In early 1999, Mark Buehrer of Bowhunting Safari Consultants (BSC) sparked my interest in booking a hunt for the elusive Coues’ deer south of the border in old Mexico. Often referred to by hunters as the Gray Ghost of the Southwest, this diminutive subspecies of whitetail is the smallest of the five huntable types of deer in North America. Its US range is limited to southwestern New Mexico and the central and southern portions of Arizona. Across the border, it is found throughout the State of Sonora, and in parts of several other Mexican states, as well. Named after a nineteenth century naturalist and frontier historian (Elliott Coues), Coues’ whitetail is considered one of the continent’s toughest trophy animals to take with a rifle—not to mention a bow.
Their preferred habitat is high, arid, rocky hills or mountains, with a good mix of cacti, oak trees, and grassy basins. They are forced to share this environment—rather uncomfortably—with a healthy mountain lion population, and as a result they are even more “wired” or spooky than your typical Midwestern or Northeastern whitetail.
Precisely because they are hunted every day of their lives by the big cats, this “puma factor” (as I like to call it) has been responsible—I suspect—for the evolutionary development of unusually large ears and tails, relative to their body size. Proportionally, the ears clearly seem to be bigger than for any of the other subspecies of whitetail. A “monster” Coues’ buck might get up to 110 pounds on the hoof, but that is definitely well above average. A typical doe will weigh in at 75 to 85 pounds.
For my first hunt south of the border, in January of 2000, BSC sent me to the Chairababi Ranch, owned by Mexico cattleman Enrique Molina. I was only the second modern bowhunter ever to hunt that 13,000-acre property, and I arrived there pretty pumped up over the dimensions of the challenge and the quality of the opportunity. As I tried to get to sleep that first night, I could hardly contain the excitement I felt over the adventure I knew would begin even before the sun rose the next morning.
Daybreak arrived on its rosy wings with me sitting on the ground in a small brush blind, overhung by some oak trees, roughly 25 yards from the near edge of a large pond—or “tank,” as they’re called on the ranch. It is a cattle ranch, so most of the many ponds or small lakes have been created by bulldozers building a berm or earthen retaining wall across the throat of a swale or gully. The tanks catch the hard but infrequent rains, and thus there is a year-round water supply for the cattle—as well as the deer and other abundant wildlife on the ranch.
Normally, at that time of year, there has been no rain at all for anywhere from four to 12 weeks. In such dry conditions, there are very few sources of water for the deer, other than the tanks. Consequently, a bowhunter’s best chance to bag a wily buck (unless it has recently rained) is to hide in a nearby ground-blind, or up in a treestand, and wait for one to come to water. Needless to say, the lions use the same tactics and know that any deer is at its most vulnerable while drinking. For that reason, during my annual hunts at the Chairababi (which resumed in 2002 and continued every year up through 2010), I have witnessed many instances in which a deer was so nervous about making the necessary visit to the water hole that it would take nearly an hour to come in the last 50 yards. It is one of those things you have to see with your own eyes to believe!
Coues’ deer are extraordinarily beautiful to observe when they are unaware of your presence. You cannot help but fall in love with them. The does seem especially feminine and dainty, and even the bucks walk with a quintessential gracefulness that sometimes takes your breath away. More than their keen eyes, it is their nose and (above all else) their ears that the bowhunter must worry about. I shall never forget one morning, without a breath of air stirring, when a fine buck approached to within 20 yards and stopped a few feet from the edge of the water. He was gazing across the pond, as I made the mistake of swallowing. Mind you, I didn’t clear my throat at all; I simply swallowed, “silently,” with my mouth shut. Nonetheless, the buck heard it and snapped his head in my direction. I could not believe his uncanny hearing! Since then, I have learned that at anything under 40 yards distant, you are likely to be heard drawing your bow—unless a good breeze is blowing, or the buck is in the act of guzzling water.
My first hunt on the Chairababi was not successful, largely because I was using a heavy arrow which would always seem to arrive at its target just after the “target” (possessed of hyper-fast, spring-loaded reflexes) had managed to remove itself from danger. Two years later, however, I returned with much lighter arrows. My luck finally changed on the final day of that second hunt, with the harvest of a very symmetrical, little six-point—arrowed at 22 yards.
