WHAT THE WEATHER was like at the North Pole last winter I don’t know, but it could not have been any colder than it was at my house in the Texas Panhandle. Temperatures dropped to single digits, wind chills were as low as -20, and ice-crusted snow made roads treacherous. So you can understand why I was excited about migrating south with the ducks to warmer regions the day after Christmas to hunt Coues whitetails in Arizona. Cactus and sunshine never sounded so good.
At the annual family Christmas dinner in frozen Amarillo, Texas, my sister-in-law questioned my real motives for heading to Arizona. “You’re not hunting,” she said. “You’re probably going to some fancy spa for a week to relax.” I wish. Little did I know at the time, but my Arizona deer hunting vacation would not be quite as laid back and full of sunshine as I’d first thought it might be.
Boot Camp Begins
“There are two ways to hunt these desert whitetails,” my buddy, aka drill sergeant Rick Forrest, said as we were driving across the desert badlands. “Sitting water can pay off if you put in your time. The longer you sit, the better your odds of eventually having a nice buck drinking at slam-dunk bow range. Spot and stalk is the other way. Stalking means long hours behind big glass. The stalks are through rock and cactus in tough country, and you usually face a long bowshot at a small target. Either way, it’s not easy.”
An expert at bowhunting deer in the desert, Rick has filled the walls of his home and shelves in his garage with big racks from desert muleys and Coues whitetails. He’s a pro at this game.
So boot camp started with my sitting in a makeshift blind built of available mesquite branches, tumbleweeds, and part of an old fence. The temperature was 17 degrees. Some vacation. If only my sister-in-law could see me now! The water trough near my blind was a frozen block of ice, but tiny deer prints dotted the earth surrounding it. So I sat.
From sitting waterholes for many years, Rick and his brother Robert have concluded that the prime time to kill a buck at water is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It’s Rick’s opinion that because desert bucks have a drier, less nutritious winter diet than they do earlier in the year, the deer want to drink more often because the vegetation is less palatable. And during the rut, when bucks are weary from the chase, they need to drink often. So hot weather or cold, they need plenty of water.
It was prime time at the water trough when a ranch cowboy drove up out of a sandy desert wash on a four-wheeler. Did I mention I was in the middle of nowhere? He proceeded to start a red generator near the well to pump water to the tank. Thirty skinny beef cows followed him, bellowing every step of the way. They surrounded me and my blind for hours. Day one ended as cold as it had started — no deer.
Day two in boot camp started well before daylight. Rick knew of another public-land water tank to try. It sat on the edge of a well-traveled gravel road, near a set of working cattle pens, but its close proximity to the road meant most hunters overlooked it. It was flanked by a jungle-thick ravine, littered with deer sign. We set up a Primos Double Bull blind, brushed it in with native vegetation, and I settled in for the long wait. Solitary confinement started at daybreak. At least this portable cell — I mean blind — had a roof.
As predicted, trucks drove within 50 yards of my hideout all morning. At 10:23 a.m., two does and a fawn cautiously approached the tank. They were tiny, dainty animals, with mouse-colored hides and slightly oversized ears. The frozen tank had melted just enough around the edges to surrender a drink. They watered at 31 yards, paying little attention to the newly erected blind.
At high noon, two bowhunters pulled up in a white diesel truck. They got out and wandered around the tank, checking the rocky ground for tracks. Seemingly unimpressed with what they found, they slammed their truck doors and thundered away in a cloud of white dust.
At 1:15 p.m., five deer materialized from the thorny creek bottom — does, fawns, and one spike buck. They approached the water cautiously, stared at the blind momentarily, and eventually watered at 30 yards. If that spike was a decent eight-point, he’d be dead, I thought. This setup can work. I tried to psyche myself up for the all-day sit, but those were the last deer I saw all afternoon.
Spot and Stalk
Enough sitting. I was ready to create my own luck. Rick reminded me of the obvious. “If you keep putting those quarters in that slot machine, meaning guarding water, eventually it will pay off.” He was right, of course, but I was ready to stretch my legs and explore this wild, cactus-covered landscape. So we started day three behind the binoculars, dissecting the desert for the nearly invisible, mouse-colored little Coues bucks.
