An Empty Quiver: Chapter 16 – Hunting The Diminutive Desert Deer

 

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Preface

By: Dr. Dave Samuel
By: Dr. Dave Samuel

 I’m like thousands of bowhunters.  I love to chase whitetails.  As my bowhunting experience grew, I became aware of other whitetail species that one could hunt.  Then when I became more active in the Pope and Young Club (something I’d advise all bowhunters to consider), and started attending their biannual conventions, I’d see the top Coues deer taken in the previous two years, displayed there. 

 Even then, a hunt for Coues deer wasn’t on the top of my wish list.  I was having fun bowhunting whitetails in new places such as Iowa and Illinois.  And not many of the bowhunters I knew who went after the Coues deer were successful.  This species had a reputation of being a very skittish and difficult deer to bowhunt.  In fact Chuck Adams once told me that Coues deer and mountain goat were two of the toughest species to get in his record-setting trek after all 29 North American species.  I figure he should know. 

 Then, at the 2005 Pope and Young Club Convention, Dennis Dunn from Washington talked to me about his annual Coues deer bowhunt to the Chairababi Ranch in Mexico.  Each January he would take 4-6 bowhunters there and success rates were relatively high.  The ranch was bowhunting only and from what several bowhunters told me, their trip with Dennis had been worthwhile.  The more I thought about it, the more interested I became.  I’d only hunted Mexico one time (for whitetails) and returning sounded like a great adventure.  Plus, the chance for success seemed good.  Not great, but good.  And so it was that in 2005 I booked this hunt scheduled for early January, 2006.

 One key to success with the bow is rain.  If you get rain, the hunting is very difficult and spot and stalk hunting is necessary.  Though possible with a rifle, such a bowhunt is extremely difficult simply because it is so hard to get close to these little devils.  In mid-December I talked to Dennis and they’d not had rain on the Chairababi Ranch since August.  In fact, Enrique Mollinas, the owner, had moved some of his cattle from his ranch to his fathers ranch in another area because of the drought.  Bad for ranching, great for Coues deer bowhunting.  When I arrived at the ranch in early January, I’d learn that there still had not been rain, and the guides were seeing some good bucks at several water holes. My adventure was about to begin on a high note.

   

This adventure started two years earlier when fellow Pope and Young Club member Dennis Dunn told me about the Chairababi Ranch owned by Enrique Molina in Mexico.  Mike Whelan from Sedona, Arizona worked with Enrique guiding hunters on this 12,000-acre, bow-only ranch. The success rate during dry years was quite high and after hearing Dennis’ first hand accounts of some great bowhunts, I accepted his invitation to hunt in the 5th Annual Invitational “Dennis & Friends” Coues Deer Hunt.   

Prior to the hunt I chatted with two friends who had lots of Coues deer experience.  Chuck Adams cautioned me not to take close shots because the Coues were notorious string jumpers.  Outdoor writing buddy Bob Robb told me to practice out to 50 yards because getting close to these diminutive deer was a challenge.  Both indicated that the Coues deer might just be the toughest of all the North American big game to take with the bow.  As Bob stated, “they don’t call him the Grey Ghost for nothing.” 

At the Tucson Airport I met Dennis and our third bowhunter, Mark Colosi from New York.  Enrique Molina picked us up and we talked Coues deer during the 3 2-hour drive South into Mexico.  I’ve always been puzzled about how to pronounce the name of this deer and asked Enrique about that.  “A few folks call it the ‘cows’ deer, but most call it ‘Coues,'” Enrique said.  He noted that the American military person who first studied this deer was named Coues, but he pronounced his name “cows.”  However, Enrique then said that cows are “cows and deer are “Coues.”  Coues it is. 

Coues deer are the smallest and most challenging of all the huntable whitetail species.
Coues deer are the smallest and most challenging of all the huntable whitetail species.

The Coues deer is a smaller version of our whitetails, and a really big buck will weigh 100 lbs. They are predominantly found in the dry pine/oak hills and mesas of southern Arizona into Mexico.  Their ears are huge, more like a mule deer.  I figure that is true because of predators, especially mountain lions, which are common in the steep hills and scrubby country that make up Coues habitat.  Jaguars, coyotes, and bobcats eat some, but mountain lions are their major enemy. 

