A Public Land Arizona Archery Adventure

SCI Member Jessica Manuell hunts on Arizona’s public land. The terrain and hunting conditions can be tough. But as her story shows, it’s worth it.

Fortune has fallen on our house. I drew an early archery bull elk hunt two years in a row in Arizona. I also had two very different experiences between the two years and different management units that I hunted in. One I’d gladly do-over but most likely will never get the chance to, and the other, I’ll think twice about before applying for again.

I have no idea what it’s like to not hunt on public land. I have no idea what it feels like to secure a lease and then pray animals walk by. We can’t bait. We can’t use organically derived/produced lures and scent products. We can’t use WiFi-enabled trail cameras. And we can’t claim a location, tree, water hole, tank, road, etc. though some think they can. We just hunt.

There is good and bad that goes along with every type of hunting. I’ll share both from my perspective since the bad seems to get lost in many articles. Some of it is downright ugly.

Here we apply for elk tags in the spring and then patiently wait three weeks for a notification if they’re turned on from our bank or credit card company that our card has been charged by the Game & Fish Department, and we get to hunt. The anticipation sends some over the edge. It also brings out a slew of comments from people who can’t stand the process and are sore losers. The lottery draw is again all about luck, isn’t it? You keep trying. If you don’t draw a tag, multiple non-profit groups take veterans and youth hunting that would gladly accept your volunteered time and help.

Arizona is a desert. Sure, there are mountains and pine trees, but it is an extremely arid environment and prone to drought. Three major desert types are found here: The Sonoran, The Great Basin, and the Mohave. And people wonder why everyone can’t just go by a tag and go hunt. People wonder why they can’t shoot more than one animal/species/year or why they can’t shoot more does. We don’t have the forage or water to support large populations of animals. As it is currently, water is already delivered to man-made drinkers all over the state within the confines of federal and non-profit budget constraints.

So, we do the best we can, apply for where we hope to hunt, and cross our fingers. If some just can’t stand it, they go to another state to hunt.

Back to being lucky. Last season, I drew a highly coveted tag in a trophy class unit. 400-inch monsters are managed for, and outfitters charge a small fortune to put you on top of one if you decide to empty your pockets and use them. We prefer the DIY method.

Here is what you deal with in a public land trophy unit. On average, 20 plus trail cameras are set on each water tank in the unit almost year-round. These animals have their pictures taken constantly. It is public land, so what you leave out there is fair game, but a lot of the time, your trail camera will get stolen (even if locked up), broken, spray painted, blocked, SD card erased, or stolen if they can get into them and any other misfortunes you can think of. Water drinkers are tampered with, wallows made, water stolen from livestock and wildlife for personal gain. Tags(permits) in these units are extremely limited and very hard to come by. Some folks wait decades for the chance to chase giants.

This year, I applied for a management unit with two and a half times the number of tags (plus a cow hunt) as the previous unit I hunted and with only two-thirds the square miles. Forest fire danger and ridiculous Covid restrictions further reduced the number of huntable acres available this season. There are a lot more water and a larger number of animals. What you get in this kind of unit is more pressure on the weekends, more pressure on watering holes, more people pretending they know how to call elk when the rut isn’t happening, more roads to access deeper into the units, and much to my surprise, more tampering with trail cameras. This is supposed to be more of a DIY type unit by people who love to hunt. Theft and poor ethics are on full display.

Another thing that plagues a public land hunter is the multi-use of public land itself. The land is open for everyone to use, and we want to keep it that way. Now while we appreciate that we can use the land year-round like everyone else, this simply presents more challenges during hunting season. How much work are you willing to put in?

Last year, my hunt was in a unit near the Grand Canyon. We had several tourists approach us lost in the woods or lost on the dirt roads as we all know vehicle GPS programs aren’t accurate. The area is relatively remote, so there were not many day-use folks out there to interrupt a hunter. There was a foot/bike race set up during one of the weekends, and our blind I ended up taking an elk out of was set 10 feet from the Arizona Trail, which had several people walking or biking down it daily. Luck would have it, on day 13 of a 14-day hunt, I found success.

This year left me more than frustrated with little room to get away from people. The unit is closer to larger towns and also has popular scenic viewpoints and hiking trails easily accessible within minutes of your home or hotel room. This particular unit is crisscrossed with both public and private land and more roads than I’ve ever seen on National Forest and BLM ground. The technological advances in UTVs have made it even worse since now; more people can get further into our public lands faster, creating more noise, more dust, and more wildlife disruption. Day 4 still lent success.

