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Backpack Buck
January 2000
Dan Martinez

It was around 3:30 in the afternoon and I had just finished pitching my backpack tent under a pair of mesquite trees. I was hunting Coues whitetail deer in the oak-grassland country of southern Arizona. After pitching the tent on a somewhat rare spot of flat ground, I walked only about 100 yards and settled down on a rock outcropping to await sundown. I was on top of a hill 100 feet above a small draw. My view was to the north, facing an opposing south slope. I was two miles from my truck camp and any road.

While waiting for the deer to show up, I dug out some of my gadgets to play with: rangefinder, digital camera, 12x50 binocs ... I amused myself by snapping pictures and testing the limits of the rangefinder. Though the rangefinder is rated for 600 yards, I was able to get some locks in the high 800's by ranging across to distant rockfaces occluded by the deepening shadows of the day.

Then, a little before 5 o'clock, I noticed a brownish-grey lump in the sea of yellow grass on the foot-slope of the tall mesa in front of me. The lump was just above the rapidly advancing shadow line.

I grabbed the binos for a closer look. Yup, it was a whitetail. It was even a buck, but he had only two little sticks poking up out of his head. Oh well. I put the binoculars down and watched by eye as he grazed out of sight behind an oak. But just as he disappeared, a second critter emerged from where I had first seen Mr. Two-Sticks.

The binos went up again. It was another buck, but this one had some real horns! I couldn't count the points, but I could see that the ends of his antlers defined a rack tall and wide enough to meet my personal harvest objective.

Now it was excitement time. I traded the binos for the rangefinder: 240 yards. Since the rifle was sighted in for 220 yards, I knew that I could hold dead-on. Remembering that I brought along some orange foam earplugs, I hastily stuck them in my ears. The bark of a BOSS-equipped rifle is best experienced with the aid of ear protection. The buck continued to browse peacefully.

I reached for my homemade cross-stick shooting rest, opened it up and nestled the forend of my Browning .30-06 into the crotch of the field rest. Even after twisting the Weaver scope up to 16-power, the deer still looked small. I started to wait for the perfect broadside shot, but the deer started quartering away from me. Determined not to blow yet another opportunity, the trigger finger muscle in my forearm started to contract . . .

A Moment Anticipated For 5 Years
Back in July I got notice from the Game & Fish Department that I was drawn for my first choice deer hunt during the whitetail rut in unit 36B near Nogales. I began my planning for the hunt in earnest.

But in another sense, it could be said that my planning for this hunt actually started way back in December of 1994. That was the first time I drew this particular hunt. I didn't tag a buck in '94, but I fell in love with the country and the hunt at this time of year. Arizona's whitetail rut hunts run for the last two weeks of the year, and for unit 36B, the draw rate is only about 25%, with success rates hovering around 50%. Only 250 hunters are given tickets to the party.

It was after my '94 hunt that the idea of executing a backpack hunt for Coues whitetail first occurred to me. Unit 36B is blessed with some rugged and remote country that is rarely visited by hunters because the roads don't reach that far. This hunt would be perfect to backpack hunt because of this fact and because the relatively small size of the quarry means that packing an animal out won't kill you. Even a trophy Coues dresses out to less than 100 pounds.

I actually did purchase an external frame backpack in '95, anticipating that someday, I would find the perfect opportunity to execute a backpack hunt. But until this season, that pack has been stored away in my attic, unused.

Since my December '94 hunt, I haven't exactly been breathlessly awaiting getting drawn again for this hunt. I think that since the '94 hunt, this was only the second time that I put this hunt down as my first choice on the draw application. But I did for the '99 season, and I was drawn!

Now it was time to decide if I was really serious about it, or just dreaming. I don't know how it is for other people, but for me, this hitting-40-thing has been kind of a big deal. I'm seeing my own mortality in a brand new light. I'm realizing that as time inexorably presses forward, there will be things that my body will no longer allow me to do. Packing a camp and a rifle back into rough country, and getting that camp and a deer out again, one day will be one of those things. It took me about 5 minutes of thinking to decide that this was going to be that long awaited backpack hunt. I started greatly looking forward to a grand solo adventure!

