Coues Deer In Arizona's Red Zone

Coues Deer In Arizona's Red Zone

Some of Arizona's largest Coues whitetails live along the Mexican border, where transient illegal immigrants and their trash bring about some unique challenges.

Volunteers with Arizona Hunters Who Care pick up trash apparently left in the wake of illegal immigrants crossing the Southern Arizona desert.
Photo by Dave Sipe

Every Sunday during fall, football players battle between the 20-yard line and the end zone. The way a team plays in the "red zone" often indicates how successful it will be in the win column come Monday morning. It is the make-it or break-it part of the field in which games are won or lost and players can walk away as heroes.

In Southern Arizona, hunters fight a battle in their own red zone. In the 2005 Arizona Hunting Regulations, the unit maps show a new designation for the management units that border Mexico. A dashed red line surrounding these units refers to the warning: "Homeland security issues along the international border may affect the quality of a person's hunt." Clearly, the issue of illegal immigration has infiltrated the hunting world.

For hunters lucky enough to draw a Coues deer tag in Arizona's Red Zone, you'll find the buck of your dreams if you're willing to do the scouting, hiking and glassing necessary to find him. Sadly though, you will also be faced with illegal immigrants, their trash, and their threat to your safety and security.


In 2000, my brother Erik and I drew tags to hunt Coues deer during the December hunt in Unit 36B. Everywhere we looked, we found deer. From our high vantage points, we glassed an average of 50 deer each day, which included about 15 bucks. The rut was kicking in and it was just a matter of time until we found the buck we were looking for.

On a windy morning, we glassed the lee-side slopes and spotted a nice buck feeding alone. He soon bedded and as Erik watched through the spotting scope, I backtracked to get the wind and cover in my favor. I snuck within 150 yards and set up to shoot. It was going to be a chip shot; Erik and I regularly practiced at the range out to 500 yards. Two quick shots ensured that my buck never left his bed. The very symmetrical 3x3 grossed 105 inches green. That buck capped off one of the best hunts we have shared.


Four years later, I drew another tag to hunt Coues deer in Unit 36B. Due to work commitments and other hunts, I couldn't get down to scout before the season so I returned with my stepfather, Rob, to a few of the places I hunted in 2000. As we headed out to glass areas that I hadn't seen in four years, we astounded by the trash we encountered. Our old hunting grounds had apparently become a major travel corridor for illegal aliens who left trash at every water hole, along trails and especially at resting areas where it piled up like a city dump. The desert had dramatically changed in four years.

One evening late in the hunt, we climbed a high point and faced east to glass away from the setting sun. We searched in vain for deer, but as I turned south to glass the flats, I spotted a line of apparent immigrants walking toward us. Removing my binoculars from the tripod, I replaced them with a spotting scope and then counted more than 40 people. I called the U.S. Border Patrol on my cell phone. The dispatcher said they had a helicopter in the area.

As the people approached our position, Rob and I scrambled off the mountain and made sure we made it back to my truck before they did.

We could see the Border Patrol helicopter, but it was searching too far to the north. We called Border Patrol again and this time I gave them our GPS coordinates. The Blackhawk was hovering over us within minutes. It dropped two agents on the ground then continued its airborne search.

The agents on the ground, Officers Todd Sager and Clair Morris, walked up to us with three men they had captured. They quickly frisked and handcuffed them then climbed into the back of my truck. We drove them all to where the helicopter was circling over another group. Sager asked if we would watch the first three captives while they rounded up the others. We agreed but before they left, he asked if we were armed and instructed us to be prepared.

Sager and Morris brought in the first large group as the helicopter found another crowd. Off they ran again, leaving us to watch over 28 alleged illegal aliens. Luckily they gave us no trouble. With the second group gathered plus a few other stragglers, we quickly tallied 51 illegal crossers. "This is an average-sized group," Sager explained. As the helicopter landed nearby to wait for ground transportation, the agents singled out and handcuffed the toughest-looking men of the bunch.


