Trophy New Mexico Archery Mule Deer: Part 1

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Tink Jackson
By: Tink Jackson

As with most other things in life, many times we find it necessary to question where and when we came up with some of the standards that we hold as baseline in our daily lives. Are we “living right”? Do we have a “good life”? Are we “happy”? All of these measures vary from person to person. One person’s idea of a good life, living right or happiness will vary significantly from another based on any number of factors that we choose to include in our evaluation of a subject. As circumstances change in our lives, our measure of these subjects will change as well. These changes can occur in any part of our lives including age, health, spiritual growth, or just about anything else you can think of.

I always find it interesting to talk to other hunters and observe how their measure of a “trophy” animal changes throughout their hunting career. No matter who it is, it always seems to come back to one of four areas. The basic premise of each area may seem obvious, but after a while we can see that even in these basic areas there can be major differences between hunters.

To most, the fundamental measure when rating a trophy animal is horn size. However, even this measure can mean a lot of different things. For some, it might be the number of points. To many, a “12 point mule deer” might be all someone needs to hear to say to himself “trophy”.

For some, it might be the official score of the horns. Even with horn scores, one person might think the term trophy starts with an animal that meets the minimum record book entry score, while another hunter might believe it takes a top 10 animal to be a true trophy. Alternatively, someone who lives in an area that does not produce animals that normally reach the minimum score level might believe that an animal that is 20 inches below the record book minimum is a trophy because that is as largest ever harvested in his area.

Some might think the “character” of the horns is what makes it a trophy. Does it have double eye guards or a drop tine? Do the main beams come back together or even overlap? Is he battle tested and showing the signs of a long breeding season with wear and busted points that exude dominance?

Or is it competition? The guys in the local hunting club all coming together and having a “pot” for the one who comes in with the biggest deer. Is it trying to harvest a bigger animal than our other family members or “beat” Grandpa’s head hanging on the wall? Of course, competition can mean a lot of different things too. The Wounded Warrior who is confined to a wheel chair may be competing against limitations placed on him that were not of his choice and a spike buck might be his trophy of a lifetime!

Is it age? And then obviously, are we talking about the age of the animal, or the age of the hunter? Age can be an important management tool and animals that have reached the chosen age may be the trophies we are seeking. Well known is the fact that our age increases each year, and our age WILL change our definition of what a trophy animal is, up to and including the point where any animal harvested will be a trophy.

Is it the choice of weapon we made that year? Does the definition of a trophy change for each of us based on whether we are hunting with a bow, muzzleloader or a rifle? Did we hunt in an area designated by a game department as a trophy area or in a second or third choice unit? Does that change it as well?

Or is the trophy defined by the hunt. Did we hunt in a new area and just being successful made the animal taken a trophy? Did we face extreme adversity in preparing for the hunt or during the hunt that made this year different and “changed” our measure that would determine “trophy” status? Is it related to the amount of time we put into the hunt or the amount of effort we expended during the hunt?
Could it be that our measure of a “trophy” animal changes frequently, and in actuality all of the things I have mentioned really work together in our determination of whether each animal we harvested is a trophy. One thing I have learned for sure is that a “trophy” is truly in the eyes of the beholder! My 2011 New Mexico Archery Deer Hunt may even add some more measures to the discussion.

January 1st means opening day in New Mexico for deer hunters that prefer to hunt bucks in the rut. New Mexico, for the past few years, has had a split archery deer season. One group of hunters in early September prior to the muzzleloader and rifle hunters, and another set in January; the early hunters afforded the benefit of getting to hunt prior to any firearm season and after months of no hunting pressure and the later the opportunity to chase them during the rut. I have historically preferred the rut hunt as the days of the September hunt still reach over 100 degrees and my old friend “Mr. Coon-Tail” has not gone to bed for the winter yet. The added bonus of getting the big boys out in full force for the annual rut is just icing on the cake!

2010 was a horribly dry year here in the lower portion of New Mexico. While I was getting drenched in elk country in September, the desert lowlands were burning up! Through all of the sweltering August and September days, most of our water in stock tanks and desert springs dried up. Once the heat was gone, the rains still did not come. I did not realize how dry our conditions actually were until early December when I started scouting for the January hunt.

The area I hunt mule deer in is an area I have hunted for thirty years. A normal year will have me out putting up trail cameras in early December along a 4 mile stretch of a canyon that is normally loaded with deer. By January 1st, the purpose of checking the trail cameras is not to see if deer exist in this canyon, but to see which part is holding the biggest buck. This season proved to be far different though.

Last year I had found a spring that I had never seen before, and on the 5th day of the 2010 hunt with, God’s help, I harvested a tremendous desert muley by that spring. So obviously, this year started off with a hike into that spring to put up a trail camera. Once there, all that could be found was a dust bowl where the water had pooled just one season before. A few old dig marks from a deer’s hooves revealed that it had been some time since this spring had pooled water.

While there can be several disadvantages to hunting on working ranches here in the desert, there is one huge advantage. A working ranch will always have working water. Knowing where all of the waters are on the ranch, I started methodically working my way up the canyon in search of some indications of the range of the deer. While mule deer bucks will range many miles during the rut, the does won’t. If there is no water, then there will be no does, and come rut time, no bucks. I was quite shocked when I had to travel almost to the head of the canyon to find water and deer sign.

