Unit 29 Coues
by Matt Brady
In May of 2011, the Horseshoe 2 fire burned over 200,000 acres in the Chiricahua Mountains. I grew up hunting the Chiricahuas with my father, and both of my grandfathers, who took numerous deer there as well. I have been hunting Coues deer in unit 29 exclusively for the past five seasons.
As I watched in horror as the Horseshoe 2 fire grew day by day I kept telling myself that things will work out and there will be a silver lining to this disaster. Then on June 8th my family was notified that our cabin (built by my grandfather in the 1950s) had burned. That cabin had served as our deer camp for numerous seasons. The forest was closed, and there was no way for our family to survey the damage from the fire. In mid-July we received our permit to access our cabin to assess the damage. That same month, I received my 2011 Arizona, antlered-whitetail deer permit for Unit 29.
On my first trip down to the mountains, I drove the all too familiar road. The road was the same, but the scenery had changed dramatically. The forest floor was bare, some of the hillsides looked like the surface of the moon. Once I reached the cabin, the obvious really set in. My task for the next couple of months would not be scouting for that special deer, it would be cleaning up the debris left by the fire. So, my next several trips to the mountains were spent cleaning up fire debris. In October, the forest was finally re-opened. This was great news, but with work schedules and other tasks this meant my scouting time would be extremely limited.
I then began scouting from home; looking over topo maps and examining satellite photos. This was a good starting point; however, I had no way of knowing how the fire affected the areas I thought looked promising, but was only able to scout virtually. Eventually, I located a canyon that was off the beaten path and decided it needed a closer look.
So, the week before my hunt, I made time and took the two-hour drive to the mountains. As I hiked up the steep mountain to a ridge-line, I walked through a charred oak forest. As I walked, the mountain-side collapsed under my feet. I just hoped that the climb would not be a waste. When I crested the ridge, I found a Coues paradise. The canyon was still intact, some visible burned areas, but plenty that appeared untouched by the fire. I glassed the small canyon for a couple of hours, and was able to pick out five does. Since it was mid-day at the time, I knew there was a lot of promise, so I backed out as quietly as possible. This was the silver lining I was looking for; a remote canyon with access that would deter most hunters.
Finally, the hunt arrived. My brother, James, headed down the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving. I had to work the night before, but after a quick nap (I work nights) I loaded up my son, Mason, our gear, and we made the trek to the mountains. As we got closer, I got a call from my brother. He was looking at a “shooter” buck through his Swarovski 15s, but was having a hard time with the glare from the setting sun. Our hunt looked promising. Later that evening, Mason and I made it to our cabin, and set up camp in our trailer. After a filling dinner of chili dogs and chips, we headed to bed.
The next morning we woke up to frost; the thermometer read a chilly 29 degrees. Cold for this desert dweller, but it felt like deer season. The morning plan was head out to our “usual” canyon, the drive was about 20 minutes. When we crested the last ridge, we were met with a multitude of camps and vehicles. We headed to one of our usual morning glassing spots, but found a camp. We headed to another spot, and found another camp. This pattern continued a couple more times, until we decided to just find a place to pull off the road and head-in. We were a little discouraged, but we knew we had a full four days ahead of us.
We reached one a glassing spot and began scouring the hillside with our binoculars. There were some does spotted, but needless to say there were more hunters walking in areas that they should be glassing into instead. Quickly, a discussion started about heading to the little canyon I had found the week prior. A decision was made to head in for lunch, and then make the hike into the “Coues paradise.”
After lunch, James, Mason, and I started the hike through the burned forest. By the time we reached the top of the ridge, we were all covered in black soot from the burned trees. Sweat was running down our faces and into our eyes. To make matters worse, I had inherited Mason’s backpack along with my own. We located a good glassing spot that was on top of a rocky outcrop. After about 45 minutes of glassing, I located a buck, a nice 2×2, with my Vortex Kaibabs. Then, a bigger buck grazed out of the trees. The buck’s right side had four points and it looked like his right side was at least three. I knew that this was a good buck. I was able to get Mason behind the binoculars to see the buck that we named, “Big Willy.” I tried to find a decent shooting position, but I find one I liked. During the time I was spending trying to find a good shooting location, the buck bedded down behind a rock. Only the buck’s antlers could be seen. The other buck had also bedded-down. Since it appeared that both bucks were bedded down for the rest of the evening, James and I decided to head back to camp and be at this exact location as close to first light as possible the following morning.
The next morning, Monday November 28th, found the three of us hiking up the ridge again. I was so proud of Mason since he had made a difficult hike up the ridge two days in a row. I told him that this was part of a test to see if he would be ready to hunt Coues deer in a couple of years. We eventually made it to the same glassing spot. James was set up first, but due to the cold was having problems with his binoculars fogging up. I eventually got set up and after about 15 minutes I found the 4×3 buck up and feeding on the same hillside. A quick range showed that he was at 339 yards. While walking in that morning, I had scoped out a possible shooting location on a somewhat level rock bluff about 20 yards away from us now. I directed James to the buck’s location and scampered up the hill with my 7mm WSM.
Quickly, I pulled out my cell phone and looked up my ballistics. The table called for 3.5 MOA for 300 yards and 6.0 MOA for 400 yards. I dialed in 4.25 MOA of elevation and waited for the buck to step out from behind a tree. Mason was sitting with James, watching the events play out through my 10x42s. I squeezed the trigger and the buck dropped instantly. I was amazed! I finally did it. My goal had been a 3×3 or better. Then the buck started to roll. Off one rock face, then a second rock face. I was horrified thinking my 4×3 was going to be a spike by the time he stopped, and I would have to spend hours scouring the hillside looking for broken points. Eventually the buck stopped rolling.
I was in a state that I assume many hunters experience; a feeling of achievement and excitement accompanied by a feeling of sadness knowing that you have just killed a living animal. I always have a lump in my throat when I shoot an animal. If that feeling ever leaves me then I know it’s time to hang up the hunting gear. I looked over at Mason and I could see his excitement. This was the second deer Mason had seen shot, but this one was special since it was his dad’s deer.
We made our way over to the buck and snapped a bunch of photos. The necessary work was done and we started the long hike back. Down the hill, up the next, and then down that hill until eventually making it back to the truck.
That evening I had to take Mason home so he could attend school the next morning. My hunt was over, but I was back down the next morning to help James.
James and I were able to find several other shooter bucks, including three that we estimated to be over 100 inches. I glassed up my first bear and her cub. Watching the cub run around on the hillside without a care in the world, knowing “momma” was close by. This is why I hunt, to be in the mountains I love with people that are close to me, seeing things few people get to see. Whether or not I had shot my deer, this hunt was a success even after the destruction caused by the Horseshoe 2 fire.