Bowhunting Coues Buck
Posted on August 17, 2011
It took 12 days of hiking and searching and four tedious stalks, but this bowhunter finally found himself within striking distance of one spectacular coues buck.
By Joe Owens
These three-day, over-the-weekend “bomb” hunts were really beginning to kill me. For the past month, I had been departing my home every Thursday evening after work from Chandler, Arizona, and driving several hours to my hunting spot, then backpacking into a remote hunting area in the dark.
At first light the next morning, I’d hike my way to a good vantage point and begin glassing, searching for rutting coues bucks. I’d continue the search and glass throughout the weekend. Late on Sunday, I’d hike my way back to my truck in the dark and head for home. Come Thursday evening, I’d do it all over again.
In retrospect, I find all the effort was worth it. I absolutely love chasing these beautiful, little “gray ghosts” of the high desert. There’s no doubt they are among one of bowhunting’s toughest challenges, but that’s what makes them so special.
Why are they tough? For starters, they are tiny and hard to see. They blend in well with their surroundings; most of the time, you walk right past them, especially when they’re bedded. Secondly, they have superb eyesight—better than elk and mule deer, in my opinion. On more than a few occasions, I’ve had a coues deer lock onto my position at 400-plus yards while I was standing still and in full camouflage!
Thirdly, coues deer are tough because of their great sense of smell. I remember that one cold January morning, as I was glassing a couple of nice bucks with some does, I felt the sting of a cold wind whip past my neck. A few seconds later, those deer turned and stared in my direction before bolting off into the next canyon. I couldn’t believe it; I was well over a half-mile away, and they smelled me and blew out of the country without ever looking back.
How to Hunt Coues
Here, in Arizona, we have two separate archery deer seasons. Most guys I know bowhunt coues deer differently, depending on which season they are hunting. On the early hunt, which runs from the last half of August through the first week of September, tree stands and ground blinds placed over water holes and by tanks are the rule.
During this early hunt, daytime temperatures in the high desert will sometimes exceed 90 degrees. As a result, the deer must come to water, often more than once a day. For whatever reason, 10:30 in the morning until 1:00 in the afternoon seems to be the time when the biggest bucks come to water. I think this may have something to do with the fact that most predators (such as lions and bobcats) are sleeping during those hours.
The late archery hunt, which runs from early December until the end of January, is a rut hunt. The weather is cold, there is plenty of moisture in the feed and you always have a decent chance of light snow in the higher elevations. Water hole hunting is less appealing during the archery hunt.
If you have the time to thoroughly scout an area and are able to locate a few mature bucks, you can get some nice coues in close by setting up a tree stand and rattling antlers the same way many Eastern whitetail hunters do. A good friend has killed several nice coues bucks in units 23 and 27 by rattling antlers from his stand. However, be very careful if you decide to hunt this way—he has also had lions come in on the run.
Glassing and Optics
When it comes to rutting coues deer, I don’t know of any method that works better than using quality optics to locate a buck and then trying to put a stalk on one after it beds down. With very few exceptions, this is the preferred method for this time of year. Every experienced coues deer hunter I know uses it. And it’s the only way that I hunt them during the rut.
The best optics choice for this scenario seems to be strictly personal. I think this choice also depends on your hunting style. If you’re an outfitter who guides hunters, you may very well have a pair of 10Ã—42 Swarovski binoculars and a 20Ã—60 spotting scope mounted on a tripod for long glassing sessions and for locating deer several miles away.
However, because I am a backpack-style hunter who prefers packing into remote areas, I get by with a pair of lighter, smaller, but quality, 8Ã—42 binoculars mounted on a lightweight tripod. While this setup works well for me out to about three-quarters of a mile, if you plan on glassing over a mile and need to be able to judge antler size at that distance, you will need bigger glass.
A number of years ago I had copper chips blown into my eyes that had to be drilled out. As a result, my eyes focus differently, and I simply cannot glass ultralong range clearly. Bottom line: Buy your glass based on your personal needs and not on the opinion of others.
