Bowhunting for the Desert Grey Ghost

Sponsored by: Alpine Archery – True Bowhunting Performance

By: Tink Jackson

Chuck Adams once said “the Coues Whitetail is the hardest North American big game animal to take with a bow”. For those who have never hunted the elusive “Grey Ghost”, this probably sounds like a bold claim when they consider hunting the likes of Kodiak and grizzly bears with stick and string. For those of us that have chased these mighty midgets with our stick flingers, we know that it is really a huge understatement.

The Coues Whitetail (pronounced “cows”) is the smallest of the 35 sub-species of whitetail deer. A dominant buck may reach a weight of 125 pounds while standing no more than 32 inches tall at his shoulders. They are named after U.S. Army surgeon Dr. Elliot Coues who studied them in the mid to late 1800’s. They rut in mid January, and give birth to twins in August. Their range is quite extensive varying from desert hills as low as 2,500 feet to mountain ranges as high as 10,000 feet. The greatest densities however are found between 3500 and 5500 feet, in the nastiest and ugliest habitat you can find!

The Grey Ghost.

Here in southwest New Mexico we have a few areas with “pockets” of Coues that can be hunted with a public draw tag. I have known many people that have “chosen” to hunt the Grey Ghost because they “knew” it could not be as hard as they had heard. Most of those people never tried it again. The rest of us, well, I guess we just are not normal.

Hunting the Grey Ghost can be addicting! If you like crawling through cactus, over sharp and jagged rocks, coming face to face with rattlesnakes and every other manner of creature that will bite, sting or poke you, digging cactus spines and stickers out of parts of your body you forgot you even had, going days without a single sighting, seasons without seeing a quality buck, watching a group of four trophy bucks disappear into a pile of rocks no bigger than the bed of a pick-up and then not being able to find them when you crawl up to it because they vanished into thin air, then you might have what it takes to be a Coues hunter. Proceed with caution though, that first Coues buck will have you hooked for life.

Growing up in the New Mexico desert meant knowing about Coues deer from childhood. As a young hunter and before New Mexico split the mule deer and Coues deer tags up, a valid deer tag allowed for the harvest of either species. From the time I started deer hunting at 9 years of age, through college and the early years of my adult life, I never even had the opportunity to shoot at one during a hunt. All the more reason to commit to a Coues hunt and see if I could match this magical animal’s instinct. I really had no idea what I was setting myself up for!

A friend gave me just the chance I was looking for. I received an invitation to bow hunt for Coues on his ranch in southwest New Mexico during the January rut. I had seen numerous Coues bucks over the years on this ranch, and some of the top Coues ever harvested had been harvested there. It really was not a chance that I could pass up. When the New Mexico draw was over, I was the proud holder of a Coues tag for the unit his ranch is in. This was not a surprise considering that only 6 people applied for the 25 tags in that unit. A statistic that should have warned me as to what I was in for.

I spent three solid months shooting my Alpine Silverado getting ready for the hunt. Coues are a small target and I wanted to make sure my skills were honed in for a potentially longer shot than is typical with mule deer. The old saying “aim small, miss small” is never more appropriate than when you are hunting Coues. When December 31st rolled around, I was ready to go. All I needed to do was get that buck in my sights.

I arrived at the ranch the day before the hunt and we immediately headed out to do some last minute scouting. Throughout the fall we had placed trail cameras on water holes and trails and had set up ground blinds in areas we thought might produce a quality Coues buck. As we bounced around many miles of ranch roads checking cameras and looking at tracks on tanks, a couple of things became very evident. First, the rut had not started yet. We saw a number of Coues does in the late afternoon and not one of them had a buck around. This meant the bucks were still up in the breaks and bluffs on the mountains. Second, it was pretty dry and we would be able to use the water holes on the ranch to locate the bigger bucks as long as they were not completely nocturnal. The next day was opening day, we would soon know.

