A Coues Quest
A Whitetail hunt gone Western!
by Darren Choate, Editor In Chief
After glassing a group of deer well over a mile away, but knowing there was a good buck in the group, I made the long journey their way. The route took me across the desert floor, followed by an ascent of 1,000 feet in elevation. As I topped out, I saw several deer a couple of hundred yards away. Quickly, I took off my pack, readied my Swarovski 15s on my tripod, and began to glass. Immediately, I saw a good buck bedded in thick cover. I moved to my right to gain a better vantage. Then it happened—out stepped a giant Coues buck from its bed! The buck was just 250 yards away, and I could tell that this was easily a mid-to-high-teens buck. The buck was surrounded by at least twenty other deer—several does and a few smaller bucks. To avoid being seen, I kept my movement to a minimum, while keeping tabs on the buck’s movements. It was the end of January, and with my bow in my hand; I knew there was no real chance at harvesting the buck on this day. As darkness fell, I made the long trip back to my truck.
The Coues Quest Begins
When the Arizona draw application-period rolled around, I applied for the Thanksgiving weekend hunt in the unit I had seen the big buck. I drew the hunt easily, pulling permit number seven. During the early hunting seasons, I was busy either hunting for myself or guiding clients, and I never had the opportunity to scout. I wasn’t too worried since I had hunted the unit several times, albeit always late in December and January, and with archery tackle.
For this hunt, I received the help of Ruff’s Precision Gunworks (RPG) in Flagstaff, AZ. A couple of weeks before my hunt, while I was archery hunting in Oklahoma, RPG built a 6.5 Creedmoor, based on of their custom action from the ground up for me to use on the hunt. To complicate matters, I had PRK surgery on my right—dominant eye—a week prior to my hunt. Since I could not shoot right away, I asked RPG to install my Leupold VX3i 8.5-25 x 50, and to sight the gun for me, which they did. A couple of days before the hunt, I felt my eye was good enough to test, so I went to the range and I fired a few shots. I pulled the first shot, but the next two were touching dead-center, just a couple of inches high at 100 yards. I felt confident that in a few more days, I would be in good shooting condition.
By the time the hunt rolled around, my eye was better; I was driving at night and my vision at distance was improving every day. On Thanksgiving afternoon, my son, Colton, and I made the three-hour drive to the unit I would be hunting. Opening morning provided my first opportunity to test my surgically-repaired eye behind big glass. Once again behind my Swarovski 15s, I spotted the first deer, a small buck with a doe.
Later that day, we hiked closer to where I had seen the big buck the previous year, but glassed only does on the north-faced slope. Around noon, we went right to the location where I had seen the big buck. Right away, we glassed up a doe, followed by four more. The wind was howling, with 25mph gusts. With only a few hours before sunset, we decided to make our way back to the truck, glassing along the way.
Our first stop yielded several deer, including three bucks. Colton and I glassed-up the third buck at the same time near where we had seen a smaller two-point earlier. At over 600 yards, my impression of the buck was that it was an 80-inch Coues buck. However, Colton thought otherwise, stating, “it’s a 100-incher.” I tried to look through his spotting scope, but my eyesight was not clear enough to see any difference. I readied the RPG/Creedmoor and focused the Leupold scope on the deer at 25 power. With darkness approaching, the fact that the buck was at 640 yards, and the high wind speeds, I elected to pass on the shot. We packed up and headed to the truck, and then off for some much-needed dinner.
The following morning the winds were still whipping, yet we sat on a high vantage glassing for either the big buck or at least a respectable Coues buck—100 inches gross or more. We turned up only a couple of does on the adjacent hill, but nothing else. So, we decided to head back to where we had seen the buck the previous evening, but come from the northeast, rather than the southwest. After making the easy one-and-a-half-mile hike, we sat down to glass. In less than two minutes, I found the buck about 450 yards away, and now I could tell the buck was much bigger than I estimated the afternoon before. The buck was broadside, and I quickly set up for a shot.
Things Get Western
I am neither a competitive shooter or an expert marksman by any stretch of the imagination, but I strive for one shot, one kill. With the Creedmoor balanced on a bipod as its front rest and on my backpack as a rear rest, I squeezed the trigger. Click! Thinking I had not chambered a round, I quickly racked the bolt to chamber one. As I did, a live cartridge was ejected. Hastily, I looked at the round to see if the primer had been hit. It had, but just barely. As it turned out, I had not closed the bolt completely; therefore, the firing pin never fully impacted the primer. Back On the gun, I fired three shots at the buck, missing everyone. I was distraught! It took a minute for me to realize that since the wind was not blowing where I was, I never accounted for any windage even though the wind speeds approached 30mph between me and the buck. Luckily, the buck merely headed up the hill and took cover in its bed behind some brush.
Colton and I carefully closed the distance to approximately 370 yards. Once again, I set up the Creedmoor with a solid front and rear rest. For over two-hours, we waited for the buck to stand. Just after noon, the buck stood, moved around the brush and bedded again, but never provided a shot opportunity. We waited another hour before the buck stood and moved away from its bed. As the buck’s head disappeared behind a Pinyon tree, I fired. The buck dropped immediately!
“He’s down,” Colton exclaimed!
After the initial debacle, I was happy that I had redeemed myself with a one-shot, one kill…or so I thought.
Things Get Increasingly Western
I was beginning to pack up when Colton said, “the buck is moving.” Then he said, “it’s getting up!”
I was stunned and set everything back up. I was sure I had hit high, so I backed out a couple of clicks from the Leupold CDS dial, for a 350-yard shot. On its feet now, the buck moved to my left and stopped. I fired a second shot and the buck went down hard, slid headfirst downhill, and came to an abrupt stop. Colton watched the buck for several minutes through his binos, and the buck never moved. I packed up, while Colton continued to watch, and then I monitored the buck, while Colton packed his gear. The buck never moved, and we started toward the steep hill where it laid. About halfway, Colton looked through his Swarovski 15s to ensure the buck was still down, and it was.
Excitedly, we made our way up to the downed buck. When I was about 10 yards away, I saw the buck’s head and antlers off to my right and above me. As I continued its way, I saw the head move ever so slightly, and then again. I prepared to flank the buck for a finishing shot into the body. However, when I was directly below the buck, the buck gained its feet, and ran right toward me! Now I have heard of this type of thing happening, but I never believed it really happened—I wrote off such stories as “tall tales.” However, it was happening to me, and it was surreal. I froze, not knowing whether to choose fight or flight. Finally, I safely tried to get a shot, but the buck was just steps away, and there was nothing I could do. At just two paces, the buck veered to my left and right at Colton. I’m sure he was faced with the same dilemma as I had just witnessed. When the commotion ended—probably within seconds, we regained our composure and hurried to a vantage point to find, and hopefully dispatch the wounded buck. After just a minute or two, Colton found the buck bedded at the bottom of the hill. Quickly, I made a finishing shot on the buck, and the rodeo-like action was over.
When what I can only describe as an “ordeal,” was over, Colton and I traded notes and counted our blessings. Both of us were shaken, but never really put in harm’s way. In hindsight, most importantly, both of us just wanted to end the ordeal for the sake of the buck. Finally, we celebrated our successful harvest, quartered the buck, packed up, and made the journey back to the truck.
I was disappointed I never saw and had an opportunity at the big buck I had seen earlier in the year, but not many days pass without me thinking about pursuing it again one day. When I do, it will probably be yet another adventurous Coues Quest, probably with bow in hand.
Wes White Podcast Version