Knowing the Habitat
When I first started bowhunting coues deer, my intensions were good. However, I had no foundation to stand on; as a result, I failed miserably. I had no knowledge of coues habitat, what they preferred eating, how big there home range was—nothing. I would simply backpack into a remote area that had no hunters and slowly still-hunt through the canyons, hoping to see the deer first and get a shot.
As you can imagine, this was about as successful as swimming laps while wearing a concrete backpack. We have all heard the phrase, “Knowledge is power.” I believe that’s absolutely true for all aspects of bowhunting.
On my early coues hunts, it was common for me to hike eight to 10 miles a day and see only a couple of deer, usually from long distance and on the run. By comparison, during a recent hunt, I saw 18 does and three mature bucks on Saturday evening without taking a step. What do I do differently now? I let my optics do the walking most of the time.
Formulating a Game Plan
One of the reasons I love bowhunting so much is that it’s a continual challenge, and I always learn something new on every hunt.
My coues deer hunt this year took place in southeastern Arizona. After speaking with a Game & Fish employee about productive places to hunt, as well as following up with a weekend’s worth of scouting, I narrowed my choice to a steep mountain range within two hours of Tucson.
This area would allow me to backpack in a couple of miles from the nearest roads and hunt at an elevation band of 4,000 to 6,500 feet. On my scouting trip, I never saw a single buck, but I did glass about a dozen does and saw fresh sign in several canyons. I knew there also had to be bucks, because I saw their tracks.
(When I scout a new area, I always try to find steep, roadless country that has good water, ample feed, cover and fresh sign. Experience has taught me that if my area has these key ingredients, as well as some good glassing locations, I should have a great hunt.)
After a two-hour hike, I reached a little saddle high on a ridge that would be my home for the next three days. I had hunted here the week before and knew the area well. This was prime coues habitat: oak trees, scattered pine thickets, tall grass. It was steep, rugged and had fresh water. As I burrowed down in my bivy sack and settled in for the night, I was excited and full of anticipation about the possibilities that the next morning would bring.
First light found me set up on the edge of a steep canyon, glassing a series of long, narrow fingers that tapered off into the bottom of the canyon some 3 miles below. As I slowly picked apart every tree, rock and bush, I began thinking about the big four-point buck that had eluded me at this same spot the week before.
What went wrong? I spent three hours stalking the deer, only to blow it at 65 yards. He was mine, I had him, and it really bothered me, because I knew it. Focus on what you’re doing and forget that buck—or you may blow another opportunity, I told myself. Another two hours of meticulous glassing showed me some great-looking country but not a single deer.
After I glassed continuously from 12:30 in the afternoon until sundown, it was obvious that a few things had changed since last week. I needed to make an adjustment. While I had seen plenty of fresh sign and knew there were deer in the area, the only deer I had glassed all day were two does slowly sneaking along a tree line several hundred yards away.
The problem was that two groups of people had moved into the canyons below me. One group was using shotguns and hunting quail; the group consisted of friends riding quads on the trails 2 miles below me. I knew from experience that this activity and noise would immediately blow any of the mature bucks out of the area. Trophy deer, whether they are mule deer or coues, will stand for very little, if any, human interaction before abruptly leaving an area.
The last hour of daylight found me making a mad dash for higher ground. I felt that if I could pack in another mile and get up higher, close to the snow line, I would be able to relocate the deer. I knew that Coues deer have a home range of only 5 square miles, so this was the logical choice.
I also thought it was the steepest, roughest country in the area, and it made perfect sense that they would move up here to hide out. With darkness overtaking me, I found a small flat spot under a single oak tree to bed down. After building a small fire and eating dinner, it was bedtime. I slipped into the comfort and warmth of my Golite mummy bag. I could feel the cold night air biting at my exposed skin while the sounds of the howling wind put me fast asleep.
