Editor’s note: Every Friday we take a walk down memory lane with a story from the Safari Magazine Archives. This week, we travel to Sonora, Mexico on a challenging hunt for coues deer. This story was originally published in the January/February 2005 issue. Enjoy!
It was the last day of Mike Beck’s hunt on El Oso ranch in a remote part of Sonora, Mexico. In the past few days, Mike and his guide Pancho, had seen several “decent” bucks, but the muy grandes had proved to be elusive. Mike had been fortunate enough to take a trophy Coues buck on each of the five previous hunts he and his hunting buddy Joe Skinner had booked with me, and his scoring streak was on the line.
Here, as in most of the range of this small subspecies of whitetailed deer, any buck that would score at least 90 inches by the SCI scoring method is considered a fine trophy. This is also the minimum score to qualify for the SCI Record Book of Trophy Animals. Mike was hoping to find a muy grande – a buck that would surpass the very respectable 104 inch trophy he had taken on an earlier hunt.
As the pre-dawn gray turned to full daylight, Mike and Pancho sat on a high vantage point on a mountainside, glassing a steep ridgeline that swooped down to a narrow draw and back up again to an equally steep opposite slope. The terrain was coverd by dense juniper, oak and mesquite punctuated with open grassy pockets. This rugged, vertical country is ill-suited to conventional tactics for hunting whitetailed deer. In fact, Coues deer hunting more closely resembles mule deer hunting, though experienced hunters rate the Coues deer as much more challenging quarry.
Because of the terrain and their excellent eyesight, trophy size Coues bucks are notorious for being able to spot any intrusion into their “comfort zone” which usually encompasses a radius of 300 yards or more. As a result, spot-and-stalk tactics are called for using a high powered binocular mounted on a tripod – along with a seat cushion sot the hunter can sit and glass a distant hillside for protracted periods in relative comfort with minimal eye fatigue. All of my guides are equipped with good optics ranging up to 15 power of magnification. Mike was also well-equipped with a superb Swarovski 15×56 binocular.
Once a likely trophy has been spotted, the hunter must plan a careful stalk, preferably a route that takes him out of the buck’s sight for most or all of his approach. The hunter must also take into account the often-strong winds whose swirls and eddies can carry a whiff of his scent to the buck’s sensitive nostrils. As a result, it is usually not wise to attempt an intrusion too far into the buck’s comfort zone, which means the hunter must be prepared for a fairly long shot into a vital zone that measures a scant eight inches or so.
Mike was well equipped in this department too. He was using a custom Model 70 Winchester I had built for him and chambered for .25-06. Besides my outfitting business, I am also a custom riflemaker, and I take pride in building accuracy into the rifles that come from my shop. Mike’s was no exception, being capable of groups approaching ½ MOA from a bench rest.
Once the hunter reaches the spot where he judges he can deliver a killing shot, the frustrating fact is that more often than not, his quarry has ling since melted into dense brush, never to be seen again.
As they peered intently into each shadow, nook and cranny on the distant hillside, Pancho spotted big buck walking toward a ridge crest more than 1,000 yards away. Once the buck crested the ridge and dropped out of sight, Mike and Pancho hastily gathered their gear and hustled around the mountain to intercept him.
After a long trek, they reached the spot where the buck had disappeared and saw a brush-choked draw, flanked by a ridge on the right and another on the left. The buck was nowhere to be seen. I appeared he had bedded somewhere in the patch of juniper, oak and mesquite, so Pancho took the left ridgeline and Mike took the right, walking a few steps, then stopping to scan down into the brush with their binoculars, then repeating the process.
As they reached the lower end of the draw, no buck had emerged. The muy grande had eluded them.
As the early morning wore on toward mid-day, my head guide John Mullins joined Mike and Pancho, and it was time to set up for glassing again. It appeared that the bucks were beginning to move about as John quickly spotted a MUY grande.