Opening morning we headed out about two hours before the sun came up. We got into the area we planned on hunting and hiked up to a ridge top to see what would be moving below us at first light. At sun up, we spotted a number of deer including a few small bucks, but none of them were what we were looking for. We decided to work down off of the ridge through a bedding area and see if we could spot a buck that might have been in the thick cover that we had not seen. Slowly and methodically we made our way off of the ridge, glassing every bush, every tree, every branch and every clump of rocks and grass. We worked our way off of the ridge at a snail’s pace glassing for a single tine, a twitch of an ear, a small white patch or the line of a back or leg. About half way down the mountain that old familiar feeling hit me and told me “look behind you”.

I turned to watch a buck that was in the 105 inch range sneaking out of a rock outcrop toward the top of the ridge. As my body turned he busted into a run and was gone in a flash. We had walked within 25 yards of that rock pile and spent nearly an hour glassing it! How in the heck did we miss him? We finally made it off of the ridge and headed to another spot for some evening glassing.

The most common sighting – say goodbye!

The evening spot was in an area where we had seen a number of good Coues bucks over the previous 4 months. It is a steep mountain with minimal cover. There is a rock stock water tank at the bottom of it and we had seen a number of bucks water at it in the evenings. After about an hour of glassing, we spotted our first buck. He came in from the east off of a small peak. Shortly after he came over the top of the ridge, three does appeared. Was he with them? Had the rut “started”? After watching him for a few minutes it became obvious he was not with them and that he was not what we were looking for on opening day. Taking my attention off of him, I turned my spotting scope to the other side of the canyon and immediately found a group of three Coues does headed off to the water. They came off of the highest peak, across a flat that was about a half a mile from where we were, and disappeared behind it and out of sight until they reappeared at the water hole.

This sighting gave me some hope for this spot. Not the fact that we had seen the deer, but the fact that I had lost sight of them for a few minutes. If I could not see them, then they could not see me. If we could catch a good buck coming off of that trail, I would have an opportunity to get up to that flat while he was down watering and could wait for him to come back across that flat for a possible shot. That was huge for this area because it was such steep and open slopes. With the deer bedded up high, any attempt to stalk into that area in the daylight would have them looking right down on me. That was not a situation I really wanted to have if we could locate a big buck on this mountain.

We continued to glass, sighting three other bucks and numerous does about 30 minutes before sunset. The winter skies started to darken and we were about ready to pack up for the day when I noticed one more deer coming off of the ridge. The light had dropped so low it was hard to see him, but I could tell that he was much bigger bodied than the does. When he started across the flat I finally got enough light on him to see his headgear, and I knew he was a shooter. He quickly disappeared out of sight and we lost the rest of our light. Day one was over, but we sure had something to look forward to on day two!

Rock Tank buck surveying the scene.

We started day two in the same spot. We watched a number of does and small bucks come into the water hole but none of the bigger bucks we had seen the night before. It was quickly obvious that they were still fairly nocturnal and we were going to need something to get the rut going to get them out in good light. We spent the middle of the day in another canyon spotting and stalking. We saw another quality buck walk right out from under us out of a group of cat-claw. This was starting to get very irritating. We had walked within 15 feet of that buck and never saw him.

As we worked this draw my admiration of these little giants began to grow. I watched a 6-point buck cross the draw and DISAPPEAR behind a rock no bigger than a German Shepard! When I say disappear, I mean disappear too. We watched him lay down, knew exactly where he was at and in 30 minutes of glassing at less than 200 yards, could not find a single piece of that deer. I watched a lizard move on that rock yet never saw a piece of the buck again. Grey “Ghost”? Yes sir, you better believe they are!

We pulled out in the mid-afternoon and headed back to our rock tank. The last 3 hours we spent glassing that ridge. We saw most of the same bucks, and once again, with almost no light left, my big buck come running down off of the mountain. We still had three days left to hunt, but three months was not going to make a difference if he didn’t change his routine. At dark we headed back to camp in the same spot we had been the day before.

