Riding Arizona's Desert Trails in Search of Coues Deer
“DRIVE IT LIKE YOU STOLE IT!”
I shouted over the roar of the engine of the Can-Am Commander. James Dudley clenched the racing-style steering wheel tighter and pressed his foot down hard on the gas pedal. The Can-Am picked up speed, and my body jolted back against the power surge. A cloud of dust rose up behind us as the UTV bounced over the uneven trail heading deep into the Arizona backcountry.
A golden glow rose from the east, silhouetting the peaks of jagged mountain ranges as far as the eye could see. As we cruised over the switchback trail, the rising sun illuminated a steep drop-off to the left of the trail that plummeted to a gorge filled with jagged rocks and bristly brush. Hugging the rock wall that towered above our right, James meticulously maneuvered the machine along the narrow corridor. The off-road tires grabbed dirt and rocks, keeping the Commander on the worn track and away from the valley of death below us.
Wiping a layer of red sand from my goggles, miles of untouched, wild country unfolded in front of me. You could call us ghost hunters, as we were stalking this desolate terrain for antlered gray ghosts that inhabit its cuts and coulees. Better known as Coues deer, their nickname represents their uncanny ability to vanish like spirits in this harsh environment.
By the time Andrew Howard, my hunting partner, and I had reached the camp that sat deep in the Tonto National Forest, night had fallen, and we were welcomed by the orange glow of a roaring fire.
It wasn’t glamorous—and we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. No lodges with warm beds and running water. No televisions with depressing news updates and meaningless sporting events to distract us. Instead, two campers run by generators sat in the open clearing, with two tents pitched next to them. A couple Camp Chef stoves sat next to a picnic table that held a small propane grill. A banquet of food was spread across the table, while YETI coolers stored what needed to stay cold for the week. Two Can-Am UTVs—a Commander and Maverick Trail—were parked nearby, dusty from scouting missions.
Lanterns and headlamps illuminated camp as a people bustled here and there, preparing dinner for the newly arrived hunters. The stars shined brightly, providing an ethereal ambiance to this simple, no-frills camp.
Trevor Rose used tongs to flip thick-cut steaks, their juices fueling a surge of flames that rose up around them.
“This is what happens when we let Trevor cook,” James, leader of this clan, said as he dumped a bag of instant potatoes into a pot of boiling water.
His sarcasm was our first clue that Andrew and I would fit in smoothly with this group of Coues deer hunters. While they all wore hats embroidered “James Dudley Guided Hunts,” this was simply a group of friends with a passion for hunting and sharing the adventure with others.
“You didn’t buy cheese?” I joked, as I slapped sliced turkey between two pieces of Wonder bread. “What kind of operation are you running here?”
We were at the top of a hill the next afternoon, our gear spread out, and four tripod-mounted binoculars pointing in different directions. As I laughed a bit too hard at my own joke, the boulder I was using as a seat dislodged, throwing me backward. My arms and legs flew awkwardly into the air before I returned to an upright and stable position.
“Don’t hurt yourself,” James quipped.
The sun was shining brightly at noon, and we took a break from glassing to eat lunch. We had left camp before daybreak. James and I led the way and Trevor and Andrew followed close behind.
Thumping along the well-worn trail that would take us deep into the backcountry, James explained the art of Coues deer hunting. The small, gray deer are notorious for lying down most of the day, only moving for a few hours before bedding down again. This made them extremely difficult to locate. It required hours of searching behind powerful optics, scanning the scrub brush for movement.
And that’s where we were: glassing from atop a high point, occasionally giving our eyes a rest while we refueled on sandwiches and chips. We had ditched the UTVs at the trailhead and trekked two miles across rugged terrain to find the perfect vantage point. We—and when I say “we,” I mean James and Trevor—had spotted only does.
Andrew and I were learning quickly that although we were both seasoned hunters, we were not experts at spotting the gray ghosts.
“It took me 10 years to kill my first Coues,” James had explained. “That’s 10 years before my eyes were trained to find them.”
I grabbed the “oh-shit” handle as the UTV left the ground, cresting a bump in the dirt trail. James pressed on the gas and the Commander picked up speed, throwing dust on Trevor and Andrew behind us. We had no time to waste. Minutes earlier we had received word from the other guides that the 3x3 buck from yesterday had been spotted.
