Desert Deer Hunts for Snowbirds
January 17, 2019
From fall through early winter, hunters living in the Rocky Mountains find the region a pure hunting paradise. Fall offers so many hunting opportunities — from upland birds to waterfowl to big-game adventures — you sometimes don’t know where to begin. In some Rocky Mountain states, black-bear hunting is open, too.
Then, almost suddenly, deep winter sets in and hard-core Rocky Mountain hunters grow restless. For many, small-game and predator hunting currently open lacks the pizzazz of the sexier big-game and upland-bird seasons. But hunters who haven’t indulged in enough big-game hunting come January can still go afield … if they were intrepid enough to have the foresight to submit an early license application (there are exceptions) … if they have the gumption to load a 4-WD vehicle with camping gear and coolers … if they’re prepared to hitch a camper to their pickups … if they’re willing to push a day south … if they’re ready to do all this and more to get on the trail of the Coues white-tailed deer.
Arizona and New Mexico are your destinations for these mid-winter big-game hunts, and while desert muleys also abound, it is the elfin Coues whitetail that has captured the hearts of late-season hunters up and down the Rocky Mountains. Once largely forsaken but for a small cadre of cult-like aficionados, Coues deer have become hunters’ newest bucket-list quarry. Blame it on the new fascination with slams, or just plain-and-simple wanderlust, but the Coues deer, once a subspecies few outside their range had heard of, is now a major attraction that lures serious big-game hunters to the Southwest each winter.
COUES DEER LATE INTO THE SEASON
Whether hunting Coues deer in Arizona or New Mexico, the choice of hunting weapons dictates the destination for a Coues deer hunter. Rifle hunters draw for pre-rut dates when big bucks begin moving more freely and make themselves more visible, while bowhunters can hunt the December rifle seasons (but they’re still required to draw a tag) and the January bowhunting dates.
Predictably, Arizona units close to large population centers, namely Tucson and Phoenix, are most popular. But since you’re making a winter vacation of this, you’re better off concentrating on Arizona’s remote, fringe or wilderness areas where tags are easier to draw. Remote areas include the Chiricahua and Pelloncillo mountains, way down in the southwestern corner of the state; fringe habitats, including northern Mogollon Rim units; the mesquite flats south of Tucson, where vegetation is thicker and hunting more demanding; or any large parcel of national forest and other federal lands where large swatches of real estate are road-free, inviting hunters to backpack free and clear of the masses. The Galiuro, Pinal, Whetstone and Sierra Ancho mountains, as examples, offer such opportunities.
January is another story for bowhunters, when Arizona bowhunting tags are offered over the counter, and the entire month is open to bowhunting in many units. And there’s a bonus: Arizona starts each new license year on January 1; bowhunters who are not successful in January can apply for a rifle tag for the following December; and, bowhunters who tagged a deer in December using the lottery rifle drawings, can use their bowhunting tag as little as a week after rifle season closes to take another buck.
Opportunities are more limited to hunt Coues deer in New Mexico, where the state has set aside a handful of high-demand quality Coues units for trophy hunting.
New Mexico offers a handful of December rifle seasons, in units such as 23 and 24 in and around the Burro Mountains near Silver City, but these largely are highly coveted tags for which lottery drawings apply. Pulling a tag is a low-odds proposition (although worth applying for). If you apply and don’t draw, you’re only out a few bucks (unlike Arizona, which makes you purchase a $160 hunting license to apply).
The big winter event in New Mexico’s Coues whitetail world is the archery-only hunt open Jan. 1-15 across the state. Among the better hunting areas for filling that tag are the pockets of the Black Range, including the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Area near Membres; the western and southern reaches of the Gila National Forest near Glenwood and Silver City; and the Blue Range on the New Mexico-Arizona border near Alma and Glenwood. The Mule Creek and San Francisco River areas can also prove worthwhile. The Bootheel region of the Pelloncillo Mountains on the New Mexico side and the aforementioned Burro Mountains can be excellent places to hunt Coues deer, but tags are generally much more difficult to draw.
By mid-December, Coues whitetails are beginning to rut. Come January, the rut is generally in full swing. I’ve seen Coues deer rutting in February, so the rut obviously strings along for quite some time, dependent on weather. Pack for any kind of weather, from cold and snowing (rare, although it happens), to cool and drizzling, to shirt-sleeve days peaking in the 70s — or some combination of all of these conditions during a single week.
STRATEGIES AND TACTICS
Plenty of public hunting land lies in the Southwest, so finding a place to hunt Coues deer is easy. If you’re going for a lottery tag, study draw odds and contrast them with hunter-success rates across the region to find a good fit. Once you have a tag in hand, or you have set aside time for a guaranteed bow hunt, talk to regional game biologists to understand deer distribution and behavior, purchase good land-status maps of those areas (those including topographical overlays) and begin studying. Look for roadless areas and, in drier ranges, water sources that often concentrate deer during dry periods.
