feature By: Tony Martins | November, 18
It was a chance encounter and an exhilarating sight for a mule deer hunter – nine mature bucks marching in formation down the spine of a sparsely brushed ridge less than 200 yards away. A full hour after sunrise, their gait was purposeful but not hurried. Lead by a massive-bodied, heavy-antlered 4x4, the brace of bachelor bucks turned south and disappeared single file into a deep, brush-choked canyon. Scouting in early August along the Sitgreaves National Forest interface with the White Mountain Apache Reservation in eastern Arizona, I was looking for fresh sign and a couple of good trail camera locations for a bowhunt later in the month. There was just one problem: These bucks were on the wrong side of the fence.
Returning from work that afternoon, I located where the bucks had jumped the perimeter fence onto the reservation, and decided to backtrack. After heavy monsoon rains the prior evening, the tracks were easy to follow, and 500 yards back they crossed another fence onto densely wooded private property. The parcel was posted, but I was determined to learn more about these deer. Two hours later I secured trespass permission, and just before dark I made an invaluable discovery. The deer had converged on this location to drink rainwater from several small potholes along well-worn trails through the property. Careful examination of the site suggested that their behavior was purposeful.
Persistent drought across much of the West over the past several years has made water a precious commodity. State wildlife managers spend considerable time and resources on water catchment and retainment projects, even hauling water to badly parched areas when necessary. A favorite tactic that often pays dividends for elk and pronghorn hunters is to sit on a well-used waterhole. Thirsty elk and pronghorn will typically go to available water daily, but this tactic is notably less productive for deer hunters.
Adaptable western mule deer can go without water for days, typically traveling great distances to refresh when water is scarce. Mature muley bucks often become reclusive and learn to drink almost exclusively at night on public lands where hunting pressure is high. With short-duration western hunts of only a week or two, time can easily expire before a big buck is caught watering during shooting hours – particularly at a reliable water source like a large impoundment, deeply excavated stock-watering tank or other man-made catchment.
As a youngster growing up on a dairy farm in the foothills of California’s San Bernardino Mountains, I observed mule deer drinking from puddles on hard-packed dirt roads after the rare rainstorm. When parched landscape in areas holding deer is refreshed with rain, temporary puddles are soon littered with deer tracks. Having hunted mule deer for more than 50 years, I believe older deer learn that opportunities to water at “micro-sized” sources will be short lived. Adaptation drives educated deer to visit these sites more frequently, and often during daylight hours, increasing their exposure to hunters.
One of the earliest hunts I recall where a micro-sized water source factored prominently in success occurred almost 20 years ago in the Sawtooth Mountains in western New Mexico. Formed by an earthquake 60 million years ago and littered with scenic arches, spires and knife-like fin formations, jagged 8,500-foot peaks give the range its name. Narrow, shaded canyons harbor old-growth piñons, alligator junipers, ponderosa pines, Douglas firs and rare limber pines. Seasonal grasses, forbs and mast support a good population of mule deer, but the convoluted terrain makes them difficult to hunt. Bob Swanson and I had muzzleloader tags for early September. It was exceptionally dry, and we had some difficulty locating the resident deer.
While changing locations on the third day, we stopped to help an older gentleman with a flat tire. Noticing his muzzleloader in the truck, conversation switched to the deer hunt. “Nothing but elk around here,” he said. Bob and I exchanged questioning looks, and the gent continued, “ . . . Come-on, I’ll show you.” We drove to his camp and then hoofed-it down a trail into a deep-cut wash. “Looky there,” he said, pointing to several sets of large tracks in the soft sand. Bob, an expert tracker, questioned, “Mind if we check these out?” The man replied, “Suit yourselves, but I’m telling you they’re elk!” We followed the “elk” tracks for more than a mile to a small and nearly dry spring, where it was apparent that these five large-footed muley bucks had worked hard to extract remaining moisture.
Early the next morning we climbed a tall, nearby outcrop to glass for the bucks. An hour after daylight we spotted velvet antlers moving in the thick, tangled cover near the spring. Half an hour after our last glimpse, we climbed down and quietly headed toward the spring. A black bear bolted down the secluded wash as we approached. There was a fresh trickle of water between the rocks and fresh paw marks and big hoofprints in the sand. After locating a prospective ambush point, we retraced our steps out of the area to avoid bumping the deer.
In darkness the following morning, Bob snuck into the spring while I again scaled the toothy peak to glass. Fifty minutes after daylight I heard the unmistakable ka-boom of a muzzleloader, and within seconds spotted fuzzy antler tips bounding through the brush. For at least the third morning in a row, this band of bucks came to the tiny spring. Bob took the first shot opportunity presented as the bucks appeared in the wash. His was not the biggest deer in the bunch, but a stunning, mature 160-class buck just the same.
Although most of my micro-sized water muley bucks have been taken during early archery or muzzleloader seasons, this concept has also proven successful during late seasons when conditions are dry. A couple of years back, my good friend, gunsmith Shane Clark from Show Low, Arizona, took a magnificent 185-inch buck in early November in a remote area of Unit 27. Muleys were located in a nasty 3-mile-long canyon in a six-year-old burn, and tracks indicated there were a couple of bruisers in the area. This was the second year of Arizona’s now seriously prolonged drought, and forage was subpar, but new growth in the burn was adequate to attract and hold some deer.
