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Desert Deer: Hunting Arizona in January

Want to try your hand at bowhunting deer in a unique eco-region of North America? Give Arizona a shot.

It was the end of the morning, and I’d encountered 22 mule deer, including one buck that I had to talk myself out of because he was pretty nice. It was a great morning of hunting, particularly because I was hunting on highly accessible public land and with an OTC deer license that I’d bought at Walmart. There also weren’t a bunch of other hunters around. In fact, I saw none that morning and only a couple during the eight-day hunt.

My wife, Becca, hunted with me on and off. For the first few days, we glassed the higher elevations for elusive Coues Whitetail. We saw plenty but didn’t identify any good bucks to stalk. The cool part is that my license allowed me to chase either Coues Whitetail or mule deer.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m talking about Arizona’s non-permit deer tag, which gives the unique opportunity to hunt deer at times that hardly conflict with Whitetail seasons back in the East and Midwest.

It was at the end of January 2020 that I embarked on my first bow hunt for deer in Arizona. I didn’t kill a buck but had a wonderful time in the desert, and I learned a lot. If you decide to give that a whirl, here are some things you should know first.

Arizona is a truly unique landscape in which to hunt deer. PHOTO COURTESY OF BECCA MCDOUGAL

Have Stable Optics

Long before you head for the airport or get behind the windshield, let’s discuss one of the most important aspects of an Arizona OTC bow hunt: glassing. If you live in classic Whitetail country, a pair of 8x42mm or 10x42mm binoculars more than suffice to size up bucks that appear a few hundred yards from your treestand. Go to Arizona with only that pair of binoculars around your neck, and you can expect to become extremely frustrated.

A key to finding deer in Arizona is glassing. The mountains and foothills that hold muleys and Coues Whitetails are very broken. Dissenting those areas takes a methodical approach and loads of patience. More than that, you need quality optics and they must be mounted to sturdy tripods. This eliminates all movement inside your objective view except for moving subjects—deer. Handheld binos just won’t cut it.

Mount a quality binocular to a tripod and use it to find deer. Once you spot deer, switch to a spotting scope to determine if the deer is one that you want to stalk. PHOTO COURTESY OF BECCA MCDOUGAL

Be Methodical

As far as binoculars, something with 12 to 15x magnification mounted to a tripod will work well. Pick apart each slope methodically like a math paper. Aim your binos at the highest, left-most part of the mountain or slope. After a couple of minutes, move the binos to the left and lock the tripod head. Repeat. Once you’ve gone across, pan the binos downhill one level and work from left to right again. From a distance, Coues deer in particular appear tiny, so in many cases, you won’t be able to tell immature bucks from quality bucks. If you’re after a mature buck, you don’t want to waste precious time stalking animals you don’t intend to harvest. That’s why a spotting scope is key.

With spotting scopes, the more you spend, the better you get. On my hunt, I used Maven’s CS.1, and it worked admirably. It’s not a Swarovski, but it also doesn’t cost nearly as much and it did what I needed it to do. Again, mounting to a sturdy tripod is the key to spending long hours behind a spotting scope. On distant mountains, you should rework them with your spotting scope again once you’ve done it with your binoculars. You might see some things you were missing.

As for the times of day to glass, morning and late afternoon tend to be the most productive times. The non-permit deer license allows bowhunters to hunt during January, August, and December. December and early January are rutting time for desert mule deer, and the month of January will have the Coues deer rutting. Even so, don’t stop glassing at 8 or 9 a.m. when deer are rutting. It only takes 15 minutes for the view in your optics to change for the better.

Shot opportunities can happen fast when deer are rutting. Be ready for anything to happen. PHOTO COURTESY OF BECCA MCDOUGAL

Get A Mapping App

Another prerequisite of an Arizona non-permit deer bow hunt is to spend lots of time scouting via a mapping app such as HuntStand Pro. Once you’ve decided on an OTC unit or two, begin your mapping by identifying forest service and BLM lands. From there, if you’re focusing on muleys, they usually occupy the foothills below the mountains. If you’re looking for Coues Whitetails, focus your scouting around steep mountain slopes. Coues hunting is often referred to as the “poor man’s sheep hunt.” Of course, the possibility exists for Coues and mule deer to overlap.

I really like HuntStand Pro’s 3D base map to predetermine potential glassing points. Panning around gives you a realistic perspective of what hills/mountains you’ll be able to glass from given glassing points. In other words, you can create a better game plan before your hunt in order to optimize your hunting time when you arrive.

Besides public lands and the beneficial 3D mapping, also use the HuntStand Pro to identify water sources. Arizona is dry. Look for water tanks, creeks, and springs. Deer will typically inhabit drainages with water or those adjacent to them. Find the water, find the deer.