Coues habitat is rather open, with lots of thorny, scrubby trees and brush.  Combine that with their wariness and stalking takes on a whole new meaning.  However, depending on the weather, one can have a chance for a Coues near water holes.  Even then, getting a bow shot at a Coues deer is tough.

The latest Pope and Young Club bowhunting record book lists around 275 Coues deer.  One reason for this low number is the limited range of the Coues.  They are relatively plentiful in some areas, and scarce in others.  The Chairababi Ranch has great Coues deer habitat and since there has been no gun hunting for eight years, it was an ideal place to bowhunt.    

During our drive Enrique told us that conditions on the ranch were extremely dry.  “We’ve only had 0.1 inch of rain since August.  Some water holes are dry, but we’ve got tree stands on others that are seeing lots of deer visits each day.”  Mike greeted us when we arrived and showed us around the lodge and bunk house.  There were hot showers and the food turned out to be excellent.  It wasn’t plush, but provided all the comforts of home. 

With such dry conditions it was obvious we’d be hunting water holes.  Mike noted that Coues deer are like whitetails back home in that they come to rattling or grunt calls, but he advised us to spend the first couple of days just sitting quietly at the water.  “There is so much activity at these holes that if you stay perfectly still, eventually you will get a chance at a good buck.” 

On day one Mike dropped me off at a water hole tucked into a very steep canyon.  The stand was located around 43 yards from the water, and the steep downhill angle made any shots rather challenging.  Eighteen deer came to water that day including three bucks.  Around 3:00 P. M.  I had one shot at a great buck, but I misjudged the distance.  The steep angle did me in.  I just did not know where to hold on the shot.  I didn’t miss by much, but a miss is a miss.   The fact that this was a Boone and Crockett buck made it hurt all the more. 

That evening my spirits lifted as I learned that Dennis and Mark had taken record book Coues deer.  Just a note on Dennis’s buck.  He shot at a distance of 28 yards, and the result will give you some idea of just how high strung these little deer are.  Dennis shot for the chest of the right side of the deer, but the deer jumped the string, completely turned, and the arrow hit the hind quarter on the left side of the deer.  True.  Fortunately, the arrow hit the femoral artery and death came quickly. 

We were off to a great start and I felt confident as we left the ranch before daylight the next morning.  I was being moved to Dennis Dunn’s stand as he had seen a number of deer.

Mornings are down right cold, so as day two started I pulled my coat collar tighter.  This was typical of Mexico and I knew the day temperatures would warm up as I trailed behind guide Brad Sanders down a steep canyon headed for a tree stand near a water hole.  My plan was to sit all day.  “Use your radio if you need me,” he said. “Hike to the top of that ridge to get a signal and call me.  Otherwise I’ll see you tonight after dark, and don’t worry, it will warm up soon.”  Brad quickly disappeared into the dark and I settled in.   

It was a beautiful, peaceful morning.  With drought conditions wildlife soon starting coming to water.  Several rabbits and many song birds zipped in and out of the water hole that decreased in size every day.  A slight breeze came up the canyon, over the water to my stand.  “Perfect position. Mike and his guides have this stand in a great location relative to the wind,” I thought to myself.  By 8:00 A. M. the temperatures started to rise, the wind died, and I knew that with the 5-month drought, and the number of tracks around the small pond, Coues deer would soon arrive.  Sure enough, one-half hour later, the parade started. 

First to show up was a doe and fawn.  Talk about skittish.  These little deer took thirty minutes to make it to the water.  Stop, start, stop, start.  Eventually the fawn couldn’t wait any longer and walked in to drink.  Soon mom followed, and from then on, there was a continuous flow of deer. Over the next three hours I was constantly alert as thirty-one does and fawns came to drink, including one group of seven. 

Then at 11:15, a decent eight point came to water.  Even though he met my goal of taking a record book Coues deer, I decided to pass.  With these dry conditions and so many deer coming to water, a better buck had to be out there.