Gearing Up and Getting Ready
It turns out that I was never happy with that external frame pack. It's a standard backpacking pack that hangs on a plastic frame. The frame actually rises behind me higher than my head. Civilian backpackers typically stay on well-defined, even manicured trails. Hunters cut out cross-country and frequently find themselves ducking under branches with limited headroom.

The Jansport Traditionalist

So I stopped in at Popular Outdoor Outfitters to take a look at what was available nowadays in internal frame packs. I tried a couple on and found that they were very comfortable. I settled on a Jansport Traditionalist. Jansport describes it as a "day-and-a-half pack," which was really just what I was looking for.

My motivation for backpacking was not simply to challenge my body - the purpose was to provide the means to be far from the roads, thus hunting pressure, during those crucial first light/last light hours. When truck camping, you spend those critical hours walking in or walking out, rather than sitting in wait. Or else you stumble around in the dark early and late. All I wanted was to spend a couple of overnights in the back country, not leave my truck for a week. So the day-and-a-half pack suited me perfectly.

But my old external frame pack would still be needed. A comfortable internal frame pack is perfect up until the moment that you get an animal down. It takes a pack frame to get the animal out. So the frame from my old pack was placed on my hunt checklist without its bag.

Another essential piece of backpacking gear I picked up several years ago (but again, never used) was a small, one-man backpacking "bivy-tent." At 2 lbs. weight, it is just big enough to fit you, your boots, and your sleeping gear.

I already had a big, roomy, rectangular sleeping bag that I use for sleeping in the back of my truck, but for backpacking, a modern, compressible mummy bag is more appropriate, for both bulk and weight reasons. A Sunshine Mountaineering bag rated for comfort to 15F also came home with me from Popular.

And finally, to insulate my back and butt from the cold and rocky ground, a length Therm-A-Rest self-inflating mattress was procured, yes, from Popular.

In my everyday life, I'm a desk-bound computer jockey. I realized that I would have to do something to start getting in shape. So until the long days of summer came to an end, I was rushing home from work to throw on my hiking clothes. I would head out to Thunderbird Park where a wealth of rocky trails with significant elevation change is available and perfect for getting in shape. When the days shortened up enough that there wasn't enough light left in the day to make the trip to the park, I started walking the flat land around home, working up to a four mile walk with the pack about 80% loaded. I worked my way up to a total of about a dozen miles a week.

Another significant part of my preparation was scouting - both from the desktop, and in the field. I got topo mapping software and I even ordered up aerial photos to study.

Prior to this hunt, I had hunted this unit three times before. My first hunt was the aforementioned deer hunt in '94, but there also were two javelina hunts since then. I had always hunted the southern part of the unit near the Atascosa mountain range. I wanted to try a different area this time. After studying the Coronado Forest map and topo maps of the unit, I decided to concentrate my attention on the western slopes of the Tumacacori Mountains.

More study of the maps led me to a nice bowl deep in the heart of the mountains. It was exactly the kind of place I was looking for.

One of the purposes of on-the-ground scouting for me, is learning the access roads in the area. This was particularly important in this case, because the roads shown on the topos only vaguely resemble the roads that are actually on the ground.

I mentioned in my column last month that another of the goals for my second scouting trip was to cache some water and food in the area I had chosen to pack into. That way, I could ease some of the burden on my back during the hunt.

Finally, Opening Day Arrives!
Opening day was Friday, December 17th, but I decided to head down a day early. Never having hunted this part of the unit before, I had no idea of how much competition I would have from other two-legged predators. I found a very nice spot to make truck camp on my scouting trips, and I wanted to get there early enough to claim it.

I arrived at the spot around noon Thursday, breaking ice at a water crossing on the way in. But about an hour after I set up camp, I heard mechanized travel on the road above me. As the old Ford 4x4 drove past my camp, I noted that it was inhabited by two guys wearing big cowboy hats.

I decided that my first sortie of the hunt would be around the mountain to the west of camp. On my first scout trip, I had scraped bottom on the road in and got out to check my truck. When I did, I heard rocks clattering on the hill about 70 yards from the road. When I looked, I spied a nice buck sporting a 4x4 basket of points on top of his head. The view from around the mountain would allow me to survey the area I watched the buck disappear toward, plus it gave me a view of the incoming road so that I could see whether any more hunters were heading my way.

