Last Day, Last Canyon, Last Hour
By Dean Parisian
NM, Mule Deer
In the northwest corner of New Mexico is the area known as the “Four Corners” where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado all come together in a common point. These are legendary Mule deer states, and this corner of New Mexico plays a big part in that legend. Wherever trophy Mule deer hunters gather, talk eventually turns to the storied canyons of Rio Arriba and San Juan counties. You will find the record books well represented, if not dominated, by bucks taken there over the years. This is New Mexico Game Management unit 2. It’s where I was going to hunt.
Unit 2 is a uniquely placed environment with several factors which contribute to its excellence as Mule deer habitat. Situated at the base of the Rocky Mountains, which soar to 14,000' to the north, this area is defined by three large river systems which flow from the snowcapped peaks of the Rockies and eventually drain into the Colorado River and on through the Grand Canyon to the sea. The terrain was created by these rivers and their associated drainages as eons of erosion cut through the soft sandstone and left deep, multi-stepped canyons with broad sage flats in the bottoms and on the benches. Vegetation is predominately pinyon/juniper ("PJ") treed areas interspersed with open, brushy flats of sage, grasses, and varied browse. The elevation is considerably lower than the mountains to the north. Average elevations in the unit are 5,000-6,000', Snowfall is minimal compared to habitat even a few miles north. Mule deer love it. The rugged PJ bench country provides the cover they need with an abundant, nutritious food source at their feet. The main river systems flow year-round and add great bottom-land habitat and water sources to the mix. Winters are relatively mild, and deer are not subjected to deep snows and winter kill. This is, and has been, their home for centuries.
Mule deer in unit 2 have a semi-nomadic lifestyle, as many of them will drift north into Colorado in late spring. As snow melts off the high peaks deer will seek out the cooler alpine areas on the mountain, even as high as the crags above timberline. Many stay in the area and browse the thick, rich river bottoms and tuck away into the shady high cliffs of the canyon country. As soon as snows fly in the high country the deer come home. They come home to unit 2 to rut, to feed, and to grow another little Mulie. Mature Mule deer bucks are very reclusive, nocturnal creatures, reclusive being the key word. For most of the year they are lounging away in the thickest, darkest cover available and come out only after dark to feed and water. You'll not likely see them. Hunting success on a big Mulie in unit 2 is deeply tied to the rut and the return of the migratory deer. Normally early snows in Colorado occur around the end of October and trigger southward deer movement to their wintering areas in the sage country. The rut begins in early/mid-November. As deer populations rise with the returning herds, the rut starts to engage as well.
I was standing in the Costco Tire Department last summer when my cell phone rang. It was a call from the Huntin’ Fool team telling me I had been successful in drawing a 3rd season rifle deer tag in unit 2B, west of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. This was going to be my year! I had been applying for a tag in that unit since 2006 and finally got lucky! Luck seems to happen when you never give up; funny how that works! I had some business in Texas prior to flying into Albuquerque and unfortunately had too much gear, so I had to tell Southwest Airlines how unhappy I was with the $75 they charged for being overweight. Getting robbed at the gate is par, and those airlines love the game. They get better at it every day. Getting a rental pickup from National was not easy either. I figured a 4x4 was a necessity because I didn’t have a clue what the weather might do.
I loaded up and headed out, hoping to make it to Sante Fe for Halloween night and then on to camp on Friday, get sighted in, and be ready to go on Saturday morning for the 5-day hunt in the third rifle season in New Mexico. I got to Sante Fe late, found a cheap hotel, unloaded all my gear lest I have it stolen out of my pickup, and headed out to find some grub. I walked a couple of blocks and ran into a bar called, “Cowgirls.” My waitress/ bartender on Halloween night was in costume, and she brought a great burger loaded with a full avocado! For sure the trip was off to a great start! Driving north to Chama from Sante Fe I had to cross the Rio Grande River and stopped to snap a picture of a very colorful cottonwood in its mighty fall splendor.
Friday morning, early, found me on the road headed north and I had to stop into Chama, New Mexico and see an old friend, Ray Milligan, who, like me, started our professional journeys on the trapline.Ray runs a very successful hunting operation in New Mexico, www.milliganbrand.com, and found time the previous week to break away and kill a fine bull at 460 yards. Ray has a World Slam on sheep and still loves to get it done!
Ray shoots a very unique riflee. The balance and weight are really cool. Ray and his wife have a small ranch south of Chama and have some food plots and water, which will hold deer and elk in the area. There was a buck that was shot this year on his small acreage with a muzzleloader. I call that sweet!
Heading west out of Chama I had to cross the Continental Divide. This part of New Mexico is winter range for large herds of deer and elk that bail out of Colorado and head south. For sure the state of New Mexico understands the economic value of the resource.
Heading farther west I crossed the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. Home to some of the finest Mule deer genetics in America, it was a place that as a kid I read about in "Outdoor Life" magazine. They get a good penny and then some these days for hunting big game on the Jicarilla. At one time they had a good lion/cat control program in place, and they seem to be managing their herds well. I know they allow some off-Reservation trappers to come in and knock back coyotes, and someday that would be a treat to run with Ray and trap the Jicarilla in our old age.
I had made the decision to try and kill a great buck on this trip. I wanted a bomber and hoped that with the help of my outfitter we could get it done in 5 days time. A pair of sheds was found very close to the trailer I stayed in. I liked that buck. Who wouldn’t?
