High Country Coues
by Darren Choate
Archery hunting velvet Coues bucks in the high country is quite the challenge!
A few years back, I was perched in a large ponderosa pine, overlooking a hub of well-used game trails that I knew Coues deer frequented. It was opening morning of the Arizona archery deer hunt, and across the canyon, not too far away, my friends Geoff Lloyd and Josh Epperson were also on stand. The two hunters were hoping to see a giant Coues buck that Geoff’s trail-camera captured a picture of a week prior to the hunt. Geoff invited Josh to tag along and “video” what they hoped would be a successful hunt. At about 8:45 AM, I had not seen any deer, so I reached for my cell phone to check for messages. To my surprise, there was a message from Josh. It simply stated, “We got him!” Knowing the trickster that Josh is, I called Geoff to verify the message. Geoff confirmed Josh’s message, and without hesitation, I climbed out of my treestand and headed their way. Although the guys were close by, the ride on my quad took almost an hour, having to follow several forest roads to their location.
Summer of Scouting
As I drove the long and winding roads, my thoughts turned to the time that Geoff and I had spent scouting and preparing for this late-summer hunt. Geoff and I started scouting in mid-spring with the following objectives in mind: 1) find a shooter buck(s), 2) monitor the bucks’ movements, and 3) pattern the bucks’ habits. The ultimate goal: have one opportunity at a mature buck during the season.
In my estimation, three attributes of high country Coues habitat make hunting these deer difficult. First, the Coues whitetail lives on large tracts of public land, where populations are also more isolated and less concentrated than in desert regions. Just finding a population of Coues deer to hunt can be futile, much less finding a trophy-caliber buck. Second, the Coues whitetail doesn’t have agricultural crops to rely on that other western and Midwestern whitetail deer consume on a regular basis. Conversely, Coues deer forage on what they can find readily available: scrounging for acorns, sifting through pine needles for mushrooms, and browsing on brush, grass, and forbs. With homogenous food sources, it makes it difficult to pinpoint an ambush site near or on a food source. Lastly, although the Coues deer can and will obtain a portion of their water intake through the foraging process, Coues deer also rely heavily on available water sources. Normally, the Coues whitetail drinks at cattle or trick tanks, but usually during the early archery hunt the monsoon season has begun, and water is available almost anywhere. Again, finding a common “whistle-wetter” can be difficult at best. Because of these three attributes of high country Coues habitat, deer movement can vary on a daily basis, making theses deer extremely difficult to pattern. Only the most prepared hunter will be successful.
Geoff’s High Country Coues Buck
When I finally arrived at Geoff’s treestand, I found where he had hit the deer and headed off in the direction the buck went, following the blood trail. After about 200 yards, I found the two elated hunters admiring Geoff’s trophy Coues buck. As I too admired the trophy-of-a-lifetime, the guys filled me in on the complete story. After a couple of hours on stand, and at the same time, both Geoff and Josh caught the movement of a deer. The deer walked their way, and then paused at about 40 yards. Immediately, they realized it was the giant buck that Geoff had captured on camera the week before. “Oh my God, it’s him,” Geoff whispered. Cautiously, the buck continued toward Geoff’s location. At a mere 18 yards, the buck paused again, standing almost broadside. Geoff drew his bow and took aim. As he drew, the limb of his bow creaked ever so slightly. Amazingly, the buck heard the soft noise, took one more step and paused, exposing his vitals perfectly. Geoff released the arrow right on target. Geoff knew the shot was perfect. “I smoked him,” he exclaimed, and the celebration was on!
Excitedly, the two friends climbed from their stands, and started to track the deer. “Dude, he’s massive. “He’s a tank,” Josh told Geoff! As they trailed the deer, Geoff told Josh an amazing story. From the same stand site, Geoff shot his first Coues buck with a bow exactly one year prior on opening day as well. In fact, Geoff shot both bucks with the same arrow. “I just put on a new broadhead, and put it back in my quiver,” Geoff said. When they finally found the buck, the guys were in awe. “Look at all that horn,” Josh shouted! “Unbelievable!” was Geoff’s emotional response. Later, back in camp Josh scored the bruiser Coues buck. The buck gross scored just over 122-inches, a true buck-of-a-lifetime.
With just two days on stand, Geoff proudly displays over 200 inches of velvet Coues antler in his trophy room. A feat that can be attributed to the fact that Geoff knows Coues deer are hard to hunt, but also knows that understanding buck habits, proper scouting, and with a little luck, a dedicated hunter can score on a high country Coues buck. The following offers some insight into how hunters can put together a successful Coues deer hunt of their own based on what Geoff and I have learned over several years of pursuing Coues bucks with a bow and arrow, and hunting with other bowhunters in the high country.
What is a High Country Coues Deer?
On any hunt, knowing your quarry is a must. Unlike their larger cousins, the White-tailed deer, Coues whitetail deer are much smaller in stature. A mature Coues buck on the hoof may top the scales at 100-120 pounds, and an 80-inch Coues buck is comparable to a 130-inch whitetail buck in the Midwest. Not only smaller, Coues deer reside in much different terrain than other deer. The majority or Coues deer inhabit the desert southwest: Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. Typically, these tiny deer prefer the steep slopes of Desert Mountains; however, in their northernmost range, Coues deer inhabit conifer and pine forests. In Arizona and New Mexico, the archery season begins in early fall, and the bucks are still in velvet. Any velvet buck is a unique trophy. Many experts agree that taking a mature Coues buck is one of the most difficult feats to accomplish, especially with archery tackle. Accomplished bowhunters know that scouting is the key to taking Coues bucks on a regular basis.
Wanting to be successful, to aid in our scouting process, Geoff and I used trail-cameras as a tool to find and monitor bucks. Trail-cameras are an invaluable scouting tool. To pinpoint deer movement, we positioned trail-cameras on ridgelines, stream bottoms, trails, and on mineral sites. We placed cameras in old haunts and in new areas looking for mature bucks. We each had our successes; mine a little better earlier, but Geoff scored some great pictures of monster bucks right before the start of the season. With our scouting completed, we both turned to preparing for the hunt.
Tips for Hunting the High Country
Scouting is a must for finding Coues bucks in the high country where, deer populations are small, isolated and dispersed. That said, there is one complicated obstacle that all hunters have to overcome during the hunt to be successful: beating swirling winds. In the high country, swirling winds are caused by topography and changes in temperature throughout the day. The Coues whitetail thrives in edge-habitats, where topography changes rapidly and is diverse. Add that to the monsoon season where the temperature may rise or fall by 40 degrees during the day, it can cause the hunter to experience a migraine. To beat the wind, stand placement must be carefully calculated, scent control is paramount, and it still takes a little luck.
In Arizona and New Mexico, the early archery season is approximately three weeks long. It may take all of that for a hunter to be successful on a velvet-covered Coues buck. The more hours one spends in a tree or ground blind, the more likely they are to have an encounter with a trophy Coues buck. Stay patient, stay on stand, and hopefully you too with harvest a trophy Coues like Geoff did.
Watch Geoff’s Hunt on Western Whitetail TV on Youtube