I spoke with Gabriel Paz, an Arizona Game & Fish Department wildlife manager, about a few basic precautions hunters should take while in the Red Zone. First, when scouting, look for trails or other areas heavily used by illegal aliens -- then camp somewhere else. Second, always lock your vehicle and use other protective devices such as The Club or ignition kill switches.

If you can, glass from high points that allow you to keep your vehicle in sight. Third, leave someone in camp or again, glass from nearby points to keep an eye on camp.

"Many hunters have actually stopped camping and are now staying in motels," Paz said.

Finally, Paz issued a warning if you see anyone you suspect to be an illegal alien, "Don't confront them. Go the other direction and contact Border Patrol." These warnings may preserve the quality of your hunt, save your truck, and even save your life.

We had never encountered illegal aliens while out hunting and we weren't sure what to expect when we called for assistance. The response pleasantly surprised us. It was clear that the agents loved their work and were fighting hard to protect our borders. They were also very appreciative of our help and were glad to have hunters in the field. "Most hunters have both cell phones and GPS units, which always helps us find the illegals," Sager told us. But beware, they may ask you to help!


I did not find a trophy-class deer during my 2004 hunt, which is proof again that scouting is one of the key components to finding big Coues deer. The other key is glassing. Find a high point with good visibility, then glass, glass, glass!

Glassing paid off for author Trent Swanson with his Boone and Crockett-class

Red Zone Coues deer from Unit 36B. Its green score was 105 2/8.

Photo by Trent Swanson

Within the Red Zone, trophy Coues deer bucks can be found from the low desert mesquite flats to the tops of the highest mountains. Most of the deer are found in the oak woodland vegetation type as well as large ocotillo patches. If the ocotillos are difficult to glass into and even more difficult to walk through, that's where you are likely to find the largest bucks.

Chris Denham, an optics expert and Coues deer fanatic, has been hunting these desert ghosts since he was a kid growing up along the border. He concentrates on hunting at higher elevations but sometimes changes tactics. "Most Coues deer hunters will be glassing the mountains," he said, "but don't overlook the rolling hills at lower elevations -- climb up and glass back down."

Some of the wisest and wariest bucks have found sanctuary out in the flats. "There are some great Coues deer down there but they are hard to hunt on the relatively flat ground," Denham said. You won't see many deer down on the flats, but the buck you spot might just be that trophy you're searching for.

When glassing in the morning, put the sun at your back and look for deer as they move from feeding areas to bedding grounds. When it gets hot in the middle of the day, continue to search for bedded bucks. Often deer will get up and move throughout the day with the shade. Rarely will you ever see a whole deer -- look for small parts like the tail, legs or twitching ears. In the evening, face east and look for deer out feeding.

Many of the bucks you find will be yearlings; use your optics and be selective. You might have to look at 15 or 20 bucks to find an older age-class deer. Once you find your trophy, keep an eye on him. Sometimes one step is all it takes for a Coues buck to seemingly disappear. Before you take your eyes away from the binoculars, pick out nearby landmarks as reference points so you can find him again.

A good pair of binoculars mounted securely to a tripod is a must for finding these elusive critters. Quality optics paired with a tripod are absolute necessities here. If your checkbook can't stand a $2,000 hit for optics, don't worry, just buy the best binoculars and tripod you can afford, learn to use them, and use them a lot.


Arizona's Red Zone includes Management Units 34A, 34B, 35A, 35B, 36A, 36B, 36C. Each year, there are three separate rifle seasons. The October season gives hunters the chance to locate and pattern bucks during the hot summer months. These hunts are the easiest to draw with a nearly 100 percent draw rate. Success rates average 24 percent. The November hunt typically lasts 10 days and while harder to draw than the October hunt (average draw rate is 84 percent), the success rate drops to less than 19 percent. For a chance to hunt every year, apply for any of the units in the October or November seasons. But beware; hunting pressure may be high with over 3,500 tags allocated across the seven units for each of those seasons.

