Arizona Coues Deer Hunt
The scotch lingered on my tongue and cut a track through the dust in my throat as I unloaded my pack, lumbar muscles complaining as I grabbed several days’ worth of gear from the back of the ranch rig and swung it into the light of the yard. We were reporting in after several days in the desert, looking for Coues deer and water holes, not necessarily in that order and an offered drink was just what the doctor ordered. Or he certainly would have if he’d been along, anyway.
For those who haven’t had the opportunity to hunt these creatures, Coues deer are a sub-species of the whitetail, weighing in at a fraction of the size of a full-grown Midwestern deer. A mature buck will top out at just over a hundred pounds. They make their home in the Southwest and provide a unique opportunity for serious deer hunters who are willing to spend hours behind their optics and brave vegetation that pokes, cuts, or stings, warm temperatures, and ghost-like deer habits under the semblance of fun.
Our hunt started months before when we learned we had drawn Coues deer tags in rugged, beautiful southern Arizona on a ranch operated by some of my family. Neither Natalie Krebs nor I had hunted Arizona or Coues deer so we were starting from the ground up with our friend Aram von Benedikt’s guidance. The diminutive deer of the southwest had never been high on my priority list but I was about to be handed a lesson in humility, courtesy of a one-hundred-pound, slightly built animal capable of eeking out a living on mesquite beans and cacti. Fresh off of a guiding season in Alaska with a Dall sheep and mountain goat hunt under my belt, I was optimistic that the Arizona desert was going to be a fun, semi-easy way to wrap up the 2020 hunting season. As most presumptions in my life, I was somewhat off base.
Aram, Natalie, and I arrived at the ranch with a couple of hours to spare; my cousin Andy was preparing beef steaks on a bed of mesquite coals as we watched the sun set and visited after a full day of travel, telling old stories and formulating new plans. The next day, after getting the lay of the land, going through gear, and checking zeroes on rifles, we shrugged into our packs and headed for a promising-looking vantage point that would allow us a commanding view of prime Coues deer country on opening morning.
Sweat rolled down my back as I sucked wind and looked up, the ridge top further away than I was hoping for. My shoulder straps dug in as I lunged uphill, futilely trying to avoid the ocotillo and cat’s claw that seemed to reach out and grab at my clothing at every turn. Several thin red lines leaked blood onto my forearms despite my caution, the desert vegetation wasting no time in giving this Montana hunter an Arizona welcome. Wearing sweaty brows and tired smiles, my two friends toiled with their own loads, all of us racing the darkness to get to our predetermined camp spot and settled in before the southern Arizona light gave way to dark. Having almost accomplished it, we put the finishing touches on our bivy camp by lamplight and shared a quick meal before succumbing to the cooler evening weather.
Opening morning found us perched on a knob overlooking a vast amount of prime deer habitat. Aram and Natalie had turned up several deer before I was settled in and were happily discussing the merits of each as I struggled to find a place to sit that wasn’t going to stick or poke me in one of my more intimate places. I’ve found it takes a bit to become accustomed to a new country, new animals, and how to effectively glass them up in their native surroundings but after several deer sightings between us, Aram laid eyes on a buck that took his interest to another level and we found ourselves making a play on an ancient old warrior buck before the sun had even reached its zenith the first day of hunting. After watching the monarch slip into a patch of dense brush and not seeing him leave it, we shouldered our packs and worked closer, arriving on a vantage point with an optimal view of the cover the buck was in. It’s a testament to these little deer that it took three hunters the better part of an hour to locate him ensconced in his hideaway. Aram found a steady position while Natalie and I watched through a spotting scope and binoculars; the buck stood and presented his vitals and a single shot from Aram’s rifle put the nine-and-a-half-year-old deer on the desert dirt for a final time.
After photographing and processing Aram’s best Coues buck to date, we refilled water bladders and made the climb back to camp, just in time for an evening glassing session and some freeze-dried dinner. Warm sleeping bags sang a siren call that couldn’t be ignored despite the day’s excitement and one by one we answered. A short night found us up well before light, packing camp and building backpack loads in preparation to move on into unhunted country. The morning progressed and was lost to the afternoon as we put more miles on tired legs.
After a failed stalk on a truly trophy-class buck earlier that day, the three of us dropped into the bottom of a canyon that would spill out onto a broad flat, the last leg of our day’s hike. A flash of blue caught our eye, the unfamiliar color clashing with the desert’s earth tones and as we walked up to it, revealed the remains of a smuggler’s camp, their discarded blanket the tell-tale clue of just how close we’d come to a run-in with the other people who use this country’s ruggedness to their advantage. This particular piece of desert is well-known as a drug corridor as the broken topography lends itself to small groups or individuals traveling through with minimal risk of discovery by the Border Patrol or ranchers checking cattle. A sobering reminder after a day of fun, we made the decision to head for the ranch house, resupply, and have a hot dinner cooked by our gracious hosts. After taking care of meat, packs and enjoying a dust-cutting beverage or two, we were treated to a fantastic meal of homemade empanadas- a pasty-like treat stuffed with a variety of meat, cheese, tomato, and other ingredients in the family’s traditional Argentine style; a popular dish in South America, many times a unique mark is used on the outer shell delineating what ingredients are included inside. Showered, fed, and feeling rather expansive after another great day, we enjoyed visiting and learning about the uniqueness and challenges of raising cattle in desert country.
