Tuesday, April 23, 2019

A Buck Named Drifter

The History

The first thing I noticed was the buck's mass. The buck had serious mass. I was looking so steeply downhill at him I couldn’t hardly make out the definition of his points, but I could tell he was heavy as heck. I could also tell he was a non-typical. Some tines leaned in and some leaned out and he had at least 6 per side. Not very wide but man was he was heavy.

This was July of 2010. The Strip was having one of the best years for antler growth it had had in the last several years. Great bucks were popping up everywhere. This particular buck was a dandy no doubt, but he didn’t stand out in the lineup that year. I was able to find this buck in the exact same spot nearly every single time I went to look for him that year. He was near a main road and I would check on him semi regularly. As the summer wore on, and his velvet wore off, he vanished into the juniper jungle like so many bucks do. The buck never showed up anywhere in 2011 and he faded from memory. I figured he had succumbed to a predator the way so many of his kind do each year.

The next time I saw the buck was in December of 2012 and it was on a trail camera picture. I had hidden a camera near a low spot in a fence that had several large buck tracks jumping it to drink. The camera gathered a few buck pictures over a few months but nothing big or too interesting. When I pulled the camera down for the season after the hunts were all over for the year, I had a picture of a cool non-typical. He looked mature but younger. He was in one of my favorite places on earth to find and hunt giant bucks. I have always had a knack for being able to recognize past bucks’ antlers and specific characteristics about them. Every buck’s antlers are like human fingerprints. To some they can all look the same, to those of us that are mesmerized by them, they are as unique as the can be. While I immediately didn’t make the connection, I did recognize the similarities from another buck filed away in my mind. I thought it looked like the buck from 2010 but this one was over 12 miles away from there. Nah… I thought. He wouldn’t drift that far over here. The longer I studied, it became unmistakable to me. I understood that he did indeed drift that far and hence his legendary name was born…. Drifter.

After vanishing for 2 years, Drifter showed back up after season was over.
In June 2013 I placed a camera on a remote water seep that very few people knew existed and even fewer ever bothered to venture out and find. The seep didn’t produce much water, just a patch of mud basically. The only place a large animal could drink was out of their other tracks previously made. A little shovel work and all the critters large or small had a nice little puddle they could get a bellyful from. A small pine tree held my camera securely and away I went. When I returned a couple weeks later to swap the card, I couldn’t help but get excited when I noticed several giant tracks had been drinking the sweet water from the secluded spring. That night, as I sat in the dark cab of my truck, I popped the SD card into my laptop. What appeared on my screen I will never forget. A true giant buck. Not just any buck but a bonafide Strip giant that would grow into one of the most famous, yet seldom seen, legendary bucks the Strip has ever produced. 

When Drifter showed up in 2013 he was a bonafide Strip giant!

Mass and more mass!

True Giant!

The only catch with Drifter was the fact that he was nearly impossible to lay eyes on. And when I say nearly impossible, I mean totally impossible. Drifter would usually visit his chosen water in the latter part of June or early July. We would put up our camera around June 1st give or take every year. Most years we never got a picture of Drifter before June 20th and we never got a picture of Drifter after the first significant monsoon storm in early July. Some years we would only get one visit from him before the monsoon kicked in and he would vanish. The logical explanation for this was that he had another primary water source that he lived on and he would only visit the spring when his primary water would dry up or he would be at the far end of his range and would drop in on occasion. Well, we hiked countless miles looking for this alternative water source. We scoured google earth, maps and hiked endless miles of rocky canyons and soft benches looking for anywhere he might find precious water. We found nothing. The obvious waters that where nearest and surrounding his spring were closely monitored with cameras and intense ground scouting, but he never swung by them. He was truly a ghost. Over the course of Drifters life, we hunted and killed 6 other bucks over 220” from his area and never laid an eye on him. We knew every square inch of what we thought was the most likely area he would live. Occasionally Drifter would grace us with a late season trail camera picture but not very often. After every winter, I would expect him to not show back up the following summer. I would picture his giant bleached dead head laying under a juniper tree where he had been killed by a lion. But every year he would show back up. His score would vary as did the annual amounts of precipitation. He bounced from 220” to 270” as he checked off years seemingly safe from our best efforts and the best efforts of the few others that knew of his existence. Which, by the way, was countable on three fingers for most of his life.

