Boom or bust, up or down, high or low, good news or bad news --- all describe the plight of the mule deer on Arizona's North Kaibab Plateau. Yet despite the see-saw ways of the deer population on the north rim of the Grand Canyon since the turn of the century, the trophy quality has remained fairly constant.
A careful study of the Boone and Crockett (B&C) RECORDS OF NORTH AMERICAN BIG GAME will show at least three dozen entries from the Kaibab, including two in the top five of the nontypical category. Even during the down times, hunters have taken numerous B&C heads -- a fact that didn't go unnoticed by Russ Schuettpelz.
He lives in Wisconsin, well-known in its own right for excellent whitetail hunting. A few years ago the electrical engineer from Greenbay and his long-time friend Bill Reckert sought to diversify their hunting experiences by chasing trophy mule deer in the Rocky Mountains. The quest eventually led them to Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. Then Schuettpelz read a magazine article about the Kaibab's famed reputation for producing wall-hangers.
The article quickly convinced him to apply for one of the hard-to-get permits issued by the Arizona Game & Fish Department (AGFD. He knew, however, that the odds of drawing a permit was about one in five. But the 47 percent success rate made it seem worth while.
Schuettpelz lucked out. Soon after getting his permit, he received a letter from guide Duwane Adams, who has earned a national reputation putting his clients close to Arizona's diminutive Coues whitetails. He had expanded his operation a few years ago to include elk and mule deer. The previous year, his hunters had killed three exceptional Kaibab bucks, including one B&C trophy with a spread over 30 inches, and one of his earlier clients killed a monster with a 36-inch spread.
Adams claims these bucks killed were only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. "We glassed at least 30 bucks, and 10 of them were outstanding. In fact, the average hunter probably would have shot over half of the ones we spotted."
The letter prompted a call from Schuettpelz. "I got several solicitations from other guides. When I spoke with Duwane, though, I quickly realized he knew what he was talking about. The article talked about the Kaibab's checkered past, but Duwane assured me we would see lots of shootable bucks. References he gave us verified his dedication to his hunters. We sent our down payments and anxiously awaited our November trip."
The past Schuettpelz mentioned has become somewhat legendary. Theodore Roosevelt signed a Congressional act in 1906, turning the North Kaibab into the Grand Canyon National Game Preserve. His action closed it to hunting, and U.S. Forest Service trappers subsequently annihilated more than 6,200 large predators.
At the time, the herd consisted of 3,000 to 4,000 deer. Less than 20 years later, 100,000 of them roamed the 1,300,000 acres that comprise the 60-by-40-mile preserve. Death by mass starvation quickly followed. Over the winter of 1923-24, the growing herd ate everything they could reach. The estimated death toll fell just short of 60,000. This infamous "preservation" effort now ranks among the worst mismanagement of game in modern times.
Acknowledging the gross judgment error, the AGFD and the U.S. Forest Service came to an agreement in 1924 to reinstate hunting. The population still declined, dipping to a low of 20,000 in 1934. Then it climbed, reaching as high as 50,000 in the 1950s and 60s. Even though the habitat was in excellent condition, the herd plummeted again to less than 8,000 in the 1970s. Some speculators blamed increased predator populations, while others faulted too much either-sex hunting over the previous decades. The exact cause never came to light, however.
Bordered on the south by the Grand Canyon and near-desert on the other sides, the Kaibab -- a Pah Ute Indian word for "mountain lying down" --- rises like a tree-covered island from a sea of sand and rocks. Elevations vary from 3,000 feet to more than 9,000 on V.T. Ridge, the highest point. Ponderosa pines, aspen, spruce and fir grow at the higher elevations. Pinion pines, junipers and cedars dominate the lower ridges and canyons, which run off the plateau like spokes off a wheel hub.
The deer stay on top in summer and early fall. When the snow flies, they leave for the lower elevations. By late November most of them have moved into the canyons and brushy pockets formed by the ridges, where they stay through the winter.
Old-timers who had hunted the Kaibab after the herd rebounded in the late 1940s and early 1950s fondly refer to those times as the "glory" years. They tell tales of hundreds of deer migrating in single file down narrow trails on both the west and east sides of the "mountain lying down."