In addition to the general public’s use of UTVs, many hunters just buzz loudly up and down roads all day long (3:30 am and on) in hopes of catching luck off someone else. Again, opinion, but road hunting isn’t hunting. These hunters blow cow calls and bugles every 25 seconds, don’t listen for responses, and end up running into other hunters and blowing stalks. Or better yet, running into other hunters who were calling, and there were actually no elk in the area making noise. My husband and I had a discussion that we wouldn’t be surprised if the elk in these places adapted to rut silently.

Despite all this, there is plenty of ground to hunt if you wake up and get to the spot first. Luckily Arizona state statutes and fair chase rules give you a leg to stand on. It is first-come, first-serve regardless of whether you’ve set up a blind or tree stand, etc. Now ethically, you can tell if someone has been working in an area, and one should respect it. But, if you hunt public land long enough, you will walk in on someone sitting in your stand or blind, taking advantage of your season of hard work scouting. And you can talk to them about it all you want, but they were still there first.

Enough of what can and does go wrong. It seems daunting, and one might think they’d never apply to hunt here. But, one should know what they are up against when they step foot in Arizona with a tag/permit in hand.

So here is the good stuff.

Despite all of the frustrations that go along with hunting on public land, there are many things that are extremely rewarding that you can’t find by hunting a fence/lease/private land hunt. There is always a huntable area where there are no roads, and only those dedicated to and physically capable of reaching can hunt with minimal interruption. It takes more planning. It takes more time off work or time away from your family. It takes more dedication to make a connection with an animal. It takes greater dedication to physical fitness. It makes success that much sweeter.

Giving yourself the opportunity to be successful starts the moment you draw a tag. You’ve got to set aside the time to scout pre-season. And if you’re lucky enough to hunt the rut, just find the cows. The bulls will show up.

Opening weekend is both hard and fascinating. If I could, I would hunt during the week only when the weekend warriors go home. But, these first few days are still days where a person can learn what not to do and how to take advantage of what people mess up. As a friend says over and over, he’d rather be lucky than good.

Everything you discovered prior to opening day is blown out of the water since so many people are chasing elk now that their patterns are disrupted and different. Animals go mostly nocturnal or hit the water at noon instead of morning and evening, especially when temperatures hit 90 degrees or more during the day. They are stressed. It is all a chess match s—a perfect game of chess for a stubborn hunter with an insatiable desire to succeed.

In a varied landscape that you can move over, you can learn a lot about how animals migrate and what paths they may or may not take given the weather and people’s pressure. People spend years studying and hunting areas and are willing to share information with you. Wildlife biologists who work in these specific management units share information with you if you just ask. Your time spent scouting pre-season is the most valuable information you can attain. Always have a plan B, C, D, maybe E and F at the ready.

These archery hunts give you a chance to hunt in two different ways—spot and stalk, or over water in a blind or tree stand. Being mobile and adaptable to real-time conditions will give you more opportunities. When the temps hit 90, it is good to plan on an early morning spot and stalk and afternoon/evening water sits. Spot and stalk are hard. I hate sitting still. And, sitting still over water is where I’ve been successful. But that doesn’t mean others are not successful on their feet. It is all about being in the right place at the right time.

By limiting tags in units, it gives the hunter the opportunity to pass on bulls. You generally get more opportunities to wait for a bigger animal to cross your path. It can test your patience. It can test your perseverance. It will no doubt test your love of archery and elk. But this is why we do it, right? The challenge?

Simply seeing elk during the hunt is exciting. Watching calves play and kick up their heels, lightens the mood. Luck lets you call cows and calves into 15 yards just to have the chance to marvel at their beauty. Sitting in a blind on a tank, unfortunately, the wrong end of it one night, but getting to see an entire herd come in for water and they jump in and swim for the fun of it instead is a unique experience many don’t ever see.

The best part of it all is on the ground with a 700-pound animal screaming in your face that he’s looking for love. Once, using the wind correctly and with crazy luck, we ended up 10 yards from face to face with a 350 inch bull and three of his cows between him and us. The closest cow I could have reached out and poked with my bow before she blew our cover. In the wide-open and with no move to make with a bow, it was still one of the most adrenaline-pumping experiences I’ve ever had.

And lucky for me, my family and close friends would do anything they could to help and support each hunt each of us had just as I would for them. So even if only one of us is drawn, we all get to hunt if we want to. We all share in the blood, sweat, tears, and joy of each failure or success. We all share the bounty at the dinner table. We all share the stories around the campfire indefinitely. And we aren’t afraid of failure. We just keep trying as often as we get the chance. So here is to fight for conservation and our wild public spaces so we can keep hunting elk. Provided we are given a little luck.

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