The brothers’ patience and scrutiny behind tripod-mounted 15X binoculars is something that has to be seen to be appreciated. Before long, Rick and Robert spotted a trio of bucks high on a ridge, perhaps a half-mile away — a broken-antlered eight-point, an old 2×2 with small brow tines, and a symmetrical eight-point. Of the three, the symmetrical eight-point was the prettiest.
Half the day burned away as we watched the bucks. The broken-antlered buck bedded on an open hillside, but the buck I wanted and the old 2×2 moved over the ridge together. We repositioned, moving around the backside of the hill, to keep track of them. Finally, at 1 p.m., they bedded in a jumble of boulders, yuccas, ocotillo, and prickly pear. The wind was good, and a narrow draw with just enough brush and rocks to conceal a possible belly crawl provided an approach route.
We circled the mountain, and I sneaked within 300 yards of the napping bucks. That part was easy. B
ut the rest of the way I would be exposed, crawling up a ridge toward two bucks with a commanding view of everything below them.
For 2½ hours I crawled on my stomach or walked like a hunchbacked turtle in the bottom of a mere crease in the cactus-covered hillside, my footsteps muffled by fleece-covered booties. Cactus spines poked into my shins and knees every time I got careless. Finally, at 3:30 p.m., I prepared for the shot. I was hidden in the shadow of a rock pile. Both bucks were inside 60 yards. Dehydrated and wind burned, I waited.
Apparently seeing something he did not like, the symmetrical eight-point stood first. Quickly I took a rangefinder reading — 55 yards. As I found an opening through the maze of ocotillo cactus branches around my target, I dialed in and released the arrow, which hit with a loud crack. Either the arrow hit a twig and deflected, or I just hit low. Whatever the case, I could see blood on the buck’s brisket and right front leg as he topped a hill and disappeared into the glaring sunset. With less than an ideal hit and with little daylight left, we would return the next day to recover my buck.
AT DAYBREAK, RICK AND I cut the blood trail. We did not go 100 yards when we jumped the buck. Up and over the mountain range we went, keeping the retreating buck in sight until he bedded again. Then, taking great pains to avoid spooking him again, I crawled across loose shale to within 50 yards of his hiding place, got comfortable, and vowed to wait all day if necessary for him to stand. I had to finish what I’d started.
Hours passed uneventfully, and an occasional glint of sunlight off a polished antler in a big green bush was the only clue he was really there. Fighting leg cramps and a dry mouth, I remained motionless but finally hand-signaled to Rick and Robert, who were watching from a vantage point above, to make something happen. Rick chunked a few rocks to coax the buck to his feet, but the buck held tight. Abandoning that idea, Rick started a slow descent, all the time in view of the buck, to try to push him down a sandy wash toward me.
As Rick rounded a bend in the wash, the buck stood, looking over his shoulder at Rick. At 40 yards, my carbon arrow hit right behind the left shoulder. The eight-pointer raced for the prickly pear flats but went down hard only 70 yards away.
Holding the handsome little eight-point rack of my first Coues whitetail seemed surreal to me. This prize might be small in size, but given the daunting obstacles in bowhunting for Coues deer, I suddenly felt fresh again and 10 feet tall.
Rick and I carried the small-bodied buck across the sandy wash and started down the hillside. Waiting with a four-wheeler on a distant road to haul the buck to the truck, Robert was a welcome sight. Boot camp was over.
Now, where was that spa? I was ready for a real vacation!
The author lives in Amarillo, Texas, with his wife, daughter, and four dogs. The antlers of his December 2009 Arizona Coues buck measured about 86 inches.
Author’s Notes: You can hunt Coues whitetails in Arizona, New Mexico, and Old Mexico. Mature Coues bucks have a live weight of 100-120 pounds. Any eight-point is a fine trophy, and racks that score 100 inches are considered whoppers. The best hunting is in January, during the rut.
On my late December 2009 Arizona hunt, I used a 62-lb. Mathews DXT bow fitted with Winner’s Choice string and cables, Sonoran Mini D sight, Ripcord drop-away rest, and Doinker stabilizer. I carried Gold Tip Pro Hunter 5575 shafts tipped with 100-grain, two-blade Swhacker mechanical broadheads. Optics gear included Nikon 10.5×45 Monarch X binoculars and a Nikon Archer’s Choice rangefinder. I wore Sitka Gear clothing in Optifade camo, thick double-faced Carhartt pants to ward off cactus, and an Eberlestock X2 backpack.