I’ll often use the word “back country” and what I mean is areas not often used by others because they’re remote. It doesn’t necessarily mean I need to pack in, but I usually drive in and stay a few days on these adventures. Only one group drove the road each day road hunting/sightseeing and that’s it. My buddy was given this spot by a local and little did I know the intended target was Coues deer, which are my absolute favorite deer to hunt and eat! The hunting guide in me was off on this trip and I was along for the ride. I basically showed up with my equipment, a map of the area, and the knowledge in my head. I wrongly assumed since our Arizona archery deer tag is for any antlered deer that we'd be hunting mule Deer, but oh boy was I wrong and we were hunting Coues!
"NO BIGGIE GIRL - YOU'VE GOT THIS!"
This is my first time hunting Coues in Arizona’s higher elevations. Sure I’ve hunted Coues in the desert with a rifle and a bow, but not in the pines. This was all new to me, but I told myself “No biggie girl, you've got this!” I knew the order is tall. I want a mature buck at 20 yards or less with my bow. I have my reasons, but 20 yards and mature is the deal.
THE GRAY GHOST
I’ve come to greatly respect these little Coues deer. They are resilient, strong, and continue to spread their territory all the while being targeted by lions, bears, and other predators. Their nickname is the “Gray Ghost” and there’s good reason. One second they’re here and the next, they’re gone. Literally if you blink your eyes, they disappear. The terrain Coues deer prefer is typically more mountainous than mule deer territory and physical fitness plays a role in hunting Coues because there’s no doubt you will be hiking up and down mountains!
RAIN, RAIN AND MORE RAIN
The mountains are green and everything is wet! Chiggers and mosquitoes are out in full force. Where did dry parched Arizona go? The bipolarness of Arizona shows in our monsoons. Every day brought rain and most days it was a downpour that sent the creeks rising. Arizona's canyons are dangerous this time of year. The water rises in the snap of a finger and seeking higher elevation is a must if there are any signs of a storm. Last week the water level was above this wood pile and the wood pile is higher than I am tall. That's a lot of water and needs to be taken seriously. Humidity was high and the temps were in the 80s, but it felt like a 110-degree sauna!
My buddy was given good directions on where he should sit and his spot in a saddle provided an excellent vantage point for glassing. My goal on day one was to hike the hills exploring; glassing, glassing, and more glassing; and I was hoping to pick up tracks along the way with the recent rain providing a clean slate. My buddy saw deer on the first day and I glassed up elk. I couldn’t find a deer track, fresh sign, or a deer to save my life, but I had familiarized myself with almost every cut, ridge, creek, and mountain surrounding camp. Much to my dismay day #1 had me wondering…”Where are the critters?” My buddy's report from the top of his mountain revealed sign and deer. Day two I was heading to his mountain since it was the only one I hadn’t been on yet.
I explored the year-round creek at the bottom of the canyon before climbing up the backside of the mountain. I knew my buddy was sitting a saddle so I picked a spot at the other end of the mountain and started glassing. I barely sat down and was glassing the first cut when a message came through. He picked up two really good Coues bucks north of us. He’s taken a 120” Coues buck so the man knows what a good buck is and my excitement hit! I might have a chance at a trophy mature Coues buck!!!
He messaged where the bucks were and I quickly spotted them through my binos. They went over a ridge and out of sight so I messaged him I was moving over a mountain to where I was the day before because I knew I could see the bucks from that vantage point. I scurried down the mountain and back up another one and as soon as I could see through the trees, I picked the bucks up with my eyes. I watched them bed and wasn’t sure what to do next. Normally because I hunt by myself, I’d go right after them, but I wasn’t the one who spotted them first and I now had no cell service. I hymned and hawed until deciding to head back to camp to tell him where they bedded. Little did I know as I was coming to camp, he was leaving camp heading up after the bucks. Our paths crossed, but we missed each other. I patiently waited for 2 hours thinking he would come back through camp before finally packing up and heading back out. I was going to target the bucks. I knew they wouldn’t stay bedded forever and I needed to make a move.
THE STALK THAT WAS OVER BEFORE IT STARTED
I quietly stalked toward the bedded bucks oblivious to that fact that my buddy already went through the area. I finally got close enough that I could see they weren’t in the tree where I left them so I proceeded up the mountain. I picked up a new set of tracks going north and continued my exploration north. I crossed another set of tracks going west and spent time glassing the area, but couldn’t find the bucks. I explored the rest of the ridge and ended up coming down a steep cut a local told me had a good cow trail (yeah right!!) There was no trail and the way down was challenging. I passed a baby frog going up the mountain and scratched my head wondering where it was heading and imagined how many hops it took to get this far. I was tempted to take him back down to water, but decided I'd let Mother Nature do her thing.
ENOUGH OF THIS
Day number three had me heading directly to where the deer were and I hiked up the mountain to the ridgeline smack dab in the middle of their travel routes. There’s a big green bowl up there, saddles on either of side me, fresh tracks, and sign. I know I’m in the right area – I can feel it! I watched a Coues doe filter into the next cut below me. While making my plan, I figured I could see deer coming and going or possibly heading to a bed, and my plan was confirmed when I saw that doe. I ended up glassing up a buck and a flock of turkeys on a mountainside a mile away before getting another message from my buddy informing me the bucks snuck in below me. I’ll be darned! I missed them or had my back to them, but apparently he saw them enter the cut and they did not leave. He gave me good markers and I was pretty sure I was in the right cut. Now my job was to find those bucks! I had zero hesitation this time and game was on!
