The Quest for a Raffle Coues Buck | Darren Choate
The Quest for a Raffle Coues Buck
By Darren Choate
I’ll spare you the “It all started when…” story.
I’ll spare you the “It all started when…” story. Suffice it to say, I was overtaken with surprise when the caller ID on my phone read “AZGFD” as I watched the Arizona Super Raffle’s live feed on the same phone. In the chaos of answering the phone while trying to watch the live feed, I was unaware of what tag I had drawn. I wasn’t disappointed to find out I had drawn the Super Raffle Whitetail tag. As you might imagine, soon after, my phone blew up.
Expectations and Goals
Like any passionate Coues hunter, my dream was to shoot a mega-giant. Several of my friends have taken Coues bucks well over the 120-inch mark. I have captured images of several bucks exceeding 120-inches on trail-camera. Yet, I had never had seen one in the field, the biggest right around 118-inches. Albeit lofty, I set my goal of a 120+ Coues buck. My hunt dates were August 15, 2020, through August 14, 2021. Feeling that most bucks would not be anywhere full-grown in early August of 2021, and knowing those bucks would likely drop their antlers around the first week of April 2021, I gave myself until the end of March 2021 to fill my tag.
Arizona Super Raffle
As a hunter and conservationist, I purchase a few of Arizona’s Big Game Super Raffle tags every year. The raffle is sponsored by the Arizona Game & Fish Department and conducted by volunteers of a 501(c)(3) sportsman group, AZBGSR. The mission: raise money for Arizona wildlife.
“Every dollar raised for each species by the raffle of these special big game tags is returned to the Arizona Game and Fish Department and managed by the Arizona Habitat Partnership Committee (AHPC) for that particular species. With input from local habitat partners across the state, as well as the input from the organizations involved with the fundraising, they collectively determine which projects will provide the most benefit to each species represented.” – AZBGSR
The super raffle tags are coveted because they have few limitations, and the tag allows pursuit for one year across the state’s game units managed by the AGFD. Ultimately, the tags raise valuable funds for the management of Arizona’s wildlife.
The 2019-2020 raffle campaign raised $864,415. Over its 15 years, raffle sales have totaled over $8M.
To purchase a 2021 raffle ticket, visit https://arizonabiggamesuperraffle.com/.
I was on my own to find the buck I wanted to shoot.
Along with my set expectations and goals, I knew that I wanted to make my raffle Coues quest a DIY hunt. I wanted to be an active hunter, not a shooter. That said, note that I guided professionally for several years in Arizona and New Mexico. The last outfitter I guided hunts for was A3 Trophy Hunts, one of Arizona’s premier outfitters. My son, brother-in-law, and many of my good friends guide for A3 as well. A3 takes trophy-caliber animals consistently every year. My hunt included glassing help from a few professional guides, but I was never provided a buck’s location to go shoot. I was on my own to find the buck I wanted to shoot, with help, obviously.
The Hunt Begins
My sister-in-law took her first big game animal, a Coues buck, on that hunt. I came up empty-handed.
In addition to my Super Raffle Whitetail tag, I drew both an early archery bull elk tag and a general Coues tag in Arizona. I also drew a New Mexico deer tag.
While scouting for my elk hunt and during its course, I kept a rifle in camp — never in the field while actively hunting elk — in the event an opportunity presented itself. I did see a few Coues bucks on the hunt, but nothing I deemed worthy of the raffle tag.
In late October, I went afield with my sister-in-law and a friend with our general Coues tags. I dreamed of taking a monster buck, keeping my raffle tag for the rut, or taking two giants on the same hunt. Neither dream came to fruition. However, my sister-in-law took her first big game animal, a Coues buck, on that hunt. The guys came up empty-handed.
November and December
I was able to make a few single-day hunts in December but never turned up a shooter buck.
My New Mexico deer hunt was challenging. I only had a couple of days to hunt because of other commitments. I saw a few bucks but no shooters. The drought made the hunting conditions difficult.
Later in the month, I set out on my brother-in-law’s late Arizona elk hunt, my raffle tag in tow. On the first evening, I started feeling “off.” The next morning, I didn’t feel great. The group I was with went in search of a bull, but I remained in camp for a couple of hours. I stayed in bed for a spell and then moved to the table, sipping coffee slowly. Finally, I felt good enough to head out. I drove my side-by-side down a road I hunted as a child, glassing periodically. I saw only a small group of mule deer does.
