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The desert came alive as the first shafts of light broke through the overhanging clouds. Javelinas were bickering among themselves at he base of the hogback I was climbing. Stopping for a much needed break, I could hear the deep-throated, melodious calls of a covey of quail as they welcomed the new day. It's my favorite time of the morning; everything is fresh and so full of promise.

It's that promise that makes hunters eternal optimists. I certainly had high hopes that "today was the day", despite the fact that I had just spent two days in vain looking for a big buck -not to mention the seven days I spent on this same ranch the prior year. It wasn't that I couldn't have taken a buck, because I had already passed on several decent bucks. But, I was standing on this specific ridge, on this ranch, in the Mexican State of Sonora for one simple reason --there were bucks of a lifetime somewhere on the valley floor ahead of me. All I had to do was find one, outsmart him, and then shoot straight.

Above all, I had to pass on the smaller bucks. Sure, some hunters luck into outstanding trophies, but for most of us, it's an adventure that spans years and many trips. It's the effort that makes success sweeter! It's also one of the reasons some of us are willing to give up so many of our precious days on this earth to pursue trophy mule deer.

Rancho El Carbon is a "work in progress". My host outfitter, German Rivas, hunted here as a young man when mule deer hunting south of the border was awakening. That was back when ranchers were willing to grant hunting permission because deer were "nuisances". Several decades passed and the ranch was abused by several owners, but German never forgot. So when he got the chance, he took the financial plunge and made the commitment to return hunting back to its former "glory days".

The first order of business was to remove the cattle, although German allows the occasional cow from adjoining ranches in exchange for hunting rights there. Then he made improvements, including adding drinkers and feeding stations at key points throughout the ranch. The feeding stations only augmented buffle grass plantings that had proven their worth on other ranches. Although his improvements had been in place only a short time before my first trip, I could already see results. In short, I was impressed by what I saw, so I was back.

One major change in this trip was that German talked me into using one of his rifles. I had always taken my own to Mexico, but make no mistake, getting permits for rifles there is a hassle! The year before we got my rifle permit only the last minute, and two years earlier on another hunt with another outfitter, it cost me several hunting days waiting for the paperwork to clear. So, I'll admit he didn't have to twist my arm to leave my rifle home. After all, I didn't have to get my "good guy" letter from the local sheriff, and I saved the cost of the permit, not to mention breezing through the numerous police checkpoints.

When I arrived in German's camp, I let my hunting partner take first choice from the rifle rack. My selection was a beautiful.280 Ackley Improved wildcat built on a Mauser action complete with double triggers. Since I had shot set triggers over the bench in the past, I felt confident that I could easily overcome my unfamiliarity. I even dry fired it a dozen times to build my confidence. Later, my choice turned out to be my worst nightmare. However, it took several days in the field and wearing off considerable boot tread before I learned my lesson.

From left to right: Lance Stapleton, Bob Anton, Scott Wink and Stewart Stone;
with Scott's bura during Lance's first visit to Rancho El Carbon; on this occasion,
Lance let several excellent muleys pass,but his companions did take the chance.

Andrés Garza Tijerina, from Monterrey, Nuevo León, with his bura deer
-of an exceptional size- taken on the first day of his hunt in Rancho El Carbon.
The author wrote about this in his book Deer Quest.

On the third day of our hunt Nayo, my driver, my guide Adan, and I spent most of our morning in a 4x4 grinding and banging down a crude trail -frequently dodging around brush and removing trees to pass. At times, we couldn't even tell if we were still on the eroded road. Finally, we could drive no farther.

Shouldering my rifle, I threw my jacket into the seat and grabbed a canteen before we struck out walking north. The direction wasn't dictated by a destination, but instead by a light breeze. Theplan was to simply walk into the wind and hope to cut a fresh track. Success would depend on Adan's skill in following nature's evidence -an imprint in the sand, broken or nipped brush or cactus, and other faint hints of the buck's passing.

This was country where a hunter could easily get lost. The terrain was faceless; rolling ridges cut occasionally by coulees, yet with no distinguishing characteristics -only seemingly endless patches of mixed paloverde, ocotillo, ironwood and mesquite trees. I sensed that we were northwest of the vehicle, but I knew that if I got separated, I could easily miss the faint trail and, only by a gift of God, find the vehicle again.

We trudged through the desert for hours stopping occasionally to check a set of tracks. At times, we would follow them a short distance before breaking off to continue searching for a fresh track. By now, the sun was beating down and I had already tapped my canteen more than once. The only water available in this country is the rain water collected in basins worn out of solid rock -called tinajas by Mexicans. And, most of the time, it is fouled by the insects, birds and small animals that depend on these sources. The very thought of the cerveza cooling in the 4x4 called me back like a Siren's song.

There was ample evidence that bucks were near. At one point, we found an area 50 yards wide that was all torn up -uprooted cholla, brush snapped at ground line and hundreds of tracks suggested that a terrible fight had taken place. You could plainly see parallel ruts in the sand where first one buck had the advantage in the pushing match and then the other. It was easy to imagine two big bucks with swollen necks and bad attitudes locked in combat. There was even sign where one of them had been knocked down, possibly just prior to a hasty retreat. But the best evidence was the numerous tracks, some large enough to make your heart race!

A cactus that was beaten by a buck.

By noon, we had crossed many of these tracks; most didn't even cause us to slow down; while others earned only a few moments hesitation. Finally, Adan found what he had been looking for as he pointed to the proof -sharp edges of a big buck track cut deep into the granulated dirt. Where earlier we had walked along in fourth gear, we now shifted into second gear and the real hunt started!