The late December season spans the beginning of the Coues deer rut and provides hunters with a great opportunity at record-book deer. During this season, the largest bucks drop their guard while searching for does. Success rates are always high but draw rates are low. For the best chance of drawing a tag in a unit that consistently produces trophy-class deer, try any of the 36s in December: Unit 36A -- 50 tags, 11 percent odds, 53 percent success; Unit 36B -- 150 tags, 12 percent odds, 36 percent success; Unit 36C -- 75 tags, 11 percent odds, 66 percent success.

Unit 34B

In Unit 34B, access is severely restricted on the northeast side of the Whetstone Mountains. For this reason, hunt the east, south and west sides. French and Joe canyons on the east are always popular. The west side usually has lower hunter numbers and some tremendous bucks. Try the areas from Apache Canyon south to Mud Spring Canyon. For a look at some not-so-typical whitetail country, access the west side through the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area off Highway 83 north of Sonoita.

Unit 35A

Unit 35A boasts one of the highest buck-to-doe ratios in the state but includes a large amount of land that is off-limits to hunters. Tags on Fort Huachuca are limited to properly licensed military personnel, the Coronado National Monument does not allow hunting, and there are a few private ranches that either do not allow access or severely restrict hunters. But don't let that stop you.

Hunt the public lands in the Canelo Hills and the west side of the Huachuca Mountains by heading southeast out of Sonoita along Highway 83. Look for areas to glass with good visibility of the oak-studded grasslands and hillsides. Also, be sure to check the desert habitat in the Mustang Mountains at the north end of the unit.

Unit 36B

Some of the biggest bucks in the state are found in Unit 36B, a large unit with most of the deer hunting opportunities found within the Coronado National Forest.

Each year more than 350,000 illegal aliens are apprehended in Arizona or roughly 1,000 each day. And yet immigration experts conservatively estimate that for every individual captured by the U.S. Border Patrol illegally entering the United States at the Mexican border, seven more get through. And the traffic is changing the desert landscape.

While illegal immigrants affect wildlife by pushing animals out of home ranges and competing for water, the trash they leave behind is not only visible but a deep concern. Discarded water bottles, food wrappers and clothes mark the passage throughout Arizona's Red Zone. Rest areas, some the size of a football field, have been found nearly knee-deep in trash.

Lance Altherr and a handful of bow hunters attacked the trash problem in 2002 by organizing a group called Arizona Hunters Who Care. "We decided it was time to do something instead of just complain," Altherr said.

Twice each year AHWC joins with volunteers from Safari Club International, the Arizona Deer Association, Grounds keeper Landscaping, Waste Management, Arizona Game & Fish, the U.S. Border Patrol and others to pick up trash southwest of Tucson. Over the last four years they have collected over 100,000 pounds of trash.

The original clean-up crew of 15 people has ballooned to more than 250 volunteers who in the spring of 2005 picked up 48,000 pounds of trash. At the next cleanup, Altherr hopes to have 500 volunteers.

Most of the trash is hauled off in rollaway dumpsters, but this year the group picked up about 2,500 backpacks and 60 bicycles. These were cleaned and repaired, then donated to needy kids in the Tucson area.

If you are interested in helping, go online to for more information. -- Trent Swanson

Near the Mexico border, try the areas around Holden Canyon and California Gulch. They can be reached off the Ruby Road that connects Arivaca and Nogales. In the north, bo

th sides of the Tumacacori Mountains hold good deer populations. Many roads lead from either the Arivaca Road or I-19 then cross private and state land before entering the Tumacacoris. This area is always popular so prepare to do some hiking to get away from the crowds.

Unit 36C

All access into Unit 36C is off Highway 286 between Robles Junction and Sasabe. Many ranch roads head west off the highway and lead to the base of the Baboquivari Mountains. There can be substantial hunting pressure close to the roads so do some hiking and don't forget to glass the flats.

This unit borders the eastern edge of the Tohono O'odham Reservation, which is only denoted by a poorly maintained, unmarked three-strand fence. Be sure you know where you are; the fines can be steep!

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