Deer hunting, whether it be in the States, Canada, Mexico or wherever is always special! Opening day of whitetail season is what almost every hunter from the Central, Eastern and Southern United States grew up waiting for every year. Heck, some places even closed schools on opening day because so many students would be out hunting. Some still do! As youngsters grew into manhood, thoughts of another kind of deer hunting not available in their regions of the country became the object of legend around deer camps—mule deer hunting. You’d read about it in magazine articles and you’d seen it on TV hunting shows. From Canada to Mexico, across the US mountains and plains, you can find the majestic mule deer—bigger in body than the venerable whitetail and with a bigger and different horn size and configuration. Mule deer became the next step up for us whitetail hunters. First, it was just venturing out West, but then Mexico loomed on the horizon with its special species of mule deer with those great horns! So whether you just love chasing deer or you’re looking to take all the different species for the SCI record book, when you venture beyond the US borders, Mexico is waiting with some spectacular mule deer.
One such place is a new operation just outside Ciudad Obregon in the Mexican province of Sonora—located on a large 25,000+ acre ranch, Rancho Candidato. The hunting operation is known as Sonora Hunt and is the dream brought to reality by past Governor of Sonora, Eduardo Bours. Started just five years ago with a small mule deer population, the introduction of excellent genetics and careful restricted hunting, Sonora Hunts now harvests bucks scoring in the 180 to 220 range.
I met the Governor and his hunt manager, Oscar Gastelum, while hunting Gould turkeys with Oscar’s friend Erwin Ronquillo. Just to do something interesting, we toured the ranch and got a first-hand glimpse at the possibilities there. Clearly with the genetics being introduced, there were going to be some fantastic mule deer in a few years. I stayed in touch with Oscar over the years and finally worked out a mule deer hunt for January.
Once in Obregon, you are met either by Oscar or Martin Franco—the Game Manager and Chief Guide. The quarters are spacious, comfortable and located in the middle of the Ranch, so the minute you depart the compound you are hunting, but not before enjoying a big breakfast prepared by Chef Issac who comes especially from Hermosillo for each hunt. Hard to avoid putting on a few pounds for sure!
The next morning after a wonderful breakfast, we started the hunt. There are several ways the hunts are conducted as Sonora Hunts, from stand hunting to the more traditional high seats on the back of a truck spotting and stalking. They also use pop-up blinds for bow hunting. Rancho Candidato is so large that I chose the traditional style to cover as much ground as possible in the rolling hills and wide open spaces to the thick scrub brush. They had already harvested nine of the twelve large bucks they were planning to take this year. While I was not looking to take a monster, they knew that the bucks were scattered around the ranch. In addition, the rut was on so antlers were getting broken as time passed. With lots of driving and glassing, we saw several bucks that day, almost all over 150 for sure, but for one reason or another (symmetry to broken tines, we turned them all down. Great weather for hunting, we departed camp in the chilly morning air, striped to shirtsleeves during the middle of the day and returned to camp with our coats and gloves on. Just beautiful hunting conditions.
That evening, the Governor invited us to his beautiful ranch-house overlooking part of the Ranch for a barbeque. He is a great chef. He personally prepared the ribeyes, T-bones and skirt steak and vegetables. His salsa, prepared on the spot was just outstanding—the best I ever had actually. I am sure he held off a little bit on the jalapenos for my sake though! What a way to cap off the day.
Early the next morning we repeated the process of spotting and stalking. Late afternoon, after putting our coats back on, we had reached the far side of the ranch when the assistant guide, Tocho, pointed to some thick brush where a buck was just peering over the top. We made the decision after looking closely in the fading light to try for him, but getting a clear shot was going to be difficult. This side of the ranch is covered in thick brush as far as you could see. Martin said that this particular buck was unknown to him as he had not seen it before, which may have accounted for the fact that he was not particularly spooked. It seemed more curious than anything, and I am sure pretty felt secure in being mostly hidden by the brush. We maneuvered our way to within about 150 yards. We could still see his head and a reasonably sized view of his chest–at least enough to take a steady shot. The shot hit him in the center of the top of his chest and he dropped instantly. What a way to end the day, a beautiful older buck. Congrats all around and lots of photos. My first Sonoran mule deer!
