It was the fifth evening of the hunt, and though it had been both excellent and action-packed, I had yet to take the safety off. Once again, as I have been doing off-and-on for more than two decades, I was in Sonora, Mexico, in search of a big Coues whitetail.
Why, after all these years, I still get as excited about Coues deer hunting as anything else I have done around the world, still somewhat surprises me. After all, Odocoileus virginianus couesi is one of the smallest of North America’s 35 whitetail subspecies, with most large bucks field-dressing at a tick less than 100 pounds–about the same as the hind leg of the big bull elk I packed off a mountain a few months earlier. Unless you are a Coues deer nut, their typical whitetail rack won’t send your heart into grab-the-nitro palpitations; heck, the minimum score for bronze entry into the SCI record book is just 98 points (the silver medal minimum is 115 2/8 points, with minimum gold medal bucks topping 126 points).
But what the “desert elf,” as the late Jack O’Connor once called it, lacks in antler size it makes up in off-the-charts challenge. Most SCI members have to travel to hunt them, as they are found only in central and southern Arizona and the southwestern corner of New Mexico, as well as most all of Sonora, the western half of Chihuahua, and the entire state of Durango, Mexico. And while taking an average, everyday Coues buck isn’t that difficult if you are just trying to check one off the list–you hire an outfitter who knows his stuff and shoot the first decent buck you see at medium – to long range, or hunt them out of a high rack truck in Mexico — seriously getting after top-end bucks takes it to another level. Glassing-up big 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 states’ rifle seasons end before the rut, which usually isn’t going strong until the second week of January.
Ah, but then there is Old Mexico. A lack of extreme hunting pressure and the ability to hunt them with either rifle or bow during late December and the entire month of January, when the rut is rocking, is why many serious Coues deer hunters have been heading south of the border to Sonora, Chihuahua and, to a much lesser extent, Durango, for years. Another reason is that there is no tag draw, with permits issued to Mexican landowners who sell them as they wish. Many people also hunt Coues deer in conjunction with mule deer in Sonora, and take their bucks almost as an afterthought. Add that all together and you see why a Mexican Coues deer hunt is so attractive.
As Alejandro and I sat overlooking a small water hole this beautiful day, I had lots of time to reflect. To this point, the hunt had been so far off-the-charts incredible it was difficult for me to believe I had seen what I had seen. I have seriously hunted Coues deer in Arizona for a long time, and can tell you that in a week’s hunt looking at 30 deer is pretty special most years. In other places in Mexico I have seen twice that number. But here? It was January 2, 2013, and up to now I had counted 225 Coues deer, 25 mule deer, 12 coyotes and two mountain lions. Seeing 225 Coues deer in a week is like asking the homecoming queen to the prom and having her agree. Many of those deer had been bucks ranging in age from yearlings to 3 ½-year-olds, with those on the top end scoring an estimated 90 to100 SCI. I’d seen at least one of those daily.
On this day alone the sun was shining and the deer were thirsty. Between 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., we had an amazing 70 Coues deer and six muleys come to drink at this small tank. It then slowed way down, but as the sun set, I whispered to Alejandro, “Be ready, this is when he comes out!”
I was right. A full 30 minutes before dark he came alone, a giant of a Coues deer. I saw him through the trees and my first thought was, “130 … at least.” The buck I have been looking for all my life. It was pin-drop quiet, so I am not sure who made the noise. Maybe it was me shifting the rifle ever so slightly on the BogPod. Perhaps it was Alejandro skootching in his chair. But that old buck heard something. The deer was only 50 yards away, and with big Coues deer, that’s all it takes. Something. He was out of there so fast we never knew what hit us.
Just like that, my gimme turned into a goner.
Alejandro chose to do what we had done the past week — reach a good glassing spot before daylight, glass hard for an hour or so, and then, if nothing promising appeared, head to the water. We would hunt the very large catch basin we had hunted the first few days and where we had seen more than 100 deer so far — and one puma that escaped by the hair of his chinny-chin chin. In years past, Alejandro has helped clients take several book bucks from this spot, so we got settled in about 8 a.m. It didn’t take long.
At 9 a.m., after seeing a handful of deer, I could make out the shape of a dark-bodied deer slipping through the brush. When he emerged to come to drink, Alejandro whispered, “He’s nice, I bet he goes 110 at least!” And so, last morning, a for sure book buck at 100 yards, what do you do? Roll the dice the rest of the day in the hope that a giant would appear, or cash in your chips?
I turned on the tripod-mounted video camera, got him centered in the view finder, placed the .257 Weatherby on the sticks, and shot him.
He was exactly as Alejandro had called it, a heavy antlered 8-pointer with long eye guards that we taped — twice — and got 114 SCI points. He’s the best Coues buck I have ever taken, and I could not have been happier.–Bob Robb