A World-Class Coues Deer Offers A Challenging, Long-Range Shot In High-Wind Conditions. The Hunter Is Using Cutting-Edge Long-Range Shooting Gear. Should He Take The Shot?
“Oh My Gosh! That’s a huge buck!” My shouted whisper was snatched away by the wind, bouncing off a mountainside in Mexico a few seconds later. My friend and hunting buddy Jordan Voigt had just spotted a Coues buck across the bend of a jagged canyon, and it only took a glance through my binocular to see that it was a really good deer. Even at 514 yards.
We had started the day high on the same ridge, crawling out of our bivy tents at dawn and making our way Ninja-style to a little jutting point. There we settled in to glass miles of classic Coues deer habitat. The wind was strong, battering our backs and shoulders and creeping its cold fingers inside our collars and down our necks. We spotted a few does, which were holding tight to heavy brush and feeding on dry mesquite beans littering the ground under the older trees. It was the third day of our hunt. I had killed a great old warrior buck the noon before, and our plan called for us to exit the backcountry during this day’s noontime so we could resupply, as well as join some friends for a traditional Argentinian dinner. After a couple days of freeze-dried food, that sounded like heaven in Coues country. We shivered behind our binoculars and huddled on rocky shelves below the rim of the cliff, trying to escape the brutality of the wind, telling ourselves that if we glassed just a little longer a buck would show itself.
There were three of us on this adventure; myself, Jordan, and another friend and hunting buddy Natalie. This was Jordan and Natalie’s first hunt for the elusive “Grey Ghost”, the diminutive Coues whitetail of the American Southwest. They (the deer, not Jordan and Natalie) have earned their nickname honestly, being some of the most illusive creatures alive to spot and stalk amid the cactus, dense brush, and hip-high grass of their native mountain terrain. They’re tiny things, with a big, old mature buck tipping the scale at just over one hundred pounds. That’s barely bigger than your neighbor’s German Shepherd, and hunting the little deer calls for an accurate rifle and precise shooting. And more often than not, long cross-canyon shots.
RIFLE, SCOPE, AND AMMO
Jordan was hunting with a bolt-action rifle chambered in the brand-new, cutting-edge 6.8 Western cartridge. It was an accurate setup, turning in an average group size of less than three quarter minutes of angle. Most of the 100-yard groups could hide under a nickel. Lightweight Talley rings mounted a snappy Leupold 2-12X44 VX6 HD riflescope atop the action, and a superb Javelin Pro bipod by Spartan Precision quick-attached to the forend via a rare-earth magnet. The rifle was zeroed at 200 yards, and a drop chart showing ballistic information and “come-ups” for every distance from 200 to 1,000 yards, at average local elevation and temperature, was pasted to the side of the rifle’s forearm. Jordan had used the rifle to ring targets out to six hundred yards and more the day preceding our hunt, and I had no doubt of his ability to place an accurate shot when the moment arrived.
The ammunition nestled in the magazine on Jordan’s rifle came from the Browning factory, loaded with a new 175-grain Sierra Tipped Game King bullet designed specifically for the new 6.8 Western. The diameter of the bullet is .277, exactly the same as a .270 Winchester. Long, sleek, and streamlined, the bullets sport an extraordinarily high G1 Ballistic Coefficient of .617. Starting downrange with a muzzle velocity of 2,834 feet per second, the round packs terminal energy and momentum far beyond any distance a reasonably intelligent person would want to shoot at a little critter like a Coues buck.
We finally gave up on spotting a buck from our windy point, and slunk back to stuff our bivy tents and sleeping bags into packs and swing them aboard sore shoulders. Determined to hunt along the way we stayed high, finally running out of ridge above a big bend in a canyon. We decided to stop and glass for a while, and I hadn’t even found a comfortable rock to sit upon when Jordan hissed “big buck!” jolting us into full-throttle predator mode. I put glass on the buck, gulped my heart back down where it belonged, and settled my spotting scope onto the deer to verify what a quick glance through my binocular had told me. Sure enough, the buck was a monster. Wide, heavy beams swept out and forward, with long brow tines and G-2s, 3s, and 4s reaching toward the sky. I never could get a perfect look at the buck’s left antler, but if it matched his right side – and every glimpse I got said it would – we were undoubtedly looking at a record book buck.
When we first saw the buck he was standing broadside on a jumbled boulder face that a goat would struggle to maintain its balance on. By the time I set the spotter up and Jordan found a field position to shoot from the deer had walked under the canopy of a giant old oak tree that overhung the cliff side, stopping with only his right antler and shoulder visible through a hole in the tree limbs. He was quartering slightly toward us, but remarkably, we had a good shot at his shoulder and the vitals beyond. Jordan gallantly asked if Natalie wanted to take the opportunity, and once she’d refused settled in behind his rifle. The distance was 514 yards. He checked his chart and adjusted the turret on his scope. His position was steady, but there was a problem:
The wind. The wind was ripping left to right, sweeping in jagged bursts up and across the canyon. I’m fairly confident in estimating wind up to about fifteen miles per hour, and this air was maintaining significantly more velocity that that. The gusts, I surmised, were ripping through at 35 to 40 miles per hour. Depending on what the wind was doing at the buck’s position, and in the 500-yard void between, the Sierra bullet would drift somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 to 11 minutes of angle. That’s equivalent to between 20 and 55 inches. Jordan would have to make a long range downhill shot with a violently gusting crosswind at one of America’s smallest big game animals. Through a hole in a tree.
But this was no ordinary buck. It was the biggest Coues buck I’d seen in my life; one that would very likely score well into the all-time Boone & Crockett record book. Would it be wise to push our luck? To try to make that shot regardless of the complications? We studied our options.
Could we sneak closer? Coues deer are notorious for seeing any movement and just disappearing. This buck was across a canyon, with no good cover for stalking. Our chances of finding him again later were not good either. The forecast called for continuing wind through the day and following night, so we couldn’t simply wait it out. We were between the proverbial frying pan and fire.
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
Place yourself in Jordan’s shoes. You’ve drawn a coveted tag, flown to Arizona, worked your rifle out to long distances, and backpack hunted in the backcountry. You’ve done everything you could to prepare for a tough hunt, and a tough shot, at a hard-to-find animal. You know your rifle, and are confident you can make a good shot at greater distances than you now face. And you’re looking through the crosshairs at the buck of a lifetime.
But it’s impossible to figure the wind. What is it doing at 150 yards? At 250? At 400? Will it remain steady long enough for you to squeeze off a good shot, or will it gust at the last moment, drifting your bullet an additional 25 inches? You just don’t know. YOU DON’T KNOW.
Do you take the shot?
HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED (TRUE STORY)
Jordan and I watched the wind. We tried to watch dust, cobwebs, debris, anything – to get an idea of what the wind was doing in between the deer and our position. We watched for any kind of pattern in the gusts. And then, agonizingly, we decided it would not be wise, or ethical, to take the shot. So we slid through the rocks and the ocotillo cactus and down the steep side of the ridge, trying to close to within 300 yard of the buck. If we could get that close, we could kill him. At 327 yards the buck spooked, bounded up his cliff like a mountain goat, and disappeared. Except from our dreams.
We didn’t get that buck. Nor, I believe, did we ever regret not attempting that shot. Passing was the ethical decision. Jordan did get a good buck a couple days later, with a first-shot kill at nearly the same distance. That day, there was no wind. But that is another story.