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Chasing dreams: deer hunting on the North Kaibab
By Tom Cadden, public information officer, Arizona Game and Fish Department
Hunting on the North Kaibab plateau is a unique experience in many ways. The diverse natural splendor of this area—spruce, fir and aspen “high country,” stately ponderosa pine forest, and pinyon-juniper ridges punctuated by rugged canyons—makes any hunting or camping adventure a special one.
But when most hunters think of the North Kaibab, they think of its world-renowned—and sometimes maligned—deer herd, which ranges primarily in Game Management Units 12A east and west and in portions of Unit 12B. Many record-class animals have been taken from this area over the years, and the resulting articles and stories have led to inflated expectations by some hunters of finding a huge buck behind every tree and bush.
The North Kaibab herd is one of the most studied mule deer herds in the country. Some hunters say the great days of hunting this herd are a thing of the past, while others say it is, or will be, as good as ever.
“The herd goes in ebb-and-flow cycles,” says Tom Britt, an avid deer hunter and retired regional supervisor for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “Weather and habitat conditions are key factors. Given the right conditions, that herd historically has the ability to proliferate, such as we saw in the 1980s.”
Management is also a factor. In the 1980s, when populations were abundant, the herd was managed to provide more opportunity for hunters. Even with the persistent, long-term drought we’ve had over the last decade, the North Kaibab deer herd now is being managed under an alternative management plan, with objectives of maintaining a high buck-to-doe ratio, increasing the representation of older-age bucks in the population (therefore providing hunters with older, larger animals to harvest), and providing for higher hunt success in late-season hunts.
Data currently indicates that the buck-to-doe ratio is well within alternative guidelines. The yearling buck weights have increased in recent years, and the average age of a buck harvested on the late hunts has climbed in the past few years from 2 years to more than 4 years old. To achieve these favorable parameters, the population has been reduced, and deer densities are lower than in the 1980s. To ensure the long-term sustainability of the herd, it’s critical to keep populations in line with the carrying capacity that the winter range habitat can support.
Two general deer seasons take place in 12A east and west: early and late. The early season this year runs from Oct. 27 through Nov. 5, and the late season is from Nov. 24 through Dec. 3. It is difficult to be drawn for these popular hunts, particularly the late-season hunt when deer are approaching the rut. For example, in 2005 only 50 permits were issued for 3,373 first- and second-choice applicants for the 12A east late hunt, and only 175 permits were issued for 5,837 applicants for the 12A west late hunt.
Preparation and scouting
As with any hunt, preparation and scouting are important. “Learn the country and where the roads go,” says Britt. “Use maps to become familiar with the area; then get out and drive and walk the terrain. Some of that country is steep and demanding, and cell phones don’t work well up there. Always leave word with someone where you’ll be, because some hunters do get lost, or ‘temporarily displaced,’ each year.”
Britt also advises that access to some areas can be tricky, particularly in wet or snowy weather. “There are several steep or shady spots on roads in 12A west and east where ice formation can make travel hazardous, especially if you’re pulling a trailer,” he says. “On the west side, some of those clay bottom roads get really slick when wet. If you haven’t driven any of the roads in these units, talk with someone who is familiar with the area before heading out.”
For the early hunts, most of the deer typically will be at the higher elevations, depending on food supply. Britt advises hunters to hunt where they’ve spotted deer on their scouting trips. “Even though the deer have a large range, they tend to be more predictable and move less this time of year. If you see some animals during your scouting trip, go back and hunt where you’ve seen them.”
Because the plateau is normally very dry during the early hunt, hunting near waterholes can be productive, whether they hold water or not.
Britt also says there has been a good Gambel’s oak acorn crop this year. Acorns have a high fat content and are a highly desired food source for deer. “I’d see if there are acorns in those oak thickets,” says Britt. “If so, I’d hunt those thickets, even in the late season, if there isn’t snow covering the ground.”
When it snows and the temperatures drop, which typically happens by the time of the late hunt, deer head to lower elevations. They seek cover in junipers on ridges and canyons at lower elevations, or even head out to sage and open canyon country. Using your binoculars and having patience are important.
“Glassing is the only way to go during the late hunt,” says Jim Higgs, an avid hunter and retired Game and Fish Department wildlife manager. “Do your glassing toward the heads of canyons and the draws where there are pockets of trees. You can spot places where the bucks like to bed down. If it has snowed, spotting them is easier.”
Be patient and flexible. Sitting in one spot and glassing for long periods of time may be tedious, but can pay dividends. Also be prepared to walk the ridges and canyons, which can be physically strenuous.
Britt says that, contrary to conventional wisdom, snow doesn’t always make for a great late-season hunt. “We’ve had some good years without much snow and bad years with it,” he says.
Enjoy your hunt
Above all, Britt advises hunters to undertake their Kaibab hunt with realistic expectations. “The North Kaibab does have an uncommon ability to grow big deer,” he says, “but harvest data we analyzed from 1953 through 1993 indicated less than .5 percent of the deer harvested on the Kaibab during that time met the minimum score for a record-book listing. From the statistics, we determined the average hunter would have had to hunt about 1,200 days and harvest about 278 bucks to take one trophy-book-quality deer.”
Britt’s best advice for hunters: Have fun, be safe, and enjoy the total outdoor experience of hunting this outstanding setting.
For more information on hunting this area, check out the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s hunt unit information at azgfd.gov.