Stricken with cancer, a diehard bowhunter heads to Arizona in search of a trophy Coues deer -- and a sign from God.
I called hunting buddy Mike Larson a few weeks before the January Coues deer opener to cancel out on our planned hunt. I told him that, financially, things were a little rough, and I'd better stay home and work. He needn't know the real reason I was feeling pretty rough -- puffed up like an Asian adder and still reeling from a local doc's diagnosis pointing to a grim outcome.
Here I am with Mike Larson and one of his recent Coues bucks.
"I'll tell you what," Mike said. "You get yourself to Rexburg, Idaho, and I will handle it from there." Although I knew he meant well and was truly sincere, I'm not much for charity -- for me, that is. So my responsibilities ethically, financially, and medically crossed my mind for about two seconds, and then I accepted his proposal. What? You can expect nothing less from a died-in-the-wool hunting man. I'd pay Mike back in "like kind" one day. Plus, I truly felt a need to be alone in the woods for a while.
Cancer. That confounding six letter word nobody wants to hear. Of the prostate, no less, as it is common in the family. When the doctor said they needed a chunk of my prostate to study (chunk, biopsy -- same difference), he was stunned when I declined.
I let him stew for a moment and then asked if he had seen the movie Lonesome Dove. He nodded. I asked if he remembered when Gus wouldn't let the doc take his other leg off because he might again want to "kick a pig" someday -- and how he wouldn't be able to do that if he didn't have a leg. Well, in my opinion, the same principal applies. I'd like to have all the equipment necessary, if the opportunity presents itself, to at least seduce an honest effort.
For me, humans prolong life far beyond usefulness and dignity these days. I don't want that for me -- or for my children to have to endure. My point of view is not for everyone, and I understand if people choose differently, but my belief is -- when it's time to die, it's time to die.
They say God makes those decisions. Somewhere along the way, I aspired that He or a messenger would assure the assistance I needed to live -- as long as he intended me to live -- malady or no. I hoped, too, the deep woods of Arizona might provide "sign" to that effect.
It was good to be back in Arizona in my favorite Coues deer country. After we arrived, Mike and I greeted my old hunting buddy Bill Bishop. After making introductions, plans were made to load the horses with gear the next morning and lead them eight miles into Bill's favorite spike camp. Bill had been in camp for a few days and had done some scouting. He noted lots of fresh sign and said the rut was in full swing.
The trek to spike camp was long, but it was a beautiful morning. The Arizona high mountain woods never cease to amaze me. There are a variety of trees, including fir, ponderosa pine, alligator juniper, shrub oak, and quakies. The number of springs and small creeks in those woods is also impressive. It is truly wild country. We quickly set up camp, fixed an easy lunch, and went on a scouting mission.
Since Mike had never shot a Coues deer, we put him in one of Bill's favorite spots. The first morning, Mike's treestand produced several does and a forkhorn buck. He was amazed at how small and dainty the deer were. My sit was slow, with only a small forkhorn walking within range at about 2 p.m. I decided to pass. I figured the next day or two would produce a good opportunity.
The first afternoon I€ˆdecided to pass on a smallish buck.
The morning of day three, as I sat in my stand with my bow across my lap, the sun started burning its way through the clouds. Its warmth felt good and made me drift a bit from the constant vigil. I drifted to the words the medical expert had handed me on my last visit. I wondered if he really knew what he was talking about -- and if so, how limited my time may be on this earth.
There comes a time, or so the elders tell me, in each hunting man's life when you wonder what your last hunting trip will be like. Would this be the trip, or the year -- if left unchecked? Or could there be several trips and years? Although not a very outwardly religious man, my sanctuary is, and always has been, the woods. So given the circumstances, I bowed my head and asked for some sign -- sign that there truly is a power greater than ourselves.
With a start, the sun poked through the clouds and three distinct rays shot to the ground on a distant ridge. Though I thought its striking emergence strange, I denied, as usual, the answer to my earnest words. I instead justified it as an excess of moisture in the air making the rays so detailed. I remember arrogantly thinking, You'll have to do better than that! How about this -- show me the largest Coues deer buck in these mountains. Fat chance!
Now mind you, it wasn't several hours, not even several minutes. Not 10 seconds passed when a doe began sneaking through an opening 35 yards away --with the largest typical Coues deer buck ever, right behind her. I did a double take and my left knee started quaking. The pint-sized buck appeared to have a "regular" whitetail's rack on his head. He was completely out of proportion. This buck's antlers cracked 140, if he measured one inch! A typical 4x4 with five-inch brow tines.
While he was busy sniffing the ground and the doe was weaving through the brush, avoiding his advances, I trembled to a standing position. Thirty-five yards was too far for me to shoot at these supercharged deer, whether he could be the new world record or not. The doe turned and started through another small clearing in the opposite direction. Since I had no shot, I grabbed my camera and hung my bow on the camera hook. I knew no one would believe me without hard evidence.
