Desert Deer Coin Toss

Desert Deer Coin Toss

Archery deer hunters in Arizona and New Mexico can string up Coues deer or mule deer. Here's how you can get yours!

The author shot this fine 4x4 desert mulie in southern New Mexico in January 2008. The shot came late in the day near a plastic water tub surrounded by a jungle of thick oak brush and cedars. The dry ground around the tank was littered with tracks, both elk and deer. Several fresh rubs were visible on nearby cedar trees. Photo by Brandon Ray.

It was a nice problem to debate. Straight to the north, maybe 800 yards away from my spotting scope, was a big-bodied, heavy-antlered 3x3 muley buck. His dark antlers were the color of a chocolate bar. He was chasing does like a cutting horse, dodging in and out around clumps of cholla cactus and mesquites, kicking up clouds of dust. His tongue hung out like an overheated dog's.

With a swivel of my scope, I found something unexpected. To the east, no more than 400 yards, was a lone Coues whitetail buck. He was nibbling leaves off a bush, oblivious that a rut-induced muley frenzy was taking place in the same county, let along just a quarter-mile off his flank. The Coues also appeared to have no clue that I, too, was nearby. What do I do now?

That's where a late-season desert deer bowhunt in the Southwest get's interesting. In Arizona, the deer tag is good for either species. In New Mexico, most deer tags are species-specific -- but not all tags, so check the regulations carefully.

Depending on where you hunt in the Southwest, you could face the same dilemma I did. Do you hunt mulies or hunt whitetails? The two species prefer slightly different habitats, but in some locations it's possible to find the two species sharing the same hillside, same waterhole or same brushy mesquite flat.

On that cold day last December in southern Arizona, the sinking sun made the decision for me. Daylight was dying, and there was no time for a stalk on the whitetail or the muley. I would return.

New Mexico archers searching specifically for a Coues buck concentrate their efforts in the extreme southwest corner of the state. According to Area Game Manager Pat Mathis of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the top counties for Coues whitetails include Hidalgo, Grant, Catron, Sierra and Socorro. Much of this range includes the Gila National Forest and the Coronado National Forest.

"I've seen Coues bucks as high as 10,000 feet," Mathis says, "but mostly you find them between 5,500 and 7,000 feet elevation in open stands of pinion-juniper, ponderosa pines and oaks. In that southwest region of the state public land is abundant."

And mule deer overlap their range with that of the whitetails in some of these areas. In fact, mule deer are more widespread across the Land of Enchantment than are the Coues whitetails.

Generally speaking, the biggest antlered mulies are found in the northern part of the state. The top pick for "gagger" bucks is Rio Arriba County on the Colorado border. And you won't find whitetails here. The famed Jicarilla Indian Reservation produces record-book caliber muley bucks every year. Public land units that border the "Jic" grow some studs, as well.

Glassing is the foundation of Western deer hunting. Serious desert hunters rely on large, tripod-mounted binoculars. Find a high vantage point, put the sun at your back, get comfortable and be patient. If you know you're watching over an area with good deer movement, glass for hours at a time before relocating. Photo by Brandon Ray.

Outside of hunting private land in Old Mexico, southern Arizona is the top spot for tagging a big Coues whitetail. If you plan to focus your hunt on whitetails, look at extreme south and southeastern New Mexico.

According to Brian Wakeling, chief of game management for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the top counties for hunting whitetails include Pima, Cochise, Santa Cruz, Greenlee, Graham and Gila.

"Those same counties hold mulies, too," Wakeling reveals. "It's usually a matter of localized habitat and plant species as to which deer you'll encounter. It's usually only a short walk from an area with whitetails to one with mulies. Whitetails are mostly in the grassland and oak/woodland savanna areas. At higher elevations, you find whitetails in oaks and pines. At lower elevations, in country punctuated by cactus and mesquite trees, you get more overlap of both species and find more mule deer. Maricopa County near Phoenix is a good area for big mulies."

Archers who want to use calling tactics to target one species over the other must keep peak rut dates in mind. In general, mule deer usually rut first, in mid- to late December. The whitetail rut usually kicks in later, early January through the end of the month.

While it's not as widely used in the desert as it is for northeastern whitetails, calling can work for both mulies and whitetails. Stash a grunt call, can call and rattle bag or rattling horns in your pack just in case.

One year, while hunting public land in the New Mexico desert, I spied a muley buck overloaded with hormones. His nose was to the ground in that classic bird-dog position, lip curled and neck swollen like a Brahma bull. He was scent-trailing an unseen doe. I grunted loud with my call. He stopped. Using a shed antler, I thrashed it in a nearby juniper bush. The buck came on a string, stopping to stare at 30 yards. On closer inspection through my binoculars, his main beam was busted slick off on his right side, so I passed the shot. But it was proof calls can work.

Calling won't work every time, but it's a tactic to remember when other options run dry. On another late-season muley hunt, I spied a tall-racked, heavy 4x4 buck with a harem of does, just across the fence on land I could not hunt. For two days straight, mornings and evenings, I watched that big buck court his does just 200 yards across the boundary. With nothing to lose, I set up on my side of the fence in a cluster of cedar trees. Arrow nocked, I smashed a rattle bag back and forth in my hands while simultaneously blowing a grunt call. For a short time the herd of deer stared in my direction then went back to feeding. For 15 minutes I rattled and grunted, eventually pulling two curious does off the herd, walking stiff-legged in my direction. They closed the gap to 50 yards, but the buck never budged.


know other hunters who report good success calling Coues whitetails with grunt calls and rattling horns when the rut is at its peak in January.