Coues also inhabit pine forests in Arizona, but I didn’t hunt there because I’m not big into treestand hunting, and that is the method that most seasoned Coues hunters use in the pines. Plus, this article is about desert deer, not forest deer.

Quality footwear is a must, as you can expect to log many miles each day. And while muleys typically inhabit gentler, rolling hills, Coues deer are known to live in steep, rocky country where ankle support and traction are key boot attributes.

Quality Boots Count

During our Arizona deer hunt, we commonly logged five miles or more daily. It’s extremely important to buy quality boots and break them in prior to your hunt. While the foothills that muleys inhabit are moderate in difficulty, you can at times find yourself “cliffed-out” in the higher Coues country.

Ankle support and traction are key attributes to seek in your footwear. You cannot afford to get blisters after the first day, either, so make sure to get a boot that fits just right. I’ve had good luck with Danner boots, and I now have a pair of LaCrosse Lodestar boots, which would also work well in Arizona.

As a side note, Arizona is also rattlesnake country. While seeing them in August would be no surprise, it’s still possible to encounter them in December or January given warm temperatures. For that reason, you might consider snake boots or at least snake-proof chaps.

Stay hydrated while glassing and while hiking. PHOTO COURTESY OF BECCA MCDOUGAL

Apparel and Weather

Daytime temperatures during my late-January Arizona hunt ranged from 62 to 80°F, but another outdoor writer hunted that same region of Arizona one year prior and he shot his spike Coues deer in the snow.

That means that you must pack apparel for all types of weather. During my hunt, the mornings were usually just a few degrees above freezing, so having enough layers during the inactive glassing hours was crucial. You can always shed layers, but if you leave them in the truck or at home, you’ll probably regret it.

I’ve had very good luck with Sitka Gear’s clothing. Not only do the Subalpine and Open Country patterns melt into the Arizona landscape, but the layering options and the athletic cut are ideal for a hunt like this that requires glassing and then active spot-and-stalk hunting.

After spending hours behind glass, you’ll be thrilled that you bought a quality binocular and mounted it to a sturdy, lightweight tripod. PHOTO COURTESY OF BECCA MCDOUGAL

Travel Routes

I drove to Arizona for my hunt. I prefer to have things like a Rinehart or Morrell target so that I can shoot during the day. I also like to have a cooler for meat, many camo options and other gear. However, it’s a long drive.

If driving isn’t your cup of tea, fly into Mesa, Phoenix, or Tucson. You’ll have to pack minimally, but it’s very doable. Try to stuff camo and accessories into your airline-safe bow case and pack light on street clothes. If you’re successful, consider taking the animal to a meat processor and have them freeze, pack and ship it via UPS Second-Day Air. Once you return home, you can receive the package and get it into your own freezer.

If you drive, you can save money on lodging by bringing camping gear and pitching a tent in a National Forest or on BLM lands. We elected to stay at a $55-per-night motel. It was well-managed and clean. Granted, prices have likely gone up since then.

Unsuccessful? Go Back!

As I mentioned earlier, Arizona’s non-permit deer license allows you to bow hunt in January, August, or December. The only catch is that the license is only valid in the calendar year in which it was purchased. If you go in December, you’re limited to that hunt. However, if you buy your license and hunt in January, you can return in August and/or December with that same tag.

Arizona’s non-permit archery deer seasons hardly conflict with Whitetail seasons. For a Midwesterner like me, a late-January deer hunt was a way to extend my hunting season and trade the brutally cold Wisconsin temperatures for balmy October-like weather in Arizona.

Where legal, an e-bike like this QuietKat can save you some boot rubber. PHOTO COURTESY OF BECCA MCDOUGAL

Last Points

Here are a couple of final points worth mentioning. With Arizona being a border state, there is a potential—particularly in the southern part of the state—for encounters with illegal immigrants. These situations can be dangerous, though they are probably not very likely. You’ll most likely see some border-patrol officers, and they might check you and confirm that you’re actually hunting. We chose an area where this activity wasn’t happening.

Again, Arizona is dry. Be sure to drink a lot of water during your hunt. Getting dehydrated is a real possibility out there, and it can sap your endurance early in the hunt. Stay hydrated. Consider adding a packet of Wilderness Athlete Hydrate and Recover mix to your water.

This article doesn’t detail everything Coues and mule deer hunting in Arizona entails. There are many more-qualified folks who can provide get-it-done tips. However, as an individual who put off this fun hunt for many years due to travel distance, I can attest that this hunt is not as complicated to achieve as it might seem. The logistical and planning aspects addressed above give you a good idea of what you can expect.

The question is: Are you ready to take on the desert deer?

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