Every season we would guide a Governor’s tag or a Special Commissioner's tag. This is a permit issued to the highest bidder each year that provides a 365-day statewide season to harvest one mule deer. It is a tremendous conservation tool and provides a significant amount of funding for a variety of wildlife projects. This season starts on August 15th and ends on August 14th the following year. It usually yields the biggest deer killed in Arizona annually. All of our Governor's tag clients loved Drifters pictures, but we would bluntly explain to them that he is not a serious option. Drifter had our number and we would only be able to kill him if he changed his lifelong habits so on to other bucks we would go. But, not without donating another season worth of sweat and tears to his cause. But every year at the end of it all, Drifter lived on.
Despite our best efforts again, Drifter stayed alive in 2014.

In the Summer of 2015, everything changed. Drifter moved over to a new area and drank at a cattle pond in July. This was huge! His picture filled the frame and he was staring directly into the lens. He looked like he was bigger than life! His new water source was in an area we knew well and we knew how to find and kill the bucks that lived there. We had gotten our early pictures of Drifter way up on his spring, but then as he usually did he sprouted his wings and flew away to where ever he goes. None the less, it was a one time July visit for him and he vanished again. Later that season we were hunting a different buck with our client not too far away. We swung by the dirt dam midday to check the cameras that we had up on it. We were making small talk and snacking on jerky as I popped the SD card into my point and shoot camera and began toggling through the pics. Just like that, there he was again. I stopped breathing for a few seconds and my stomach turned over. I didn’t trust what my eyes were seeing. This was just a trail camera picture and you would have thought the deer was standing over me breathing down my neck. The tracks leaving the waterhole were 56+ hours old and we wasted no time trying to sort them out and get after them with a hunter packing a rifle. We weren’t able to work them track for track for any meaningful distance despite our best efforts. Multiple tracks of other bucks of varying ages confused our eyes and prevented us from making tracking a viable option. We basically only had a direction of travel but that wasn’t enough. We pounded his new area harder than ever and killed several other truly giant bucks that year, but Drifter once again lived on. He made one more appearance on the water hole that summer but we just couldn't capitalize on it. But, Drifter had changed his lifelong pattern. He had moved into country that made him more vulnerable to our hunting tactics. Time would prove that this would make the ultimate difference...
As big as they get!

Fearless at 9:30 in the morning.

Mud flung onto our camera lens from muddy deer jumping the fence.

Bigger than life!

2016. Enter Broc Brimhall… “Do not buy the tag for this one buck Broc” I said into the phone. “He has made nothing but a fool of our best efforts and he is probably a pile of lion droppings by now anyway.” Broc is a very unique individual. Unlike some of our previous clients, Broc craves the whole process. The whole process is generally filled with pain so one could deduce that Broc craves pain. Mental pain, physical pain, it doesn’t matter, Broc is up for it. Despite our conversation he bought the tag in 2016 and told me Drifter was his dream and to make it happen. I had seen the Drifter movie before and while the rerun ignited the challenge fires, I wasn't super optimistic about the ending.

The statewide scouting started as it usually does. Hard and heavy in late May. We got all of our cameras put up and then began the methodical process of moving around the huge country simply trying to lay eyes on as many bucks as possible. Shortly into our efforts, Drifter made his early appearance back on his spring. The first pics showed massive potential but not certainty. After all, he is going into his 7th year as a 220”+ buck with 2 of those years over 250”. How many years could he keep packing it on like that? Just as he always does, he disappeared back into the Strip trees for over a month. We were optimistic that he would show up on the same dirt waterhole he chose last year, and we lingered around the area regularly waiting for him. Finally, in July he drifted on in and got picked up on a camera. Honestly, I wasn’t super stoked about the pics as they didn’t seem to show his normal heart stopping wow factor. One thing we have all learned over the years using cameras is that pictures can and often do misrepresent the true size of animals and almost always to the small side. In other words, bucks and bulls are generally bigger in life than they are in trail camera pictures, especially in night pictures. Angles also mean a lot to picture judging. Either way, Drifters pics were not jaw dropping, at least not to me. They were also at angles that hid many of his usual inline points. In true Drifter style he didn’t grace us with regular appearances from then on. In fact, he only came back in once after that and his pictures were again, not as impressive as we had hoped they would appear …


Potential but not certainty...yet.

Broc didn’t care about the pictures. He set his heart on Drifter and no buck but Drifter was going to do. I thrive on this mindset honestly and feel it is the only way that great things are ever accomplished. It's also the mind set we would need if one of the most legendary of all ghost bucks was going to possibly be found. The summer boiled down to August and the 15th of August arrived fast. The final plan was made, our help arrived, and the hunt was about to be on.

