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Daybreak is still an hour away as we break camp on Rancho El Carbon. The early morning beauty of Mexico's Sonora desert is extraordinary. Millions of stars light up the sky, making up for the small size of the moon. A slight chill hangs in the air and an aroma fills my head. The desert always smells so fresh in the morning -the smell of expectation, I think. I feel anxious too. Confident and ready to hunt el buro, wondering what fate might actually have in store for me.

Previous hunts in Sonora had confirmed the special feeling I have about desert mule deer. For me, no other North American trophy animal is as difficult and challenging to hunt. It's also great to get away from the cold and dreary Michigan January for a hunt in the tropics, since I suffer from a malady called "heliophilia" -an obsessive desire for sunshine.

This wasn't the only attraction. The bonus was the singular beauty and tranquility of the desert. I already knew the gracious nature of the Mexican people, so these factors all added up to make another perfect Sonora adventure.

Rancho El Carbon owner, Senor German Rivas, had already discussed the day's hunting plan with my guide. I had spent many pleasant nights reading books and magazines, studying maps, and readying my gear in preparation for this hunt. That bit of reading set me off in an interesting reconnaissance, revisiting school lessons about Mexican history that had long ago slipped from my memory. I found many facts that helped explain the hunting resources and related environment of Sonora.

We were perched on a high seat in the back of an old Chevy truck, rambling down a gravel road to the part of the 15,000-acre El Carbon we would hunt for the day. About an hour into the trip, my guide Adan Celaya and I spotted muleys in the distance -seven does and young ones. Adan pulled the teléfono, the rope connecting him to the driver, to stop the truck. Just then, we also heard grunting sounds coming from over the hill just behind the deer. Could it be the trophy buck I was looking for- The rut was on and certainly that harem of deer would be chaperoned by el muy grande, so we hatched a plan that had me climb the hill overlooking the area. Adan would walk in a big circle, hoping to get the buck to show himself.

I got settled on the hill, enjoying a fresh, cool breeze in my face. The deer were on one side of me, several hundred yards away, quietly feeding on the move and oblivious to our presence. Off in the other direction Adan carefully picked his way through the daunting landscape of cactus and thorn bush. I remember thinking: "Oh, this is going to be great! I've got a perfect position and a steady rifle rest." My imagination took care of the rest.

Unfortunately, like so many of my hunting plans, this one was good for about 30 uneventful minutes. Then I began to have doubts. Adan showed up intermittently in the distance among the hostile cactus -cholla, saguaro and ocotillo. All of a sudden, he began throwing stones, end even though he was far away, the sound was loud. I readied my .270, expecting a buck to explode from the shadows of his thorny cover. Instead, it was only Adan who stepped into an opening, waving his arms as if to say: "Calm down, señor, i's all over for now."

Adan and I got back to the truck at the same time, and he told me the grunts came from a bunch of javalina. He threw the stones out of frustration. Adan told the driver to meet us at a rendezvous well ahead, and we marched off in the direction of the does.

The walk was easy, but the desert floor quickly heated up under the blazing sun. I was struck by the unusual surroundings. It sure wasn't home. I was impressed by how green and lush it is for a place that receives precious little rain each year.

This morning, the ground we covered brought Adan and me along a chain of hills. Sometimes we stuck to game trails in the valleys, other times we climbed the hilltops for a better view, always working ridges and points, looking for the shadow -gray form of el bura on the desert floor. Trophy mule deer are hard to come by. I'm just as sure that even under the best and most fertile conditions, desert mule deer have never been found in great numbers -meaning the odds for successfully killing a trophy desert muley are very low. Other critical factors include the sheer vastness of the Sonora desert, and the fact that muley bucks are reported to range over as much as 25 square miles, deermined in good part by the quality of the habitat. This leaves the mule deer hunter in Mexico wondering if he'll ever be successful, especially since Sonora has a yearly rainfall between nothing and three inches, and there's plenty of mountain lions, coyotes and other predators competing for the deer.

We walked till noon, encountering two other small herds of deer, but no bucks worth considering. The morning hunt ended when we reached the truck. Nayo, the driver, found a perfect spot for lunch, shady and sheltered from the mid-day wind. The three of us enjoyed the meal. Then Nayo and I decided to take a siesta, but Adan preferred to look for deer from the top of the mountain.