We decided to change things up on day three. I pulled out the rattling horns and we headed up the east slope of the mountain. Rattling is not a mainstay here in the desert southwest. On occasion it will work for mule deer if they are in the hot part of the rut. Even though the Coues is a whitetail, they are far more cautious than their eastern cousins, and it is not near as effective on them. However, we decided to give it a try and see what would happen. We spent the better part of the morning and early afternoon rattling and grunting. We did have a number of small bucks respond to the rattles, but nothing that made either one of us draw our bow. Mid-afternoon meant time to head to the rock tank and pray for a change in patterns!

Headed out for some rattling action.

We set up and it was almost like the movie Groundhog Day! Same deer, same times, same everything all over again, including my big buck. Just as the light dimmed to gray, he came off of the mountain. Just as it got too dark to see, he hit the water hole. By this time I was getting frustrated and contemplating how I could get up on that mountain and try to intercept him. It would make no difference though as the time he started off each day was past legal shooting time. I needed some divine intervention, and I needed it soon! Day three was over. Not an arrow nocked, not a deer stalked, nothing but a lot of scratches and holes in our legs to show for the first three days. Whose idea was this Coues hunt again?

At camp that night we went through our options. I really didn’t want to try to get up on that mountain and stalk that buck from below. I knew my chances of success would be about zero. Rattling had not produced any big bucks. This was no surprise. The rut had not started yet, and the big bucks were staying out of sight. Our efforts to get up high early and spot and stalk had not been fruitful for big deer. It was obvious that the big bucks were still nocturnal and that we would need something to change for our dilemma to change. Thank the Lord change was coming, we just did not know it yet.

Day four found us headed farther south. We decided to head to some lower elevations and see if things were different there. Not to our surprise, the only difference was the number of cactus stickers were collecting in our knees. We saw a number of young bucks and a lot of does, but no big bucks. About mid-morning we stopped on a hilltop to glass and remove thorns from our legs, and we saw exactly what we needed. A storm was rolling in from the north! Within 30 minutes, a heavy mixture of rain and snow was falling and the temperature had dropped about 20 degrees. All I could do was smile as we sat there chilled to the bone. I knew the Lord had provided and things were changing right before our eyes. As the storm lightened I told my partner “we need to go”! We hustled back to the truck and headed north, back to the rock tank.

Our divine intervention – the storm.

We made it to our spot to glass about an hour earlier than we had been getting there. We already could see deer moving. An hour later provided the first sighting of one of the mature bucks we had been seeing, and he was following a group of does. That one little storm had dropped the temperature, increased the humidity, and had “flipped the switch” to get the boys chasing the girls. My instincts told me “today is the day”. I turned my spotting scope, ignored all of the other deer on the mountain and started looking for my big buck.

About 30 minutes later a group of three does came out of the rocks on the peak and started down toward the water hole on the trail he had been on each day, and then, there he was. Just a few steps behind them, he headed down off of the mountain and towards the flat I had in mind for a stalk or ambush attempt. They were moving pretty fast and I would not have much time to make a decision. I looked at my friend and said “this is it, leave our gear”. I grabbed my bow and as they crossed the flat and headed down out of sight, I was off and running.

I made it up the first slope and across the first flat quickly. The second slope was much steeper and for a couple of minutes I could not see the trail or anything above me. I made it to the top and just needed to make it across the flat and find a spot to watch the trail from. As is the case every time, the flat did not lay out just like I had pictured it looking through the spotting scope. I located the trail quickly while noticing that there were only two trees on this entire football field sized flat. One was within two feet of the trail, the other about 45 yards south of it. I quickly headed to the tree off of the trail, knelled down on the west side, nocked an arrow and as I looked up was horrified to see the first doe of the group staring right at me!

My heart skipped numerous beats as I realized she had seen me moving to nock the arrow and she knew that I was not part of the tree. I was in full camo, including face mask and gloves, but she knew something was not right. Taking every precaution not to stare right at her, I looked down at the ground in front of her and saw the dreaded motion of her lifting a front leg to stomp at me. If she started stomping or blowing, it would all be over for me. She held her leg up for just a moment but was distracted by a crashing sound behind her. She turned to see the buck coming through the brush after one of the other does.

