Antlers and Acorns
It’s been over twenty years since I first wandered into the Kaibab National Forest near the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and I still can’t get enough. It’s classic big western mule deer, turkey, bison, and giant squirrels all moving along the sunlit forest floor underneath sky-high ponderosa pines.
The day my husband, Paul, called me at work to say that Arizona Fish & Game had hit our credit card and one of us had drawn a Kaibab deer tag, I was very excited! Just to be able to go along on this hunt in a place I love so much was a dream come true, but to my surprise the tag was mine! I was one of those lucky chumps you read about. I had a 3% chance of drawing this tag, and I did. So, my 2020 wasn’t just filled with bad craziness.
A Game of Hide-and-Seek
Paul and I had hunted turkey on the Kaibab a couple of years in a row and learned the true challenge of the Kaibab’s high country; miles of narrow ridges and draws filled with impenetrable oak brush. It’s the perfect place for big animals to hide in seconds. The low country, or the winter range, is much more similar to what I am used to hunting—rolling sagebrush and cliffrose covered hills that one can glass as far as your optics will allow. Unfortunately, record heat and lack of water this year kept the deer firmly planted in their summer range right up to my mid-October hunt. So, we knew we needed to prepare for this hunt to be a game of hide-and-seek.
I will likely not be able to draw this tag again for 10-15 years, so we immediately treated it like the gift it was. We started by switching our summer family vacation to a camping/scouting trip to the Kaibab and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The number of deer and promising bucks we saw at the highest elevation was encouraging, but the other groups out scouting in the same area as the deer were not.
We connected with Kevin Call of High Point Outfitters who had come highly recommended by guides we know in Utah. We had listened to Kevin talk about Arizona and the Kaibab a few times on the Jay Scott Outdoors Podcast and felt like this could be a good “arrow in our quiver,” so to speak. We didn’t need a guided hunt, so Kevin graciously offered a scouting package that fit our plans perfectly. He shared some information and knowledge from his many decades of experience in my unit and he and his team gave us some great info that they learned from their trail cams.
We Named Him Sawtooth
Neither Paul nor I like to hunt deer from blinds, we both prefer to spot and stalk. Unfortunately with the record heat beating down on the landscape, the only sensible strategy was to sit on water. Kevin had shown us trail cam pics of a couple of good bucks that had been hitting water in spots not too far from camp. One in particular had a couple of recent pics of a beautiful, wide buck with a few awesome cheaters. We named him Sawtooth. We decided that a chance at a buck as beautiful as Sawtooth heavily outweighed our dislike of being confined to a blind.
The day before the opener, we checked out the area and found no other blinds on the water where Sawtooth was last seen. No markers, no trucks, no people. It was wide open. We put up our Double Bull blind about 100 yards away from the water and tied a blaze orange hat to it so it was visible from the nearby road. Since we had brought both of our trucks with us, we parked one just off the road about 100 yards before the blind and left it there overnight.
Not as Planned
At 5:25 AM on opening morning, we arrived on the road to our blind to find that we couldn’t get anywhere near it. An F-150 was parked, engine running and lights on, right in the middle of the road between our truck and our blind. Another truck had parked opposite of the one we left and those hunters were walking in toward the water, past the loud and bright Ford. Clearly, Sawtooth’s reputation had spread. It took a minute to absorb the abrupt loss of our go-to spot and to then figure out where to scramble to while we still had the cover of darkness.
Luckily, Paul had been eyeing an area over the hill from the water hole where we were hoping deer were crossing to come in. We hiked out from the road and up into that area away from the other hunters and found ourselves in an empty piece of forest just as it got light.
We spent the rest of the morning hiking farther out from the water and along the ridges in hopes of finding where the deer were traveling from to get to it. As we returned back to the truck, we saw another blind had been set up about 20 yards from ours. We decided that it might be better for us to get out from under the other hunters pursuing Sawtooth and see what else the Kaibab had in store.
Change of Plans
Back at camp for lunch, Kevin told us of another water hole that had recently been filled but not a lot of people knew about it yet. He had some trail cam pics of a couple of really good bucks on it. We headed there for the afternoon and hiked in and around the area. It was indeed full of fresh water, so we knew the deer would be nearby. While we spent a little time sitting on that water, we spent more time working our way through the area and up and down the trails. We saw enough deer to be encouraged, though no shooter bucks yet.
We put opening day to bed and got serious about day two. We decided not to try to hike into that water or set up a blind for sun-up, but rather to keep working through the ridges and draws around it. We managed to turn up a few groups through the draws. We surprised one group of about 20 does with a good buck nestled in among them, but they ended up running up and over the ridge. We revised our stalk and were able to get pretty close to another group that was still feeding on acorns but there was no shooter in the group. This encouraged us to keep on.
Right in Front of Me
And then it happened! As I was enjoying this beautiful fall morning on the Kaibab, I realized I was looking straight at a big buck, and he was looking straight at me. He was facing me, his body engulfed in a tall thicket of oak brush but his head was exposed as he ate acorns. He was the biggest buck I had ever had in front of me on a hunt. Paul recognized him from the trail cam footage of the water that was a few hundred yards away. I stopped breathing for a moment but then managed to get my rifle up and get a round in the chamber. We had only moments to scramble while he watched us from the brush. I couldn’t get a shot before Mr. Acorns backed away and disappeared into the thicket.
Disappointed, we broke off for the morning and headed back to camp for lunch. There we learned of another couple of hunters who had harvested great bucks that morning by sitting water. We decided that we should just suck it up and sit on the water where we had seen the buck this morning.
That afternoon we found a pile of logs to sit behind about 100 yards away, got set up for a shot, and waited. Over the next hour and a half we took turns napping and enjoying the warm fall afternoon, but we didn’t see any deer. As the afternoon wore on, the sun sank directly into my line of sight and we realized that even if something came in, the light would be a big obstacle to a good shot.
A Second Chance
We picked up and hit the trail again. We went back to a point that had a lot of oak brush and looked again for feeding deer but this time it was quiet. As day two began to wind down, we still hadn’t seen any deer. With less than an hour of light left, we headed back to where we had seen Mr. Acorns earlier. To our shock, he was still there—in almost the same place and still eating acorns. To our dismay, we spooked him again. While he disappeared into the brush, we were pretty sure he didn’t go far.
With the idea that he might just simply come back out and resume eating, we found a place out of sight to hide. Daylight was waning, so we didn’t wait too long. I put in a round and crept back to a place where I could see the feeding area. Shockingly, Mr. Acorns was standing there fully exposed but with just his head darting in and out of the oak brush as he fed. It was the opposite set-up we had that morning. I got him in the scope, found a good rest, and shot.
Doesn’t Get Better
It was such a scramble during our first few sightings of him that we didn’t really get to fully take him in. Now that we were walking upon him, we got to take stock of his beautiful thick beams and the fact that he was truly a “Kaibab” buck. He was worthy of the tag and even though we were only on day two, we couldn’t have hoped to find a better buck than this one. He ended up scoring 180”, which makes him far and away my best buck. It was an amazing hunt in my favorite place with my favorite person. It doesn’t get any better than that.
By Julie Kendall