By Dan Fritz, aka rockymtnhunter at MonsterMuleys.com
Arizona - Unit 12A (East and West)
The North Kaibab stirs the soul of every dedicated mule deer hunter - it is one of the most sought after hunting permits in the West. Its reputation for huge, trophy quality bucks is both well-earned and almost mythical. It ranks as one of the highest producing trophy hunts for mule deer. Given its relatively small area combined with the number of record book bucks that have come from here make it truly the home of "monster muleys". But sometimes the reputation of the North Kaibab can overwhelm the hunting sense and sensibilities of those lucky enough to draw a coveted permit. Yes, there are big bucks, some really big bucks, but they are few and far between. Statistically, the odds of seeing, let alone taking, a big Kaibab buck are very small. Stay optimistic, even when you haven't seen a big buck because who knows what the next moment may bring - and every moment on the Kaibab holds potential. Enjoy the world class setting and experience. You will see deer and mature bucks - treasure the opportunity to hunt one of best places on earth to hunt mule deer.
Unit 12 A encompasses the entire Kaibab Plateau, a large "sky island" north of the Grand Canyon, and roughly follows the boundary of North Kaibab District of the Kaibab National Forest. The word "Kaibab" is derived from a Paiute term meaning "mountain lying down", which when viewed from a distance is exactly what the Kaibab Plateau looks like. It was sometimes referred to as Buckskin Mountain - which also makes sense when you think about the abundant mule deer found there. This area is one of the most remote in the lower 48 and embodies wilderness which is likely one the major contributing factors that make it a quality hunting area. The combination of genetics, habitat, remoteness and trophy management make the Kaibab a mule deer nirvana.
The plateau is bounded on the south by Grand Canyon National Park, on the west by Kanab Creek, on the east by House Rock Valley, and on the north by Buckskin Mountain just south of Arizona-Utah state line. Unit 12A encompasses about 650,000 acres and is divided into two hunting units - 12 A West and 12A East. 12A West lies west of Highway 67 which runs from Jacob Lake south to the Grand Canyon and north of Highway 89A from Jacob Lake east to the forest boundary. 12A East is south of Hwy 89A and east of Hwy 67.
There have been numerous large fires during the last 20 years that have burned large areas of the plateau. These areas are used heavily by deer and get a lot of pressure during the hunting seasons, especially the archery and early rifle hunts.
There are several types of hunts:
Archery Hunt - Unit 12A is managed as a single unit during the archery season. The hunt is from late August through second week of September. Prior to 2008, archery tags were unlimited and could be purchased over the counter. There were probably several thousand bowhunters on the North Kaibab every fall. The number of bowhunters increased every year until the late 1990's when the archery season was changed to open later, after Labor Day. This resulted in fewer hunters, but bowhunters weren't too happy about it. The season was restored to the present time frames after a couple of years - the ever increasing number of bowhunters, combined with a downward trending herd size, contributed to the Department setting limits on archery tags in 2008. A tag quota was established and archery tags are now available only through the draw system. The quota of archery tags since 2008 has trended downward from 1090 in 2008 to 550 in 2015. This hunt generally has the best drawing odds for both residents and non-residents.
The North Kaibab archery hunt is enjoyable, but can be challenging. Most of the deer are on the high plateau, the country is beautiful, camping is great - but the challenge of the archery hunt is that it occurs during the latter part of the annual monsoon season. Water is critical for wildlife, but there are very few natural water sources on the Kaibab Plateau - there are some springs and "lakes" or "sinks", which are generally sinkholes that hold a little water. There are many small constructed stock ponds or tanks. Deer use these natural and constructed water holes during the hot and dry weather during May and June. But when the monsoon starts in early July, the deer can find standing water lots of places and tend to disperse and scatter. They become harder to pattern and stand hunting on water can be less productive. The monsoon usually persists into late August and early September. Spot/stalk and still hunting is challenging under the best of conditions, but the lay of the land and thick cover on the high plateau makes it challenging. There are many roads on the high plateau and hunters use them to scout for deer.
Junior Hunt - usually in mid-to-late October just before the early rifle season in 12A West. This is an antlerless season that serves as both a population management hunt and an introductory hunt for young hunters - it provides an excellent opportunity for younger hunters to have a successful hunting experience in a unique setting.
Rifle Hunts - There are two rifle hunts every fall - the early hunt (late October) and late hunt (late November). In terms of size, Unit 12A West is a much larger area than Unit 12A East and correspondingly has more deer, and that is reflected in the numbers of tags issued. North Kaibab rifle tag numbers vary year to year depending on how the deer herd size, age structure, doe-to-fawn and buck-to-doe ratios change. Since 1983, the number of rifle hunt buck tags has declined from about 4,000 to 800 in 2015. The decrease in tag numbers generally reflects the declining overall size of the deer herd during that time. Sub-unit 12A East typically has fewer rifle tags than 12A West because fewer deer are found there. This reflects the general population trend for the deer herd in that sub-unit and also reflects some fundamental differences between the two North Kaibab units in terms of herd size, distribution, habitat, and deer movement.
Early Rifle Hunt - Usually a 10-day rifle hunt starting in late October and ending in early November. This is a population management hunt, with tag numbers that allow reasonable opportunities for hunters to participate through the random draw system. Most years, this season allows tag holders to hunt high on the plateau in the same areas as during the archery hunt - unless it snows, then deer start to move toward lower elevations and winter range. Water sources become important again for deer if the weather is warm and dry during late September and October before the hunt.
Late Rifle Hunt - usually a 10-day rifle hunt starting in late November and ending in late November or early December, depending on the start date. This a trophy hunt - it is intended to provide high success for fewer hunters during a late season, with a better opportunity to harvest an older buck. This hunt occurs near the onset of the rut with a small number of hunters in the field. This hunt is viewed as the premium North Kaibab hunt because of two factors: 1) snow usually comes to the plateau by early-to-mid November, pushing the deer from the heavily timbered high plateau down to the more open winter range areas to the east, west and north; and 2) the rut kicks in by mid-November, so the bucks are more vulnerable to hunters. Tags for this hunt are the most difficult to draw for residents and non-residents.
The late hunt is a stark contrast when compared to the early hunt - deer have generally moved to lower elevations where the lay of the land and cover is far different from the high plateau. This is winter range and open country of canyons, points and flats of grass, sagebrush, oak, juniper, pinyon pine and cliffrose. Deer move down toward the edge of the Grand Canyon or Kanab Creek. Water sources are critical to deer during this season and they are often found in the vicinity of widely scattered tanks and trick tanks. There are fewer hunters and not as many roads as on the high plateau. The common question for this hunt is whether to hunt high or hunt low. My perspective is that if the weather has been warm/dry prior to the late hunt, then there may still be deer high. I've found big bucks high (above 8,000') during the late hunt. If there has been snow/cold, then deer are moving toward the low country and can be found as low as you can go.
Muzzleloader Hunt - North Kaibab muzzleloader-only hunts began in the late 1990's (the first hunt was in 1998 or 1999) and is generally held only in Unit 12A East every other year or so. There have been a few muzzleloader seasons in 12A West (2007 and 2009). Few tags are issued for the muzzleloader seasons (generally 35-50) and the season generally falls between the early and late rifle seasons in early-mid November.
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