Bowhunting The Gray Ghost

In my hunting world, the biggest is not necessarily the best. A prime example is the way that hunting Coues deer with both rifle and, especially, archery equipment, has been a bit of a burr under my saddle since the mid-1980’s when I took a buck with a rifle not 10 miles from where I currently live just north of Tucson, AZ. Taking a good Coues buck with a bow is one of North America’s toughest challenges.

Coues Deer: What Are They, Anyway?

Early-season hunters will find the bucks still in velvet with the antlers not fully grown, something to consider when choosing what time of year you wish to hunt.

Coues deer (Odocoileus virginianus couesi) were named after Dr. Elliott Coues (some pronounce it “cows,” some “coos”), an army quartermaster stationed at Ft. Whipple, Arizona Territory, in 1865-66. In his free time Coues spent as much time studying the region’s flora and fauna, and the little desert whitetail is his legacy. The animals are a slate-gray, almost dainty-looking deer with the most limited range of any huntable American deer subspecies. Arizona’s Mogollon Rim forms their northern range boundary, while the Colorado River forms the western boundary. The boundaries stretch eastward across Arizona into the southwestern region of New Mexico. To the south they range well into old Mexico, with both Sonora and Chihuahua holding good numbers and the deer reaching as far south as the state of Sinaloa.

They like mountain and foothill country, usually between 3,000 and 8,000 feet, preferring arid and semi-arid scrub oak and mesquite terrain filled with grassy bowls, jumbled rocks and a plethora of thorny plants and cactus. No hard population estimates exist, but most experts seem to agree there are maybe 50,000 Coues deer in the world. The average buck will stand about 30-32 inches high at the shoulder, with bucks weighing in at about 100 lbs. and mature does about 75 lbs. An extremely large buck might weigh 140 lbs.

How Do You Get Close?

Ground blinds have become an important tool for Coues whitetail archers, who often wait either at a mineral lick or over a waterhole. I like to brush my blinds in before hunting.

There are two basic ways to successfully bowhunt Coues deer, and within those two basic methods exist many subtleties. The first is the old spot and stalk method so popular with mountain and open-country hunters. Here you simply access a good area, find a vantage point, get comfortable and start glassing. If nothing appears to your liking, you move to another location and repeat. When you find the buck you want, you move in close enough for a shot.

Pretty basic stuff, if you’re rifle hunting. Once located, getting into rifle range is challenging, but not overly so, as long as the deer have not been spotted across a deep, wide canyon or in the middle of thick brush or small mountain oaks, which is common. Getting into bow range is a whole ’nother ball of wax.

By their very nature, Coues deer are afraid of their own shadow. A slight change of wind, a minor movement, the softest unnatural sound will send them out of your life in an instant. It takes great skill and even greater patience — and no shortage of luck — to stalk within bow range of a Coues deer buck. Expect failure often.

Understanding this, in recent years many bowhunters have taken to setting ambushes. This they do over waterholes or at mineral licks, both effective tactics during the summer early-season in Arizona as well as the late fall and early winter seasons that occur on both sides of the border. At most ambush sites hunters wait in a ground blind, though at times tree stands are used. This has become a popular and effective method employed by many outfitters as well as do-it-yourselfers.

When searching for buck movement, best results are had on the cusp of daylight.

One consideration for some is the fact that the summer hunts occur in August, when the bucks are still in velvet and antler growth is far from over. So if hunting a deer that’s reached its maximum antler size is important to you, stick to the later seasons.

Calling Coues Deer

During the rut, which occurs from mid-December-late January, some enterprising Coues deer bowhunters employ a combination of glassing and calling. Here they get behind their binocular — often a tripod-mounted 15X glass — and locate a buck chasing does. They then try and get closer and call, using grunt tubes, fawn bleat calls and at times antler rattling, trying to draw the buck closer. When conditions are right Coues deer respond aggressively to calling. When I do it I bring along a spray bottle filled with doe estrous scent, and like to spritz it during the process just in case the wind shifts unexpectedly or a crazy buck circles downwind.

