Most Americans traveling south of the border to hunt Coues deer do so in the state of Sonora. However, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Madre, in Chihuahua, you’ll find an untapped area loaded with quality bucks.
Just after dawn my friend and guide Jose Sujo led us on a long, slow climb up a steep ridge covered with loose rock that, if one was not vigilant, would roll under a carelessly placed boot which, in turn, would threaten to dump you onto your posterior in the middle of many other sharp volcanic rocks and one of the many species of thorn-infested cactus here on the eastern slope of Sierra Madres. Thus our measured pace.
Once on top, we began glassing the north slopes of oak-covered hillsides and long, sloping basins filled with waist-high brush and cholla cactus in search of Odocoileus virginianus couesi, the Coues whitetail. Coues deer are one the smallest of North America’s 35 whitetail subspecies, with most large bucks field-dressing at a tick under 100 pounds. They are found in desert regions, especially hills and mountains between 4,000 and 8,000 feet elevation, usually with scrub oak and high grassy basins. Coues whitetails are found only in central and southern Arizona and the southwestern corner of New Mexico, and most all of Sonora and the western half of Chihuahua, Mexico.
In terms of antler size, the diminutive Coues deer doesn’t have much going for it. It has a typical whitetail rack, and the minimum score for entry into the SCI record book is just 85 points. The magical number for the serious Coues deer hunter is 100 points. But what the “desert elf,” as the late Jack O’Connor once called it, lacks in antler size it makes up for in big adventure and challenge. Glassing up Coues whitetails is one of the most difficult western hunting challenges I have ever undertaken. These secretive little deer are extremely shy and quick to react to hunting pressure, making trophy-class bucks doubly difficult to locate in the heavily hunted states of Arizona and New Mexico. Making this ever tougher is the fact that both state’s rifle seasons end before the rut, which usually is going strong by the second week of January.
A lack of extreme hunting pressure and a rifle hunt that extends through the bulk of the rut is why many serious Coues deer hunters have been heading south of the border to Sonora and Chihuahua for years. Another reason is that there is no tag draw, with permits issued to Mexican landowners who can sell them as they wish. Taken together, a Mexican Coues deer hunt is easy to arrange, with the chances of success on an SCI record book buck good for those who book with the right outfitter and can make the shot when the time comes.
Jose and I hunted hard all day, glassing up a ton of bucks but nothing that struck my fancy. By lunchtime I had hunted a total of a day and a half and we had looked at more than 58 bucks, an astonishing number for this deer subspecies. As an example, I know serious Coues deer hunters in Arizona who have not seen that many antlered deer over five seasons. True, all the bucks we had seen so far were young, but it was just a matter of time.
As we were glassing a huge cholla and brush-filled basin about 3 p.m., Jose hissed, “Big buck!” Below us perhaps 400 yards away was a lone, big-bodied buck nibbling fruit off the cholla. I saw it was a 10-point, but before I could set the shot up he slid around the corner, out of sight. We packed up and made a quick yet careful move through the cactus and over the rocks until we could see the remainder of the basin. There! The buck was again feeding, framed between two giant chollas, but the brush was so tall it obscured all but the top third of his body. I had time to set up my BogPod and get settled in, and a quick reading from the Nikon Riflehunter 1000 showed the distance to be 275 yards. At the shot the buck collapsed out of sight. Did I miss?
It took us 20 minutes to wiggle down through the brush and cactus to where we had last seen the deer, and another 15 minutes to find him in the tall brush. A beautiful 10-point with 17-inch main beams, he later taped out at 104 SCI points — a real dandy.
Wade Derby of Crosshair Consulting had turned me on to Ernesto Beall and Ojo Caliente Outfitters in 2008 when I went for the first time and managed to take my first-ever 100-inch Coues buck after many years of hunting them hard in Arizona. Ernesto hunts two ranches of 70,000 and 50,000 acres that have been in the family since 1942 and does not lease hunting rights to anyone. Because they are all about deer quality, they have not killed more than 10 bucks off of either of their two large hunting ranches in any one year in a decade. They employ local guides who have lived and hunted in the area all their lives, making them extremely good at spotting and evaluating deer. Ernesto speaks fluent English and will help with the necessary permits and paperwork. He meets clients in El Paso, Texas, and personally escorts them across the border, eliminating the “hassle factor.” Camps are incredibly comfortable heated ranch bunkhouses with beds, a separate toilet/hot shower room, and trucks that don’t break down. The food is excellent and there’s lots of it, and the camp staff are hard working and friendly.