This buck looked huge, and John estimated it would score more than 110 inches SCI. It was definitely the best buck they’d seen so far. Slipping out of sight, the three sneaked carefully down and toward the chosen shooting position. Peering past a small bush that concealed his outline, Mike saw that he could get no closer.
John put his Bushnell Yardage Pro Legend laser rangefinder to his eye. “330 yards,” he announced.
Mike nodded, slid the buttstock of his M70 into place, looked through his scope at the big buck, which was slightly downhill from him, standing under a scrub oak. Judging the stiff wind, Mike allowed for the drift and slowly increased the pressure on the trigger. The .25-06 recoiled, and Mikesaw the deer bolt out of sight at the sound of the shot.
John lowered his binocular. “Did you hit him?” he queried.
“Of course,” Mike replied, convinced he’d heard the whomp of the bullet striking flesh.
Reaching the spot where the buck had stood, they searched for signs of a hit, but there was no blood or clipped hair to be seen. Follow the buck’s escape route the found no evidence of a hit, and they reluctantly concluded that Mike had missed the buck cleanly.
Now, only four hours of shooting light remained, and Mike’s chances of taking home a sixth trophy Coues deer were growing slimmer by the minute.
Moving further up the mountain, Mike and his two guides found a very deep canyon. Putting the sun at their backs, the three set up on the western side to glass the opposite slope, which was well-lit by the sun shining over their shoulders. This would have to be the last try for a trophy Coues deer for this year.
Once again, John quickly located a very good buck.
Motioning to Mike, he indicated he should look through the binocular. Mike peered through the eyepiece, careful not to jiggle the tripod and knock it off target. It was a good buck, he saw, but it had a broken tine. As he watched, the buck began nuzzling a doe.
“What do you think?” John said. “Do you want to try for him?”
Mike looked into the deep canyon. It was well into the afternoon, and there would not be enough daylight left to go around it. They would have to descend to the bottom and climb the other side to get into position for the shot. The distance was substantial to say the least. “Let’s go,” he replied. “It’s getting late.”
They started their descent, moving carefully to avoid a possible fall. Finally reaching the bottom, Mike gazed up at the steep slope before them. Glancing at John, he reslung his rifle.
“Now the fun begins,” he muttered and started up the slope behind him.
After an arduous climb that left his lungs heaving with exertion, they found themselves only about 100 yards from the buck, which was still nuzzling the doe. Dropping down into tall grass, they were screened from the buck’s keen eyesight.
That’s the good news. The bad news was that to make the shot, Mike would have to rise up to a wobbly position on both knees to clear the tall grass. Mike watched the buck through the grass while he waited for his pounding heart and rasping lungs to return to normal. Then, rising quickly to his knees, he found the buck in his scope and fired.
This time, a loud whomp clearly signaled a solid hit. The buck bolted into nearby brush, following the panicked doe. Moments later, the doe emerged from the other side followed by the buck.
“You have him?” John asked, excitement in his voice. “Yes,” Mike replied. His rifle fired once again, and the buck went down for good.
Mike approached the downed buck and grasped his antlers. Later, they would score 99-4/8 inches. Even with the broken tine, Mike’s buck qualifies for the SCI Record Book. A smile crossed his face as he realized his Coues deer streak was still intact – now six fine trophy bucks in six years.
The rest of the hunters also bagged bucks that qualify for the SCI Record Book. Mike’s friend Joe Skinner killed a nice trophy eight-pointer that scored 99-2/8 SCI. Famed Tucson riflemaker David Miller and his partner, Curt Crum were hunting nearby. David, who has 34 Coues bucks in the SCI Record Book, took a nine-point buck that measures 103-3/8 inches SCI, and Curt took a fine 106-2/8 eight-pointer. Jim Rex and Jim Loefler took even bigger trophies that measured 119-2/8 and 110-2/8 respectively.
Six for six SCI Record Book-class heads is a remarkable feat when you’re hunting the elusive Coues deer. It says volumes about the hunters, their guides and the kind of headgear grown by the “Little Giants of Sonora.”