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El Diablo Returns

So fifteen years later, “El Diablo” returns to Mexico for a Coues deer hunt with Steven Ward of Wards Outfitters. I drove with my hunting equipment to the SHOT Show in Las Vegas and then down to Tucson, Arizona. I think the round trip was nearly 5,000 miles. I haven’t flown with hunting gear in well over ten years.

We four hunters all met up in Tucson near the airport and drove for an hour to the border in the outfitter’s vehicles. At the border we showed to the Mexican authorities our rifles and the paperwork we were required to prepare in advance of the trip.This took about 20 to 30 minutes and then we were on our way. The ranch is about 45 minutes from the border.

The final 30 minutes of driving was in an area that was both remote and picturesque. As we drove into the parking area I remember thinking, “This doesn’t look like a modest ranch house that I was expecting.” We were all surprised at the size and quality of the digs that would be our home for the next 5 days.

I would describe the accommodations as a specialty hotel/lodge associated with a working ranch. Quite luxurious, really. It was built in 2002 as a small, intimate specialty lodge targeted at weddings and other family gatherings. Our wives would have been quite comfortable there. The floors were all beautiful Mexican tile as were the walls in the large bathrooms.Sturdy built-in bunk beds with good mattresses were very comfortable. There was ample drawer storage and closets.

The main room was like the lounge area in a fine hotel with two separate seating areas furnished with comfortable leather couches and chairs.The fireplace was huge and magnificent. It burned warmly each morning and evening.

There was a large dining table but we did not eat there. Rather we walked about 100 feet to a separate building that amounted to an eat-in kitchen. Here we watched our Mexican cook prepare entirely authentic Mexican fare each morning and evening. For one meal, we feasted on hunter Zach Fallin’s game birds and elk meat that he brought with him.

I have a ridiculous sweet tooth and was initially disappointed that Magdalena the cook served no desserts even though that is a good thing for me! But I soon discovered the pancake syrup and a jar of strawberry jam up high on the pantry shelf. Since she cooked warm tortilla shells for each meal it was easy for me to feed the cookie monster in me by spreading some syrup or jam on the shells. By the third morning Magdalena had me figured out and the sweets containers magically appeared right in front of my spot at the table.

Our guides were outfitter Steven Ward himself plus Mike, Nick and Tanner. In talking with them it quickly became obvious that they were all passionate hunters and were also long range shooters themselves.

We would be hunting on 30,000 beautiful acres in grassy mountainous terrain dotted with mesquite, cholla and a few saguaro cactus. The river bottoms had many sycamore trees including some giants that I did not know even existed in nature. My hunt 15 years earlier was in an area further west and had only gentle hills. I like this new spot much better. The altitude of the ranch buildings was about 4,000 feet. The elevation gain was about 1,500 on some of the mountains we hunted but closer to 1,000 on most. The ranch road system had been augmented by the owner at Steven’s request when he started hunting this land last year. 

Each morning we left after breakfast with plenty of light but just before actual sunrise. That’s a pleasant switch compared to our Wyoming hunts. On those we left camp 2 hours before first light and returned from one to two hours after last light. Steven explained that the full moon resulted in the deer feeding during the night and bedding down before dawn. But then they would get up from their beds shortly after good light and start moving again.

Each hunter went out with his own guide and two were in pickups and two were in four-seat Polaris Ranger ATV’s. I had not hunted from an ATV before but found it quite pleasant. It was also quite effective for glassing as we moved around the property. WIth either style of vehicle we would start the day in one spot out of the vehicle glassing from the ground and then move on depending on what we saw.

Usually we were glassing at distances just under a mile. Binoculars were effective much of the time especially if mounted on a tripod. But spotting scopes were essential to find the bedded bucks in many cases. For my next trip down here I will definitely bring a small folding stool. 

All the guides were phenomenal game spotters. I saw between 10 and 15 bucks each day and in most instances the other three hunters did about as well in sightings on the same days. So collectively, we were seeing a ton of different bucks during the five days. Each day we did sort of a round robin approach to who was going where to hunt each day. I think everyone got to hunt all the spots that others had been to. We four hunters each killed very nice bucks. On day one after one hour of hunting Doug Rosa took his buck. Doug tends to kill early. In 2014 using a rifle I built he killed his Alaskan Dall sheep just minutes after first light. He and his guide had located his ram late in the afternoon on the day before the season opened and spent the dark and frigid night up on the mountain without tent or sleeping bag just waiting for dawn.