Once on the ground, cover a lot of ground, getting a better feel for your hunting area, seeking small, ball-bearing-sized droppings and tiny, pointed cloven hoof prints (javelina tracks are blunted). Should you be lucky enough to find shed antlers, you’re in luck! Coues are fairly territorial unless living at higher elevations where snow pushes them out (more common on Arizona’s Mogollon Rim or New Mexico’s Black Range or Gila NF). Coues deer often gather in fairly localized pockets. Once you get into sign, you’re onto a solid spot.
Spot-and-stalk is largely the name of the game in Coues whitetail hunting. Once you have found an area with sign (don’t expect cow-lot concentrations of droppings, but the fresher the better), the object is to gain a commanding vantage and put quality optics to work. This serves two purposes: First, you won’t wear yourself thin endlessly hiking rough terrain. Second, Coues are ultra-wary, to the point of proving neurotic. After all, these 90-pound deer are hunted relentlessly by hungry mountain lions and coyotes. They take notice when you tromp through their territory multiple times.
For glassing Coues deer, I unleash big binoculars — 15x60 mm Zeiss that I have owned forever and are no longer made. If you’re in the marketplace, choose a top-quality 10x42mm binocular, preferably something German or Austrian made, although mid-priced optics are getting better all the time. Vortex offers the new Kaibab HD binoculars (which aren’t cheap either) in the same configuration. I also use a quality 15-45x60 mm-class spotting scope. You’ll discover a lot of does and lesser bucks appear at first as nothing more than a suspicious-looking lump. Added magnification helps sort out those sightings out more efficiently.
Patience is key to success in glassing Coues. It is not uncommon to pore over a hillside with optics for hours, declaring the landscape empty, only to have a buck stand and prove you wrong. Mount your glass on a tripod to pick a landscape apart bit by bit. The grey hide of a Coues deer blends with its environment like a chameleon, and the deer hide as well as a Midwest pheasant. At least half of the trophy Coues I have killed were found in their beds after detecting something as subtle as an ear flicker. Earmark conspicuous landmarks (rock outcrops, dead trees, open spots) that will be easily recognized when you change your glassing site. When you back off and come in from another angle to take advantage of wind or cover, your perceptions are altered. It’s easy to become lost and confused, blowing your hard-earned opportunity.
TROPHY QUALITY & THE SHOT
When it comes down to it, any legal Coues is a hard-earned trophy, but if you insist on keeping score, 65 inches typical and 75 inches non-typical get you into the Pope & Young Club’s archery records book; 110 and 125 inches, typical and non-typical, respectively, earns your award entry into Boone & Crockett Club’s rifle-kill records. However, any Coues buck taken with a bow truly is a trophy; this just might be the most challenging endeavor in hunting, period.
Generally, any buck scoring more than 95-100 inches warrants serious bragging rights. Bowhunters who take any healthy fork-horn Coues with brow tines will likely make book. Rifle hunters who take a solid 4x4 with 6- to 7-inch tines, decent brows and heavy mass can proudly claim a mature buck. Five-by-five bucks are rare; non-typical bucks are even more so.
When hunting Coues, no matter your weapon choice, arrive prepared for longer-than-average shots. It’s quite common in Coues country to be able to peer into thick brush from straight across a canyon, but move from your vantage and vegetation becomes impossibly tangled. Your target can be instantly lost. Rifle shots taken from 400 to 500 yards aren’t uncommon in Coues hunting, and the small bucks make for challenging targets. Modern gear such as laser rangefinders, ballistic apps or calculators and bullets carrying high-coefficients have made such shots more ethical.
When bowhunting, let’s just say that during an average two-week Coues hunt, you’ll find yourself struggling to merely arrive on the same hillside with a buck. Of the 13 P&Y-quality Coues bucks I’ve arrowed (two of those scoring better than B&C minimums), my closest shot was 45 yards, my longest 67 yards, with the mean average around 55 yards. That’s a long poke with a bow, especially if you have not put in your time practicing for such eventualities. Streamlined mechanical broadheads and slim-profile carbon arrows — like Victory Archery’s VAP, Gold Tip’s Kinetic Pierce or Easton’s Injexion — are ideal. I also choose a 7-pin, fixed-pin or single-pin mover sight for precise long-range shooting.
YOU WILL HAVE EARNED IT
Coues whitetails not only make a novel addition to any trophy room. They are a prize you will nearly always earn the hard way, and the great challenge delivers great appreciation. The rough-and-tumble desert mountains of the rocky, spine-cursed Southwest are an entirely foreign world. When you return sunburned, cactus-stabbed, thorn-torn, and achy, you will find yourself yearning for more. You’re a Coues hunter now. Nothing else quite compares.