Hunting The Desert Elf

Warning: Coues' deer hunting can be extremely addicting!

For me, hunting Western big game is an addiction, and I’ve had the good fortune to feed this habit extensively during the past 40 years. From hunting the tall peaks of the Far North for majestic Dall’s sheep and mountain goats to fearsome Alaska coastal brown bears, regal bull elk and whopper mule deer bucks, I love it all. Yet truth be told, my all-time favorite is none of these special animals. Instead, each year I most look forward to December and January, when I can begin glassing the mountains of the Southwest for Coues’ deer.

In the 1960s, famous outdoor writer Jack O’Connor described Coues’ deer as the “Desert Elf,” and I’ve still heard no better depiction. These small White-Tailed Deer—large bucks might weigh 130 pounds on the hoof, and the Boone and Crockett Club minimum score for a typical Coues’ buck is just 110 points—are elfin in both appearance and attitude. They’re so small and blend into their desert foothill habitat so well that they’re by far the toughest animal I’ve ever tried to spot-and-stalk. And once you finally locate a good buck, don’t you dare take your eyes off it for even a second because in that brief interlude the deer will most likely disappear, hiding in plain sight like a tiny leprechaun.

Perhaps the main reason these deer don’t have a larger following among North American hunters is because of their limited home range. Coues’ deer are found only in the desert foothills of southern and central Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and Sonora, Mexico. And while they inhabit “traditional” desert habitat of rocks, cactus and other thorny flora, they prefer oak-covered grass­lands broken by large canyons and pock­marked with small bowls and basins, often at elevations exceeding 3,000 feet.

Generally speaking, you can hunt Coues’ deer later in the year than most other Western deer species. In Arizona—where most of the Coues’ deer in the United States live, and the most popular destination for traveling Coues’ deer hunters—the first rifle season opens in late October, with subsequent seasons in November and December. The late-December season, which closes on the 31st, is the most popular for rifle hunters, as deer approach the rut. When I first began hunting Coues’ deer in the early 1980s, obtaining a December rifle permit was a sure thing. I often got one by applying for it as my third choice, using my first two choices for prime mule deer tags that were tougher to draw. Today, all Coues’ hunts are oversubscribed, which means drawing a license is no longer guaranteed.

One of the most exciting seasons for Coues’ deer is the January 1-31 Arizona archery-only season, where an unlimited number of tags are issued over-the-counter for most of the state’s game management units. The deer are rutting (mule deer are also legal during this season) and locating a good buck is about as easy as it gets in this game. Killing one with a bow, however, is another matter. I’ve tried to do so on several occasions and the deer have won the majority of the time. Sneaking within bow range over dry, crunchy ground is extremely difficult, and for this reason more and more archers are putting treestands or ground blinds near water. Rattling and grunting also work well on Coues’ deer, just as they do on their larger whitetail cousins.

In New Mexico, the firearms hunting season occurs during October and November, depending on the unit. Archers can hunt early in September, or during the first few days of January. Muzzleloader-only hunting occurs during late September. There are some limited-entry hunts that allow hunting in November and December.

Coues’ deer hunting in Sonora takes place in December and January. One downside to hunting in Mexico—where deer densities can be extremely high, and the opportunity to look at several bucks a day can be good—is that U.S. hunters must hire licensed guides. However, for seeing sheer numbers of deer and a high percentage of good bucks—with Coues’ deer, any buck that gross scores more than 90 B&C points is a good one—Sonora is where it’s at. Two Sonora Coues’ deer guides I highly recommend are DuWane Adams (204 Ave. B, Dept. NAH, San Manuel, AZ 85631; (520) 385-4995; and Patrick Holehan (5758 E. 34th St., Dept. NAH, Tucson, AZ 85711; (520) 745-0622; e-mail plholehan@theriver.com). Through the years these are two men who have proven themselves to be both trustworthy and successful.

Coues’ Deer Strategy

In general, Coues’ deer hunting is a classic spot-and-stalk affair. This inspired DuWane Adams to pioneer the use of high-powered 15X or 20X binoculars mounted on a tripod for long-distance spotting. He introduced me to this technique back in the 1980s when he guided me to my first-ever Coues’ deer buck, and I’m still using it today. Many companies offer high-quality, high-power binos, including Swarovski, Zeiss, Dr. Optik and Bushnell Sports Optics. Tripod mounting a pair of 10X binoculars will help your ability to spot deer, too. A spotting scope with a top-end power of at least 45X is commonly used to judge antler size.

Typically, Coues’ deer hunters begin their day well before dawn, climbing to a high vantage point before first light where they can glass a lot of country. Your best chance of seeing a good buck on the move is during the first and last hours of the day. Begin the day by glassing for maybe 3 hours, and if you don’t find a buck to stalk, you can either quit until evening or do some scouting. Unlike my experience in hunting mule deer, I’ve found very few Coues’ deer bucks once they’ve laid down for the day, making midday a great time to nap or hunt quail. Regardless, you should be back glassing 3 hours before dark and stay put until you can no longer see.

More and more outfitters have begun putting treestands or ground blinds near water holes or overlooking well-used travel corridors like mountain saddles. This is an especially effective way for bowhunters to get a close-range shot, but it also works well for rifle hunting.

Coues’ deer are small and not hard for rifle hunters to knock down. However, because shots can be long, an accurate rifle topped with a variable-powered scope with a top-end of at least 10X is the preferred rig. Flat-shooting cartridges are essential, and I’ve seen everything from a .243 Win. up through the various .300 magnums put to good use.

Guided hunts are an excellent option for first-time Coues’ deer hunters, as well as those with some experience under their belts who are looking for a good buck. A 5-day fully guided Coues’ deer hunt will cost $3,000-$4,000, plus licenses and tags. Pick an outfitter with a proven track record of producing good bucks for his clients, and always ask for and check references.

Believe me when I tell you Coues’ deer hunting is addicting. Try it one time and I’ll bet you’ll come back for more.

Image via George Stephan

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