All hunts are fair chase and conducted with a 1×1 hunter/guide ratio. All hunting is conducted the old-fashioned way — traversing the mountains and canyons on foot. It is what one of my friends called the “anti-high rack” alternative to much of the deer hunting so common in other areas of Mexico. For the past several seasons, the success rate is holding right at 98 percent with most bucks taken scoring 90 or better SCI; every year a few fortunate hunters take bucks scoring much higher. The 2011-12 Chihuahua Coues deer season ran December 1-January 25, with the rut generally occurring in the month of January.
Temperatures during the hunting season can range from between 20- and 70-something degrees Fahrenheit, with a slight chance of snow. The elevation of the camp northwest of Casas Grandes where we hunted is 6,000 feet above sea level. All hunts are six days long, excluding travel. The easy way to make the trip is to fly or drive to El Paso the day prior to your pick-up and overnight at one of the airport hotels. Ernesto and his staff then provide transportation to the hunting area. It’s a slick system that works well.
I had four days left and continued hunting. During the next few days Jose and I checked out several hidey-holes in search of a really good buck, and though we saw dozens more antlered deer, we had no luck in that regard — until the last morning. I was hunting the first week of January, but for some reason we were seeing little hard rut activity though in year’s past this is a prime week. The big guys were in lockdown, saving their energy for the rigors of a rut that was just days away.
That last morning, we hiked to a canyon where I had seen a true giant on my previous trip, but was not able to connect. The north-facing slope was covered with both oaks and snow left over from a freak late December storm, making it an ideal bedding spot.
We were not there 30 minutes and had already glassed up seven bucks when we saw him. The buck has a 10-point frame with a couple small cheaters, and he was only 150 yards below us. As I went prone he began rubbing his antlers on an oak, its branches screening his body. After a few minutes he emerged but was facing us, so I waited for him to give me a broadside shot. When the angle was right I squeezed the trigger; he never knew what hit him.
Later we figured this buck was 6 1/2 years old. He was 13 scorable points and, even with an inside spread of just 10 1/2 inches, scored right at 105 SCI points.
That last evening, Ernesto, Jose and I sat around a crackling oak campfire, sipping an adult beverage and enjoying the camaraderie. Though daytime temperatures had risen to the low 60s, once the sun goes behind the mountain it drops quickly with lows at or near freezing, so we were bundled up. After the others all went to bed I stayed up for a bit, looking at the stars that dominated the black sky, the Big Dipper to the north and Orion to the south. The only sound was that of the crackling fire. And I reflected.
Two 100-plus Coues deer bucks in six days? A chance to look over nearly 75 different bucks before the rut had yet to kick in? The opportunity to hike and glass the same way I grew up hunting, exploring mountains that receive very little hunting pressure and are filled with the history of the Apache and Geronimo? This is truly a Coues deer hunter’s dream come true.
Jack O’Connor’s writings stirred something inside me when I was a tow-headed boy growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s. In one of his earliest stories for Outdoor Life, “What, No Whitetails?” Jack wrote about his grand love affair with the Coues deer. “If I had to pick the American big game animal that has given me more real pleasure than any other, I think I’d choose the Arizona (Coues) whitetail,” he wrote. “I like the big mule deer, the majestic elk, the great, brown mountain sheep, the gaudy antelope; but for real, deep-seated thrills, little Odocoileus couesi is my favorite. The flash of his big, white fan, the sight of his small, compact antlers, his sleek, gray body scurrying through the brush — well, they give me, more than any other animal, those moments of high ecstasy which make a man a sportsman.”
As with O’Connor, the Coues whitetail got under my skin at an early age. And here, in the Sierra Madre of Chihuahua, I can hunt them as it was back then. Perhaps this is why, like a sailor who is drawn to the sea, I keep coming back to hunt O’Connor’s desert elf.– Bob Robb