Our siesta didn't last long because Adan was soon back with a big smile spread across his face. He had spotted a good buck asleep under a tree. I quickly grabbed my rifle and followed him up the mountain. We got into position, and Adan pointed to where he had seen the buck. I used my binoculars, only to find a tangle of cactus and brush. Adan was patient, giving me directions in Spanish, pointing out particular cholla, saguaro and paloverde for me to follow to the buck. I looked and looked, then looked some more, but couldn't find the deer. I felt like a damn fool.

I had to find the buck somehow. I told Adan we'd best move quietly off the mountain, and with the wind in our favor, make our way toward the deer. The stalk seemed to take forever, and I was mindful of how noisy the desert floor could be. Adan kept looking back to our starting position on the mountain for a reference. Finally, he whispered that we were close. I readied the rifle as we advanced. Moments later I saw a blur out of the corner of my eye. The buck must have heard us coming, causing him to jump from his bed to make good his escape. With great leaps, he rocketed off, instantly putting lots of cover between us, never stopping for a backward look. Although he couldn't have been 30 yards from us when he flushed, I never had a chance to shoot at what was just a gray flash through the cactus and brush.

We searched and found the buck's bed with his fresh tracks leading him to safety. When I looked back to our starting point on the mountain, I swear it was well over 500 yards away. I have to admit, though, I was still embarrassed by the whole fiasco. We walked back to the truck and after a short rest, we began again. Nayo went ahead with the truck while Adan and I hunted on foot.

This is my third hunt at Rancho El Carbon, and Adan has been my guide each time. Indeed, we've become good friends, and we usually work quite well together.

A cooperation has developed between the organization of cattlemen/landowners, ANGADI, and the Mexican government. Regulations now require that landowners obtain a game survey, performed by a registered game biologist, prior to the issue of permits for mule deer bucks to be taken in their properties. The result is that game animals now have a value, which means an expansion of quality hunting opportunities. Many Mexican cattlemen are also becoming the new hunting outfitters.
In time, and with good management procedures, these outfitters should be able to reverse the negative effects of subsistence use of game animals to further improve the hunting possibilities in Sonora.

My first day's hunt wasn't quite over. All afternoon we worked the mountains, hills and valleys, but it was uneventful. Even small game animals were conspicuously absent -no doubt resting and avoiding the heat.

Adan and I crested what would be our last ridge for the day. He was on my left, and his attention was off in that direction. I was scanning the area stretched out in front of me, when suddenly my eyes picked out a slight movement. Instinct made me drop to one knee and Adan followed. Again, I saw a flick of motion -evolving eventually into deer tails and ears twitching now and then. thick brush and cactus made it difficult to make out much detail, but I was sure I could see at least eight, maybe 10 deer a hundred or so yards away.

They didn't have the slightest idea we were there. The herd -a spike and a fork horn among them- was moving slowly and silently along a trail that would take them over the far hillside. Suddenly, something made the animals look back over their shoulders.

Finally, I spotted a huge form and a mass of antlers behind a thorn bush. I fixed the riflescope on the buck, but it was surrounded by does. A quick glance told me their path would take them through some openings in the bush. Eventually I got a good look at the buck, and he was magnificent.

Waiting till he was clear, I aimed, and squeezed the trigger. At the crack of the rifle, the buck's legs buckled, and he disappeared. I told Adan I thought the shot was true, and he ran off in the direction of the deer. I followed, except a little slower, the rifle ready in case a second shot was necessary. When I got to the deer, he was dead; the bullet had entered his right shoulder and completed its job. He couldn't have moved more than a few feet before he died.

The old buck was beautiful, with a large healthy body. His antlers gave off a soft shine in what was left of the setting sun. It was a grand crown, too, befitting such a monarch --five points on each side, lots of mass throughout, with five-inch bases. His main beams swept forward and upward, 24 inches in length, topped with tines of over 12 inches --truly a trophy animal. The Goddess of the Hunt had certainly smiled on me, giving me her greatest thrill and pleasure.

I'm not used to being as lucky as I was, especially on the first day of a hunt. An even bigger surprise was that my good luck continued. German is very clear that while the mule deer are the primary quarry on his ranch, once you've been successful, you are free to hunt a Coues deer. Three days later, I shot a very impressive 5x4 Coues; with heavy main beams of 18 and 17 inches respectively.

As I was leaving the ranch, that unique aroma filled my head again --the smell of the Sonora desert, natural, wild and free. I turned homeward, much better for the experience, but still anxious to go back.

Safari, The Journal of Big Game Hunting
(Official Publication of Safari Club International)
May/June 2000
(Page 48-49 & 106-107).