By George E. Bowser
As our plane touched down in Tucson, Arizona, my long time hunting buddy, Steve Manning, and I were looking forward to a new experience. It had been just over a year since we both collected fine Columbian blacktail deer in northern California, and now we were looking forward to the opportunity of adding the Coues whitetail deer to our quest of taking the five deer of North America.
We were met at the airport by our outfitter and guide, Steve Ward, of Ward’s Outfitters. Manning and I booked a 2x1 Coues deer hunt and were successful in drawing the prized tag on our first attempt. We would be hunting the high desert region of southern Arizona just miles from the Mexican border. We fully expected to see, if not encounter, illegal aliens attempting to elude the United States Border Patrol as we glassed the canyons for the elusive ghost deer.
There were to be two other hunters in camp from the Birmingham Chapter of the Safari Club. Jim Powell, their chapter’s treasurer made the trip but his friend was not able. Jim would be hunting 1x1 with Adam, a Marine veteran of Iraq and one of Ward’s Outfitter’s capable guides.
The terrain of that part of Arizona was reminiscent of northern Namibia, Africa. There were arid mountains, lots of rocks and many bushes that would stick you if you were not careful. That terrain provided the back drop for what turned out to be five wonderful days of hunting and an experience I will cherish for years to come.
Our days started with wake up at 4:30 a.m. for a light breakfast then a 30 minute ride to the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. We glassed from the side of the vehicle to see if any deer could be readily spotted. Usually the glassing was quickly followed by a hike to higher ground and a better vantage point. The hike was not a stroll in the park! We climbed on rocks trying our best to avoid the five varieties of cactus that dotted the country side.
It was the morning of our first day afield. The sun had just popped out over the hill side when Steve Ward hurried to where Manning and I were glassing the far hill. He had spotted three bucks coming over the ridge some 400 yards away. “Who is first up” he asked? Manning had given me the honors last year in California so it was only proper that I return the favor. Manning shoots what he refers to as the absolute best rifle ever made, a 338-378 Weatherby Magnum. Steve knows his rifle well and when Ward said “Shoot the last one” the report of the magnum followed immediately and echoed up the canyon. The deer took a heart/lung shot and fell within five steps of where it stood.
Manning has always lived by the motto that you don’t pass up on the first day what you would shoot on the last day. Today was no different than other days we hunted together. Pictures followed, as they always do. Film is cheap and memories last a lifetime. The pack to the truck was short and easy. Steve Manning had collected a nice Arizona Coues deer.
My hunting philosophy is somewhat different from Manning’s. I believe you will never shoot the best deer you can if you shoot the first deer you see. My adage can work well, but it can deliver you home empty handed just as easily.
For a boy from the south, Coues deer hunting in southern Arizona means three things: glassing, patience, and long-long shots. The next four days proved to be classic. I knew Steve Ward was a good outfitter from my Gould turkey hunt with him earlier this year. Steve also proved to be everything one would look for in a Coues deer guide. He had quality optics, a ton of patience, a fabulous eye for deer, he knew the habits of the deer and he never gave up on me. I want you to know I gave him plenty of opportunity if he was going to give up.
To make a long story short, I can say that over each of the next four days I missed some of the best Coues deer Arizona has to offer. I missed a deer at 550 yards, twice. I missed a Booner at 330 yards, another larger Booner, which Ward referred to as a ‘Toad!” at 403, 459 (running) and 650 yards. I missed a really nice Coues at 450, 500 and 600 yards. As you might imagine it was time to visit the rifle range. A forty-five minute ride back towards Tucson to the rifle range and half a box of bullets later, I was on the X at 300 yards; six inches low at 430 yards and 39 inches low at 500 yards. I now looked forward to my last day of hunting with great expectation.
Ward and I started up the mountain before daylight on Wednesday, the last day of our Coues deer hunt. We reached the peak and were set up to glass the opposite side of the canyon as the sun appeared at the top of the mountain. It wasn’t long until we spotted four doe, followed by two buck as they crested the ridge of the far canyon. They were running as though something was after them. One of the bucks was average, the other was quite good. The smaller buck left the far end of the canyon with the doe. The nicer buck, for some reason, turned away from the others and re-traced his steps coming closer and closer to our vantage point. We had plenty of time to look at this deer. He wasn’t a toad but he was a 3x3 with brow tines and he was ate up with mass. We watched this deer through our binoculars hoping he would bed down. If he did we would make our move.
