Gray Ghost

Posted on June 12, 2012

Come along on this water-hole hunt for Coues deer amid the Mexican desert.

By Roy K. Keefer

mexican desertWe had been sitting in the ground blind overlooking a water hole for several hours. The temperature had turned from cool to warm, and it was getting warmer. Little did we know that things were going to get hotter in a hurry. My wife, Shelby, sat beside me, ready to film any action that might take place at the water hole.

Then I saw movement in the brush off to the front of the blind. It was what we had hoped to see—a Coues deer, and it was a buck. As the buck slowly and cautiously moved toward the water hole, I forgot about the concerns I had about hunting in Mexico. Now, if I could just get the next few seconds to go right, I would tag my first Mexican Coues with a bow.

hunting gear

Spot-and-stalk hunting can also be very productive in the Mexican foothills. The deer density is higher compared to Arizona or New Mexico, so a bowhunter can expect more opportunities. Pictured is the author’s outfitter Enrique Molina.

For several years I have hunted in Arizona for Coues and javelina. My javelina hunting has been for fun, but the Coues hunting has become serious business, mainly due to the difficulty in out-foxing these little critters. As a result, I have done some research and learned much about them, thanks to the writings on and the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Web site.

The Coues whitetail <(odocoileus virginianus couesi)> is one of the smallest deer in North America. The deer was named after Dr. Elliot Coues, pronounced “kauz” or “cows.” Dr. Coues was an Army surgeon, historian, ornithologist and author who traveled extensively throughout the West, studying wildlife. He is credited with being the first person to identify and write about the deer that bears his name. I prefer to call them “kooz” because they are so small and pretty and I don’t think they look anything like “cows.”

A Coues whitetail deer, or < pequeno cola blanca> (little whitetail deer), as it is known as in Mexico, is much smaller than its northern brethren. It is one of the 35 subspecies of whitetail deer. They stand 28 to 32 inches tall at the shoulder and measure about 56 inches from head to tail. Mature bucks will seldom exceed 90 to 95 pounds, although larger ones have been taken. Does are smaller, weighing 60 to 70 pounds.

Coues in the United States are most abundant in Arizona and New Mexico. Generally, they prefer higher altitudes of 4,000 to 10,000 feet. The food preference of the Coues is much like other animals in arid climes: grass, weeds, shrubs, mast and cacti.

The coat of a Coues is reddish-brown in the summer and changes to a grayish color in the fall. Hence they have also come to be known as the “gray ghost.” Once you have hunted them and seen how fast they can vanish, you will understand the nickname.

Their antlers are small by comparison to other whitetails. The Pope & Young minimum for the record book is 65. Most mature six- and eight-point bucks will meet the minimum requirement.

The Coues rut is primarily in January. Vicious is an appropriate word to describe the bucks at that time of the year. The mature ones are serious about the business of breeding and are more than willing to take on rivals for the chance to breed a doe. After the rut, it is more common than not to see bucks with broken tines and main beams. As you can expect, this is a great time to hunt them. The bucks are more active and travel, seeking out does and give the hunter a better chance to spot them.

There are two main approaches to hunting Coues: spot and stalk and sitting in blinds or treestands over water holes or baits. Spot and stalking any whitetail is difficult, and more so with the Coues. The Coues is a preferred food source for mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes; consequently they are extremely wary. If they have the slightest bit of uneasiness, they are off and running at max speed post haste. Their gait is like other whitetails, a smooth action as opposed to the leaping, and hopping style of mule deer.

When I hunt Coues in Arizona I generally get set up on a high spot, put my binocular on a tripod, and began to bisect the surrounding country. Once a buck is spotted, the fun begins. The rocky terrain they inhabit makes stalking difficult. Soft-soled shoes with some added equipment, such as Cabela’s Baer Paws or Wayne Carlton’s booties help to deaden some of the noise. Shots are generally long by Eastern standards; 40- to 50-yard shots are usually a necessity.

Hunting water holes is very productive. In Arizona and Mexico, baiting is becoming common. By relying on their basic needs of water and food, you have them come to you rather than vice-versa. You also eliminate the problems that stalking entails. The main drawback to this style of hunting is that patience is truly a virtue you must have. Hunting over a water hole requires staying in a blind or treestand from sunrise to sunset. Not all of us are able to be immobile for that long. The reward is that shots are much shorter—30 yards or less. My hunt in Mexico was over water holes. Due to a lack of rainfall in the weeks before my hunt, this method proved to be quite effective. In our camp, four of six hunters bagged bucks, and the other two had shooting opportunities, but didn’t connect.

The biggest drawback to hunting over water holes is that the deer are susceptible to being attacked by predators and they take no chances. The ranch I was on had lots of predators. Thirteen mountain lions were killed on the ranch the year I was there, and one of the hunters in our camp saw a mountain lion near his stand. Often, they leave a water hole at a run after drinking briefly. It’s not a stretch to say the nerves and reactions of a Coues are wound tight most of its life.

Because I had heard that Coues were more plentiful in Mexico, I decided to give it a try. I booked my hunt with Bowhunting Safari Consultants in March and began the long wait until the January rut. Before this trip, I had never hunted Mexico. It seemed I read about violence in Mexico—mainly drug-related—almost weekly in the newspaper. I’d be less-than-honest if I didn’t say this caused me some concern. My wife was even more upset by the killings. But, in the end, we decided we had made the right decision to take the trip. It turned out that my concerns were all for naught. We had no problems and had a great time.

In Mexico, you may have the chance to take two bucks; the limit depends on the state and ranch you hunt. Arizona has a one-buck limit and permits are sold over the counter.

buck hunting

Roy Keefer with his Coues buck he shot at 30 yards using a Mathews Drenalin bow.

Back at the water hole I had been watching for many hours, the buck slowly made his way toward my position. He was careful to check the wind and survey the brush around the water hole.

The buck got to the far side of the water-hole bank, but was facing me, not giving me the shot I wanted. Then, he moved more to the center of the water hole and began to drink, still facing me. Once he drank, he was on full alert and began to move away. Sensing that I had little time for a standing shot, I grunted at him with my voice. He stopped and turned around. This gave me time to guess the yardage (30 yards) draw, aim and release. Perhaps due to his quick response to drop, turn and run, my shot was high and hit him in the spine. Quickly, I dispatched him with another arrow to the vitals.

As I admired my buck, the words of the famous writer, Jack O’Connor, appropriately described my feelings: “If someone should conduct a beauty contest among the game animals of the Southwest, I have no doubt the Arizona whitetail would win hands down.” This applies to Mexican Coues as well, since they are beautiful animals and a thrill to hunt.

Author’s Notes

On this trip, I used a Mathews Drenalin bow set at 55 pounds, Carbon Express Maxima 250 arrows, 100-grain Razor Trick broadheads, Leupold RXII rangefinder, a Leupold Katmai 8×32 binocular and Sitka Gear camo.

For information on this hunt contact: Bowhunting Safari Consultants, Dept. BAH, P.O. Box 23906 Eugene, OR 97402; (800) 833-9777; Mark Buehrer:;

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