The sign that I found was in a place I have always called the “honey hole”. This area has two permanent waters and a lot of good vegetation to provide cover for groups of deer to disappear into. I cannot remember more than a handful of days when I have passed through this area and did not find at least one group of does. A group of does in December means bucks in January, and based on the sign, there was at least two groups of does in the area. I was confident that opening day would reveal at least one good buck in this spot. I setup my trail cameras and headed home to let them take the annual buck census.

As happens to us all sometimes, the month of December quickly passed without much time for me to get back out and do any scouting. I did find an opportunity to spend a half of a day Christmas weekend checking cameras and looking around. It was even drier than a month before and the cameras had not taken many pictures. My wife and I looked through what was on them and that made the outlook even worse. One little 6 point buck and a few does. While I will admit that the review of the pictures gave me pause, my many years of hunting that area told me that the rut would change everything. I was sticking to my plan and my area, no matter what!

6 Point buck on trail camera – the only picture of a buck before opening day!

Opening day came and went and I never even got away from town. A huge storm and family needs kept me from getting out. Try as hard as I might, I did not get everything I needed to do done to even be able to be out the second morning. One more hard day’s work though, and come the third day I was going to be there! However, with some help from my wife on day two, things were wrapped up early, and at her suggestion, we headed down the road mid-day to get a couple of hours of glassing in before sundown.

Once we arrived at the ranch we headed straight to the “honey hole”. About an hour before sunset I spotted a doe standing between two trees. A quick scan of the area revealed a tall and wide buck lying at the base of a tree. Approaching 30 inches wide, and just as tall, and looked to be at least 7 ½ years old. Immediately, all of the anxiety from not seeing anything on the trail cameras was gone. I started trying to formulate a plan to get to him based on the limited time I had left and available cover …. and then he turned his head.
I could not believe what I was looking at! All of that width and all of that height, and all he had were little forks about 2 inches deep at the top of his horns.

I took a longer look at his face and realized he was probably closer to 9 ½ years old. Could this really be the dominant buck in my honey hole this year? He was not just hanging around waiting for a chance; this group of 15 does was his! Before I could think any deeper on this dilemma, another buck stepped out of the trees. Not as wide, not as tall, but there was something about his horns. I did not have time to get a count on points or even figure out what was catching my eye about him, but I knew it was different and he was a mature buck. Time to get to work!

I laid out a route and started the stalk. Now, remember I mentioned all of that good vegetation for deer to find cover in? About half way to this buck I almost stepped on another doe bedded in waist deep grass. She bolted and ran off, along with 6 or 7 other does and another small buck. The commotion caused by this bunch alerted the group I was stalking and they jumped the fence and headed out as well. This day was over, but I knew where to be on day three!

The end of the first day I hunted. God sure paints a pretty picture!

The next morning I parked at the lower end of the canyon and made my way up to the honey hole. As soon as I got to the main trailhead I spotted a group of does feeding on the one side of the canyon. I glassed and glassed but could not find a horn in the bunch. After about 15 minutes the wind swirled, one of the does caught my scent, and they started bouncing away. When they hit the fence line, I watched as they crossed one by one at about 150 yards. Doe after doe and then there he was, a nice 8 point mature buck. Don’t know where he was while I was glassing, but I sure could see him now. They crossed a big open area and disappeared into a dark brown patch of brush about a mile away. As I watched for them to come out of that brush, I saw another group of deer move in another area of the brush as well.

I did not remember that dark brown patch of brush from previous years, and based on all of the deer I had just seen it swallow up, I decided I needed to go examine it further. A short mile or so walk to the north, a miles walk to the east, and I would be at the north end of the brush. Off to the bottom of the canyon I went and headed that way.

When I got the north end of this thicket I was surprised to find a dense swath of cockle-burrs, about a mile and a half long and a half mile wide. It had grown up against the edge of a huge erosion control levee, and utilizing early spring moisture had grown to over 6 feet in height in most places and was extremely thick. I have hunted a lot of different types of terrain and vegetation in my life, but let me tell you, cockle-burrs are a different monster all together. There was no way to sneak through this thick forest of stickers and who knows what else, so a different plan was needed.

I started working the eastern edge of the thicket. I decided that if I was going to run anything out of that brush, I wanted to run them out towards my honey hole and not away from it towards the mountain. I methodically worked my way down the edge, amazed by the amount of tracks, droppings, trails and beds I was finding. The deer had really been using this area.

I was concentrating so hard watching for movement inside of the thicket that I was not paying much attention to where I was walking. Mind you, in January the general array of snakes was not a concern. However, coyotes do not hibernate! I stepped into the edge of a small bush and awoke a slumbering song dog. I guess him seeing me less than two feet from stepping on his tail was more than he could bear. With a loud yelp and his tail twirling like a helicopter rotor, he tore off into that thicket like the world was on fire!

My first thought was “OH NO”! All of the time I had spent stalking so quietly was about to be blown up by this mangy critter. His rapid escape strategy had brush popping and those cockle-burrs rattling loud enough to beat the band. Then, for some unknown reason, the noise increased considerably! From every direction the brush started rattling. I stepped up on the edge of the dam and saw deer going everywhere. I saw four different groups with bucks in them. One was a huge buck I had not seen yet. He immediately ditched his does and headed for the mountains that I did not have permission to hunt. The next was the 8 point I had followed out there. Another group had a nice 6 point leading the exodus. And finally, the group I had seen the night before, with both bucks still in the group. They headed right back to the stand of trees I had found them in the evening before. And there was that set of horns, not so big, not so wide, but something about them.

I decided that this basket horned buck was going to be the one for 2011. That decision would forever alter my definition of a trophy deer!

Next: Part 2