Later that morning, I headed to an area with cell service to check-in with my wife. Once in service, I received a text from her that stated she had tested positive for COVID19. If I was infected as well, I did not want to spread the virus within the group I was with, so I immediately headed home. On the short trip home, I became overwhelmingly tired. I fought off the need to pull over and rest, finally making my destination early in the afternoon.
Although I was never tested, I assume that I also had COVID19. Other than a few cold-like symptoms, the only other symptom I had was severe fatigue. I spent the next two weeks taking several naps each day. The majority of December was behind me, however. I was able to make a few single-day hunts in mid-December but never turned up a shooter buck. I knew my best chance at a real giant could come the week after Christmas or the first two weeks of January during the rut.
January and February
During that time, two giant bucks were spotted.
I hunted over 20 days in January and early February. During that time, two giant bucks were spotted.
My brother-in-law spotted the first buck high on a mountain approximately 2.75 miles into the backcountry. Even at that distance, through 15X binos, the buck’s antlers were easily visible. Its body was massive. There was no way to see its headgear’s details, but we could tell it was a wide, tall, and heavy buck. It was a mega-giant!
Using onX to find a path to the buck, we discovered it would be a 3-mile hike with a 2,000+ foot elevation gain to get to a point 900 yards away from the buck and no way to get closer for a better shot. Before we could formalize a plan, the buck followed a doe out of sight — forever! We continued to look for the buck but never turned it up again.
The second giant buck, I didn’t see, although I was within shooting range of it. One morning in February, I returned to a spot where I had seen a few good bucks. However, this morning I only saw a doe and fawn. While glassing a long ridge for deer, I happened to see two javelina. Later in the morning, I re-located to the knob across from where I had seen the two pigs. I never saw another deer, so I left about 9:15 AM. I continued to glass as I made my way back to the vehicle and on the long trip back to camp.
Back in camp, my son and his friend told me what they had found that morning. They had glassed about two miles to the south of me. However, they saw a good buck and made a half-mile climb for a closer look. It turned out the buck was not a shooter, but they turned and glassed my way for a bit. They watched a giant Coues buck (~110-plus) right in between the two javelina I had seen, just minutes after I had left. That afternoon, we glassed the backside of the ridge where the buck had likely gone to bed. We never saw the buck or a deer, for that matter.
The next morning, I returned home.
The Last Trip
Initially, the climb wasn’t terrible.
About a week later, I returned for a 5-day trip. I spent the better half of one day making the drive. The next day, I searched both locations for one of the giant bucks. However, I never saw either buck. As the end of February approached, I felt the walls closing in slightly. On one hand, I had the entire month of March ahead of me to hunt. (My brother-in-law and I had planned a trip into the backcountry where the first big buck was spotted.) On the other, there was also the realization that the hunt’s days were now numbered. I decided to change my goal to shoot any buck bigger than one that hung on my wall, which was ~105-inches.
My son, Colton, was on his way to meet me that evening. Another friend, Michael Goodwin, was getting a few days off of work and was excited to help on the hunt. That evening, we put a plan together, via text messaging, for the following morning. The next morning, the three of us left in the dark, climbing to a high vantage to once again search for a worthy Coues buck.
Initially, the climb wasn’t terrible. Toward the top, however, our lungs were burning. The sun was barely peeking over the mountain tops behind us as we began to glass. First, we spotted a large group of mule deer and then a Coues doe. Nearby was a small Coues buck. As dawn turned into day, we continued to glass, intent on finding “The One.” I turned to the north, focusing on a long ridge now covered with sunlight.
Immediately, I spotted two deer. Through my 15s, I could tell one of the deer was a buck. I communicated my find to my helpers; both had bigger glass. The buck was big! We quickly came up with a plan to get closer to investigate. Twenty minutes later, we were 500 yards directly across from where the big buck was spotted. Patiently, we glassed the opposing hillside, hoping to re-find the buck. Finally, we spotted a buck, and then a second. Unfortunately, the bigger buck was nowhere to be found. We had either overestimated the size of the big buck, or it had eluded us all together. Still, we continued to glass.
The bucks were big; one was next level.
The sun, above the horizon now, warmed our bodies. Its warmth provided a boost of deer sightings. We began to see deer in every direction. To our west, we saw several bucks in a large group of deer. We decided to make our way down off of the ridge we were on and onto the opposing ridge for a better look. Cautiously, we topped out on the next ridge. However, we were not cautious enough. Deer exploded in every direction. Quickly, I followed the bulk of the deer to the south.