The Hunt

We had assembled a small group of people to help try and find the unfindable buck. Drifter had not been into a trail camera for over 3 full weeks, but we started the hunt on August 15th as if he had been in only hours before. This consisted of putting a spotter on every possible vantage point that the country allowed, which wasn't many. Drifters known range was about 10 x 8 miles with most of it being flat and think cedars. The many canyons that cut deep through the area offered cross canyon hiking and glassing as well as a distant mountain on one end of his country offered extreme long-range glassing. The vast middle area was a rocky tangle of juniper, pinion and sage intercut with an infinite number of washes, cuts, pockets and holes. It also had rims and breaks and literally an endless number of places that a buck could hide and stay out of sight, especially a sensitive buck that knew mankind was in his house and was looking for him.

Every morning started the same way, breakfast at 3:00 AM followed by long ATV rides and long sweaty predawn hikes onto vantage points. Broc posted up every morning on the waterhole that Drifter had last used and me and a few other men would systematically hike, glass and attempt to stick our nose in as many hiding spots as we could looking for tracks and eliminating country. Our line of thinking was this. With Broc on the water, glassers scattered far and wide and us hiking the heart of Drifters range we hoped to either have him walk into Broc's water and get killed or have our spotters pick him up in the binoculars. Us hikers could either jump and see him, jump and have our spotters see him or find all the areas that had fresh buck sign to plan and focus on daily as the search pressed forward. In short, the goal was to just lay an eye on him in any manner possible. If we could just get a sighting we could work it for days from there.

These type of August hunts can be taxing to a human. The day’s peak near or over 100 degrees and the humidity is generally elevated. The occasional storm in the afternoon can provide momentary relief but it also facilitates bug hatches. Both black flies and cedar gnats are voraciously hungry for any type of blood. They crawl in and out of your nose, eyes and ears while you hike, glass and think. Spending day after day from before daylight until after dark looking for a ghost buck in brutal conditions imparts a growing respect for the animal upon a person. Even if the hunt goes weeks through a tough time of year, in the end we all return to the comforts that we call home. Heaters, air conditioners and soft beds with the hardship of the recent hunt a fading part of the past. Not to the animals. No, they are still out there in the elements, the bugs, the predators and the many other variables that are constantly at war with sustaining their life. As we all traded sweat with no return on our endeavor, the respect for Drifter was magnified 100 fold for me.

Early one morning after 8 days of relentless buck hunting, the radio cracked with a report that a giant non-typical had been glassed up and to stand by for confirmation. The legendary buck was spotted from a specific point that had had a rotating schedule of spotters sitting on it all day every day since the hunt began. It just took Drifter 8 days to step out of the trees and allow himself to be seen. Once the final confirmation of Drifter came across the radio and the words settled into our minds, action was immediately put into play. One of us had to get Broc from the waterhole, others were to pack up and hustle to different vantage points to try to keep track of the giant deer as the original spotters had now lost sight of him as he walked over a ridge. Another spotter from a different angle caught a brief glimpse as Drifter dropped into a secluded pocket and disappeared with his much smaller counterpart buck. Within a matter of minutes all deer were gone from view, but we knew the exact pocket Drifter had chosen for his days refuge. Broc was picked up and the final play of this near decade long saga was about to be executed. With every person involved set up in the most advantageous positions available, and no one able to actually see Drifter, there was only one plan left on the table. Sneak into his hidey hole one step at a time until Drifter was seen and killed. There was to be no waiting for the deer to get up and feed out later or some other safety play. After literally years of waiting for this moment it was decided that here shortly there would be a face to face encounter with the legend and he would either be harvested, or he would get away. What was un-negotiable was the fact there was about to be a face to face encounter. After a 2 mile hike, the short steep draw Drifter had disappeared into was found. The pace slowed as the distance to the monster bucks' anticipated location was now measured in mere yards. As each painstaking step shortened the distance between Drifter and Broc's rifle, the younger buck broke cover and scrambled up toward the rim of the hole, scattering rocks in his panic... No Drifter followed… Although Broc was focused and steady waiting for the glimpse he needed, it did not happen. The 180” class buck escaped out of sight all alone. No one doubted that Drifter was still in the hole. We knew he was; he was just opting to choose a collected hiding strategy versus a panicked flee for safety. It had undoubtedly worked many times for him in the past and he was relying on it again now. A couple small position adjustments and Broc’s crosshairs settled onto the buck, still laying down but on high alert. A single rifle shot sealed the moment in everyone’s mind forever. Drifter died laying in the final bed he had ever made, hiding at the base of a thick tangled juniper tree. He knew danger was close but never layed his wise old eyes on the predator that had finally taken his life.

