Cactus Canyon Coues

By Tim Burres

It was hours before daylight when I headed to the airport and caught a jet down to Tucson. It was mid-January, and on my schedule was an archery hunt in Arizona to pursue Coues' deer, and to escape the cold and snow of Iowa!

The Coues' deer is a Southwestern whitetail subspecies and is North America's smallest officially recognized antlered trophy. On average, a mature Coues' buck weighs less than 100 pounds. Many hunters consider it as our continent's most elusive trophy species because of the following:

1. Its gray color blends in with its environment;

2. It's unusually alert and skittish; and;

3. The rugged terrain it inhabits.

Dennis Ward, the dad of my outfitter, Steven Ward (, picked me up at the airport, welcomed me, and said, "The hunters are having really great luck; our kill rate is right at 100 percent in spite of this rain."

Steven Ward's outfitting business realizes a 100 percent success rate for all types of bowhunting. With three seasoned guides to assist hunters, Ward puts forth the extra effort to help ensure success.

"Over the counter" tags allow bowhunters the flexibility to journey to Arizona to pursue the Coues or mule deer when the cold of winter starts to settle in elsewhere. This also is a favorite winter destination for most archers because the rut is on, and it is the prime time to go after these skittish cervidae.

I settled into my room, unpacked, and headed to the practice range to check my bow to ensure everything was ready for the next day's adventure. After dinner, Steve said, "Get some rest; I'll pick you up at 5:30." After a brief night's sleep, morning came and as scheduled there was a knock on my door and Ward's familiar voice saying, "lets grab breakfast and find a big one!"

Harsh Weather, Terrain

I felt at home in this harsh, rugged terrain. The record snowfalls, pelting rainstorms, low clouds, and high driving winds reminded me of a Sitka Blacktail hunt I had on Kodiak Island, Alaska. I traditionally hunt whitetails in my home state, and I knew weather was not something anyone could control. I smiled to myself and thought, this is what it is all about -- I was having fun!

The snow actually helped the spot and stalk situations by changing the landscape from brown to white. Imagine a 4- or 5-year-old buck, that's been waiting 10 months to interact with a doe. Then imagine the same buck not ever having experienced snow and helplessly becoming covered up with this unusual white stuff. The result was the does were extremely skittish, fawns were frightened, and the constant noise of the border patrol vehicles, helicopters, even the appearance of 26, yes 26 illegals hiking across a nearby hill added to their anxiety. It seemed like these deer had plenty to deal with, and then there was this guy from Iowa carrying a bow. This definitely was going to be an interesting week!

Spots A Decent Buck

My guides Adam and Ward joined me that first morning in glassing a distant mountainside. Ward suddenly motioned to me to join him. In a hushed, excited whisper he said, "There's a really good buck about 600 yards up this drainage, all you can see are his antler tips. Do you see that big rock? He's just behind it. You'll have to move around to the right, stay low in the drainage, and then come up the back side, but it could work."

Eagerly, I dropped my pack, studied the rocky terrain, and planned my stalk. After observing the wind direction, I slipped the felt covered pads over my boots, and headed first down, around, and then up the steep cactus-covered mountain.

After about 40 minutes, I reached the crest of the cliff. I believed that I was less than 35 yards to the big rock that hid the buck. There was a heavy southwest wind that helped cover my scent and approach. Grunting softly, I got the buck on his feet. He was only 30 yards away, but suddenly a doe jumped up a mere 12 yards from me in the ocotillo maze. The ocotillo is a desert plant with several woody, spiny, whip-like, straight branches angling outward from the base and rising as high as 20 feet.

I heard a rock clatter down the mountainside, glanced to my left, and found the doe glaring at me. The buck instinctively looked at her and snapped a quick look at me. I stepped to the right, and then went to full draw, searching for an open spot to release my arrow -- but I had no shot! My sight picture was almost like looking through an ocotillo mosquito screen -- no shot. I again stepped to the right and found a narrow window; instinctively my arrow arced and was well on its way. At about 20 yards it sliced off an ocotillo branch!

Buck Vanishes

The nice buck vanished along with the doe down into a canyon at lightning speed. I though to myself, "he's a little smarter now," as I kicked the severed ocotillo branch off of the trail. As I headed down the mountain, I came upon a dormant rattlesnake den and was reminded that I wasn't in Iowa anymore.

This was the first of many attempts to take the stealthy and crafty Coues. There were other stalks that nearly came together, but the terrain definitely favored this elusive gray ghost.

