Arizona's Best Over-The-Counter Mule Deer Units
One of the best ways for a hunter to dip their toes into the world of western hunting is to grab their bow, head to Arizona and buy an over-the-counter mule deer tag. Many game units in the state offer archery only non-permit tags that require no drawing. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
For the most part, the terrain isn’t too harsh, but there are hills and mountains you'll have to walk in order to get to a vantage point and glass. The weather can be hot and rainy in the early season and snowy late. And in the wide-open desert, a spot-and-stalk hunt is often the only way to get close to a muley buck. Plus, you might have to make tracks along the desert floor as you hike far from the road to lose the crowd.
So it may not be a slam dunk, but it promises to be a heck of a lot of fun. To select the best over-the-counter units to hunt in Arizona, first you need to define what you're after. Do you want to hunt velvet bucks in August and September? What class of bucks do you want to target? Is it one of the plentiful 150- to 170-inch range bucks? Or the ones carrying between 180 and 190 inches of antler on their head? Do you want to go when and where the bucks are rutting?
Well, we can help narrow your search. Below are the units we believe will offer a DIY hunter the best chance of tagging a mule deer buck in an Arizona OTC deer unit.
Best Units for an Early Season Velvet Hunt
Survey data suggests that the fawn numbers are on the rise in Unit 16A. You can join the crowd and hunt around the Hualapai Mountains (there’s a reason it draws the attention of other hunters). Or you can branch out and find lesser densities of deer, but better age-class. Take a close look and scout the McCracken Mountains area. It holds a fair amount of deer that are above average in size.
Where there are cats, there’s likely a sizable deer herd. The flats around Copper Basin and Turkey Creek are filled with mountain lions. You can also hunt higher in the pine country on Big Bug Mesa, but expect to have a lot of company.
Get away from the roads and be prepared to glass, glass and glass some more. Scout the area to the north that was affected by the wildfires, but also focus on the Upper Blue River area. The broken terrain in the pinyon-juniper brush allows for good spot-and-stalk hunting and the Blue River Wilderness area has been good to hunters willing to pack-in on foot or horseback. Any of the main drainages will hold some big bucks, but the farther from the road, the better.
Best Units for a Rut Hunt
Unit 22 is open for archery hunting late August to mid September and then December through the end of January. This long window should offer the option of hunting the pre, peak and post rut. Arizona Game and Fish mentions that Edwards Park, just south of Mt. Ord, holds a fair number of mule deer and receives little pressure because of the ruggedness of the road. However, the best way to scout out a honey hole might be to drive the back roads and glass despite the wear it may put on your vehicle. Better yet, get a rental.
The rut brings roaming mule deer bucks out into the open, but the challenge is intercepting them and getting close enough for a shot. Glass the desert floor from the highest point possible. Once you see a deer, start stalking with your Muley Doe decoy. If you are hunting with a partner, one person should remain on the glass and guide the shooter to the deer using hand signals.
Best Units for a Trophy Mule Deer Hunt
Units 37A and 37B
Making the decision to hunt these two units is a choice for quality instead of quantity. You can go days without seeing a buck, but when you finally do, there’s a good chance it will look good on the wall. The best time to hunt these units is in January when the rut spurs the bucks to come out of hiding. Don’t get discouraged or let your guard down… the stories of hunters kicking up bucks as they numbly go through the motions are numerous. Remember, success often occurs in the unlikeliest of places.
Must Pack Mule Deer Gear
Layered Clothing System
The temps in the Arizona desert can swing wildly throughout the day. Make sure you pack quality merino wool base layers, insulation layers and a waterproof outer layer.
Most of your time will be spent glassing, so quality optics are a must. Check out the 10x42 TORIC from TRACT Optics. Its quality is on-par with a $2,000 pair of binoculars, but cost less than $700.
Mule Deer Decoy
Montana Decoy has created the Miss Muley decoy to get the attention of rutting mule deer bucks or distract the ones you have to put the sneak on. And its 40- by 38-inch frame allows hunters to do just that out in the open country where big mulies tend to hang out. Like every decoy from the company, the photo-realistic body pops open in the blink of an eye and folds down tight to the size of a dinner plate.
To conclude, a mule deer hunt in one of Arizona OTC units is often overlooked by hunters who think they need to draw a tag in order to experience a quality hunt. Not so. It may take time, effort and luck, but nothing compares to being in the desert during winter chasing mule deer bucks. It’s something every hunter should try.