When the buck stopped in a little clearing, I snapped a photo. The doe spooked and began a hasty retreat in my direction. Perfect -- the world-record Coues deer was under my stand, and I was armed with a shutter. But the doe went back the same way she'd come, and the "Coues Deer King" followed.
As I sat down in my stand, I felt my face flush. The hair on the back of my neck stood. What I had beckoned happened in an instant. And yet, still, I found myself doubting the origin of the previous moments. How could that even possibly happen? I pondered. I ducked slightly and scanned the sky for a cloud -- one that may produce some electricity. Frankly, I expected a lightning bolt to tap me on
the shoulder, saying, "You are one thick-headed Dutchman!"
And then, the thought never really crossed my mind. It simply flashed my subconscious. Show me again, and you've got me. And I swear -- right hand up and left on my father's headstone -- not two seconds passed when a doe flashed from the timber on my right followed by two good bucks. They were headed right for me. The bigger of the two ran the smaller away from the doe, and the pair took a hard right back into the timber. The smaller buck sauntered to me like a misdirected puppet.
Mike Larson and Bill Bishop pose proudly with the skulls of their biggest Coues bucks.
I slowly rose, but I couldn't see. The tears welled my eyes blurry and flooded to the forest floor. The buck made a scrape 10 yards away and then walked under my stand to a licking stick. He stretched out, broadside, opening his vitals completely, as if poised for an arrow shaft. He stood for three minutes, working the small branch. Then, he looked me straight in the face -- and walked into the timber.
I never drew my bow. I was so thunderstruck, I could scarcely move. I slumped in my chair and wept like a child -- for how long, I don't know, but this hard-headed cowboy, in the cathedral of his choice, had just witnessed the power and presence of a being far greater than us all. There was no doubt -- no way to argue. That pretty much settled it.
Now, it's not my place to tell anyone how to believe, but I'll tell you this much. I knew this man best take stock in the path he's on and the life he leads, having witnessed an event like this one. Or he truly "ain't too bright."
I climbed from my stand shortly after and meandered toward camp. I wondered along the way, Why is it we wait until facing our own potential mortality, or the mortality of a loved one, before we begin to follow what we already know in our hearts? We know in our souls, but override it with our minds. It seems an inherent disposition in all humans, whether we believe in an afterlife or not, I thought. Man, I'll have to pound rocks for a couple years before they'll open the gates.
I walked out of the woods that day with an enhanced perspective, to say the least. But, as I generally do, I also walked out with another valuable lesson provided through hunting and some brief solitude on this earth, outdoors.
Walking out, I noticed human tracks on the main trail coming from the direction of Mike's stand. "Maybe he got one," I said aloud. About 200 yards from camp, I glassed Bill's stand and noticed he was gone, too. I came to find out they both had shot good bucks -- and both almost exactly the same time I'd witnessed the "Coues Deer King." I grimaced a bit, glanced skyward, and reassured, "I hear ya -- loud and clear."
The hunt was one of the best I've ever had. I received a "straight answer," and my two good friends shot the biggest Coues deer bucks of their lives. It doesn't get any better than that.
The author is longtime friend of this magazine. He resides in Gallatin Gateway, Montana.
| Coues Deer Tactics |
Lots of Coues deer hunting in Arizona is spot-and-stalk or over water in the desert. But this part of the country, deep in the elk woods, is different. We hunt from treestands over scrapes and rub lines, just like we would with whitetails.
I've learned over the years from Bill that it's important to know where to look for scrapes and rubs. Most south slopes here are steep and covered with vegetation. Generally, there are only tunnels through the vegetation where the Coues deer go to bed and feed. Most is impassable for an upright human. Just north of these south slopes, where they top out, are small flats. This is where most of the rubbing and scraping takes place. It's still heavy timber but with little underbrush. We also concentrate our scouting efforts near water sources where several drainages come together. The bucks will scrape and rub here, too, and cruise through periodically.
For the most part, we set up our treestands in an area that has five or six fresh scrapes within 75 yards of each other. Fifteen to 20 feet high is about right. We like our shots to be between 10 and 20 yards.
Coues deer do not seem to move much before 8:30 or 9 a.m. in this type of environment. My theory is they are more than likely up early like every other deer we know, but are feeding on the thick south slopes where they are virtually invisible. About midmorning, they begin to check scrapes and search for the opposite sex.
Coues deer "blow" similarly to whitetails in other parts of the country. However, when you hear a snort in the Coues deer woods, it does not always mean you have a problem. Coues deer, both bucks and does, blow when they chase each other. Although they have a different blow that signifies danger, the two sounds are similar. Bill carries a call that imitates the "chasing blow," and he uses it frequently in normal calling sequences. He often uses the chasing blow in conjunction with rattling, too. Aggressive grunt calls also produce good results. Coues buck grunts are lower in volume and higher-pitched than whitetails.