Later that evening after another of Isaac’s five star meals and a lot of reliving of the hunt, Oscar and Martin announced that they had spoken to the Governor and we were going to hunt for a Coues deer. This was going to be a fun hunt to take advantage of the time I had left on the ranch. Hunting Coues on this ranch had all the makings of a really difficult hunt—all the conditions I previously mentioned plus a couple of others. It had rained a lot this year, so the grass was tall and the brush was thicker than usual. That was no big deal when it came to the tall, large, high antlered mule deer, but Coues are diminutive, secretive little deer. They’re beautiful, but now with the vegetation nearly impossible to see when they are standing still. The back of the truck is greats for glassing mule deer, but you really have to find high ground to glass for Coues. Regardless, we were determined to give it a go.
We hunted the next morning and afternoon, seeing only a doe in the morning and late in the day a Coues buck on a hill so far away it was hard to just make him out. But we did stumble across a huge mule deer that floored us all. They do grow very big down there.
I tried to pick up the Coues in the scope just to get a better look, but it was so dim by then I just could not pick him up. He obviously got bored and sauntered off into the brush. It would have been a very long shot in any case and, in that light, not one I could or would have tried.
That evening we enjoyed quesadillas, fajitas and mule deer back-strap around the fire pit along with some great red wine! As we relived the day’s activities, Martin started explaining that we were going to hunt another area of the ranch the next morning with more hills but with fairly open valleys in-between. The grass would still be high and the brush there was thick. Martin explained that while there weren’t large numbers of Coues on the ranch, sometimes they would move around in the valleys at first light, especially when they were in the rut like now. So the decision was made, at first light we would start driving the area, glassing from the high seats hoping to catch sight of a buck before he headed back into the thick brush-covered hillsides to lay up for the day.
Upon arriving in the area, Martin and I climbed up into the high seats and starting glassing as the truck moved along slowly. It wasn’t but minutes later when Martin spotted a doe lingering in the high grass. We instantly started glassing and searching for a buck as everyone thought there had to be one around, but nope, nothing. We drove along for only about another quarter mile when Tocho excitedly pointed out a buck only some 200 yards away. He was in some thick brush and only someone who had been hunting these elusive little deer for years would have been able to make him out. The buck jumped up immediately when the truck stopped and bolted diagonally and away from us, making haste to disappear into the those hillsides I described. Martin insisted that I shoot or he would be gone. Well, I did, twice actually! And I missed twice. Trying to hit a fast moving target through tall grass and sporadic brush is definitely optimal shooting and not something I normally do.
Martin had told me the evening before that a standing shot on a Coues on that ranch would be highly unlikely, so I needed to be ready to shoot or just take my camera. I got that message. So I tried a third shot and it was a misfire. Somehow I reloaded another round and the buck was standing—yes standing—Lady Luck, go figure, at the base of a far hill looking back at us for a couple of seconds. Mule deer do that sort of thing, but whitetail or Coues? This one did. He was a small spot in the center of the scope and I raised the crosshairs a good foot over his back. I was thinking this is crazy and Martin was shouting “Shoot, shoot” when I pulled the trigger. After a long second, we heard the thump of a hit. Well, needless to say we were all excited.
Tocho was very calm and told us that the buck had bolted into the brush on the hillside. Rather than take a chance that we had a wounded animal, Tocho walked the rangefinder distance of just over 400 yards to the spot. Martin was sure that he had seen the buck hunch up just before hearing the impact of the shot. Tocho signaled back that he found blood. Martin wanting to be sure the buck had not just run over the hill, drove around the hill which took a while as there were only a few rough roads in the area. We did not see anything except for a young buck that split quickly through the high grass and cactus on the far side, but it was clearly not wounded. By the time we broke trail to within 100 yards of Tocho, he was signaling that he had found the buck. It had piled up not 30 yards up and around in a semi-circle in the thick brush—heart and lung shot.
Hunting the Coues was intended to be a fun hunt with no expectation of taking a trophy, much less a great trophy, so our excitement had been about taking a buck at a distance. That excitement doubled when we saw the buck up close—a really special Coues with mass and character that no one on the ranch had seen before–a real recluse—a beautiful Coues to end a beautiful hunt. And just as we had enjoyed mulie back-strap the night before, this night it would be Coues back-strap. I am certain I will hear Martin saying “Shoot, shoot” for many years to come!–John McLaurin