column By: Lee J. Hoots | January, 18
Having hunted in many parts of the West for all species of native deer, I find it peculiar that pursuing Coues deer (O. v. couesi, or Coues’) is not more popular. This little Southwest whitetail is a very unique and somewhat secretive deer, dainty in appearance, and it can be found in northern Mexico, in roughly two-thirds of Arizona and a portion of western New Mexico. Depending on who is doing the talking, the Carmen Mountain whitetail – named for the Sierra Del Carmen mountains in Coahuila, Mexico – is more or less the same deer as the Coues and can be hunted in parts of West Texas, but since I’m no scientist the “lumpers” and “splitters” can argue over that.
A Coues deer buck is as smart as any other whitetail buck and lives in the same terrain as mule deer. In Arizona and New Mexico, it can even be found far from any desert habitat in what would traditionally be considered elk range. What’s more, Arizona provides excellent hunting. Perhaps due to living in the state – in premier elk and mule deer country thanks to proper game management – I hear a lot of scuttlebutt about who lucked out and received a tag for elk or mule deer, especially if said tag is valid for a unit known for holding game with better-than-average antlers, meaning deer and elk that have reached maturity.
Mostly I hear such information by way of this magazine’s art director, Chris Downs, a dedicated hunter who, like many readers, happens to be one of those guys who spends a large amount of his time off scouting – and hunting when he (or one of his friends) is lucky enough to draw an archery or rifle tag. Readers also send photos of the game they shot to Chris (firstname.lastname@example.org) for use in our
“Trophy Board” department.
What I find unique, however, is that this information chain very infrequently includes mention of Coues deer, and photos are even more rare. It is unlikely that a dedicated hunter would pass up the opportunity to hang his/her tag on a good Southwest whitetail, yet the small-bodied deer appears to be given the back seat by most hunters who prefer big muleys or gigantic elk. To be fair, not all hunters ignore Coues deer of course, and there is a great website dedicated to the subspecies, but they otherwise appear to receive little attention.
There happens to be more whitetails farther south in the state, and more hunters who pursue them as a result. Yet mule deer and elk tags remain the most coveted. It may seem a little unfair to include elk in a discussion such as this, because most (but not all) elk hunting takes place slightly earlier in the year and tags are drawn on a different schedule than those for deer. Yet discussions of deer generally turn into discussions of elk in any state where elk live, and big bulls play no small factor in a hunter’s fall planning. Additionally, there is also the rarely drawn Arizona pronghorn permit, yet pronghorn take the back seat to elk, mule deer and whitetails, in that order. I could be wrong, altogether misreading the popularity of whitetail hunting in Arizona, but it certainly doesn’t hold its own when compared to elk or mule deer.
Almost 30 years ago while bowhunting for javelina on a nonresident permit in January, I stumbled upon a very elegant-looking deer, an Arizona whitetail with a fine rack that reached out just past its ears. It was instantly recognizable as a Coues buck even though I had never seen one before, and its shimmering gray hide and wide-spread antlers, eight points in all counting eye-guards, was a sight to behold. Of course, I had no tag.
Since that first encounter, even while having been a northern Arizona resident for eight years, drawing a rifle permit has proven difficult – though no more difficult than drawing a good mule deer tag. Part of this lack of permits is largely due to putting in for only late-season hunts, during which hunting can be spectacular because Coues deer are often in the middle of the rut, though permits are far more limited than those available during the general rifle season, during which some units are awash with hundreds of hunters and their vehicles. Tossing in the need to juggle magazine deadlines and industry trade shows that are often held in January simply compounds the situation.
If it appears I’m a little perplexed due to not being able to hunt Coues deer often, I probably am. The truth, however, is that I have been fortunate enough to have hunted the little whitetails in Mexico a time or two. Other than traveling across the border with an outfitter, and the overall cost and securing gun permits, there truly are no differences when hunting desert whitetails in either country. Hunting methods are the same.
Big-game hunting in the western half of the U.S. has largely become a game of glassing – climbing to the top of a ridge or peak and sitting (sometimes for hours) behind a large spotting scope or an oversized, tripod-mounted binocular. The trick is to catch a glimpse of the game you’re looking for. Often what a hunter finds is the tip of an antler, the twitch of a tail or flick of an ear. Occasionally an entire deer may be spotted, but I have found that this is not always an easy way to find a mature Coues buck because they tend to be more timid (or maybe smarter) than mule deer, even during the rut.
I once sat for half an hour peering through a 15x Swarovski binocular that a hunting buddy had set up right on a desert whitetail that was tucked under heavy brush not 20 yards from a doe. The buck, which was difficult to see, was intent on biding its time and was not interested in leaving the doe. Once the doe stood up, the buck followed suit but remained under the cover of stunted oaks and brush. Its antlers revealed a good deer, but there was no shot opportunity through the thick underbush. The pair of whitetails eventually moved off through the understory, and that was that.
A mature buck will usually carry an 8-point rack, including eyeguards. Field judging the antlers and age of a Coues deer is no different than any other whitetail. Look for antler mass and long tines, a swayed back, a blocky head relative to its size and a grizzled-looking face. Older bucks typically carry four scorable tines per side, but that obviously is not always the case. One of the most interesting bucks I have ever seen shot was a big-bodied forked-horn that was estimated to be six years old. It remains unclear whether that deer’s antlers had degenerated due to age, but it was the heaviest deer brought into camp during five days of hunting, and the fellow that shot it was quite pleased. In my humble experience, it is not altogether unusual to find a buck with non-typical antlers or one with a clean 8-point frame with a kicker tine or two.
As an example, there was no small amount of luck involved the last time I hunted in Mexico, for as I walked out of camp at dawn on the third day of a five-day hunt, my hunting chum Pat Holehan spotted a buck off in a draw not 200 yards from camp. “It’s not a very heavy buck, but it has droptines on each beam,” he whispered. Having always had interest in unique antlers, there was no question that I would shoot it given the chance.
The buck was courting a doe in the bottom of a ravine that happened to be, as usual, choked with brush. With the rifle set up on shooting sticks, we waited for the doe to lure the buck into a position where a bullet could be slipped through an opening. The two deer ran back and forth in the draw for what seemed to be about 25 minutes before the buck stood long enough for a shot. It’s not the best Coues deer I’ve ever take home, but the droptines hanging off each main beam, one of them nearly three inches long, certainly make it the most interesting.
Rifles for Coues Deer
A mature Coues deer buck might weigh more than 100 pounds, but not by much if at all.
Ninety- to 95-pound bucks are more common. As such, hunting them does not in any way require the use of a big cartridge.