A Look at Coues Whitetail

NAH Staff Writer Larry Weishuhn looks at this often overlooked deer species!

For the past nearly three hours I had sat behind a spotting scope taking apart two opposite slopes high in the mountains of Sonora, Mexico.  I gridded each exposure and had carefully looked for anything that might betray a Coues deer’s presence; a flicked ear, “shine” off of a deer’s sleek body, a glint off of antler or moist nose, or even a shadow against a rock or big cactus.  I had spotted seventeen desert bighorn sheep, ewes and lambs.  All were below me. Some were bedded, some were up feeding. 

What had lured me to hand over hand my way up to the pinnacle between the two rock, cactus, and chaparral covered ridges was a very brief look at a big five by five Coues whitetail buck.  I had watched him bed just below a house sized boulder on the ridge to my left.  What I had seen of him, he was possibly a candidate for the Boone & Crockett record book.

All the way up to just below rocky spire I had full view of where the big “little” buck laid down behind screening of thorny chaparral.  I had set up to glass less than 300 yards of where I had last seen the buck bed.  But I had not seen him after he laid down.

As the sun started sliding westward toward the Sea of Cortez just beyond the ridge to my right, I began seeing diminutive whitetails pop up, seemingly out of the rocks.  Where I had not seen a single deer, now there were twelve; does, fawns and young fork horn and three by three bucks. 

I decided to get closer to where the big buck had bedded.  Thirty minutes later I stood where I had last seen the ten-point.  He was not there!  Where he had gone and how he had slipped away I have no idea.  I simply chalked it off as another “experience” with Coues whitetail. Once again his kind had lived up to the title of “Grey Ghost of the Desert”!

Coues deer, a subspecies of whitetails, are considerably smaller than their northern cousins.  Bucks generally weigh about a hundred pounds or so, only occasionally more.  Named for Elliot Coues. who pronounced his name “cows” rather than “cooos” as they are also commonly called, are found in the arid desert mountains of southwestern New Mexico, northern Mexico in primarily Chihuahua and Sonora and in southern Arizona where they are occasionally called “Arizona whitetails”.

In terms of antlers, most serious “regular” whitetail hunters would not take a second look at a decent to good Coues deer. Mature bucks generally develop a total of eight to ten points with main beams that spread about to or just beyond their erect ears.  A buck grossing 100 Boone & Crockett points is considered quite good by most serious Coues deer aficionados.  One that scores more is cause for celebration, to be honored with several pours of “sipping tequila”.  Most Coues bucks tend to develop essentially typical racks.  Only occasionally do they develop non-typical antlers.

I became enamored with Coues deer many years ago when I was a youngster reading tales by Jack O’Connor then Shooting Editor of OUTDOOR LIFE.  Even though I was completely smitten with the little desert whitetail, it was not until years later when I was the Whitetail columnist for NORTH AMERICAN HUNTER magazine that I had a chance to hunt them.  That hunt occurred in Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the Chihuahua and Sonora border.  Several days into the hunt, after passing up numerous young bucks, and also being bested by several mature bucks, we spotted three bucks chasing a doe on a devil’s walking cane covered slope.  While the chase was going on, I was able to cut the distance to within 200 yards. There I took off my brown western hat, placed it on a boulder, rested my 7x57 Ruger Model 77 loaded with Hornady’s 140-grain Soft Point.  When the buck gave me a broadside shot I squeezed the trigger.  Quicker than I can tell it, the buck pitched forward and was down.  A little while later I stood by my buck’s side.  He was gorgeous!  An eight point with about a 14-inch spread, good mass and nicely tall tines.  I packed him back to camp on the horse I had ridden into the area.  That night after taking care of the delicious venison and getting his head skin into the salt, I scored his rack.  Those measurements tallied 113 B&C points.   Later, after the required drying period I learned he missed the all time Boone and Crockett record book by only two-eights of an inch.

Over the years other Coues hunts followed, primarily in Sonora, Mexico, culminating in my biggest to date which I shot after several days of hard hunting, crawling up and down rocky slopes, hours of glassing and numerous stalks that went awry. 

It was nearly noon, my guide Chapo Juvera, cameraman Derek Harris and I were headed to camp when we spotted four bucks about a thousand yards away.  One was a five by five that looked interesting.  I was glassing him, when Chapo happened to look to our far right.  “Better take a look at this buck, I think you’re going to like him!”

I did.  My jaw dropped.  Bedded about a thousand yards away was the biggest Coues whitetail I had ever seen.  “That’s the one!” was all I could say.

Chapo and I started our stalk.  We soon reduced the distance to 786 yards.  But that was as close we could get with exposing ourselves and taking a chance of spooking the buck.  “Hate long shots at game!  But there’s no getting closer!  And, I really want that buck!  Looks like he has ten long points, extremely good mass and width beyond his ears.”  I turned to Chapo, “Surely glad I have been practicing at those distances and beyond at the FTW Ranch’s S.A.A.M. ranges.” With that I laid down prone, rested the .30-06 Ruger American Rifle, loaded with Hornady 165-grain SST Superformance ammo on my pack.  I checked the “range card” Tim Fallon had done for me, reached up and made the appropriate turret adjustment for 800 yards, then got comfortable behind the rifle. Watching mirage, it appeared there was no wind.  Taking several deep breaths, with the crosshairs planted just below the buck’s back hair line, I let out all my breath and started applying pressure on the trigger.  At the shot I heard Chapo say, “just over his back!”  As he called the shot, I bolted in a fresh round.  The buck, thankfully, had not moved!  This time I held the horizontal crosshair about half way from the top of the shoulder to the brisket.  Again, I let out all my breath, and gently tugged the trigger.  At the shot I heard Chapo say, “He’s down!”  Even so, I bolted in a fresh round and stayed on the downed buck.  After nearly a minute of watching through the scope, I accepted Chapo’s congratulatory hand.

Approaching my buck, the closer I got to him, the larger his antlers seemed to “grow”!.  I reached down and grabbed his right antler.  The buck had six points per side, including double brow-tines and the back tines split just up from the main beam, mutual base points.  He was huge, handsome, BIG, and gorgeous!  Most importantly he was mine!

After photos and doing all the things necessary to complete an episode for my “DSC’s Trailing the Hunter’s Moon” television show which appears on Sportsman Channel, my cameraman Derek Harris carried my buck to the nearest pasture road. 

That night after properly taking care of the meat, I measured his rack.  It took me several times to add the totals, because I could not believe my buck’s antler really grossed over 135 B&C points.  Months later I had the rack officially scored and learned it netted 127 4/8, ranking him high in the Boone & Crockett Record Book’s non-typical Coues whitetail category. Of all the whitetail bucks I have taken, including several “regular whitetails” over 200, to me my big Coues deer is “my best and finest whitetail” ever!  My memory of that hunt is aided by the beautiful full body mount the Wildlife Gallery did for me. Every time I look at it I can recall every minute detail…

If you have not yet hunted Coues whitetail, let me strongly suggest you consider doing so!  But I warn you Coues are not easy and they are addictive. There is only one solution to the Coues addiction, hunting them again and again and again……