LOOKING FOR A NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK
I glassed and glassed looking for an ear, a horizontal line, movement, anything that looked like part of a deer. It’s thick country in the bottom of those cuts and I’m looking into and through each tree with my binos looking for hair or anything that doesn’t fit. I’m still not entirely sure I’m even glassing the right cut, but I persist with my glassing efforts until finally I pick up a speck of white. These are Coues Whitetails I’m hunting, but I can’t verify anything hand-holding my binos. I take off my pack and pull out the tripod. Yep, it’s a tail attached to a deer body, but I can’t see the head. Finally bugs were bothering the deer and he moved his head. I saw the rack and it’s big!! I’d found the smaller of the two bucks…the tan one and he is tightly tucked under a tree again! I’ll be darned. How does he do that?
10 YEARS OF PREPARATION
I snapped a pic and planned my stalk. I had 150 yards of catclaw between me and the two bucks and one lonely juniper tree. The wind was in my face and sometimes hitting my left shoulder. I knew I needed to stay to the right (downwind) of the bucks, but I needed to head straight down the mountain toward them to keep the wind in my face and me behind the juniper. My stalking skills have improved over the years and I no longer need a wind checker because my body tells me which way the wind is blowing. I carry one and will use it if I need to, but 99% of the time my body tells me. Every move from this point forward will be dictated by the wind.
You can’t image how thick catclaw is until you try stalking through it. There are small “trails” if you can call them that and I had to pick my route perfectly or I’d end up completely engulfed in catclaw. Inch by inch I moved to the right to gain cover from the lone juniper tree and then I slowly step by careful step placed my feet on rocks and the ground making sure it was a solid quiet step before placing my weight. Sweat was dripping off my face. I was on the south slope and the sun was beating on me. I could literally smell myself so I knew dang well if the wind turned my game was up and it shifted on me twice for a second coming down this far. As an archery hunter you are 100% at the mercy of the wind. I don’t know how, but I quietly navigated through 75 yards of catclaw and loose rocks undetected. I was now inside the juniper tree hiding. This tree was my last safe zone and an instant blind. I needed to find the bucks!
THE IMPORTANCE OF WAYPOINTS
Typically I hunt solo and waypoints have become my best friend or my worst enemy. I have learned over the years to find more than one unique waypoint before starting a stalk. This time I had three solid waypoints. I was stalking into their bedroom hoping this juniper would be my blind and I’d get a shot. His bed should be within 50 yards of me. I found my first waypoint – the only tall pine and this was to the left of the buck’s bed. North and just to the right of the bed was a beautiful Christmas tree that I envisioned in my living room during the holidays – it was perfect and I’d found my second waypoint! My third waypoint was the dead branch the buck was bedded under and I found it, but there was no buck! Oh no!
WHERE’D THEY GO?
I didn’t hear them spook and being that I was above them I should’ve seen or heard something. I froze and scanned back and forth looking for any sign of movement when up popped a deer head with a big rack! He was feeding and I ranged him at 73 yards. I planned my route and waited until I saw his tail before sneaking out of the tree. I carefully crept forward and hugged the edges of the trees, but each time I peered around a tree, I didn’t see any bucks. I searched every spot with my eyes and then my binos as I continued making my way forward, but I never saw them again! Just like that the gray ghost lived up to its name and vanished!
73 yards to be exact was the last time I saw the smaller tan buck. These two Coues bucks are the biggest I’ve seen in velvet and the gray one is right up there as the biggest I’ve stalked with my bow. My biggest accomplishment for this hunt was stalking those 75 yards undetected through catclaw. I don’t know how I did it and boy was it hot!!! Part of the reason I hid in that tree was to cool off and hydrate. Catclaw lives up to its name because my hands looked like a cat got ahold of them. I had blood dripping down my fingers and was soaked to the bone with sweat. The gray ghosts gave me the slip, but I was in my element and happy for the opportunity at a trophy Coues buck!
SUCCESS ISN’T ALWAYS MEASURED BY A FILLED TAG
I definitely learned more about Coues deer, elk, and Arizona’s bipolar weather on this hunt. Rain and food were no issue for these bucks since both were everywhere! I absolutely loved having flowing water at camp where I could bathe and wash my clothes. The creek trickled in the background as I drifted off to sleep. Deer, coyotes and a bobcat passed by camp. The road in was tough, but worth it when I spent 3 days hunting straight from camp. I learned a long time ago I’d rather spend those 2 hours every day sleeping instead of driving to and from my hunting spot, but it also means there's no comfort of a camper, etc, and four-wheel drive is required. Not many people hunt this way anymore, but I love taking the route less traveled and immersing myself in nature. I know 20 yards on a mature Coues buck is tough spot and stalk, but I had fun trying and banked more knowledge that will help me on my future hunts!