filled with shells. At least I knew I had accurate ammunition.
My “Ahhhh…” quickly turned to “Ohhhh!” when I opened both boxes. All the shells were full- metal jacket handloads. At a makeshift bench, I soon had the rifle on paper at 25 yards, albeit as a pattern rather than a group. After a couple more shots, I had “my” rifle hitting the edges of a 10-inch target at 50 yards. After three shots at 100 yards, I came to the realization that if the target was a full-grown moose, I might hit somewhere in the middle region of the animal.
Established Rule No. 1… Do not shoot at a deer on this hunt beyond 50 yards if you expect to hit it!
Respond to Calling?
Driving to our hunting area, I asked Martin if Baja Blacktail deer respond to calling as mule deer do. His response: “These deer are essentially no different than mule deer. However, they are smaller in body and antlers.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out two Burnham Brothers short-range predator calls. I handed one to Jeremiah Bennett, the cameraman accompanying me on the hunt. Jeremiah and I often worked together. During January, he guides for monster-sized mule deer bucks in Sonora, Mexico. There, he often uses a call to entice an old buck out of the chaparral.
High Desert Terrain
On the first day, we drove through miles of the most fabulous high desert terrain and deer habitat I have ever seen. Ephedra, cholla cactus complete with “tunas,” along with a great variety of other excellent deer browse species were in abundance. We spent hours glassing mountains and plains and scarcely saw a bird!
Back at camp after dark, lobster was on the menu. Outside of hunting moose and black bear in Maine, I had not previously been served lobster in hunting camp. If that cuisine wasn’t enough, the nighttime sky was a treasure to behold.
We left camp just after sunup and drove two hours over rough and rocky roads to another ranch. There, we spent the day walking remote areas and glassing. For lunch, we had lobster tacos, heated over an open fire. While sitting and glassing distant slopes after lunch, Martin explained that Baja, California, was first explored by Spaniard Hernan Cortez in 1535. He was looking for gold. He did not find gold, but he did find black pearls. Cortez also thought he had reached a mythical island populated by female Amazon warriors and ruled by Queen Calafia. That mythical “island” was first written about in 1508 by Garcia Ordόñez de Montalvo in his “The Exploits of the Very Powerful Cavalier Esplandian, Son of the Excellent King Amadis of Gau.”
Martin had earlier, and now again, pointed out a boojum tree or cirio, an extremely thorny, short-branched, single-stem tree belonging to the Ocotillo family. Ocotillos are known as the “Devil’s Walking Cane.” Boojum trees are unique to Baja, California, and a small portion of western Sonora. They are very slow-growing, generally growing no more than two inches per year. That made the 60-foot tall Boojum trees we saw well over 600 years old. Our hunting area was also home to the giant Cardon cactus, sometimes called the elephant cactus. They can reach heights of 65 feet or more and weigh in excess of 10 tons. They live to be upwards of 300 years old.
“Baja Blacktails look very much like the desert mule deer on our property in the Trans Pecos back in Texas,”
Over a supper of lobster pizza, I learned that John had seen a couple of does and a very small yearling spike that day. “Baja Blacktails look very much like the desert mule deer on our property in the Trans Pecos back in Texas,” he commented.
We spent the following morning glassing some of the finest desert deer habitat I had ever seen. But we failed to see deer, no matter what we did or how we hunted.
During a lunch break, I asked Martin what he thought was the reason for this. “For many in Baja, the only big-game animals are desert bighorn sheep. Huge amounts of money go to landowners with bighorns. All they care about in terms of wildlife are desert sheep. Very few dollars are derived from deer hunting, so some ranchers look at deer as competitors to their domestic stock and desert bighorns, he explained. He went on to say that he had heard a local resident tell one of the guides he had shot 14 bucks already this year, and it was he who had tried to sell him the skull of a recently taken buck. I added that I understood enough of what was being said and knew that same person had bragged about shooting does whenever he saw them.
I was told that landowners obviously do little to prevent deer poaching, and it appears that they are encouraging it. Poaching is certainly a major factor why there are so few deer. My thought was that with outfitters like Armando bringing hunters to this area, hopefully landowners and local residents will see the potential economic value of deer hunting and stop the poaching.
We finally saw a couple of does and a young spike buck the following morning. Later in the day, we spotted three more does. They truly looked very much like the desert mule deer. After the first doe disappeared, I started blowing my Burnham Brothers call. Immediately, the doe reappeared. She came to us and stopped 50 yards away. After the spike spooked over the ridge, I also started calling. He also came back and cautiously watched us. Our “camping trip” was showing hope of becoming a deer hunt.
On Day Four of our trip, we ran out of gas several times. Thankfully, each time it looked like we were going to be stranded miles from “anywhere” when a vehicle appeared and our driver was able to siphon gas from their tank to get us going once again. At dark, our truck sputtered to empty just as we pulled into a remote restaurant on a long, lonely stretch of road. When Martin asked about fuel availability, the proprietor told us he would gladly exchange my U.S. 20-dollar bill for a single gallon of gas (four times over, to be exact.)
Four Buck Appear
Pulling into camp, our headlights swept across a handsome five-by-four buck hanging out front, a fitting end to a difficult day.
As we approached camp, John explained, “What a day!” We were driving through extremely rough country when our right rear tire and wheel simply fell off! After a discussion, one of the guides decided to walk to where he might be able to make a phone call to get help. After he left, we walked a short distance. Not having much else to do, we crawled up on a big boulder to glass.
Immediately, we spotted a buck bedded 800 yards away. Armando’s rifle had come complete with a range card prepared by Tim Fallon of the FTW Ranch and the S.A.A.M Hunter Training.
John did not want to shoot at that great of a distance. So, he stalked to within 200 yards of the buck and got into a solid shooting position. The buck went down as soon as he pulled the trigger. John was thrilled! He was trying to take as many of the different deer species as possible. The Baja Blacktail was one he considered as quite possibly one of the toughest to take. “We would never have seen him had the tire not fallen off,” John observed.
I checked the buck’s teeth: it was a six-year-old. While I was doing that, John disappeared. Moments later, he was holding the rifle he had used. “Tomorrow you’re hunting with a rifle considerably more accurate than the one you’ve been carrying,” he said. To that, I said, “Thank You!”
The Last Morning
On the last morning of the hunt, one of the guides, Jose, said: “Vimos varias pistas de buck en esta area. Encontraremos una nueva pista y diez la seguiran hast que veamos al ciervo!”
I understood him to suggest that we head back to the ranch where John had shot his deer, find the freshest buck tracks, and follow those until we saw the buck. I indeed liked the plan!
Mid-morning, we found fresh tracks, including where a buck had recently bedded. We followed tracks onto solid rock, where we could no longer see tracks. Having lost the track, we glassed the area hoping to spot him. Our efforts failed.
We had just started driving in another direction when we could feel the vehicle’s transmission slipping. Going uphill would be impossible. After a brief discussion, we headed toward camp, which was the prudent thing to do, yet all the while hoping we could get there before the transmission went out completely. Thankfully, we did get back to camp!
Exploring new territory and learning about Baja and the unique vegetation made my “camping trip” a success. Even though I had seen less than a handful of deer, I had a fabulous time!
Hopefully, our trip opened the eyes of the local landowners and they will eliminate or at least diminish local deer poaching and start doing what they can to encourage proper management of the local unique deer herd. If that happens, it will be a win-win situation for the people of Baja along with hunters, local deer and other animals that all live in Baja’s unique desert habitat.