Hunting this part of New Mexico involves doing a tremendous amount of glassing. We used a pair of Swaro 15x56’s that were not mine, but I wish they were! If I ever have some luck again in the stock market after it undergoes a much-needed correction and reset back to reality I hope to own some of these. They may be a pretty penny, but when hunting from above they are in one word, priceless.
Lions get big in this part of America. Real big. Most people have no clue how powerful bobcats are and how efficient they are in bringing down big bucks. Well, lions have no problem with deer or elk. Once they get the jugular it’s usually game over. Lions can drag hundreds of pounds of dead weight into cover to feed. They don’t have much for being long-winded, but that burst of speed to overtake prey would be tough to beat with a good quarter horse. We took some pictures of some remains from a lion kill.
Across much of America, in many hunting camps, and around many campfires there is always talk of the elusive black panther. Of course there has never been a photograph of a black Mountain lion or cougar in North America, but that has never stopped tall tales from being spread. We saw a Mountain lion track. It was not a big one, but it was a lion.
One of the tougher aspects of hunting out West is getting good oxygen. I rest my head every night at about 978' above sea level. I was hunting between 6,600 and 7,400' above sea level. I don’t smoke, never have. It just takes a couple days to acclimate. My guide was 46 years old and lived in that country his whole life. He was a 6’3” bundle of killer. Wearing a size 8 boot, waking up with a bottle of Coke in one hand and a can of smokeless in the other, he was a hard charger. We wore it out looking for a bomber Mulie buck. I glassed more nooks, holes, and crannies than I ever had before. We never found a single great buck to stalk. We glassed the country, and glassed, and glassed!
The first morning out we were watching a waterhole at daybreak and had a 2-point, a 3-point, and a 4-point feed out in front of us and head for the timber for a day of rest. Other than that it was slow. We probably averaged between 20 and 40 sightings a day with very few bucks. The second to last day we headed north to look over the migratory deer that had been flooding into the unit from Colorado that had some weather the week before, and we counted 141 deer, 3 of which were bucks and only one of them was a legal fork-horn, the other two were spikes.
On the morning of the second day we walked down onto the top of a large drainage and below us we heard some deer “blowing.” We had been busted, and a doe and small 2-point and then a larger deer busted out and stopped for a “look-back.” Remember what I said I wanted out of this trip? I wanted to kill a bruiser. I wanted to put a real bomber on the wall. I wanted the opportunity to shoot a real pig, and tipping over the buck that was in front of me on the morning of the second day out wasn’t going to achieve what I wanted. My guide looked at me rather oddly for not killing that deer, but hey, it didn’t fit what I thought I could kill and what I thought we would turn up over 5 days of hard-core hunting. Another hunter in camp killed the buck I was looking at on the last day, and I couldn’t have been happier for him. He hadn’t killed but a half dozen deer in his life, and this deer was a great deer for him. I was so happy that he got the opportunity to head back into that canyon, find the buck, and kill him. He was a good buck.
The rest of the week was spent behind the glass. We couldn’t look enough. It was hard to believe that we couldn’t spot a single bomber. We never quit looking, though, and I was proud of our effort. It’s what it takes.
We put some mileage on over the week getting into good vantage points to glass and went over some terrain that had some precarious footing! Be careful out there, always!
Somewhere along the midpoint of the hunt it snowed a skiff and got a bit cooler. Nights in New Mexico can by crystal clear, and if you think there are a lot of stars in the night sky east of the Mississippi try being west of the Rio Grande! On the final day of the season I pulled out my lucky jacket and hoped it would help turn up a big ‘un! My favorite color is blaze orange!
The time flew by for sure. We only turned up one shed that we could retrieve. It is sitting atop my killing machine, a Browning BAR .243 with a big Swaro up top. And yes, the glass cost more than the gun. Way more. ‘Nuf said, my wife will probably read this!
One of the things I like to do every year, and you probably do too, is to tweak my gear. I had a wrist compass that I was impressed with and that really came in handy, especially in new country and on cloudy days when the sun was hidden. It's just an easy way to keep directions in front of you without pulling out a compass. I wear a watch that has a light to check time 24/7, and now I will be wearing this wrist compass. It is a good piece of gear for sure. I will let you find the name of it on the internet!
In the waning hours of the day when my guide said we were heading into the best place on the last day to glass my spirits were high. I was happy with our sweat, our effort, and our time management. Tag soup to me means nothing. If I were not to see a deer to shoot, I still would have been impressed with the unit and the deer there. Don’t get me wrong, there ARE big deer in that unit. There are a trillion places for them to hide. There are bombers there. The rut was still weeks off, and they were heavy and laying up in the all of the places that allowed them to become bombers in the first place. There are deer everywhere in that unit. If New Mexico allowed rut hunting, they could charge big money! As the afternoon wore on and we were getting to the last ridge of the hunt I spotted a couple of white butts on “girls” up on the ridge, and upon further review, low and behold what was coming over the ridge but a set of horns. Dang, just my luck to have a little wide 3-point in the crosshairs up on that far ridge. At the sound of the shot he took off running, but I knew he wasn’t going far. It was the last wide-open sprint of his life.
I will apologize for the messy picture in advance. I harp on others to clean up their animals at the kill site for picture taking because I hate nothing more than seeing great bucks on garage floors or laying in pickup beds, but this wasn’t to be. I donated the meat to a good charity, but the horns will go on the wall.
New Mexico was a special place. Hanging this Mulie on the wall will help me remember it. In a unique way, this buck was a bomber. Last day, last canyon, last hour. I know Dad was smiling from above!