Moving to a new state can be a difficult experience for any hunter. It requires you to learn new regulations, create new friendships in the hunting community and become familiar with new hunting areas. Such was the predicament I found myself in at the end of my freshman year of high school: my family was moving from Utah to Arizona.
I was more than happy to move. Arizona offers excellent quail and dove hunting, as well as Coues whitetail deer and javelina. However, I was also uneasy about the hours and hours of research and phone calls that would go into finding the big-game success in Arizona that I had experienced in Utah. Immediately I began gathering all of the resources about hunting in Arizona I could — draw odds, success rates, guidebooks and maps. I found that Arizona’s unit 36A youth deer hunt would be my best option. With a non-resident tag being only $2 more than a resident tag, I was able to put in for that hunt without having to wait a year for residency and without having to pay a lot of non-resident fees.
In July 2015, Dad’s credit card was hit for $40. I had drawn the tag for 36A! We received a letter in the mail shortly thereafter that convinced me I had hit the jackpot. SCI’s Arizona Chapter was hosting a camp for youth deer hunters in Units 36A and 36B. The camp was free to anyone holding a tag in either unit, and entailed three square meals a day, a central campsite and an experienced guide to help you with your hunt.
The months seemed to drag by, but finally the day to head out for the hunt came. After driving a couple of hours to the camp, my Dad and I set up our tent and walked down to the picnic tables that would serve as the “mess-hall” for the week. We sat down and began talking to a father/son duo sitting across the table from us. Their names were Dan and Cameron Smith. The Smith’s had been on this youth hunt the year previous, and gave us some ideas on what to expect. We talked with them again at breakfast early the next morning, and ensured that Cameron and I both had guides.
The next two days passed by with a consistent schedule: wake up, eat breakfast, meet with your guide and go hunt. We came back to camp for lunch and to talk about what we had all seen, then it was back out to hunt. At dinner, the discussion was lively with kids and adults sharing their stories of the day. It was fantastic. I was able to see a little over 100 deer my two days out, but nothing quite big enough to shoot. I was also able to have that “deer camp” experience at the youth camp.
Talking with all the hunters about what they had seen was great. I was able to hear about so many cool experiences others had while they were out such as a kid missing a shot at a huge mule deer, a group of hunters who had switched from deer hunting to coyote hunting, and the attempts by Dan and Cameron to sneak up on a mountain lion. We were always sure to share information with the Smiths to help Cameron be successful.
My dad and I had to leave the camp Saturday night. In my two days of hunting, I had not seen a deer large enough to shoot and I was bummed to leave empty handed, but, I was excited that I had found a place and made friends in Arizona’s hunting community. I was already looking forward to next year’s hunt. We swapped contact information with the Smiths and wished them the best of luck before we left.
The next day, Dan texted my dad a picture of Cameron with a spike Coues deer. We were both excited for their success. The relationship that my dad and I developed with the Smiths, because of the youth hunt, was the biggest benefit of the whole trip. While at the camp, I learned that Dan and I share a love of firearms. Dan is very knowledgeable and is willing to help me whenever I have any questions about guns and reloading. I have bought a couple of rifles based off of his recommendations and have been very happy with these purchases.
Several weeks before the 2016 draw deadline, Dan called and we were able to coordinate putting in for the 36B youth hunt, as well as set up a dove hunt at a special location of Dan’s for the last week of September. Cameron and I both lucked out and drew 36B. The dove hunt in September was one of my favorite small game hunting experiences. Everyone in our group was able to limit out on doves, and hunting alongside the Smith’s again served only to increase my anticipation for the deer hunt.
While visiting with Dan on a business trip to Tucson, my dad was able to arrange for us all to camp together on the hunt. The last week of November 2016 rolled around, and I found myself back on the road, looking forward to one of my favorite experiences of the year. The SCI camp was in the same location, and the actual deer hunting unfolded nearly identically to how it had the last year. I saw lots of deer, ate great food and reveled in the success of other hunters.
I enjoyed this year even more, however, because of our friendship with the Smiths. Sitting around the fire at the end of each day talking and laughing with Dan about his hunt in Africa or Cameron’s experiences at school was unforgettable. Once again, I passed on smaller bucks and ended up not killing a deer, but had an incredible time. Like clockwork, the day after we left, we received another picture of Cameron with a spike Coues deer that he had shot in an area we had advised them to hunt.
While I am now too old to go on the youth hunt anymore, I look forward to visiting with the Smiths this year on my younger brother’s hunt in 36B. My time spent the past two years at the AZSCI camp have really served to help me understand the value of building relationships with other hunters, rather than keeping to myself while out hunting. Until I leave for college, I eagerly await another great season of dove hunting and outdoor activities with the Smiths.--Brennan Thompson