I finally rounded the top of the ridge to see what I assumed to be the deer we just spooked headed back to where we had just come from. Disappointed, I sat down to glass the fresh ridges in front of me. Soon, the other two joined me. As I glassed, I heard a faint, “Dad.” I turned to see Colton motioning me over. I joined the other two. They had spotted two groups of deer in a bowl at the top of the closest hillside. There was a group of mule deer with several bucks and a group of Coues bucks. The bucks were big; one was next level.
Colton and Michael asked me what I thought about the buck. I was in a tough spot. I knew that the upcoming month (March) could be a fantastic time to find a big buck. On the other hand, I also knew that my work commitments would limit my time in the field. I was confident that the buck was larger than any buck I had taken in the past. Even though I had seen a couple of bigger bucks, I told them I wanted to give it a shot.
We gave Michael a few hand signals that would help us keep tabs on the buck’s whereabouts, and then Colton and I took off in pursuit. We were well over 1,000 yards from the buck. We would have to go east, over the ridgeline’s crest to remain out of sight on our approach, and then top back over for a shot. At the same time, we would have to be cautious not to spook the 20-plus deer nearby. As it turned out, it was worse than that. We jumped deer about every 100 yards. Some went east, but others went west into the same bowl where the buck was now bedded.
When we reached the last knob of the ridgeline, Colton and I carefully stalked over the top for a shot. For the stalk, I packed my tripod and 15s in my pack, ultimately relying on Colton to find the buck. With the bowl right in front of us, we sat down to glass for the buck. While Colton glassed, I took a range; it was just over 300 yards. Right away, Colton found two of the bucks. I pulled down the bipod legs on the gun, set my backpack as a second rest, and laid in wait. I found the bucks in the scope. We debated but decided that, although big, neither was the big buck. We decided to get closer.
A little further up the hill, Colton glassed again. He looked back at me and whispered, “I think I found it.” He had. The buck was bedded with several mule deer does and one Coues doe. We picked out a tree that would provide enough cover to get to a favorable shooting position. I led the way while Colton measured the buck’s demeanor. I made it to the tree and set up for a shot. A quick range revealed it was slightly over 250 yards. I made the appropriate scope adjustments. As Colton joined me at the tree, I told him that if the buck stood and went to the right, I would have a problem tracking it.
However, the “THWACK!” of the bullet hitting its intended target was a dead give away the buck was down.
Almost immediately, the buck rose — walking to the right. The best position below the tree for a prone shot was on its left side, making it difficult for me to move with the buck as it moved right. As best as I could, I moved with the buck. After walking about 30 yards, the buck stopped. The crosshairs were already placed on its vitals. I never field-judged the buck. I knew it was big, and that was good enough for me. Hurriedly, I squeezed the trigger. The gun recoiled enough that I did not see the results of the shot. However, the “THWACK!” of the bullet hitting its intended target was a dead give away the buck was down.
Behind me, I heard Colton’s exclamation, “You smoked him!” Maneuvering slightly, I put the buck in the scope in case a follow-up shot was needed. The buck kicked its legs a few times and then perished where he had stood. I turned to Colton, extended my hand for a handshake. Once our hands were clasped, I pulled him in, hugged him, and thanked him for his help. The experience was one we had shared many times as both shooter and helper. The feeling never gets old.
A few minutes went by. Finally, Colton said, “let’s go see it.” We made our way to the downed buck. It was not the mega-giant, 120-plus-inch buck I had dreamed about for many months. Still, it was an exceptional buck. Thankful for a great hunt, we celebrated. Shortly after we reached the buck, Michael made his way up the hill and joined our celebration. After taking a few photos to keep as mementos of the hunt, we quartered the buck, packed our gear and the meat, and started the long journey back to the vehicle. Three miles later, over steep and rocky terrain, we arrived. The hunt was over. The experience was humbling, and having the raffle tag was an honor. I spent numerous days with family and friends, sharing campfires, meals, and the adventure of the hunt. It was time well spent. To all of the future holders of this special tag, I wish you happy hunting.
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Images of the Hunt
Darren is the Founder of Western&Whitetail. Prior to his career in the outdoors, Darren served as an Airman in the US Air Force. As a freelancer, his articles have been published online and featured in magazines such as Western Whitetail, Western Hunter, Quality Whitetails, Cabela’s Outfitter Journal, Fur-Fish-Game, and Rocky Mountain Game & Fish Magazine. Additionally, Darren spent time as the Editor In Chief of Whitetail Journal, Bowhunting World, Predator Xtreme, Archery Business and Hunting Retailer magazines with Grand View Outdoors. He is a voting member and supporter of the Professional Outdoor Media Association (POMA). Although he lives in elk and Coues country, Darren enjoys hunting across the country and writing about his experiences.
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