feature By: Brad Fenson | September, 18
Hunting Coues’ deer, we hoped to use the early morning darkness to get to a vantage point where we could scan the vast, rugged landscape for the gray deer of the desert. Ted Jaycox, my guide and owner of Tall Tine Outfitters (talltine.com), was bubbling with enthusiasm as we drove from camp.
The twists and turns in the road led us to a dry creek bed where Ted parked the side-by-side before pointing at the silhouette of a steep ridge. Using our headlamps, I tried to keep up with Ted as he scurried up game trails to get to the crest of the rocky outcrop. We settled in under the meager cover of a pine tree and immediately went to work glassing the adjacent ridges for movement.
The sun had not even crested the eastern horizon before I spotted an ear. I watched it intently, waiting for it to move and transform into a whole deer. I described the exact location to Ted, allowing him to zero in on the deer. We both locked onto the ear and watched for 10 minutes before we could finally make out that it was a doe. The nearby brush was scanned for a buck, but no matter how hard we tried to find another deer, nothing appeared.
We stayed on the ridge and glassed until midmorning, locating several bucks and does. Unable to find a mature buck with a set of good antlers, we hiked back to the creek bed where we left our ride and traveled farther into the mountains. Ted had a new spot he wanted to hunt, and after maneuvering our way along a broken trail, we finally parked. Climbing to a rise, we had an excellent vista of steep mountains, timbered ridges and rocky creek bottoms.
It did not take long to find deer with Ted’s uncanny ability to pick apart the habitat. Several bucks worked their way across the high ridge behind us as several does and fawns went downhill to water. We glassed for close to four hours when Ted announced, “I’ve got a buck.”
Ted led my binocular to white antlers under the cover of sprawling tree limbs using specific reference points on the ridge; how he spotted the buck, I will never know. The antlers swayed back and forth rhythmically as the buck scanned its surroundings. The deer’s body was completely concealed, making it difficult to even make out the neck or head. We set up a spotting scope to have a better look and were able to judge the buck’s antlers at about 110 inches.
I was impressed with the long tines and main beams of the mature buck’s antlers. The buck would likely make the magical score to qualify for the Boone and Crockett record book, and my heart started to race with excitement. Ted knew Coues’ deer exceptionally well and gave me a quick tutorial on how to field judge the antlers.
He uses 75 inches as a base for the deer’s frame, deducting or adding to the measurement if the antlers have unusual mass, main beam length, width, etc. Most of the bucks that score in that 110-inch range will have main beam lengths of 17 to 18 inches and widths of 13 to 14 inches. Thirty-five inches of tine length is needed, so brows of 4 to 5 inches, G2s of 8 to 9 inches and G3s of 4 to 5 inches are required. Of course, if you are fortunate to shoot a 10-pointer, then tine length can be shorter on each tine.
I expressed interest in stalking the buck and found a secondary ridge in front of us that would put us within 400 yards; long shots are common on Coues’ deer hunts, and I wanted to get as close as possible. We tried to advance but ended up cut off by a deep ravine. Ted liked the deer but kept telling me about several unbelievable bucks he had seen in the area. Although we had spotted a great buck, it was still the first day, so he eventually convinced me to hold out for something bigger.
We returned to our glassing ridge and found dozens of deer over the course of the day. A buck and doe snuck up on us out of the heavy brush, and when we heard them blowing, we spotted them 150 yards away. It would have been an ideal situation if only the buck sported antlers that indicated a mature deer. Day one was a learning curve for me, leaving me wanting more.
The second and third mornings started the same as the first: out early, climb a steep ridge, spend the day glassing. Ted and I were joined by Charles Oberly, another guide who had helped his client tag out on the first day. An extra set of eyes would be a welcome addition to the game of Coues’ deer hunting.
As the sun rose, deer moved from open areas into cover. We spotted dozens of deer but not the one we were after. Ted described a monster buck that had towering G2s and would likely gross well over 120 inches. It was the kind of story that had me glued to my binocular in hopes of catching a glimpse of that elusive deer.
The real catch was the cat claw cactus that grabbed at my shins as I hiked up the narrow game trail. The fresh scratches and punctures burned slightly, reminding me I was in desert country. An elevated plateau provided a bird’s-eye view of several ridges. The ruckus of songbirds singing to the rising sun filled the morning air while my hunting partners silently scanned the brushy, cactus-laced hills for a glimpse of deer. The cold air had deer moving early, and there were several does feeding on the ridge across from me.