Last December, the author stalked this great 8-point Coues buck on public ground in southern Arizona. Just an occasional glint of sunlight off his antlers confirmed the buck was bedded in a prickly green bush. Ray waited all day until the buck finally got up and he took aim. His first-ever Coues buck was a dandy. The wide-spread rack gross-scored nearly 90 inches. Photo by Brandon Ray.

Water is an obvious ambush point for desert bucks. Don't think of this strategy just for hot days or for the early season. Even when it's cold, bucks need to drink.

My friend, Rick Forrest, is an ace at killing quality bucks in the Arizona desert. He says the reason hunting over water works so well in December and January has nothing to do with the air temperature. He believes because vegetation is drier and less palatable in the winter months, deer need more water.

Even on cold days, sitting in a blind over water can pay off. In the early season, the day might be scorching hot according to the thermometer, he says, but because vegetation is green and lush, deer get more moisture in their diet so they sometimes drink less. Makes sense to me.

In January 2008, I hunted desert mulies in southern New Mexico with Johnny Hughes from Elite Outfitters (, based in Alto, New Mexico. The brush on the ranch where we hunted was so thick it was tough to glass up a buck. A water tank in a valley floor surrounded by a jungle of thick oak brush and cedars caught my eye. The dry ground around the tank was littered with tracks, both elk and deer. Several fresh rubs were visible on nearby cedar trees.

The tank wasn't much to look at -- little more than a blue plastic tub not much bigger than a kid's swimming pool -- but it was water in arid country, and the sign was fresh.

One afternoon, frustrated from hiking and glassing with no sightings of big bucks, I cleared a spot under an overhanging cedar limb on the hillside near the water tub for a place to sit. It was the closest cover, 60 yards away, to the water tank. I nocked an arrow, donned gloves and a head net, and waited. It was cold, in the 30s. The tub was frozen like a block of ice. A little free water rimmed its edges.

Just before sunset, I looked up in time to spy a dandy 4x4 buck walking in from behind the tub for a drink. When he turned broadside, head down slurping water from the edge of the trough 62 yards away, I slammed a broadhead-tipped carbon arrow through both lungs. He piled up within sight. The antlers of the old, white-faced buck carried a narrow spread, but the rack featured deep forks that looked like thick slingshots.

Two time frames work best for ambushing bucks over water. Late afternoon has always been productive for me, but the other best time might surprise you. Midday hours in the heat of the day, from 10 am until 2 pm, are great times to ambush a thirsty buck.

Last year, I guarded water on public land in southern Arizona. I was hunting Coues country. For two days I sat -- first, in a natural brush blind over a runoff trough, then another time in a portable pop-up blind over a different water tank. On both sits, the only time of the day I had deer quench their thirst was at midday. I saw mostly does and one small spike, so I did not shoot. However, at both of those tanks, my desert deer hunting friends tell me big bucks have been killed at midday.

The standard hunting tactic for bucks in the Southwest deserts, whether they're mulies or whitetails, is to spot and stalk the animals. To do it right, big glass is in order.

The pros use tripod-mounted 15X and 20X binoculars to spot their quarry. Top-quality 10x40 binoculars or a variable power spotting scope would be minimum gear if you plan to take this hunt seriously. Find a high vantage point, put the sun at your back, get comfortable and be patient. Most hunters only glass for a short time then get up and move. That can be a mistake. If you know you're watching over an area with good deer movement, be patient. Glass for hours at a time before relocating.

Once you spot a target buck, map out your approach. Use landmarks, like a saguaro cactus or boulder, to mark a bedded buck's position. If hunting with a partner, use hand signals to help guide you inside bow range. Put soft, quiet stalking slippers over your boots to muffle footsteps, wear full camo and move like a snail, hugging shadows and staying low.

Be prepared for long-range shot opportunities. My bow rig for hunts like these sports five sight pins set for 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 yards. I practice diligently year 'round with broadheads so I know I can make those long shots. Modern incline/decline laser rangefinders give you the distance to hold for the shot (rather than the true distance) and are a must for confident shooting in steep country.

Last December, I stalked a fine 8-point Coues buck on public ground in southern Arizona. When the buck bedded in a prickly green bush, I slithered in close to within about 50 yards of its position, then got comfortable on the hillside overlooking the rocky wash where it lay resting. I planned to wait all day. Just the occasional glint of sunlight off his antlers confirmed he was still bedded.

Late in the day, he got up. I was ready. I had already determined the distance to several plants around his bed with my rangefinder. At 40 yards, my carbon arrow thumped like a fist on a watermelon right behind his mouse-gray shoulder. My first-ever Coues buck was a dandy, with a wide spread and a gross score of nearly 90 inches.

Mulies or whitetails? When you bowhunt in the desert Southwest, sometimes you don't know which deer you'll find. The guide books tell you certain species live in only certain areas, but the deer don't read those books. Wherever you hunt in the Southwest deserts, not knowing exactly what you'll see is what makes this hunt so unpredictable -- like the flip of a coin, but you can win be it heads.

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