Sure enough, fifteen minutes later, as I scanned the thick vegetation on my left I spotted antlers.  Must be that smaller buck that was here earlier.  Then, as he moved through an opening I did a double take.  That’s a different buck, a dandy buck, and he was headed for the water.  Whoops, not just yet.  He laid down.  He was only thirty yards, so I sat as quiet as a mouse in the pantry, with bow in hand.  

Coues deer have exceptionally large ears for their size, and they use them more than the whitetails I’d hunted back home.  A good lesson had been learned the previous morning.  At another water hole, a smaller eight point buck came down a steep slope twenty-five yards from my stand.  As I slowly turned to get ready for a shot, my pants apparently made a slight sound on the seat of the stand.  That buck never hesitated.  He simply bolted down the canyon with his white tail swinging high.  A minute later I spotted him a half-mile away, still running as he crossed a far ridge.  Whoa.  Mountain lions sure made these guys nervous. 

It was the rut, but this bedded buck failed to react to the does coming to drink.  There were lots of Encino oaks in the area, loaded with acorns, and occasionally he’d pick one up and eat it.  Eating while bedded?  Never know what you will see from a bow stand.  Twenty minutes later  hormones (or thirst?) kicked in and he rose, headed for the water and the doe that was already there.  With perspiration on my brow, the realization hit that I was as wired as this Coues buck.    

The big guy never hesitated as he started to drink, giving me a quartering away shot at 25 yards.  With Chuck Adams warning about string jumping ringing in my ears, I decided that this shot was too good to pass.  With the release, the buck jumped back.  The arrow would have been right on the money, had he not jumped the string.  However, a bit of luck interceded and the broadhead penetrated the neck vertebrae and put him down on the spot.  I gazed at the dead buck, and with a sigh of relief, settled back into the tree stand, letting my heart rate slow down.  He wasn’t huge by normal whitetail standards, but for a Coues deer he was just what this doctor ordered.  A short climb to establish radio contact with Brad, and this hunt was over. 

Coues deer are definitely the “grey ghost’ of the dry country
Coues deer are definitely the “grey ghost’ of the dry country

 

If you are looking for a new adventure, don’t let the diminutive size of this deer put you off.  The Coues deer is different, exciting and definitely worth your time and energy.  This was a bowhunt that provided memories for years to come, and it will for you as well.     

Postscript

 Arizona has good populations of Coues deer, but the Sonora region of old Mexico is a growing point of interest because the private ranches have lots of deer and control access.  One plus of hunting there is the quality of bucks. 

 When you hunt the Coues deer, make sure that your clothes and bow are quiet.  Water proof, soft soled, high top shoes are also handy if you are stalking the grassy areas in early morning.  My equipment included a Mathews Icon, Razorcap broadheads, 21/17 aluminum Easton shafts, and a Fuse sight and bow quiver. 

 Note, you must have a passport.  No exceptions.  The cost for a hunt will be about $4000-5000, plus $325 for a deer license.  If it rains, you stalk hunt, but you can do that any time if you wish. The minimum score to enter a Coues deer into the Pope and Young record book is 70 inches.  The minimum score for Boone and Crockett is 100 inches and my buck scored 97 7/8 inches.  A few inches either way wouldn’t have changed this adventure one bit.  I don=t know what the hunting situation is on the Molinas Ranch today, but I’d be remiss if somewhere in this book I didn’t mention Bowhunting Safari Consultants.  I’ve known about and used the services of BSC since 1988, and the friendship I have with the owner, Neil Summers, started in Zimbabwe in 1988 as we both worked to get bowhunting legalized there.  Over the years I have come to trust this booking agency, and if I were looking for a Coues deer hunt, I’d definitely start with BSC.  You can call Neil at 800 833-9777 or email him at neil@bowhuntingsafari.com.  You can also contact Mark Buehrer, BSC’s North American consultant at his home in Ohio.  His phone is 419 943-3743 or 419 890-7199.  His email is bowhuntrm@watchtv.com  or mark@bowhuntingsafari.com

 

For more please go to: The Future of Hunting

For more also go to: Straight Talk Interview: Dr. Dave Samuel