We had spent most of the third morning in the same spot when Charles caught a glimpse of a big buck with his naked eye as it disappeared into cover. The deer had inconspicuously fed out onto the ridge across from us without being spotted. Our scent was blowing in the buck’s direction, which likely sent it trotting for cover when Charles picked up the movement. Everyone pressed binoculars to their eyes to pick apart the far cover. After 20 minutes, Ted found the deer standing in the long shadows on the bottom edge of the ridge. The antlers drew immediate excitement, but after a good look we realized the G3 on the left side was stunted.
Hunting Coues’ deer takes more patience and focus than any other type of deer hunting I’ve ever done – the challenge is often overwhelming. The deer are next to impossible to see, and a hunter must look at dozens before getting a glimpse of an old, mature buck. Deer with the best antlers are often found roaming where they are extremely hard to get to, and a hunter never knows where they will be by the time he gets to the last spot where they were seen.
Day four started out on another new ridge overlooking incredible deer country. Shortly after the sky started to brighten, I spotted two bucks directly below me. One was a good-looking, big-framed buck with long tines. My heart raced at the thought of finding a deer worth stalking, and we quickly ruled out the deer, as it had a short G3 that would reduce the overall score substantially. We all marveled at the old deer and wished out loud that its antlers had that little bit of extra length.
Things heated up midmorning when Ted spotted a big deer moving uphill two ridges away. I never did see the buck but could tell by Ted’s excitement that it was a good one.
Ted and I headed up the ridge, moving carefully and stopping to glass after each step. We spotted several does and were surprised the buck was not held up with one of the local “ladies.” We made it to the saddle where Ted had last seen the deer, and sat down to glass the area. As is often the case, the deer simply vanished. Who knows if it continued to run for two more ridges, or turned to head in a different direction after hitting the saddle. I felt mildly dejected but kept vigil with my optics to dissect every rock, bush, cactus and shadow.
The fifth day started with an uneasy feeling in my stomach. The hunt days had quickly disappeared, and I refused to think about leaving Mexico without a nice Coues’ buck. Like any deer hunt, persistence usually pays dividends, and we were back out on yet another ridge over from where we had seen the big deer the day before.
Dawn broke with sunshine lighting up mountains and hills with glorious detail. The desert sunrises and sunsets had been spectacular; they were worth the trip on their own. An hour after sun up, Ted spotted several bucks high on a mountain to the north. The deer were spread out and feeding toward cover, where they would soon hide from the increasing heat of the daytime sun. We watched two deer travel for close to a mile before finding a preferred bedding spot.
One buck moved farther down the ridge than all the others and ended up under a lone oak tree in the middle of an open sidehill. We discussed the deer for a long time, and its perfectly symmetrical antlers persuaded us to make our move. A long meadow and two steep ridges between us meant we would have to hurry to get to the deer before the sun was directly overhead and forced it to find better cover.
It did not take long to scurry up the loose rocky trails and find our way to the top of an intermediate hill. We edged to the few shrubs lining the top edge and confirmed with binoculars that the buck was still in its bed. Ted and I crawled out on our bellies onto a gravel plateau to set up a pack for shooting support. The deer was about 230 yards away, and I was perfectly set up to make the shot. All we had to do was wait for the deer to stand up and offer a broadside shot.
It only took a few minutes before Ted got nervous and said the deer was likely to stand up and walk out of sight in a matter of seconds. This was not how I would have preferred the scenario to play out, but now it was all I could think about. A minute later the deer stood, hugging the remaining shadow of the tree for a second. The buck took a few steps uphill behind the tree to where we could not see it. Seconds ticked by without a sign of the buck. Had it slipped away uphill undetected? The anxiety these little deer can create is amazing. I saw the nose of the buck poke out from behind the tree, and Ted said, “He’s moving downhill.”
I had to move my rifle on my rest to keep up with the fast pace of the buck, and locked my crosshair on the front shoulder as it walked briskly toward the creek bottom. I only had seconds before the buck would disappear behind the edge of an adjacent ridge, so I tightened up on the trigger.
My Mossberg Patriot Revere .300 Winchester Magnum with a Bushnell Nitro 6-24x 50mm scope barked, and the deer disappeared. Ted jumped up and ran to the side for a better view of where the deer had gone. Charles had been watching the whole scenario from behind us and let us know the deer dropped in its tracks. The whole thing played out so fast I was not sure what happened.
I was so anxious to see my deer up close that I practically ran down the ridge and up the next. The white belly eventually came into view and my Coues’ buck was finally in my hands. The hunt had been more exciting than I ever dreamed, and the whole experience left me wanting more.
Ted called one of the cowboys from the ranch, and soon my buck was strapped over the saddle horn and headed downhill. That evening we feasted on braised Coues’ deer front shoulders cooked with the bone in, and I pledged to someday return to the desert to chase these little deer another day.