Some places draw a mule deer hunter like a kid to soda pop.  Arizona is that place for me.  Per tag issued, nowhere else is producing more giant deer than the country north of the Colorado River, the big ditch as it’s called.  While I’m pretty careful about where I spend my money, Arizona causes my common sense to waiver.  


A famous Arizona buck from a few years back.  Photo courtesy of the Internet.


I’ve never hunted Arizona, save a February Quail hunt once, but to me, Arizona is the essence of a southwestern mule deer hunt: juniper, sage, oak, ponderosa, remote deserts, and a chance at a truly giant buck.

Arizona, like Nevada, manages many of their deer herds conservatively.  Arizona adopted the Alternative Deer Management Plan in 1995.  It identified units that should be managed to harvest bucks in the three to five-plus year old range.  This bold management plan has met success, but with both positive and negative effects.  

The positive is that some units are now producing bucks that have not been seen since the heyday of mule deer in the 1950s.  A culture of big deer hunters has now arisen.  Every summer, some of the top outfitters and guides start their search for giant mule deer.  They kill some of the biggest deer on the continent, with several bucks grossing over 300″ in the last few years.  A few hard-working and knowledgeable DIY hunters take some giant bucks, too.  The odds are stacked against the DIY hunter as there are lots of eyes, ears, planes, and trail cameras focused on the best units.

The negative side is draw odds.  In several of the units, as a non-resident, there is zero chance of drawing a tag unless you have the maximum of 16 points going into the 2013 draw.  The Huntin’ Fool predicts that it will take around 30 years for a non-resident with even two points less than maximum to enter the pool of applicants who have a chance at drawing. 

For me, it’s just entertainment to see what the guides and DIY hunters north of the big ditch will bring home.  Unless I become a resident of Arizona, I will never experience the premiere hunts. However, there are hunts where I do have a chance.  I’ll have to choose a primitive weapons season or a non-rut hunt, but at least I’ll get to scratch my itch to hunt the Grand Canyon state.  I have no grand visions of strolling into a unit and tipping over a 200″ buck in one hunt.  Based on the last 25 years of my deer-hunting career, I’m more likely to kill one of those in less popular units I can hunt more often; see Application Strategy: Get Off the Declining Odds Treadmill  

I currently have nine bonus points including my loyalty and hunter education point, but I’m among over 600 non-residents at that level.  With Arizona’s non-refundable license, I’ve spent about $1,500 so far.  Considering what big deer and experience are worth, I’m comfortable with that number. 

If you’re contemplating hunting bucks in Arizona, keep in mind that there are units south of the big ditch where a hunter has a chance at good bucks. Like anywhere, you’ll have to plan and hunt smart.  Arizona also offers a unique January bow hunt during the rut, but few trophies are taken.  Consider, too, that antler growth in many herds is determined by rainfall and can be affected by 20% on a bad year (a 200″ buck becomes a 160″ buck).  With hard work, you could realistically find 180″+ bucks in a few years of scouting units where you have a decent chance at a tag.   If you are an Arizona resident, you have the opportunity to hunt some of the biggest deer on the planet, although draw odds are still long. Start planning now, help friends who’ve drawn, and get your deer hunting experience in other states while you wait. 

As much as I want to hunt Arizona, ironically I often hope I don’t draw.  With her late July draw date, I’m usually already committed in other states.  If I do draw, I’ll have to scout just to have a chance.  I live a minimum of 500 miles from the deer country, so with two round trips, I’ll be at least $1100 in vehicle costs.  I’d likely fly the unit, so add another $500.  Include time off work and this could be a $5,000 deer hunt in a hurry.   That is why I try not to get enamored too much.  

However, at the end of the day, I hunt for the experience, to learn, and to have hunted.  I think Arizona is still a value and is why I apply.  Someday, Lord willin’, maybe I’ll get to experience all the Grand Canyon State has to offer a mule deer hunter.  I hope you do, too.

Coming up on the next Rok Blog, you’ll get to meet who I consider the best big deer hunter alive today.  If you rate a man’s skill by the size of bucks he’s killed on public land, then you’ll be hard pressed to find a better hunter than my next guest.  He also gives Roksliders some great tips on finding really big deer.

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Robby Denning started hunting mule deer in the late 1970’s, only missing one season in 35 years. At 25, he gave up the pursuit of all other big-game to focus on taking the best bucks possible. He began hunting the West on a DIY budget hunting an average of 30 days a year for mule deer. Robby loves the hunt as much as the kill and the entire process from research to scouting to hunting. He’s killed four bucks over 200 inches in the last 15 seasons, mostly on easily-obtained tags. He owns a public-land scouting service and runs a private-land outfitting business helping other hunters in their pursuit of deer and elk. Robby has scouted and hunted literally thousands of square miles of mule deer country and brings a wealth of knowledge about these experiences with him. To him, the weapon of choice is just a means-to-an-end and will hunt with bow, rifle, or muzzleloader – whatever it takes to create an opportunity to take a great mule deer. He is also the author of "Hunting Big Mule Deer" available on Amazon. Robby believes all of creation is from God for man to manage, respect, and through which to know its Creator