When our wheels came to a stop on the ridge we had stalked from the day before, we jumped out of the UTVs and quickly set up spotting scopes. The 3x3 was there, far off in the distance with a group of young bucks feeding casually on a hill.
James and I devised a plan. If we scrambled down into the valley and hiked up a ridge a mile away from us, we then would be directly across from the buck’s position. I just might have a shot at 200 yards.
We clawed our way through scrub oak and Manzanita, quickly making our way to the ridge. We navigated loose rock, cat’s claw tearing at our clothes, before we finally ascended to the top. The brush thinned, and we were exposed for all to see. Our only option was to duck low, dash from one sparse bush to the next, and methodically work our way to the buck.
The going was slow, and it surprised us when we brought up our binoculars to check our location and saw the flicker of a tail. The bucks were only 250 yards away.
Resting my rifle on shooting sticks, I found the deer in my crosshairs. From a distance, I hadn’t realized how small in body Coues deer are, and the crosshairs bounced over the buck’s diminutive frame. My heart rate raced from the hike and anticipation. I attempted to control my breathing as we waited for him to turn broadside.
“Take him when you’re ready,” James whispered.
My shot echoed across the valley. The deer that had once stood in my crosshairs had vanished.
Throwing back the bolt, I loaded another round and focused on where the buck had been. A movement to the left caught my eye. My first Coues deer kicked from under a thicket before coming to his final resting place.
“He’s down!” James said excitedly, shaking me by the shoulders. “But damn, I thought you were going to scare them away with how loud you were breathing.”
My first Coues had tremendous character. Its antlers were gnarly at the base with two almost symmetrical crab claws at the tips. A short fourth tine on the left antler made him a 3x4 with four-inch brow tines. Gutted, the Coues was light enough to throw whole over my shoulders for the trek back to the waiting UTVs.
The buck fit easily in the bed of the Commander, and James and I headed back to camp to start the butchering process. Trevor and Andrew opted to stay on the ridge in hopes of spotting the trophy Coues in his home range.
We hadn’t been back at camp two hours before the walkie-talkie sitting nearby came to life.
“We’ve found the buck,” Trevor’s voice crackled over the speaker. “Andrew’s going to send it if we get the opportunity.”
We left the quarters of my Coues hanging in the shade, and James and I hastily threw our packs in the Commander. The engine roared to life, and we peeled out of camp, leaving a cloud of dust behind us. Our friend was about to take the buck of a lifetime, and we wanted to see the show.
Pushing the Can-Am as fast as we could, the UTV bounded over the trail to the ridge. Its front shocks took a beating as we crawled up a hill thick with debris and loose gravel. One wheel left the ground and slammed back down as we crested the top, and James put the pedal to the metal on the final straightaway.
As we rushed to take our helmets off, an echo of a blast reached us. No follow-up. Was that a good sign?
We quickly hiked—no, ran—to the hillside where we had left the duo. Far below us, we could see Trevor and Andrew making their way down into the valley. James whistled, and they turned to look up. Seeing us, Andrew raised his arms in triumph.
Andrew’s first Coues buck was just as big as we had thought it was. It had wide, thick antlers that curved beautifully, making an almost symmetrical 3x3 with two matching brow tines. Its body was large with gray fur lightened from years in the sun. The buck was an old warrior and a pristine trophy.
Much too heavy to carry out whole, we quartered the deer and loaded down all of our packs for the hike out. Our initial adrenaline rush masked just how far down in the valley the buck had fallen, and we stopped many times to catch our breath as we hiked the steep and treacherous terrain back to the UTVs.
The sun had long ago set, and our headlamps illuminated the bed of the Maverick Trail where Andrew had placed his pack with the cape of the buck loaded inside. We stood marveling at the Coues, and James quickly field-measured him at just over 108 inches.
For the first time all week, we let Trevor and Andrew lead the way back to camp. Instead of rugged Arizona terrain, our headlights shined on the trophy gray ghost that sat in the bed of the UTV. It was the perfect sight to end an epic adventure.