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Thrill of the stalk: Yuma County has many opportunities for hunters
While few states can boast the same hunting opportunities that Arizona provides, for hunters in the Yuma area it's all about taking down that mule deer or getting a bag limit of dove, quail, pheasants or waterfowl.
“The Yuma area offers a good variety of hunting options, but it really depends on what people what to hunt,” said Chris Bedinger, spokesman for the Yuma Area office of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “Every hunter is different.”
Hunters also have a chance to be drawn for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hunt bighorn sheep in the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. Only five such tags are issued a year and hunters are only allowed to take one sheep.
“Some hunters have been putting in for the drawing for 30 years, and they still haven't been drawn yet,” Bedinger said. “To get a sheep tag in Arizona is a pretty big deal. It is the golden ticket. After you get drawn, you can never be drawn again.”
One of the largest herds in the country, Kofa's bighorn sheep are used for the restoration and maintenance of other smaller herds across Arizona and throughout the southwestern United States, including New Mexico, Colorado and Texas.
Bedinger said since this part of the desert is not conducive to big game animals, most hunters in the Yuma area typically grew up hunting a wide variety of small game. While dove season draws hunters from other parts to the Yuma area, that's not the case for deer hunting.
“People who hunt in this area were typically born and raised here and have been brought up hunting deer in this area their entire lives,” Bedinger said. “What you won't see are people coming from other parts of the state to hunt deer here.”
Mike Powers, a lifelong hunter and board member of the Yuma Valley Rod and Gun Club, is one of those who stalk deer in the Yuma area. He says he got his first deer about three years ago after crawling a half mile through a hay field on his hands and knees.
“When I was done, I had dollar-size raspberry marks on my knees. I was glad there wasn't any grass burrs,” Powers said. “I carry knee pads in my backpack now. I didn't think I would ever need them, but after I got halfway across that I field, I made a mental note to myself to get kneepads.”
For Powers, who says he hunts whatever he can get a tag for, some of his fondest memories are of going quail hunting with his father and grandfather when he was 9 years old.
“The first time they took me was a big deal. I also got to go out to parts of the desert I hadn't ever seen before,” Powers said. “But more importantly, it helped me form strong bonds with both men.”
Bedinger said while deer hunting is plentiful and popular, it requires a drive of 50 to 60 miles to get to the areas they can be found, predominately in the Cibola and Kofa mountains, as well as the Mohawk Valley near Dateland.
“It's obviously not like hunting deer up north, it's a little bit harder,” Bedinger said. “But people who have been doing it their whole lives know where to go. They know where the deer are.”
Deer hunting season runs from Nov. 2 to the 11th in the Yuma area, and hunters apply for permit tags, which are issued through a drawing process. Bedinger said there are 500 tags available this year for the area north of Mohawk Valley, which is typically known as Unit 41 by hunters.
There is also an archery season for deer in the Kofa Mountains, which runs from Dec. 14 through Jan. 31.
For Ron Martin, who has been hunting around the world for more than 40 years, there is nothing better than taking down game with a bow. He said he prefers a bow because it is more challenging than using a gun.
“You really get to experience nature a lot more when you archery hunt,” Martin said. “In archery in you have to live with the animal. It is all about taking the ethical clean shot.”
Martin, who usually only hunts dove and deer in the Yuma area, said it was his father who first introduced him to the sport of hunting. He also added the reason he uses a bow is that his father, who had served in Korea and Vietnam, did not like guns.
Although he understands the necessity of the draw system, Martin described hunting in the Yuma area as average at best, adding you are lucky if you get drawn for a tag.
”They need to do it to control the size of the herd and the quality and quantity of the game,” Martin said.
Both Martin and Powers say hunting is not just about spending time in the woods or out in the desert. It's about sharing the experience. They said it can also be a great way to build or maintain relationships, whether friend or family. There is also nothing like introducing someone new to the sport, they said.
Bedinger added that the Yuma area, because of all the small game, also provides young hunters the opportunity to learn about hunting ethics and safety.
What the Yuma area is best known for is its dove hunting season, which starts on Sept. 1 and runs through Sept. 15. Bedinger thinks this year may be a pretty big year for dove hunting since the season opens on a weekend.
Arizona Game and Fish estimates that over the last decade, 45,000 to 60,000 hunters have bagged from 1 million to 1.3 million mourning doves statewide every year — and a significant part of that harvest takes place in and around Yuma.
Bedinger said hunting quail is also pretty popular in the Yuma area, with its season lasting from Oct. 5 through Feb. 10. Although much shorter, there is also a pheasant season, which begins on Sept. 21 and ends on Oct. 11. And, due to the Colorado River and other area waterways, Yuma also provides hunters an opportunity for duck and waterfowl hunting.
Bedinger said there is also year-round hunting on predators and furbearing animals such as coyotes and cottontail rabbits, providing you have a hunting license.