Scouting Arizona Public Land - Part One

Updated: Jan 23

Scouting for big game hunts in Arizona

This will be a multi part series on pre-season scouting tips and advice

This post will cover some basics for scouting big game in the State of Arizona. We will be covering some basics that apply to most of the big game species available here; Mule Deer, Coues Deer, Elk, Bear and Javelina.

We will be touching on the Who, Why, Where and How of looking for and patterning game animals to give you an edge during your upcoming hunting seasons here in Arizona.

Who -

Let’s face it, time is scarce for a lot of people (quarantine, notwithstanding). Work, family, church, other activities, etc all take a large portion of everyone’s lives in some sort of way. Scouting takes a lot of commitment and time not only out in the field but pre-planning also. Where do I start? Can my partner go when I have free time, how much will it cost in fuel, wear and tear on my vehicle and TIME! What if I don’t see anything? That’s a waste of all the above, right? Well, if you are serious or even semi-serious about having a successful hunt you need to start planning and scouting ahead of the season.

Arizona mule deer hunting
Rifle Mule Deer hunt

Why -

Public land hunting is difficult. Animals are often pressured and skittish. Sometimes they go nocturnal from human pressure, predators, weather. Competition from other hunters is always a concern also. Some people scout for a BIG buck or bull, some want to find concentrations of animals, regardless of trophy potential. Some want to just find a remote area that might offer some relief from hunting pressure. No matter the reason, getting out into the field and mountains prior to your hunt will be directly proportional to your potential success.

One thing we see quite often is that people get disappointed when they go out and spend time and money scouting an area they like and come back saying there are no animals there or there is a lot of sign of human pressure. This is a successful scouting trip!

The reality is, you’ve just eliminated an area and can now move on to a different location. Now, we would advise that you not give up after ONE trip. Give it some thought. Was it a full moon the night before and you could only scout in the morning? A lot of animals feed at night during a full moon and bed right before daylight. Was the weather windy and / or hot? Was it a holiday or busy weekend with a lot of people in the woods and mountains? Is your hunt for bulls in September and you were scouting in July? Bulls move, sometimes a LONG way, right before they rut. You could have been in a rutting area and the bulls were not there yet?

past client's success
Successful Arizona Deer Hunt

Where -

Well, where the animals live...duh. Seems obvious but a lot of people make the mistake of scouting where they WANT the animals to be (easy access, easy to glass, easy to pack into and out of, etc). Most of the time, the animals are NOT where you want them to be and for a good reason. Other people have been thinking the same thing for years and years and the animals have moved to more rugged or hard to access areas.

All wild animals have basics needs – Food, water, cover(shelter) and security.

Food – learn the preferred food sources of the animal you are scouting. Learn what they like to eat in the season you will be hunting them, which for most deer and elk will be fall and winter. Early seasons in August and September will have different food sources available than the later seasons that occur in December and January.

typical feeding, bedding and water for Arizona deer and elk
deer e-scouting Arizona

Look at the photo above for some examples of different areas to look at when scouting and hunting.

The blue outlined areas are typical of late morning and afternoon bedding locations. shady and dark and usually thinker vegetation.

The green outlined areas are where you would look when you expect to see game animals up and feeding. Most likely early morning and late afternoon. More open and south or east facing.

The red outlined spots are possible water locations. You can see that the trees are orange/brown indicating that they are possibly cottonwood trees which like to grow where there are springs or pools of water in deep canyons.

Besides different seasons, there are different weather patterns that can affect the type of forage available. Years with good moisture levels will produce more of the PREFERED foods the animals like. During dry years, they might have to settle for less desirable foods. For example, is wet years elk will always prefer grasses, but when its dry and the grass is not available, they will browse on brush like a deer and even eat pine needles if it is really dry. In good years, bears will prefer acorns in the fall but when the acorn crop is small, they venture lower to eat juniper berries, cactus and cactus fruit and even all the way down into the lower deserts to eat mesquite beans.

Get a good book with illustrations and preferably actual photographs of the different vegetation that grows in the area(s) you like to hunt. Learn to identify the different plants and trees that can provide food for the animal you are hunting. Some examples for the low desert where you might be hunting desert mule deer are mesquite, barrel cactus, Palo Verde and buck brush. Deer will mostly browse on the fresh green tender ends of the Palo Verde tree, mesquite trees and jojoba plants and also young, freshly sprouted grasses.

Coues will like to feed on Gamble’s Oak acorns, buck brush, succulents that sprout up after monsoon rains, etc.

Elk love grass and do not browse on leaves and buds as much as deer do, but they will when grass is not growing well.

Learning to identify areas where good food sources are located will be a huge step forward in your scouting efforts.

This brings us to the NUMBER ONE area to find abundant food sources of all kinds......BURNS!

Recent years have seen a lot of wild fires in the southwest. Both big and small. While most people do not like to hear that the forest is burning, and for good reasons, these fires can and do produce the best and most nutritious foods for deer, elk and bears.

A burn can start producing immediately if it gets some rain. Most will be best the year after the fire and for the next several years until it is over grown and chocked with plants like manzanita and oak brush.