To Hell and Back

Sonora

DESERT MULE DEER A 30-inch mule deer buck might be the toughest trophy game animal to find in North America. Drought, encroaching land development and overhunting have made them as rare as honest politicians. Except in Sonora. The arid lowlands north of Hermosillo, Mexico, are a vast landscape of busted rock, powdery sand, saguaro, cholla and ocotillo cactus¿¿¿and humongous mule deer, the kind with racks that will take your breath away. Don't get the idea, however, that this is going to be cheap or easy. To hunt desert mule deer in Mexico you have to hire an outfitter who knows how to get you and your gun into the country, has leased one or more of the giant properties that hold the biggest bucks and has hired guides. Deer populations are low, even on the best-managed ranches, and tracking is the most consistently successful way to locate one of the desert's ghosts. In fact, to get a crack at one of the monsters, you and a vaquero tracker might have to walk sunrise to sunset for six consecutive days. "We walked ten to fifteen miles a day, starting in the pitch dark and ending well after sundown for five days before I got my shot," says Jeff Harvey of San Antonio, Texas, who killed a 31-inch 5x5 in Sonora in January 2005. "But the scenery was awesome and the experience of being with the Mexican cowboys as they tracked those big bucks was incredible." Joe Durham of Houston, Tex., who also took a 30-incher this past January, agrees. "Sonora was pretty intense, the rawest hunt I've ever been on-miles of walking in rugged terrain and lots of glassing from before dawn to after sunset. The trackers were amazing. They could read sign in sand, gravel and rock and tell you all about the deer we were after in these huge desert areas. It's the finest hunt I've ever been on, and the most demanding." Both men hunted with San Miguel Outdoors, an outfitting company that leases more than 100,000 acres in Sonora. Mike Gardner, who runs the operation, says that during the peak of the rut in January, when hunting is best, the big muley bucks roam for miles every day, so the hunters must, too. "Unless you're lucky, tracking's the only way you're going to get on one of the real bruisers," Gardner says. "You'll be fascinated by the story the trackers read on the desert floor and you'll get a heck of a workout. You'll be cold in the morning, sweating in the hot sun at mid-afternoon and cold again in the evening, but if you come in shape to cover ground and work hard all week, the rewards can be tremendous." Contact: Mike Gardner, San Miguel Outdoors (512-891-7787; sanmiguelhunts.com)