As luck and prayer would have it, the deer bedded behind a large boulder straight across the canyon from us. We determined we would climb down the mountain, cross the canyon at a low spot and then climb up the other side for a closer shot. By 9 a.m. we found our position 230 yards from the heavy horned buck.
Ward set his tripod with the attached rifle rest into position and for the next 3 ½ hours I sat on a rock peering through my 6.5 x 20 Leupold with the crosshairs centered on the sleeping deer’s neck. Taking into account the previous nine misses and the very small target the neck presented, I was not going to take the shot until the deer stood. Ward said we’re in no hurry. On the previous hunt he and his client waited seven hours for the deer to stand. Hopefully, we would not require that kind of time, but if it did I was up for the task. He said that if the deer was not startled when he stood, I would have about five seconds to take the shot before it would turn and walk away.
Just after 12:30 p.m. the sun had reached a height in the Namibian like blue sky that made it un-comfortable for the buck to stay down in the exposed heat. ALL OF A SUDDEN, up it stood, and immediately I pulled the trigger as though I was shooting a shot gun. Regrettably I didn’t find a spot before I fired. “Reload, you missed again” Steve said. Those were words I had heard way to often on this hunt. A running shot at 430 yards left me even more dejected and depressed.
Thoughts ran through my mind of returning home empty handed. A thought even harder to accept in light of the many opportunities I had had over the last few days. Then I realized the beauty of the landscape, the ruggedness of the arid mountains, all the different varieties of cactus we had seen, the bobcat, coyotes, cottontail, jack rabbits, mule deer as well as the Coues deer we had encountered. Jim and Adam, while hunting a different canyon even saw a mountain lion. I remembered the illegal aliens I had seen passing through the mountains and the Black Hawk helicopter that had searched for them. I recalled the dog fight Steve and I watched in the sky the other afternoon and how the F-16 came screaming down the canyon. I would not be returning home empty handed. The hunt is more than pulling the trigger; that is what endears me to our sport.
As I started to feel a little better about my experience, Steve reported the 3 x 3 had crossed the canyon and was headed back towards us on the opposite side of the canyon we had left earlier in the morning. I immediately got the scope of my rifle back on the deer, but it presented no shot as it made its way past the brush, rocks and cactus. Finally we lost it in a cliff and mesquite head. I sat there re-playing in my mind that I was a better marksman than what I had displayed, keeping in mind the reality of my eleven misses. I reluctantly told Steve that if he wanted to give up on me, I fully understood and would not blame him if he did. Steve had been an excellent guide and hunting companion. “Don’t think about it” he said. “Let’s climb to the top of the mountain for a better look.” I know and have known for some time, guides have their own way of getting even with unruly clients or those who can’t shoot very well. I figured our climb for a ‘better look’ was Steve’s way of walking me to death for all my misses. I followed without complaint.
By the time we finally sat down, for me to rest and Steve to glass, it wasn’t five minutes until Steve reported “There he is!”
You’re kidding I said. “No, lets get set up.” Steve said as he positioned the tripod and rifle rest. With the cross hairs of my scope just above the deer 300 yards away, I got into position and found the deer in the scope. As I looked up from the scope to throw the safety with my thumb the rifle went off. Steve said “You just missed, reload!” The next shot was at a fleeing Coues deer at 264 yards. “Reload, you missed…Wait…you smoked him!” Finally, finally after a baker’s dozen shots, I now had a wonderful deer and a marvelous experience. “Praise God!” I exclaimed. At that point Steve related having fallen asleep last night praying and awakening this morning with more prayers, asking God’s favor on our last day.
As we relived our hunt it is kind of crazy to realize, other than the shot that killed the deer, my best shot had been when the gun fired by itself. Had it been an inch lower you would have never read this story because it would not have been told. What happened in Arizona would have stayed in Arizona.