Over-the-Counter Coues Deer

Warm up to a winter bowhunt in the Sonoran Desert in pursuit of the wily Coues whitetail.

Over-the-Counter Coues Deer

“I think we should move, bud. I’m not really into this spot,” I whispered to my brother. As the words left my mouth, a Coues doe popped out in the open 200 yards below us.

We had been glassing from the point for about an hour without a trace of a deer. It was as if she knew what I was saying and wanted to prove me wrong. I’m glad I was wrong, I thought to myself. Not two minutes later, another deer appeared. This one looked a bit different though. More stiff-legged and filled out. With its head held low and lazy-like steps, the deer gave me the impression it had a rough night out on the town, which is often the case during the rut.

It turned out to be a fine Coues buck, one I would be happy to wrap my over-the-counter Arizona archery tag on. Right as I made the decision to put a stalk on this buck, he bedded down. Leaving my brother to stay up above and watch the show through his binocular, I quickly mumbled, “It’s time. I’ve gotta go.” I headed out on a stalk.

The author utilizes trekking poles while hunting Coues deer. Coues country is steep and rocky, and trekking poles are a great tool for keeping upright.
The author utilizes trekking poles while hunting Coues deer. Coues country is steep and rocky, and trekking poles are a great tool for keeping upright.

A Special Time and Place

If you’re a bowhunter and live in Arizona, you’re well aware of how special the month of January is. This is by far one of my favorite times to backpack hunt. The weather is fantastic (highs of 60s and lows of 30s, normally) with the occasional thunderstorm here and there. Yes, it rains in Arizona, and even snows at times. During this late hunt, we don’t have to worry about stepping on rattlesnakes as we close the distance on game, there is usually water available, and most importantly, the deer are rutting. Arizona is unique in the fact that the deer breed later than most of the country. Bucks usually start rutting mid- to late-December and will often carry on into February.

In Arizona, the late archery deer season runs from mid-December all the way through the entire month of January. And the tag is available over the counter. Not all, but several game management units are open in December, with most of the state open in January. Potentially, one could shoot a buck in the month of December, buy another tag in January, and shoot a second buck within just a few days of each other. Additionally, the tag is not species specific either, so you can absolutely pursue both mule deer and Coues deer with the same tag.

Our Haunts

Up until this point, we had been backpack-hunting in various areas across Arizona in search of mule deer, javelina, but with an emphasis on Coues deer. Our plan at the start was to backpack into an area for a few days, and if we didn’t see what we were after, we’d move locations. We had a total of eight consecutive days dedicated to chasing deer around the Arizona desert, bows in hand.

Our first stop was one that was especially special to my brother and me. It was the first place he and I had ever backpacked into on a hunt. Our camp sits at the top of a mesa and overlooks a large basin filled with Coues deer. I call this the bowl of “Coues-Coues.” Our second stop was another special place, one where I killed my first archery deer. Our third stop was one that was newer to us, but equally as productive as the others in terms of deer numbers.

For the next week, we hiked all over the desert glassing from sunup to sundown. We saw a great deal of mature bucks and even saw some fighting. My brother was able to arrow a javelina at 40 yards about halfway through the trip (see sidebar at end of article). I also had a decent-size 3x3 mule deer right below me within bow range, but it just got too dark for me to see. The trouble was seeing which deer was the buck and which were the does. We had one evening and a morning left to hunt. It was time to find greener pastures. Which brings us right back to the beginning of this tale.

Back to the Hunt

As I made my way to the bedded Coues buck, the terrain became increasingly steep. At times, I felt like I was hunting sheep — shale rock and hanging on for dear life just about sums it up. My plan was to get down to the bottom of the drainage and hopefully shoot across it. As fate would have it, the buck just so happened to get up and start rutting his does. The problem was, he was working them away from me. I quickly backed out, thinking it was all over. There just wasn’t any way for me to catch up to them given my current position. After returning to our glassing spot, I realized I was wrong again. And again, I was glad I was wrong.

It just so happened that the buck moved up the hill and onto a small bench. There he was pestering his does as they tried their hardest to enjoy dinner. With around 45 minutes of light left, I decided to make another run at him. This time I would cross the drainage and come in over the top of the buck with hopes of catching him off-guard as he pushed his does around. On the hike, which was more like a run due to the lack of time I had, my brother kept mentioning a certain red ditch. He said that once I passed it, the deer should be right below me. I kept that in mind while in pursuit.

Sneak or Call?

In general, traversing desert terrain is pretty loud; there are lots of rocks and dry vegetation that doesn’t aid in the art of being sneaky. For this reason, some hunters prefer to get to a certain point and then setting up and calling in order to try and bring the deer to them. This can be done with either a bleat call, grunt or rattling. For me though, I prefer trying to be sneaky. There is nothing like successfully closing the distance on game with a bow in your hand. As luck would have it, I had a nice worn cattle trail that would lead me right past the red ditch my brother had mentioned. It was soft and sand-like, which let me keep my boots on and ultimately quieted my footfall.