The view I had was spectacular and I was able to glass up a total of 6 deer - all does - down below me in the flats. On my way back to the truck for lunch, I spotted a sight which strikes fear deep into the hearts of anti-government conspiratorialists everywhere - a dreaded black helicopter! It was flying low through the canyons, and as I watched the helo through binoculars, rifle in hand, covered in camo, it turned toward me and flew past.

While chowing down on an MRE back at camp, I decided that it was now time to do that for which I had been preparing. I loaded my backpack camp onto and into my Jansport and headed east into the roadless country.

From camp, the bowl I had chosen to pack into was a two mile walk up a rocky watercourse. The first thing I did when I got back there was check the daypack I had hung three weeks earlier with the extra provisions. I discovered that small critters had taken to sharpening their teeth on parts of the bag, but the provisions inside were still intact. I didn't need any of the extra supplies until the next day, so I left them alone for the time being. I continued eastward for another quarter-mile to a high, grassy saddle where I planned to set up my back country camp.

At around 3 P.M. I found a pair of mesquite trees in the saddle which formed a nice umbrella over a pup-tent-sized patch of ground. I had to break a few dead branches to give me head room, and I smoothed the ground of rocks where the tent would go. By 3:30, I was done making camp and now sought a place to wait for the deer to show before the sun went down . . .

The End Of A Long Drought
How often does a plan execute to perfection? Almost never. The Hunt Gods must have taken pity on me and my long drought of big game success. It had been a long four years since I last took any big game, and not for any lack of trying! As if scripted, on opening day, at the appointed time, a shootable buck stepped into a sunny grassy spot at my rifle's zeroed range . . .

The Browning Greywolf spoke and a .30 caliber, 165 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip bullet cleared the BOSS muzzle brake. Two-hundred-eighty milliseconds later, the green-polymer tipped projectile touched hair on the left ham of the buck. It chewed its way through bone and organs on its way toward the right shoulder. As the sound of thunder echoing from the surrounding hills subsided, an Arizona Coues whitetail buck laid down in the pale yellow grass.

He turned out to be a decent 3x3, if you count the eye guards. No monster, just a nice, good-enough-for-me young buck. I field dressed him, halfed him, hung him from a nearby oak, and finished skinning and bagging him by head-mounted flashlight. As I headed back to my pack camp less than a quarter mile away, I knew that the hunt was far from over. I enjoyed a warm MRE dinner of Pasta in Tomato Meat Sauce courtesy of an MRE chemical heater. I slept contentedly that night knowing that I would be home in plenty of time to finish my Christmas shopping after all.

Upon waking just before sunrise the next morning, I stumbled out from beneath my mesquite canopy to answer nature's earliest call. A whitetail doe thought to herself, "Now where the hell did HE come from?" as she spotted me at 40 yards and ran off in a panic.

After downing a bagel, I packed up camp and headed for the Hanging Tree. I managed to tie the buck's lower half to the Jansport and began the long walk back to the truck.

Arriving at the truck about 10:15, I unloaded myself and rested for a moment and had a snack. One of the cowboys, glassing from a nearby hill, spotted me coming back in and drove down to chat. I greeted him with, "Are you boys looking for cows or deer?" He didn't shoot me, just laughed.

We talked deer hunting for a bit and I told him that I took one last night. He told me that the helicopter I saw on the previous morning was Border Patrol. They landed on a mesa near him yesterday and stayed there glassing for around four hours. Apparently, if you're wearing camo, an orange hat, and carrying a rifle, it could be a viable strategy to cross the border during hunting season.

Well I had one more out-and-back to make, so I bid him good luck, strapped on my pack frame and headed east one more time. I retrieved the front half of my buck, and the daypack holding the leftover provisions. I used quite a bit of water on that six-mile day. Though overnight the temps dropped to 21, the days warmed up to a sunny 70. Humping back fully burdened, I couldn't drink water as fast as I was using it, and that last mile with the buck on my back seemed like it was just not going to end.

I finally arrived back at the truck for the last time, very beat, but very happy. Though it turned out shorter than I thought it would, my solo backpack hunt turned out to be every bit the wonderful adventure I was hoping for.

Honeywell Sportsman Club. All rights reserved.


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