BLOOMFIELD — Anthony Hampton's hands did not shake as he sprayed an almost invisible dusting of brown paint along the nostrils and edges of the eyes of a mule deer whose head was temporarily mounted on a wall in the Best of the West Taxidermy workshop in Bloomfield.
The passion the 25-year-old Farmington man has for what he does shines through in all of his work. While taxidermy is a field where precision is always key, Hampton put in the slightest bit of extra effort into this particular mule deer. After all, Hampton watched this buck — which stood out with its 200-inch, trophy-worthy antlers — for three years in Hunting Unit 2, south of Bloomfield, until he was finally able to lead a hunter to him.
"I've always wanted to find a way hunt for a living," Hampton said. "I don't necessarily get to pull the trigger, but I get almost the same thrill out of helping somebody else do it."
Like many men in San Juan County, Hampton hunted with his father and brothers growing up. Unlike most hunters, though, he has turned his passion into a career that keeps him busy 10 months of the year.
Hampton's season started on Monday. He left for the field to archery hunt elk in the Gila National Forest and in Unit 2 locally — the two areas where he will spend the rest of the season as a contracted hunting guide, mostly through Compass West Outfitters in Aztec.
It is much more than Hampton's steady hand that has gained him national recognition in "Petersen's Hunting Magazine" and on TV shows such as "Remington Country" on the Outdoor Channel.
In an article published in October 2012 in the hunting magazine, writer J. Guthrie extensively described a hunt in which Hampton helped him track and kill a 180-inch mule deer. Guthrie attributed the success to Hampton's ability to track the animal, following its tracks rather than the more commonly used method of "glassing" — staying in one spot and watching through binoculars.
"We also tracked bucks over bare rock, something I never would have thought possible had I not witnessed it with my own two eyes," Guthrie wrote in the article. "The rock's surface is coated with a fine patina of grime and dust that gets disturbed when a deer passes through. You have to squat down and get the light just right, but faint, white scuff marks are visible if the tracks are fresh."
Hampton learned his techniques from his father, alongside his brothers, growing up, and he continues to improve on them each year.
"I put a lot of extra time and money into scouting, finding the animals. It comes out of my pocket, but, in the end, it pays up," Hampton said.
Picking up on the hunters' personalities is also crucial to his job. Although Hampton has repeat customers, due to New Mexico's lottery system for draws, his clients are often new each year.
Often, he'll be sleeping in a tent with a client the night after he meets him — and for four nights after that. Hampton understands that for most hunters, these are their vacations, so they may not want to be worked too hard. Still, at the end of the day, they want to have a successful hunt, so he tries to strike that balance with each hunter.
Hampton said there is extra pressure with some hunters, like those for whom killing an elk is an item on their bucket list and this may be their only opportunity.
"I had one guy like that, a couple years ago, bad back from an accident he'd had when he was a little kid," Hampton said. "I carried a stool for him to sit on. We got him a couple good shots, and he missed. ... He was real disappointed. But we ended up getting him a bull. My family helped out on that one. Even some of my buddies were out, trying to get this guy a bull. We actually ran this bull to our truck, right in front of him, where he could shoot it. Just because he was a super nice guy, and this would be the only chance he would get to shoot a bull. It gives you a little reward, helping someone fulfill one of their lifetime goals."
Hampton guides between 10 and 15 hunts a season, mostly back-to-back. Usually, he drives through the night from the Gila National Forest to Unit 2 or the other way around, and he may not see home for two months at a time. Depending on the area and the hunter's preferences, Hampton spends the night in a hotel or lodge, sleeps in an established camp or goes primitive camping, throughout the fall and winter.
Karin Guikema, wife of Compass West Outfitters owner Chris Guikema, said it takes a "special person" to be a guide, mostly because of the time it takes.
"They spend the off-season patterning and the on-season out in the field," she said. "They don't get to go home at night. They spend a lot of time ensuring their clients will be successful."
Hampton, she said, is a prime example of that dedication.
"We have been immensely proud to see (Hampton) grow over the years as a hunter ..." she said. "Anthony has dedicated himself to this lifestyle."