January is a “C” month — “C” for Convention. Some conventions, like our SCI gathering in 2018, crowd into February, but, typically, in January I attend the SHOT Show; pretty much mandatory in my business. Whether in January or February, for sure I’ll attend our big convention, and then I have choices among at least a half-dozen other hunters’ gatherings. Doesn’t matter how hard you try or how much you’d like to, nobody can do them all!
In the first weeks of the year, I usually attend three, sometimes four conventions…enough that I refer to this time of year as “convention season.” Fortunately, this isn’t primary hunting season in a whole lot of places. January is a great month for winter hunts for cougar or wolf, and a perfect time in northernmost Africa. This is the coolest and driest time in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic and Chad. Over the years I’ve worked these hunts around the convention season.
I’ve also slipped in a few January whitetail hunts in the Deep South and Texas. Our southernmost whitetails tend to rut late, and January can be a good time. However, there’s another first-of-year “C”— the Coues whitetail of the Southwest. January isn’t just the edge of their mating season, it’s the peak of the Coues rut. It’s not the only time when you can hunt them, but the time when these gray ghosts are the most visible, and unknown bucks suddenly appear.
For some 30 years, 1970s to early 2000s, hunting the Coues whitetail was one of my principal passions and I went almost every year whether to Arizona or northern Mexico. Time flies, life gets busy and you can’t do it all no more than anyone can attend all the hunting conventions. Last year I realized that a full decade had passed since I’d hunted Coues deer! That’s just too long so, in early January, I went with a Mossberg group to Rancho Mababi in northern Sonora, hunting with Ted Jaycox’s Tall Tine Outfitters.
I’d almost forgotten why I love these little deer. Hunting them is hard work with lots of hiking on steep ridges of crumbling granite. And while vegetation is sparse in the desert mountains, most of the plants have serious thorns. I know of no other hunting, including sheep and goats, that requires such intensive, painstaking glassing. Coues deer are really hard to spot, and the primary possibility is to find a good vantage point, get comfortable and dismantle the next ridge bush by bush…and then do it again, and again.
The deer are there. In fact, in this particular place there were more Coues deer than any place I’ve ever been. Few sightings come easy; it takes practice to learn where to look, and the colors and shapes you’re looking for. After 10 years, it took me some practice to get my Coues deer eyes back in shape. But once you realize how difficult they are to see, then every deer spotted becomes a victory. We had a lot of victories on this hunt, seeing 30-odd deer and a dozen or more bucks daily. Not collectively for our party of four, but each team of hunter and guide. That’s a lot of Coues deer!
The Coues whitetail is a beautiful little deer, strikingly iron-gray with a luxurious plume of a tail, and perfectly adapted to its desert habitat. But it isn’t just the deer. Their crumbling Southwestern mountains aren’t especially high with a mixture of oak ridges, grassy saddles and plenty of cacti of all types. Coues deer love elevations between about 4,000 and 6,000 feet, and their country is rugged and beautiful, perhaps especially so in January when there’s been a bit of rain. If you get bored glassing for deer—and you will—there’s plenty of other wildlife. You’ll glass the dark peppercorns of javelina here and there, maybe a troop of coatimundi and, as you’re walking, a covey of Mearns quail will flush under your feet and give you heart failure.
Arizona is where I started my Coues deer hunting and it’s awesome, but I love the camaraderie, the food, the ambience and the feel of hunting them from remote estancias in northern Mexico, both Chihuahua and Sonora, where the stars are bright and a mesquite fire is warm and fragrant. With so many deer moving, it seemed just a matter of time before a good one would come along. This was unusual in my experience. Although Arizona has produced many of the largest Coues whitetails, there is less hunting pressure on private ranches in Mexico and I’m convinced deer densities are higher and the average antler size is greater.
So, hunting Coues deer is a very successful hunt, and this was an unusually successful Coues deer hunt. But a great hunt doesn’t come from success alone. The Coues deer hunt is wonderful because of the country, the people, the old ranch houses you stay in and so much more. It was just the second day when I saw a buck simply too good to pass and we did business. That was fine; I had time to enjoy the country and help with the glassing with no pressure, wondering, of course, if I’d shot too soon and how I’d feel if I saw a monster. No worries, I did not. My buck was solid, neither the largest nor smallest among our party, still a buck too good to pass.
There are much bigger ones down there. I can promise you it won’t be 10 years before I hunt them again so maybe, at one of the January conventions, you’ll come by my booth and find a small hand-lettered sign that reads: “Coues deer season. Gone to Mexico.” Probably not…deer seasons are pretty long down there.–Craig Boddington