The commotion took her attention off of me long enough to draw my bow. The buck was still coming through the brush but must have noticed my movement as well. He stepped out looking right at me and froze. He was not far enough out of the brush for me to get a clear shot at him. After a couple of minutes of holding at full draw, my arms started to burn and my hopes of harvesting this buck started to fade quickly. Then miraculously, one of the other does nudged him from behind. He turned his head towards her and away from me opening up the pocket right behind his elbow. I gapped him for 45 yards and pulled the trigger.

He jumped about 6 feet straight up in the air and they all took off like they were on fire, disappearing out of sight in the blink of an eye. I had seen the Victory VAP leave the bow but did not see it after that. My first thought was that was that he had jumped so high because the arrow hit the ground below him. I scanned my memory real fast and could not remember seeing it hit or any blood as he bolted out of sight. All of the work, all of the preparation, all of those darn stickers in my knees for nothing! Dejected, I put my Alpine down and really began to question why in the heck I had wanted to hunt Coues in the first place.

About that time my partner walked up. He had followed me up the mountain and had stayed back in a rock pile to watch all of the action. With a big grin on his face, he asked how bad my arms were burning from holding at full draw for so long? I told him that I was so disappointed in missing the deer that I had not even had a chance to think about that yet. “Disappointed” he asked with a puzzled look? “Was he not big enough for you” he questioned? What the heck was he talking about I thought? I told him that he was plenty big enough, but it didn’t really matter as I had missed him. “Missed him? You did not miss him, you drilled him” he proclaimed!

He continued, telling me he had seen the arrow hit and that he did not figure the buck could be far off. In my mind I had already convinced myself that I had missed, but as always, I got into recovery mode. I searched the area but could not locate my arrow. No arrow means time to trail the animal until I recover it, or confirm a miss. I headed up the trail.

As I walked up to the top of the rocky outcrop where I had last seen the buck, my partner headed down to get our gear. I made my way to the top without spotting a single drop of blood on the trail. Once on top, I glassed the rest of the trail to the top of the mountain. About 200 yards from the ridgeline I spotted the does. I quickly realized they did not have the buck with them and were intently watching down below me. I turned my attention to the country below the outcrop and within a minute spotted my buck upside down in a century plant.

New Mexico SCI State Record Archery Typical Coues.

I made my way down to him and got him back up to the top.
Once recovered, I took a moment to take it all in and admire this beautiful animal. A mature buck, he weighed no more than 110 pounds. I could lay him down and almost completely hide him behind my fanny pack alone. He was wearing a huge set of headgear for a Coues, but even those big horns could be easily hidden behind a small yucca or a large clump of grass. No wonder four of them could disappear in one rock pile. No wonder we had walked right past two good bucks without ever seeing them. He truly was a Grey Ghost!

My partner made it back with our gear and we took pictures and got him cleaned out and ready to go. By this time it was dark and we ended up carrying him, our packs, bows and everything else off in the pitch dark with our flashlights held between our teeth (that is another whole adventure). Once back to camp, we put a tape to him. 109 7/8 inches typical was the final tally. The New Mexico state archery typical record as listed by SCI and the SCI #10 archery typical Coues in the world. What a magnificent animal.

As I look back over that hunt now I recall a lot of great memories and a multitude of lessons learned. I was hooked immediately and the Coues would be a part of many more of my hunting adventures. I by no means consider myself a Coues hunting expert, but there are a couple of truths I know for sure. First, they are by far the toughest animal I have ever hunted with a bow. Second, and most importantly, you better say your prayers and get right with God before you go Coues hunting. Without divine intervention and a lot of His grace, your chances of harvesting a trophy Coues are not what most would consider good! Chuck was absolutely right.

2 Responses to "Bowhunting for the Desert Grey Ghost"

  1. Roy Keefer   2011/09/03 at 12:07 pm

    Tink beautiful buck. Congratulations. I’m like you I love to hunt those little rascals.

  2. Tink Jackson   2012/06/07 at 8:53 am

    Thanks …. They are addictive little guys