I had been hunting hard and getting extremely close. Each morning I awoke with renewed fervor and anticipation -- even the nasty sinus cold that I brought with me on this hunt could not curtail my enthusiasm. When a hunt is going well, the days always seem to evaporate.

It was the last day of my hunt and the season, and I awoke a little earlier than normal. "Better get 'er done today," I chuckled to myself.

My guide seemed unusually excited about the day's hunt as he shared a new location for me to hunt.

"Tim, I want you to sit in a treestand till noon today, because I have a good feeling about it, and this is where my dad killed a lion with his bow," Ward said. "With the rut in high gear it should be a great spot"

"Sounds like a plan," I replied, and an hour later I was securing my safety belt to that tree. It was in a great area, but if a shot presented itself, it would be a close one -- maybe only 15 yards -- due to a severe rocky bench and the denseness of the brush and trees.

Snow Intensifies

It had started to snow again, and as I knocked an arrow, I said a little prayer, and settled in for the morning hunt. I thought to myself that tomorrow at this time, I'll be on a jet headed home. The sun slowly cleared the mountaintop and the inhabitants of the woods started to become anxiously active. Even the nearby stream seemed to have a voice of its own. There seemed to be a spiritual force in the woods, and I sensed something good was about to happen. The winds blew and the snow squall intensified.

I heard a twig snap behind my treestand, and shifted only my eyes. I noticed a fawn jump down off of a steep, rocky ledge. A few seconds later a second fawn followed in its steps. They ambled right down a trail to within a few feet of my treestand, and began eating twig tips. I thought to myself, that's almost too close if a big one comes through, and immediately my thoughts were interrupted by the noisy approach of their mom. The doe was nervous. Her gaited steps, half-cocked tail told me that she was in estrus. She calmed down briefly and chomped on twigs for a few moments.

I watched her actions as she kept looking back up the trail where she had appeared. After a minute or two, I heard rocks tumbling down on an adjacent trail, and a nice 4x4 buck made an appearance. He was in a hurry, and upon seeing her, he charged in her direction through heavy brush, offering no shot opportunity.

As quickly as they all appeared they all scrambled down the side of the cactus-covered canyon. Things can sure happen fast in this terrain!

Deer Appears

An hour passed and I was content, watching, listening to the other creatures. I was watching a squirrel in a nearby tree when I thought I heard a twig snap. I sat patiently knowing that if it a was a deer, it would be close and wouldn't tolerate any movement. A few more moments passed and I sensed that something was watching me. Slowly I rotated my head to the left and focused on the deer trail. I could make out the form of a deer, but its head was completely covered by a bush.

1514Slowly, I stood up and went to full draw. I voice grunted and the deer raised its head. It was a buck! I centered my pin behind his shoulder and released the arrow. The buck stumbled and slid down the snow-covered slope. I had my Coues!

He wasn't the largest I'd pursued, but as I knelt to lift his rack, I thanked God for my success. The size of his rack made little difference as the emotion swept over me and I realized the success of that moment in time. It was the last day of the season and I reflected back on the previous five days, the many bucks, the close encounters, the great guides, the great food, and the fabulous country.

Trip Notes

After each day's hunt I kept track of the number of deer I saw. I was surprised when I added up the numbers: five days in the field, 21 bucks and 82 does/fawns.

I hunted from well-placed treestands and ground blinds, but my favorite method was spot and stalk. Be in shape if you want to hunt here -- the elevation I hunted in ranged from 4,000 feet to 6,000 feet. Thus, great boots (such as Wolverine Antelope) are a must. Optics with a tripod are another essential (something like Swarovski 15 x 56), and aided me in locating these little deer on distant mountainsides or hidden deep within steep canyons. Also, my Bushnell A.R.C. rangefinder allowed me to confidently determine steep uphill and downhill distances. My Mathews bow delivered my Easton Vortex-tipped broadhead with deadly accuracy and resulted in a quick recovery. Ward suggested other items that should be in my pack including Band-aids, water, and lip balm.

This hunt can be as easy or as rugged as you choose. If your plan is to stalk, be in shape, especially if that big boy suddenly appears two miles away in the mountains. Practice uphill and downhill shots, which will be helpful and may payoff big dividends. Wards Outfitters did a great job for me, they hunt hard, are fun to be around. I am sure if you want to try for Coues or other Arizona big game animals, they are up to the challenge.

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