Zach Fallin killed on day two, I killed on day three and John Wayne Smith killed on day four. We all had many to choose from. Some that we saw were bigger than what we shot but had broken tines. I had chosen the hunt dates and as it turned out we were just past the peak of the rut. There was lots of rutting activity still going on. Being a little late to the party, we were finding quite a few bucks had some tines broken from fighting.

Zach Fallin and his buck.

John Wayne Smith killed his buck on the fourth day.

Steven had told me that the buck to doe ratio was high on bucks. This made for a very competitive rut situation that accounted for so many broken antlers. Next time I thought our LRH group will come earlier for this reason. 

Imagine, though, going on a hunt where there was almost too much active rutting going on. That’s pretty close to the dream of deer hunters everywhere.

There are bobcats and javelina on the ranch. I almost took a 500 yard shot at a sneaking-away cat but he got into brush too quickly. A day later I had another bobcat sighting. Several sightings of javelinas afforded opportunities. I saw a coatimundi up close on day three. Coyotes were heard but not seen.

There was very little wind in the mornings but on some of the days we saw wind speeds picking up by mid afternoon. Most of the good spotting activity and perhaps all four kills occurred in the mornings.

Several times while on this hunt I thought about how perfect it would be for some who would like to hunt in the mountains but don’t want to sleep in a tent or don’t want to ride horses or just don’t want to work as hard as it takes for our Wyoming horseback wilderness hunts.

My buck was taken early in the morning of the third hunt day. We left the ranch compound at our normal, civilized time. We headed off in a direction that was new to me. Soon we entered a very narrow canyon with steep rocky hillsides on both sides. Then the canyon widened out as the route meandered along a creek bed with running water. 

Steven stopped the vehicle to glass as we moved along. The second time he did this he saw a buck that may be a shooter. So we got out of the Ranger and he quickly set up his scope on the tripod. After acquiring the buck in the scope he motioned for me to take a look. It took me only about 2.6 seconds of viewing to decide to kill this buck.

He was over 700 yards away up on a steep hillside and I wanted to get to a spot both closer and with better ground conditions for taking the shot. So we grabbed our stuff and hurried off on foot. As I walked I immediately looked forward to spots that I thought Steven may direct us to for the shot. I also started mentally listing the numerous shooting positions that I would choose from. Once I got to a good location I knew the buck may be on the move and I needed to be ready.

So I also ticked off my list of “go” equipment: rifle, ammo, BR2 rangefinder, binos, shooting sticks, tripod with saddle rest attached, backpack if I needed to lean my shooting arm against it or rest my rifle on it. For this steep shot (which turned out to be at 17 degrees) my bipod may be too short. As I walked I checked that my scope was still on a lower power for quick target acquisition and that my parallax knob was set accordingly.

We stopped on a relatively level spot at about 400 yards. The grass was still a little high for a prone shot. But I wiggled into an okay spot on the ground, confirming that the bipod was indeed too short. So I quickly switched to the backpack as my front rest. 

The buck had not seen us but he had started slowly walking to our left as we approached. He stopped as I hit the ground and prepared for the shot. I got the shot off before he started to move again and Steven later mentioned this. “Most of our hunters aren’t able to get the shot off that quickly.”

Well, all the thinking and prepping I did while on the move to my shooter spot enabled this. We teach this in the NTO-LRH Shooting classes in the Wyoming mountains. At the shot the buck just folded to the ground.

The dead deer was on a 45 degree slope and part of our walk upwards to it was through tallish grass that obscured the loose rocky turf underneath. I thought again about some hunters who may be looking for a physically easy hunt. The trip up the mountain to recover my deer was the only part of my hunt that was at all difficult. And a hunter doesn’t really have to accompany the guide if the recovery is difficult.

The body size of the Coues deer is really small. All four of our bucks were about four and a half years old. But look at this image of the entire carcass of my buck being packed out whole after gutting.

Steven and the guide packing Len’s buck.

The first three bucks taken.

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