A New Day
When I awoke at 5 a.m., my bivy sack was shaking violently from the howling wind. Holy cow! This is unbelievable! I thought as I slipped on my insulated clothing and began glassing the area.
By 11:30, I was back at camp, ready for a break and some lunch. Late afternoon found me on the next ridge, setting up to glass. After just 15 minutes, I sat back, smiled and thanked God for allowing me be where I was. There were two very nice bucks and 14 does bedded down and scattered beneath the trees. After all my hard work, there they were—right where they should be—in a remote, isolated thicket surrounded by steep, open country. I glassed more carefully and realized there were a total of 18 does and three bucks in the timbered pocket.
I had a tough decision to make. It was 5 o’clock in the afternoon, which gave me just over an hour of daylight left. Tomorrow would be the last day of my hunt. Three great coues bucks, completely unaware of my presence, were bedded down at 700 yards. I had good wind. Could I drop down the back side of this ridge, out of sight of the bucks, cross the canyon and come down on them from above in an hour’s time?
The answer was most definitely, “No!” It would take me closer to two hours to do all that. Knowing that I could not get to the deer before dark, I spent the last hour of light watching the deer and planning my stalking route, hoping that they would still be there in the morning.
Two hours before first light, I was up and dressed, my was pack loaded, and I was on my way to stalk the deer. I took my time and constantly monitored the wind, because I knew I would only get one chance—assuming the bucks were still there.
Not only is this country rough, rocky, and steep, it’s also cold. I had slept just below the snow line, and there was a heavy frost on the ground. After a long, hard hike, my face was numb and burning from the chilled wind still roaring down the canyon, but I was right where I needed to be.
Crouching down in the dark shadows above the thicket, I got my first glimpse of orange and grey starting to light the eastern horizon. What a beautiful sight! I peeked carefully over the rocks and brush and began glassing the open ridge above the thicket, thinking the deer would be out feeding this early. I saw nothing.
As the oncoming sunrise brightened the skyline and my vision improved, there they were—up feeding. However, they were on the other side of the timbered thicket in among some oak trees.
I slipped on my leather gloves to protect my hands from rocks and cactus, got on my hands and knees and starting crawling slowly toward the thicket. At 80 yards, I stopped to glass the coues’ position. Three does were intently staring at me. I tried hard not to move, blink or even breathe. After a few tense minutes, they went back to feeding.
Slowly inching my way forward again, I finally got behind a few of the trees on the edge of the thicket. Ranging the closest buck at 31 yards, I took a deep breath, and at a snail’s pace, I rose to my knees and came to full draw.
I gently squeezed the release, and my Hoyt bow sent the deadly shaft on a one-way journey with speed, silence and pinpoint accuracy. In an instant, the shaft blew through a beautiful buck, putting him down in just a few seconds. From where my arrow hit him to where he dropped dead was only 24 yards. What an absolute thrill!
Author’s note: Here’s a summary of my hunt: I hunted every weekend for a month (12 days, total). There were three days during which I never saw a single deer. I saw 46 coues deer—39 does and seven bucks. I made a total of four stalks on different bucks and had two shot opportunities. I passed on a small buck at 25 yards and killed my buck at 31 yards.
Planning Your Hunt
Every great hunt begins with good research and quality maps; bowhunting Arizona coues deer is no different. The largest population of coues deer inhabits the southeastern part of Arizona, so if you’re looking for a trophy class animal, start there. Specifically, you should thoroughly research units 22, 23, 27, 32, 35B and 36B. Go to the Game & Fish website (www.azgfd.gov) for general access information and then talk to the unit’s game biologists to come up with productive spots to hunt.
For mature bucks, I would look for the steepest, roughest country you can find that is also in a remote area and away from any access roads between 4,000 and 6,500 feet.
Don’t forget that coues deer hunting can be frustrating, so make sure you bring your patience along. It’s not uncommon to glass for eight hours and see a just a few deer; sometimes, you won’t see any. —J.O.