When I made my way to the other side of the red ditch, I started ranging various distances below me. Right where I last saw the deer was now 60 yards from my location. However, there were quite a few juniper trees blocking my view of the entire hillside. I decided to just wait at this distance and hope the deer would show themselves. A few minutes later, I saw movement below. It was the doe. There was a dead tree in between us, which obscured her line of sight up to me. Then I saw it. From behind a juniper, something nudged the doe’s rear end. Knowing just what that something was likely to be, I went to full draw. The doe was moving from right to left and coming out from behind the dead tree.

Antlers started appearing. I could tell it was indeed the same buck that I had bedded down earlier. So often when stalking Coues deer, they can play Houdini on you, vanishing into thin air. Luckily, that wasn’t the case here. My eyes burned a hole into the vitals of the buck, followed by the glowing fiber-optic pin from the bowsight. Anchored in, I focused my aim. Completely unaware of my presence, the buck jumped as my arrow connected with his body. Smack! I caught a visual of the buck as he ran off, down the drainage. Blood was pouring out, but not where I intended to hit. The shot was back, way back. I couldn’t believe it.

Several times I tried to get another arrow into the buck after he bedded not 20 yards from where I shot him, but to no avail. As I looked for sign, my brother kept glass on the wounded deer until dark. I found the first bed he used and was stunned. Never had I seen this amount of blood from anything I’d shot in the past. To boot, the blood contained bubbles. Could my arrow have ricocheted off and up into the buck’s vitals? Only time would tell, after a long and sleepless night filled with pouring rain showers.

The Search

The next morning we were greeted with fog so thick we couldn’t see 50 yards. It felt like standing on the set of a horror film, downright spooky, in fact. Once the fog lifted, my brother guided me into where he last saw the buck bed. Of course, there was no blood from all of the rain we had during the night. The buck wasn’t where my brother last saw him, either. I started grid searching. My guess was the buck tucked up underneath a juniper to get out of the rain. About 40 yards later, my suspicion was confirmed. There he laid dead underneath a juniper. The relief I felt at this point was overwhelming, and I’d be lying if I said a tear or two didn’t drop for this deer. I practice so much in the off season so that these things wouldn’t happen, but sometimes they can still creep up on you. In this case, I had completely spaced on checking my bubble level on my sight in the heat of the moment.

The author with his spot-and-stalk Arizona archery Coues buck.
The author with his spot-and-stalk Arizona archery Coues buck.

Bowhunting takes me on some wild rides filled with more ups and downs than the scariest roller coaster. It makes me feel like I am on top of the world one moment and less than zero the next. This is what I love about it, though. A lot of focus gets put on the physical side of bowhunting, but I assure you, the mental side is just as hard. So much effort is put into just getting a shot opportunity. Pair that with misses, blown stalks and, in this case, a marginal hit? Better break out the Advil and make sure you’re wearing your seat belt, cause it’s going be a bumpy ride. With patience and persistence though, you’ll get to the end of the road. On your way, don’t forget to soak up what’s around you.

Our pack out back to the truck was a prime example of this. We had smiles from ear to ear and enjoyed every second of it. Another chapter closed. Now, the only issue I had was knowing I had to wait a whole year to pursue these magnificent animals again. Until then, the “grey ghost” will haunt my dreams.

Sidebar: Coues Glass

The first thing I think of when someone asks what gear to bring on a Coues deer hunt is good optics. I can’t stress that enough. When I was a kid, I remember carrying around a cheap binocular that made my head hurt if I looked through them too long. To lower your Advil bill and up your Coues spotting skills, get the best optics that you can afford and mount them on a tripod. Coues deer can be incredibly hard to spot, and when you do, you are going to want to be able to lock your tripod and glass in place. Simply free-handing a bino can be frustrating. Most hunters use a 15x56 bino for Coues deer. A solid system that has worked for me though is a pair of 10x42 binos and an 11x33 spotting scope. The combo is just enough magnification for me to confirm if I want to go after a buck or not. For hunters who want to really home in on antlers, though, the higher magnifications are going to be favorable.

Glassing with a tripod will up your game-spotting skills. For finding Coues deer, it’s a must.
Glassing with a tripod will up your game-spotting skills. For finding Coues deer, it’s a must.

Sidebar: Add a Javelina Hunt

My brother had drawn an archery tag for the unit we were hunting deer. On the fifth morning of our hunt, I spotted a herd of javelina. Quickly, my brother was able to sneak into 40 yards, making a perfect shot on a javelina. If you play your cards right, you could be walking out into the desert with two tags rather than just one. Archery javelina seasons coincide with the deer hunt during the month of January. If drawn, not only can you be glassing for mule deer and Coues deer, but also for these fun little critters as well.

Javelina are the perfect adversary for honing your stalking skills in preparation for that big buck you’re going to chase around later. Their eyesight is poor, so as long as you have the wind in your favor, you should be able to get in pretty close. These things can be called in as well by either “woofing” at them, or using a javelina or predator call. I’ve almost been run over a time or two doing this!

On top of that, they are pretty good eating, too, despite what you might have heard. I made tacos out of my brother’s javelina that were downright delicious.

The author's brother arrowed a javelina during the pair's Coues adventure.
The author's brother arrowed a javelina during the pair's Coues adventure.
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