The hunting on the Kaibab occurs in two units -- 12A east and west, and each has an early and late season. Most years, the first one covers the first week in November, while the later season took place during one of the last two weeks, depending on the unit. The Wisconsin hunters drew permits for the east side in late November, when the mule deer are in the midst of their rut at the lower elevations.
Knowing this, Adams had one of his guides, Dean Leppert, take Schuettpelz and Reckert to the steep, rocky ridges and sharply cut canyons near the Houserock Buffalo Ranch.
Although Schuettpelz had hunted in the West before, the landscape impressed him nonetheless. "Duwane had described the country to me, but I was still awed by it. I just hoped we wouldn't have to climb in and out of too many canyons."
Adams and his guides hunt using the three "Bs" -- brains, backsides and the most important, 15-power Zeiss binoculars mounted on a sturdy tripod. "We think about where the deer should be in a given area, find a decent lookout and sit down and glass until we find a target. If it's decent habitat, we'll see ten times the deer a walking hunter will.
"The key is getting set up before daylight. By adjusting the tripod head up or down, you can make the vertical field of view overlap. This effectively divides a ridge, canyon bottom or mountainside into sections. Then it's just a matter of panning slowly. Anytime you spot something that looks like a deer, it probably is. It's also a great way to locate bucks after they're bedded down, especially in the open terrain we hunt on the Kaibab."
Once Adams locates a good buck, strategy takes over. His client frequently gets a shot without moving from the lookout. If the deer is too far away, though, Adams plots the best possible stalk.
Leppert and his two charges spotted nine bucks in the 26 to 28-inch class in the first couple days. They passed, figuring they could always find one of the smaller ones later in the week. Then on the morning of the third day, they glassed a huge typical 4X4 as he chased a doe into a canyon. His antlers were high and wide. Although Schuettpelz carried a Weatherby chambered for a .300 Winchester Magnum, he didn't feel confident with the long shot.
The deer eventually bedded right below the bluff the men had been glassing from, so Leppert planned a route that would put his hunter on the opposite side of the canyon. From there they could look back to the side they had been on. Two hours of looking proved fruitless; they never found the buck again.
That afternoon Adams joined Leppert and the hunters to search for the phantom buck. Instead, his binoculars settled on a monster nontypical that had also bedded with a doe. The range was at least 400 yards, and a cedar tree concealed most of the deer's body. Rather than take a chancy shot, Schuettpelz decided to wait -- and wait -- and wait.
An hour and a half later, the sun began to set and the deer hadn't moved. Suddenly and almost on cue, a smaller buck appeared slightly downhill from the larger one.
Adams assumed the boss buck would get upset at the little one intruding on his turf, rise from his bed and move down the hill to chase off the interloper. He whispered to Schuettpelz, telling him to put his crosshairs on a 10-yard opening between the two bucks.
The guide's hunch proved true. As the buck moved through the opening, at a range of 300 yards, Schuettpelz aimed at its chest and squeezed off the shot. As if to charge the smaller one, the bigger buck lowered his head at the same time. The bullet struck the deer in the head and exited out the side of his rut-swollen neck. He shuddered and fell right there.
Because of the terrain, they had to take the deer out in pieces on backpacks, so all they could do was estimate its weight at 225 pounds. The 8 X 9 antlers measured 32 inches wide and scored 212 B&C points. The next day Reckert filled his tag with a typical 4 X 4 that was both 24 inches wide and high. It scored a respectable 180 points.
Contact the Arizona Game & Fish Department, 2222 W. Greenway Rd., Phoenix, AZ 85023; (602)-942-3000 for the regulation booklet, a list of all Arizona guides or other information.
Duwane Adams, 204 Avenue B, San Manuel, AZ 85631; (520) 385-4995) fills his camps quickll. So if you want to enlist his services, contact him in plenty of time.
Adams also sells his video, THE ART OF GLASSING, for $19.95, and has his new book, "Hunting Monster Mule Deer in Arizona's Kaibab Region," available for $20, plus $3 for S&H.