September 18, 2015
Coues deer are tiny, desert-dwelling siblings of the common whitetail. Properly, they are simply a subspecies, Odocoileus virginianus couesi, but their habits and the landscape in which they live set them apart.
You can't hunt them like typical whitetails — coues country is too big and too wide-open. You've got to be able to glass well, stalk long, and shoot precisely. If you want a coues whitetail, you'll have to shake off the lazy conventions ingrained by too many years of sitting in tree stands and actually hunt.
Imagine a cagey old whitetail doe crossbred with the toughest desert bighorn out there, and you'll have a glimmering of what a big coues buck is like.
The best hunting is found in Mexico, where vast private ranches offer little-disturbed populations of deer with exceptional genetics. But hunting Mexico is expensive and dangerous. Stateside, the desert country of southern Arizona holds an estimated 85,000 coues deer, according to Big Game Management Supervisor Amber Munig — perfect for a public-land DIY hunt.
To access good hunting, aggressive backcountry wilderness techniques are demanded. Trophy hunters leave roads and
vehicles behind and penetrate as deep as their physical conditioning and desert-specialized backpacking equipment will take them.
Tags and access
Arizona tags must be obtained through a draw. But if you'd rather get tough and hunt a third- or fourth-choice area, you can draw and hunt every year. If you prefer to apply for only the best areas, you'll draw only occasionally, but when you do draw, you'll hunt where populations are large and bucks are plentiful.
Access to some units can be problematic; a call to a biologist in southern Arizona will help you sort through the best units to apply for as well as good second, third, and so forth options, and assist you in navigating access.
Parts of New Mexico have good coues deer hunting as well. According to state Big Game Program Manager Stewart Liley, "Coues deer in New Mexico get really overlooked. They provide a very unique opportunity, and a few hunters really key into it." New Mexico tags are also draw-only, but there are often leftover tags, and if you can obtain permission on private property, over-the-counter, either-species (mule deer and coues deer) tags are available. For the best coues hunting, try the Burro Mountains, Peloncillo Mountains, and the southern part of the Gila.
Using your eyes is key to finding coues deer. The desert country they inhabit is vast, deer numbers are few, and picking apart the terrain and sifting through the scattered does until you find a mature, huntable buck comprises the majority of the hunt. Prepare physically and mentally for predawn hikes up ridges and canyon walls to access vantage points and for hours of carefully glassing as the sun comes up and paints the desert vermillion, then fades into brassy skies.
Without quality glass — and the right type of quality glass — you'll fail. Hours of peering through subpar binoculars will cause eyestrain and headaches, entirely aside from proving unsatisfactory for picking apart the details of the landscape and finding deer.
Decades ago fanatical coues deer hunters began using 15X binoculars mounted on homemade tripod adapters. Such rigs proved so superior for finding the tiny, smoke-colored deer that today almost all serious coues hunters use them.
Premium models, such as the Zeiss Conquest HD 15x56, are ideal; I used these and they are superb. Plus, they come with a very cool, quick-detach tripod adapter — ideal for long days sitting behind them.
Don't skyline yourself (coues deer see abnormally well) and get comfortable when glassing. In early morning, watch for sudden movement as young deer dash around to shake off the night's chill and for glowing bodies as deer cross splashes of sunlight among the shadows. In the afternoon, glass shaded areas and spots of shadow under solitary trees.
As evening comes, watch for movement as deer get up and wander in lengthening shadows on north- and east-facing slopes. During the early seasons, mature bucks tend to run alone or in small bachelor groups and like to bed in isolated areas where small spots of shade form in the afternoon. Pay particular attention to glassing beneath ledges and cliff faces.
Rut activity warms up in December, and bucks become more visible as they prowl and chase does. According to Mike Jensen, who grew up hunting and guiding for coues deer in Arizona and who happens to also be the president of Zeiss USA, unlike typical whitetail bucks that prowl continuously and lock down with individual does, rutting coues bucks tend to gather harems and stick with them, working them like a bull elk works his harem and fighting off satellite bucks. If you're lucky enough to land a tag for the late season, glass hard around every group of does — a buck will be lurking nearby.
Clothing and boots
Wear light, breathable clothing that resists tearing and thorns, cactus needles, and burrs. I had to throw away my favorite pair of quiet, flex-fabric hunting pants after our hunt last fall because of the hundreds of tiny, hair-like cactus needles that became permanently imbedded in the pant legs over the course of the hunt.
Wear layers. I prefer a thin, wicking underlayer (make sure it's a suitable camo pattern because it's likely all you'll wear on your upper body during the heat of the day), a good thorn- and tear-resistant long-sleeve shirt with ample pockets, topped with a packable down jacket to ward off the chill of the morning.
For boots, choose something light, and breathability is more important than waterproofing. Ankle support is vital to many folks; personally, I go for boots that offer me the surest grip on loose rock and while climbing sandstone ledges. Danner's Tachyon boots weigh a ridiculously light 26 ounces, breathe well, and grip uncertain terrain better than anything else I've used. They offer little ankle support, they aren't waterproof, and I've had mesquite thorns penetrate fully through the soles.
Being so light they aren't the most robust of boots — I'll destroy a pair in a season's worth of hunting — but they are quiet, my feet love them, and I don't often fall or slip in them.
Packs, tents, and sleeping bags
Some coues hunters — such as Jensen and his son, Garrett — are tougher than me and will sleep in a light sleeping bag wrapped in a tarp to keep the dew off. Me, I don't like nighttime visitors, and since coues country is typically home to scorpions, rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and other warmth-loving creatures of the night, I prefer a light single-wall tent. If you hunt with a partner, choose a two- or three-man model and split the load. For a couple of pounds each, you can stay out of the wind, sand, and creepy crawlies.
Although daytime temperatures can reach the 90s during a hot hunt, desert nights can be piercingly cold. I prefer down-filled sleeping bags, such as the KUIU Super Down, with a water-resistant shell that pack tiny and are rated to 15 degrees or less. They're expensive, yes, but so is your hunt, and good rest at night will enable you to hunt harder and more efficiently. I pair my bag with a 14-ounce ExPed Synmat pad.
Finally, you'll need a mountaineering-quality pack suitable for hunting. I use a Sitka 45, which is light and tough, has just enough internal capacity, and sports a decent rifle suspension system for those times when you need to strap your rifle to your pack.
Rifle and scope
Coues deer are small to begin with and are usually shot at much greater distances than typical whitetails or even mule deer. Choose a rifle that shoots very, very accurately, in a caliber that shoots very flat. On today's market, there is perhaps no more perfect coues deer cartridge than the new 26 Nosler, loaded with an aerodynamic hunting bullet.
Light rifle weight is also important. Although coues deer don't live at extreme elevations like bighorn sheep and mountain goats, the terrain they inhabit is unforgiving, and a featherweight rifle that offers superb accuracy is a quantifiable advantage. My go-to coues gun is a Rifle's Inc. Strata. With a skeletonized action, custom barrel, and proprietary stock, it weighs 6.5 pounds with scope and shoots half-MOA with the right ammo.
Choosing the right scope for your coues deer hunt is also critical. It should be light yet offer either a capable ballistic reticle or the ability to dial the elevation turret for distant shots. Zeiss's Conquest HD5 in 3-15x42, with the company's Rapid-Z 800 reticle, is awfully tough to beat. Correctly used, it equips you to drop a coues whitetail from spitting distance to the outside edge of your shooting ability, whether that's 300 or 600 yards.
Coues country is border country, and some areas experience high traffic by illegals. Encounters are rare, and most such desert nomads are nonaggressive and thirsty. Hide your camps to minimize theft risk.