The closest water, in the form of two well-maintained, earthen stock-watering tanks, was two miles away from the lower end of the canyon. It appeared that deer were using these tanks, but traffic from local cattle made reading the deer sign difficult. Shane needed a break, and it came in the form of a rainstorm the night before the hunt would close. Early the next morning he slipped into the canyon, hoping to locate an active buck refreshed by the dampness and cool air. Less than a half mile in, a large puddle in the trail was decorated with fresh deer tracks, including one oversized set. A few hundred yards farther, Shane spotted the deer browsing leisurely as they moved down into the canyon. The very large-bodied buck stood out like a hippo in a kiddie pool. One well-placed shot from his .257 Weatherby Magnum rifle allowed Shane to place his hands on his beautiful wall-hanger trophy.
I suspect it was no coincidence these deer moved up the side slope of the canyon to water that morning, and I firmly believe that mature mule deer learn where and when these opportunities might occur. While hunting predators in bluff country early one winter, I watched a muley buck purposely traveling across a distant rim. Stopping abruptly, the buck drank from a pothole in the sandstone and then retraced its steps before disappearing into a big rocky canyon. The next day I searched for nearly an hour before finding the pothole that big 4x5 buck went directly to, as if on a string.
Water is the gold standard on the legendary Arizona Strip, where 200-inch mule deer are shot every season by lucky hunters who beat odds of less than one percent to draw these coveted tags. Bordered on the north by Utah, on the west by Nevada and on the south and east by the Colorado River, this is big, arid canyon country where deer density is low. It’s not uncommon to find a dozen or more trail cameras focused on each man-made water “guzzler” located throughout the area. Information collected at these sites is often directly responsible for hunter success.
When Josh Esparza and his girlfriend Leticia (now his wife) beat the long odds, both drawing Strip tags in 2016, they wasted little time in joining the trail-camera madness. Their team of family and friends concentrated initial efforts in an area where a 32-inch typical 4x4 buck nicknamed “Catfish” was located the previous season by Josh’s friend Shane Koury. The cameras confirmed that the deer was still in the area visiting a particular guzzler on an almost daily basis.
As the sun rose on the mid-November opening morning, the team was strategically scattered throughout the giant buck’s favorite canyon. Bedded under a ledge, the wise old deer became nervous and attempted to sneak out of the gorge. Josh and Shane sprinted toward the rocky exit chute, arriving just in time to catch the buck and its doe trotting toward the horizon. Josh quickly planted his shooting sticks and made the 150-yard shot, downing the 204-inch brute. Not to be outdone, Leticia collected her own giant buck a few days later – a beautiful 201-inch 5x6 non-typical located midday by Josh’s brother Cory.
During the seven seasons I hunted that group of bachelor bucks near home in Arizona’s White Mountains, I learned a great deal about mule deer behavior. Careful observation in the area of that first encounter revealed why those bucks migrated up the rim into the pines each August, from piñon/juniper country 2,000 feet lower: Minerals in the soil. I noticed a number of small (slightly larger than a golf ball) cupped-out depressions in soil along the trails. Trail cam images suggested deer were making the tiny cavities. Sure enough, one morning I watched a young velvet buck use its lower teeth to scrape the dirt for several minutes into a small berm and then eat the loosened soil, occasionally turning its head to the side to spit out a rock!
Out of curiosity, I sent several samples to a soil science lab for analysis. The dirt tested unusually high in phosphorous and calcium – two minerals necessary for antler development that are also beneficial to lactating does. This explained why these deer were only present in the area from August through early October each year. One sample, taken from one of the larger water depressions tested exceptionally high in sodium. Turns out, cattle had been run on this property previously, and the former owner undoubtedly supplemented their diet with salt and minerals. Dissolved through weathering and scoured-out by usage, the soil became altered enough to retain water.
Although does with fawns and young bucks visit micro-sized water sources seemingly at random, trail cam images revealed that mature bucks visit them regularly after a freshening rain. My biggest puddle buck was taken early one morning after a light overnight rain. Three mornings prior and also after an overnight rain, this buck and its buddies had come to a site where I had installed a treestand. Located at the intersection of two well-used trails, four micro-sized water holes were in view from the tree. Just past 6 a.m., two jackrabbits raced by. Suspecting coyotes would follow, I grabbed my bow, but within a few seconds several bucks appeared, heading my way. One by one they jumped the boundary fencing and approached on both trails. Despite an adrenaline surge, I sat tight and motionless, watching the bucks chase each other and spar, competing for water in the rain-filled depressions.
Several minutes passed before the deer settled down. Trying to keep track of all those bucks while looking for a shot opportunity was nerve-racking. Patience and remaining calm despite the intensity and rush of adrenaline were crucial. After vigorously defending the prime waterhole, the tall, massive-bodied 3x4 buck moved in for a drink alongside an equally mature 4x5 Pope & Young qualifier. With these two dominant bucks now drinking side by side, I cautiously raised the bow and drew as slowly as my muscles would allow. Both bucks tensed at the faint sound of the cams breaking over . . . but it was too late for one.
Build It – They Will Come
Dominant muley bucks will actually defend a favored “micro-sized” water source from lower ranking bucks. They will even eat damp soil to extract remaining moisture as well as minerals necessary for antler development. So, if nature fails to cooperate, why not create your own micro-sized water source where legal?