Bows, Arrows, Broadheads

When hunting from a ground blind make sure you use a bow that is smooth and quiet to draw. Robb turns his draw weight down 5 lbs. from the peak weight he uses when spot and stalk hunting.

I choose my bow-and-arrow set-up depending on how I am hunting. When spot and stalk hunting, knowing that sometimes shots tend to be on the cusp of my MESR (Maximum Effective Shooting Range) I want a fast, flat-shooting set-up that groups my broadheads tightly even at extended distances. My current open-country rig has a draw weight of 70 lbs. and sends a 410-grain arrow off at about 290 fps.

For blind or tree stand hunting — where shots will rarely be more than 30 yards and often much less –I want something I can draw smoothly and easily, and is ultra-quiet. My blind bow is set at 65 lbs. and sends the same 410-grain arrow off at about 270 fps.

Coues deer bowhunters are well-served using micro-diameter arrow shafts with low-profile, stiff fletching that buck the wind better than fatter arrows. There are lots of good choices out there, including the Victory Archery VAP, Easton FMJ, Gold Tip Pierce and Carbon Express PileDriver Pass Thru Extreme. I also prefer expandable broadheads, and again there are lots of good ones, including the Rage Hypodermic, NAP Kill Zone, Dead Ringer Switch Back, Grim Reaper Carni-Four, Innerloc Shape Shifter, Wasp Dueler, Swhacker, Trophy Ridge Meat Seeker and G5 Outdoors T3, among others.

Ancillary Gear

A laser rangefinder is a “must have” piece of gear for bowhunting Coues whitetails.

A quality laser rangefinder is a must. Also critical is a quality binocular. Tripod-mounted 15X glass is the cat’s meow for spot and stalk hunters, though many folks hunt effectively with a 10X binos. A spotting scope is also often very useful. For spot and stalk hunters, be sure to layer clothing and to don outerwear that is soft as possible yet will not pick up every sticker and thorn in this harsh environment.

Blind sitters also need layers and quiet outerwear, as well as a good binocular and rangefinder. To help pass the time I bring a book to read and a power pack that lets me recharge my phone, along with drinks and snacks. I also follow the same scent-control system I follow when bowhunting whitetails throughout their range. Also important is a comfortable chair that makes sitting still for long periods of time possible but also does not squeak, groan or crackle with every movement you make.

The key is to get settled into the blind and be as quiet as possible, especially on calm days. And I often sit all day, even in summer. It is not unusual for Coues deer to move about a little bit during midday hours, especially under thick canopies of trees and other cool, shady cover. They’ll come to get a nibble or a drink of water, or just to stretch their legs a bit.

Outfitted Or DIY?

Arizona and New Mexico both offer great public land opportunities for DIY hunting, the caveat being that you have to be willing to put in the time to locate a good area and have the equipment to access said area.

Bowhunters can find good success sitting a ground blind or tree stand over water.

There is no shortage of outfitters offering Coues deer hunting on both sides of the border. However, bowhunters need to make sure they only book with an outfitter who has a solid track record of bowhunting success, and, preferably, employs at least one or two guides who bowhunt themselves. There’s nothing worse than being hunted by a guide who treats you like a rifle hunter when you have a stick and string in hand.

Here’s an example. On a trip to Sonora one year the outfitter told me he had a waterhole that was perfect for bowhunting, and that we could make a blind and all would be well. And it was a great spot — except that the blind was set up 75 yards from the leading edge of the water, and the deer came across the pond another 25 yards away. Great rifle spot, but archery? Not so much.

Why I Love It So

“If someone should conduct a beauty contest among the game animals of the Southwest, I have no doubt the Arizona whitetail would win hands down. A big buck mule deer, with its massive antlers and blocky build is a magnificent sight. Likewise a great desert ram or lordly bull elk. But the Arizona whitetail is an exquisitely lovely thing.” So said Jack O’Connor talking about one his all-time favorite big game animals.

I, too, have fallen in love with Coues deer, and the challenge of hunting them. Adding the element of archery to it just makes it all the more difficult — and all the more rewarding once success has been achieved.–Bob Robb

Article originally appeared in March/April 2017 Safari Magazine

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