As Drifters death slowly morphed from distant dream into stark reality, everyone involved reacted differently. Some of us had 7+ years of history with the buck while others had only a few days. It was overall mix of elation combined with an enormous amount of sadness and respect. A mourning that can only be described through the eyes of a reverent hunter. Non-hunters are left head scratching wondering how a hunt could stir up such feeling, but it was of no question to the group of us involved out there in no-man’s land Arizona that day. Nope, that moments memory and understanding is reserved for the guys that partook of it that hot August. Drifter's story was written in full and we were all very grateful to have been included in it.
Broc and Drifter

Thank you Broc, we will never forget it! 289"

Thank you Drifter. We will never forget it.

The Tactics

The tactics we used to scout, find and eventually harvest Drifter were for the most part very straight forward. The original sighting that led to the years long pursuit happened from an elevated vantage looking over huge swaths of country from a single point with high powered optics. It is simply the best tactic we have found to put your eyes on a huge deer. Trail cameras can provide the initial sighting as well, but before the end you will likely need to climb high and glass far to lay actual eyes on your target and formulate a plan to get close. There is and never will be a substitute for elevated long range glassing.

Although we didn't track Drifter down and kill him that way, we absolutely used tracking on the hunt for him. By systematically hiking huge tracts of Drifter's range every day during Broc's hunt, we never laid eyes on the buck. What we did accomplish though is eliminating those huge tracts of country by hiking the feeding, bedding and travel areas and noting the buck sign or, just as importantly, the lack of buck sign. If there is no tracks in the area then you likely don't need to return in the near future. By doing this in a search for a particular deer, you can narrow down the areas that need closer attention and focus your resources properly and in the most effective manner.

Trail cameras were indeed a huge aid in getting Drifter killed. They revealed that he had changed area to the stock pond in 2015. Cameras verified that he lived through each previous winter. Cameras affirmed that he had used the same water source in 2016 the year we killed him as he did the year prior in 2015. The day we killed Drifter we had not gotten any kind of trail camera pictures of him for over a full month.

The biggest asset that we used to get the deer found and killed was persistence. The importance of persistence cannot be under estimated on any hunt, especially a hunt for a particular animal in a difficult area. As earlier stated, the day Drifter was finally seen and killed, he was glassed up feeding on a fairly open slope that had been glassed all day, every day for the previous 8 days by a rotating group of glassers. In truth, we had glassed from that spot for years in the search for Drifter. It wasn't from a secret spot or a lucky spot. It was just simply having someone glass every day from the same spots into the areas that were higher probability based on his last water source and buck sign we had found while hunting.

The value of extra eyes and help can not be denied either. We would have killed him the same day had we had a smaller crew because either way there would have been a spotter sitting on the same spot and we would have seen him with the same method. That said, the luxury of extra help allowed us to expand the search and eliminate country at a faster pace than we would have otherwise been able to. It also allowed us to rotate hunting chores around and that helps keep everyone fresher and focused.

In closing we want to thank everyone that helped us finally find and take a true legend of a buck from the Arizona Strip. We want to thank Broc for his trust in us, his hard as nails attitude that was needed to pull this hunt off and his contribution to both Arizona wildlife and to us. It is hunters like him that allow us to live out our dreams and we could not be more humbled and appreciative. Lastly we want to thank Drifter. The sweat traded and the lessons on life and hunting he taught for us will never be forgotten. Thanks ol' man.

Monday, April 1, 2019

A3 Friends! Here's an announcement for you. We are always looking for new talent to join our ranks. We are eager to talk with hunters and outdoorsmen that have an interest in pursuing the guiding/ outfitting profession. If you have integrity, loyalty, and grit in your DNA then we want to talk to you. If you describe yourself as hardcore, honest, and hardworking then we really want to talk to you! First and foremost you must have a solid work ethic. We achieve success every year by out working our competition every day. We go HARD! We strive to always be the best at what we do, and are always seeking new ways to improve our operation.  We never settle for good enough and push ourselves to the limit in everything that we do. We are not interested in weekend warrior egomaniacs that are seeking a reason to brag or just want to be Instagram cowboys. We are looking for the guys that want to perform at the highest level and achieve goals that require no bragging. We want self starting people that come fully stocked with their own internal motivation. We want solid people that enjoy helping others, have an open mind willing to learn, and basically just want to be the best they can be at what they do. If you have significant time available between August and February and want to join the finest trophy hunting operation around, please send an email to A3trophyhunts@gmail.com and we can discuss any option that may be available to you. Thank you and we look forward to talking to you.