The following January, totally bitten by the Coues’ whitetail bug, I returned to Enrique’s beautiful ranch with seven of my bowhunting friends, and, from that season forward, the owner assured us that no more rifle hunting would be allowed on the Chairababi. Henceforth, it would be managed strictly for archery hunting. Needless to say, I was thrilled!
During the first three years of the “Annual Invitational Dennis-and-Friends Coues’ Whitetail Bownanza,” my good buddy, Rick Duggan, from Morrison, Colorado, had always hunted at the same water hole. He was determined to take a Pope and Young buck there with his trusty recurve bow, and he eventually succeeded, of course, on his way to the first-ever Super Slam accomplished entirely with traditional archery tackle. Rick especially liked that particular “tank” location on the Chairababi for three reasons. First, few cattle ever came to water there; second, his treestand was very close to the end of the pond where most of the deer would drink; and thirdly, every night when we all returned to the ranch house, it nearly always seemed that more deer had visited what came to be known as “Rick’s tank” than any of the rest of us had seen that day at our own water-hole locations.
On January 9, 2006, I flew to Tucson and rendezvoused at the baggage carousel with a couple of good friends: New Yorker Mark Colosi and West Virginian Dr. Dave Samuel. Readers will recognize “Dr. Dave” as the longtime Conservation Editor of BOWHUNTER Magazine. Neither man had had a chance to hunt Coues’ whitetails before, and my bowhunting tales from the Chairababi had excited their imaginations. Enrique had driven up from his ranch in Sonora to cross the border at Nogales and pick us all up at the airport. The return trip was quick and easy, and four hours later we were unpacking in our rooms at the ranch, getting our hunting gear organized, and flinging practice arrows in preparation for a pre-dawn departure the next morning.
In the first couple years of my “annual invitational” at the Chairababi, we had had as many as eight bowhunters in camp at one time. Once I launched my book project in the fall of 2004, however, I wasn’t able to spend much time “recruiting” friends to join me on the annual winter event, so in January of 2006 there were just the three of us sharing the week together in sunny Mexico. And talk about sun! In contrast with ’04 and ’05, when too much rain had made it pointless to sit in hiding over any water hole, Enrique told us there had been no rain for more than three months prior to our arrival! I knew, therefore, that the “tanks” were where all the action would be, and—indeed—Mark, Dave, and I were all “tagged-out” by noon of the second day.
Yet I’ve really gotten ahead of myself here. Given Duggan’s absence, I was dying to hunt over “Rick’s tank” for the very first time. Mike Whelan, the Arizona outfitter who used to manage these archery hunts for Enrique, immediately put his blessing on that, since I was the only one in camp who would not be using sight-pins for aiming. He didn’t want me taking long shots! Mike had hired a brand-new guide just before the season began, and the young fellow had only arrived at the ranch two days before the three of us did. He was still not very familiar with the complicated road system on the ranch, so—while driving Mark and me in the pre-dawn darkness to the drop-off points for our respective treestands—he forgot just how to find my chosen location. Mark was delivered to his spot before sunup, but by the time I finally got to mine it had been fully daylight for a good hour.
The way things turned out, fortunately, the late approach and climb up into my tree proved immaterial. The deer action was pretty much nonstop all day long. Doe, after doe, after fawn, after immature buck, came down the various slopes of the basin where my tiny pond lay semi-hidden in the bottom. In the course of the day, several rather modest Pope and Young bucks also came in to drink, but I was determined to hold out for something really special. In 2003, I had been lucky enough to harvest a buck that scored in the mid-80s, and the next year I had shot at—and missed—a phenomenal 125-class buck! I had seen several other Boone and Crockett racks during my five previous visits to the ranch, so I intended to be very selective this time.