The next morning was spent retooling our packs after the first foray out, all unnecessary gear stripped to make room for more water as most of the historical water holes were dried up due to Arizona’s record-setting drought. Having two tags left to fill and beginning to come to terms with the challenges of how hard it may be to find two mature bucks for Natalie and me, lean and mean was the plan for the next venture.
That evening found us in new country, the three of us rejuvenated and ready for Round Two as deer began to show themselves and we happily pointed out our findings to each other. As the day moved into the final hour of shooting light, I glimpsed a buck approximately 1400 yards away and after conferring with my partners, we decided to make a play.
Having spotted the deer initially, I had first right of refusal so when we got to a range I felt comfortable with I worked on getting my breathing under control while Aram and Natalie ranged and watched the deer. When my heart rate was as calm as it was going to get, I took a final breath and pressed the trigger, hearing the impact as I watched the buck tip and roll downhill. By the time we reached him, it was dark but having marked him from a distance, we found him with no trouble. I was in awe of the experience and humbled at the opportunity to hunt such beautiful country with great people; as we took a minute to admire the evening and before starting the photos and work, a bit of dust found its way into my eye- “Come on Tough Guy”, a deep voice from behind a headlight must have mistaken the eye irritant for something else. No matter, smiles were all around as we worked up the deer and loaded quarters into packs. Two down and one to go.
Once the meat from the second buck was prepped and cooled, it was time for Natalie’s hunt. We shook the frost from our tents as the sun rose on another Arizona morning while we huddled in jackets and stocking caps due to a cold front having moved in the night before. The deer had been feeling it too as their movement seemed to have curtailed compared to previous days. We stripped layers off as the sun gained its momentum for the afternoon, slowly warming and loosening cold, stiff muscles. We weren’t the only ones enjoying the warmth as a big grey-bodied buck stood up from his bed across a canyon. One look at his thick shoulders and deep chest and a plan was made to try to seal the deal on our third buck.
Several hours after our initial sighting, Natalie made her way through rimrock and cacti to a perch overlooking the buck and harvested her first Coues deer while Aram and I watched on. Another late afternoon pack out loaded down with first-class table fare and a set of chocolate-colored antlers graced our packs as we relived the last few days on our walk out.
The cold front had been beneficial and gotten the animals moving. Andy’s wife Mari had drawn a tag for our unit as well, she and Andy had been day hunting the ranch as life allowed while we’d been hunting the surrounding public land by spike camp. Having never harvested a big game animal, she’d set the benchmark high and made it count with her Weatherby Camilla chambered in .243 on a truly incredible five-and-a-half years old Coues deer. The heavy, ash-colored rack told the story of a year spent avoiding predators and carving out a living in the Arizona desert; it was easily the best buck of the week, including another hunter who’d been successful the same day as well.
As tired as the room full of deer hunters was, jokes were shared, stories told and hunts relived while we enjoyed the final evening of a truly special hunt. Aram and Natalie had each driven their own vehicles down so left the following afternoon while I stayed at the ranch for an extra day and enjoyed time catching up with family. That evening Andy, Mari and I sat around the fireplace in their home after processing venison all afternoon. Mari had saved some premium cuts of backstrap and treated us to a traditional Argentine dinner of milanesa, a thin steak dipped in beaten eggs, then dredged in seasoned cracker crumbs and shallow-fried in oil complimented by garlic rice and a fresh salad.
After dinner, the sun began to set as Andy and I threw hay to a couple of his saddle horses; we watched as the last vestige of sunlight burnt the highest peaks pink before giving up to the encroaching darkness. I’d come expecting a fairly physically easy hunt in unfamiliar territory but was leaving with something else entirely: a healthy respect for the ruggedness of the terrain, an ever-growing appreciation for good people and time spent with them, as well as the beginning of an addiction to hunting the small-statured deer that brought us all together.
Pack- I used a Sitka Mountain Hauler 6200 on this hunt, it’s a great size for a one-to-three night backcountry stay and it collapses down small enough to be used as a day pack once camp is set up.
Boots- Unsurprisingly, durable footwear is critical as the desert slowly chews up whatever is on your feet. I chose the Danner Thorofare as I prefer a stiffer boot when hunting in rocks and they performed great.
Clothing- Any lightweight, breathable pieces will work- I wore Kuiu Attack pants as I like the side zipper option they incorporate to get a breeze down your legs during the heat of the day. Another important piece was Sitka’s Kelvin Lite Down jacket, it folds up to nothing but has a great warmth-to-weight ratio for early morning glassing sessions.
Rifle- I used Browning’s newly-released Western Hunter rifle in the 6.8 Western topped with a Leupold VX6 HD 2-12×44. Weighing in at around nine pounds ready to hunt, it performed great when called upon and allowed me to harvest my buck quickly and cleanly with Browning Long Range Pro ammo tipped with a 175 gr. Sierra Game King bullet.
Tent- Easton Kilo, Kuiu Summit Star, and a Big Agnes Copper Spur worked great for the temperate weather we hunted in.
Sleeping Bag- I used a Kuiu 30 degree Super Down bag and it was more than enough most nights. The one night it dropped below freezing, I put my down layer on and went right back to sleep.
Misc.- At Aram’s recommendation I brought snake-proof gaiters along and I’m sure glad I did. Not only was it a little peace of mind while hunting in the rocks, but they also did double duty to protect my legs from the ever-present brush and thorns.