We followed the buck as he meandered along a ridge before crossing a coulee and small flat. Clearly, the tracks were made earlier that morning, probably as we were negotiating the two-track trail. Now we were moving even slower, my amigo deciphering the tracks while I watched ahead -trying to catch a glimpse of hide in a shade or a tine above the cactus before the buck spotted us.

This is where the mental part of a desert hunt comes into play and where my lifetime of hunting experience in the northern alpine mountains provided little value. I was schooled to see bucks at long distances, not finding a buck, judging it and shooting in the seconds it would take him to cover a few yards to safety. This was the perfect setup for a whitetail hunter experienced at stalking to close range, but not someone who cut his teeth hunting deer in Colorado and Wyoming.

Still, that was the hand we were dealt. My rifle was ready, and my thumb rode the Mauser's safety. I moved out a few yards to Adan's side hoping to get a clear shot. While others would be satisfied with a respectable trophy, I had already tagged several good desert mule deer -all more than 28 inches wide and now I was intent on killing an outstanding buck.

Under similar conditions two years earlier; I shot another buck whose rack stretched the tape to 29-3/4 inches with back tines rising more than 22 inches high. Unfortunately, when I walked up on the buck, the shock of the 3x3 rack hit me hard. The demands of the snap decision and quick shot didn't allow time to count points. All that I could see is that he was wide and tall. Still, with over six-inch bases and mass that carried well into the rack, it was bigger than most hunters ever see, let alone tag.

However, that "mistake" was fresh in my mind. So, as I moved ahead, I kept telling myself to be careful... take your time... slow down...

Suddenly, crashing brush to my right scared the hell out of me. Swinging around, all I saw was a broad butt and antlers for the two or three bounds it took the buck to disappear. Strangely, what stands out in my mind was the absolute silence that followed.

My legs wanted to follow; my mind, however, won out as we sat down for what seemed an eternity. Finally, Adan stood up and we started following the track. After less than a hundred yards, the buck joined up with several other deer, presumably does, since they were deep into the rut. A half mile farther, we caught up with them. At first, I couldn't find the buck in my Leica binoculars. Then he stepped out from behind a mesquite tree, and it didn't take a second glance to know that he wasn't the buck I wanted.

That's the way it goes on a desert mule deer hunt. You hunt day-after-day in the hot sun for those few seconds of total pandemonium. With any luck you go home with a buck of your wildest dreams -one that stretches the tape to more than three feet! But, more often than not, you end up in camp planning the next day's hunt.

The next morning we left the hacienda before first light. We checked out a few other areas first, so by the time we turned off on our "two track" it was full light. We hadn't been hunting for five minutes when I spotted a single doe less than 50 yards away. I kept looking into the nearby brush; hoping to find a buck somewhere close to the doe. Suddenly, I caught a glimpse of something standing as still as a statue in the shadows of several paloverde trees. Here was clearly the buck I came a thousand miles to find. When you see a truly big buck there is no question -your mind just screams, shoot!

Without hesitation, the rifle came up and the crosshairs centered on the "sweet spot". After my thumb rolled the safety over, I tripped the set trigger and moved to the second one before applying the final ounces of pressure. The click that followed sounded louder than an explosion! "Damn", I muttered, as I ejected the shell and jacked in a new round. Again, I went through the sequence, but unfortunately with the same results. Now I was really frustrated! The buck wasn't going to stand there forever, even though the rut was a powerful ally.

What the hell was going on? I pulled the rifle down, taking my eyes off the buck long enough to see that the safety was in the middle position. Then, as my thumb pushed it all the way over, the damned thing went off! Luckily, after years of training, the muzzle was pointed up, but it still nearly scared me to death.

My frustration really boiled over then. I was tired of being fancy! I quickly racked in another round, picked up the buck in the scope and jerked the second trigger. even though I was caught in the recoil, I felt it was a good shot. Still, the buck bolted into the brush as if nothing had happened!

By now, I was a wreck, but I took a second to gather my wits, carefully reload and, after trying the safety several times, started to follow the tracks. The buck was really moving out, taking 15-foot bounds in stride; jumping cholla and low brush or simply plowing through them. I was beginning to panic because there was no sign of a hit --no dragging leg, no tissue and, even more disturbing, no blood. You can imagine what was going through my mind. But we hadn't gone 50 yards when we found the buck folded up -apparently dying in mid-stride.

The emotions and frustrations of the last five minutes hit and I stood there quaking in my boots. After a brief celebration and the obligatory pictures, we headed back to camp. It's funny how the ride back to camp, after a successful hunt, is so much more relaxed than the previous trips. On the way, I took the time to count. It was my 24th day in Sonora's deserts, but I finally had one of the bucks that made this country famous.

My buck was everything that I had hoped to find, except for one minor item -it was a 3x4. Otherwise, the rack was heavy, carrying almost 40 inches of mass with several trash points that adds character to any rack. Its long brow tines, common on many dessert bucks, were heavy, and bladed, carrying multiple points. The rack spanned 34 inches with many beams nearly 26 inches long. All in all, the gross score exceeding 200 points and an SCI ranking in the top fifteen only confirmed my opinion of the quality of the buck.

The difficulty of killing a truly big mule deer can't be understated. It's a special challenge to go one-on-one against a wise old buck on its own "turf". The possibilities of killing a giant buck and easily obtaining a tag have prompted me to hunt in Mexico a number of times. Each time I have seen quality bucks, if even for a moment.

In any event, I can thank those bucks "that got away" for giving me something to dream about. Those memories have often filled the voids in time during those long lulls in a duck blind and while driving to work. Despite all my complaining, the prospect of finding another one of those magnum bucks continues to draw me back like a magnet.

The author poses with his mule deer buck.