By late afternoon, the hot sun had swung around to the point where its fiery orb was reflecting off the far end of the glassy surface below me. Its light was so intense I could hardly look in that direction at all. The breeze had quit entirely, and—as I sought to look elsewhere in an effort to detect some motion—I was surrounded by a diaphanous haze that seemed quite magical, in one sense, but almost suffocating, in another. I recall trying to shade my eyes and watch the high ridge across the pond above me. So many deer had made their first appearance there earlier in the day, before cautiously making their way down the steep slope to drink deeply for 20 or 30 seconds.
It was right around 4:30 p.m. when I saw movement in the brush, just below the skyline above me, and realized that a pretty good buck was probably headed my way. I had just caught a momentary glimpse of antler. With my binoculars glued to my peepers, his head suddenly popped into full view, and I gasped audibly. This guy may not have been king of the whole mountain, but he was a prince of a big fellow—and fully as handsome as every true prince ought to be. Through my binos, his rack seemed enormous to me, and—as his dainty, mincing steps brought him ever closer down the hill through the maze of cactuses, yucca plants and tall grass—I remarked to myself, sotto voce, that this buck just had to be a “Booner!”
Knowing I would try to take him if he presented me with the right shot opportunity, I lowered my telescopic eyeballs to my chest and never bothered (purposely) to look at his antlers again. A handsome rack can be altogether too distracting, if a hunter is not careful. Once you’re sure you want a given animal, you’re better off forgetting he even has horns or antlers. While studying him briefly through the binos, there were two characteristics about his rack that had really impressed me. First, it was unusually wide for a Coues’ whitetail, and, secondly, it was extraordinarily symmetrical—one side to the other. He was a perfect eight-point, by Eastern count, as hunters are prone to say, and I knew I wanted him badly.
My treestand had me perched about 20 feet above the surface of the water. The nearest place the Prince could drink was right below me at a mere 14 yards. The furthest corner of the pond was 24 yards away. My quarry chose a middle position from which to slake his thirst—at 17 yards. Despite the noises going on inside his own head while drinking, he must have heard something as I drew back my arrow. He snapped his head up and listened intently, staring straight ahead and offering me a slightly quartering-away shot. The feathered shaft struck him pretty much where I wanted to see it, angling sharply down and forward through the diaphragm and out the bottom of the chest. Instantly, he exploded across the water and straight up onto the earthen berm at the far end of the tank. There, he slowed to a walk, and five yards beyond the left-hand end of the berm, the stricken buck lay down in the tall grass. His final resting place was not 35 yards from the base of the oak I was in.
Ecstatic, to say the least, I said a prayer of thanksgiving, and then decided to study his antlers again through my binoculars. Once more, they looked just enormous to me! As soon as I was sure the buck had expired completely, I clambered down out of my tree and walked over to claim my prize. What I experienced when I got to him is what most all hunters know as “ground shrinkage.” For the non-hunting reader, that can be translated simply as, “Not quite as big as you thought they were!” My prize Prince was most definitely a handsome young buck (or perhaps even a handsome, middle-aged buck), but he was certainly not one that would make the minimum score for entry into the Boone and Crockett Records. I had misjudged him through my glassing, and also through the prism of my overeager exuberance.
What I did know with certainty, as I lifted his head off the ground, was that he was clearly my best Coues’ whitetail to date. His wide rack had an inside-spread of about 15 inches, and a gross score of nearly 90—with only a bit over an inch in total deductions. On that particular day, I was King of the Mountain, and he was my Prince, who should never have come to water. He was, in fact, the thirty-second deer that had approached my water hole that day. For me, the number was a personal, one-day record on the Chairababi.
Back at the ranch house that night, we learned Mark Colosi had also filled his deer tag earlier in the day. Dave Samuel had passed up a few bucks from his treestand and had not yet seen the kind of trophy animal he was looking for. At my urging, Dave agreed to hunt on day number two out of the same treestand that had brought me success. By the time he arrowed his wonderful buck around noon, I believe it was the forty-first deer he had seen that morning! Dave’s buck eventually was officially scored at just shy of 98 points. His was the buck that almost made the Boone and Crockett book, not mine!
Editor’s note: This article is the forty-fifth of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work, and the various editions of BAREBOW! available, by clicking here: http://www.barebows.com/. You can also follow BAREBOW! on Facebook here.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson