March 23, 2021
A half-hour before dawn, Ron Shelton and I set up on a steep ridge and began glassing the surrounding canyons for deer. It was January in northern Mexico, but we were hunting above 5,000 feet in the Sierra Madre mountains, and the strong thermal winds made the morning bitterly cold. Every few moments I'd break from glassing to glance at the eastern horizon, waiting on the rising sun and the warmth it would bring. Then, with my hat down over my ears and my hood drawn tight, I'd turn back to the spotting scope.
Coues deer are smaller than their whitetail cousins, and their light gray pelage blends perfectly against the dry landscape in which they live. Ron and I were hunting Rancho Mababi, a 35,000-acre cattle farm just outside the Sonoran town of Fronteras, and while the ranch is home to some world-class Coues deer bucks, finding them is always a challenge.
"I've got a buck," Ron whispered just after first light and motioned me over to look through the spotting scope. I had scanned that ridge earlier and saw nothing, but Ron's experience as a Coues deer guide has honed his eye. He knows where the deer will be, and he knows how to pick an ear, backline, or antler out from a sea of manzanita and juniper bushes.
Through the scope I saw a buck lying bedded under a stubby oak. Judging Coues deer can be very challenging since a better-than-average buck has 100 inches of antler while a 110-inch buck will land you in the record book. I guessed that this buck was around 100 inches, but Ron put him closer to 95. We'd keep looking.
Rancho Mababi is owned by Roberto and Alice Valenzuela, and the property receives very minimal hunting pressure. A very good public land Arizona Coues deer measures 100 inches, but Rancho Mababi produces 120-inch deer every year and even the occasional 130-inch deer. Considering the world record Coues deer measures just over 143 inches, it's clear that the Coues deer on Mababi are among the largest in the world.
Those big Mababi bucks don't come easy, though. You'll have to climb to the highest elevations to glass for them, and then you'll have to be able to spot the deer in a vast sea of brush and thorns and trees. Once you spot a good buck— oftentimes at a half-mile or more—you'll form a plan to get within rifle range. Frequently the only option is a long-range, cross-canyon shot, and that means you need a good rifle and optic, and you'll have to know how to shoot it. Getting a good deer requires planning, skill, work, and luck, but that's what makes chasing Coues deer one of the most rewarding and addictive hunts in North America.
Long Days on the Mountain
Midway through the second morning, Ron and I rode up a steep mountain path in his Polaris Ranger. Normally, we would drive the vehicle to a point below the crest of the ridge and hike the last quarter-mile to the top carrying our gear, but recent rains uprooted a number of trees and a massive oak had fallen across the two track, completely blocking the road. I guess we'll walk from here.
Once we reached the summit, Ron spotted a good buck topping out on the ridge behind us. We could only see him for a moment before the buck crested the ridge and dropped out of sight, but Ron told me the deer was worth another look. We gathered up all the gear we'd just hiked up the mountain and hurried down the grassy slope, dodging thorny ocotillo and catclaw branches along the way.
We don't want to get on the same ridge as him,” Ron said. That required us dropping into the canyon below, following a stream bed for several hundred yards and then hurrying up a smaller ridge that ran perpendicular to the one where we'd last seen the buck. When we crested that hill, I sat down—breathing hard under the weight of my pack—and started glassing for the deer.
I've got him,” Ron said. “He's gone down the ridge, and he's in the oaks near the bottom. See him?”
I didn't. My eye wasn't nearly as tuned to finding Coues as Ron's, but it didn't matter.
“No,” he said. “He's too young. Needs another year."
By then the sun was low and the mountain was growing cold. We'd have to try again the next morning.
Ron and I returned to Rancho Mababi's headquarters, a series of low buildings surrounded by cottonwood trees. The buildings at Mababi are made from adobe and the thick walls have high thermal mass. During the winter, the walls absorb heat from wood stoves and maintain that warmth for several hours (in the summer the walls absorb the cool from the night air, keeping the interior of the houses comfortable even when it's sweltering hot outside). Breakfast and dinner were served in Mababi's dining area, which has been outfitted with a long wooden table with heavy oak chairs. All the food is cooked on a 19th-century stove fed by oak charcoal that's made on the ranch, and deer provide an important source of protein for the family, ranch hands, and hunters.
Just before noon on the third day, I noticed a curved object half-buried in the rocky soil. Upon further investigation, I found that it was a rusted horseshoe. I'm not particularly superstitious and finding a horseshoe in the middle of a working cattle ranch isn't unexpected, but I showed it to Ron.
“I guess this means we're due for some good luck,” I said and put the discarded horseshoe in my pack. Following the discovery of the horseshoe, my luck did seem to change. On the fourth day of the hunt, Nick, Ron's father-in-law and fellow guide, spotted a buck on a ridge not far from our location and radioed the news to us. Ron and I hadn't seen anything but small bucks where we were glassing, so the decision was made to make a hasty move to Nick's location and evaluate the buck for ourselves.
Ron spotted the buck 750 yards away in a grove of oak trees, and we watched him rake a manzanita bush. When the deer raised its head and stepped into the open, we realized how large he was.
We moved down the mountain, relying on the scattered oak trees as cover. A narrow ridge allowed us to slip within 300 yards of where we'd last seen the
buck, but in the time it took us to get down the slope, the deer had dropped out of sight.
“We'll cross to that ridge and walk along the back side,” Ron said and pointed across the canyon. “Then we'll come over the top and see if we can spot him from there. I think he's still in the trees.”
Getting in position on the next ridge took twenty minutes, but it put me in a good position for a shot if the buck was still in the oaks. I got ready for a shot, but after ten minutes of fruitless glassing, I felt certain he was no longer in the canyon. Just as I was about to ask Ron if he thought the buck was still there, he announced he saw the buck.
Incredibly, Ron had spotted the buck's nose and eye in a tangle of brush beneath an oak tree. It wasn't far from where we'd last seen him, but the buck had buried himself so deeply in the shaded cover that he was all but impossible to spot. I found the deer in the scope and asked Ron if I should shoot. He told me to wait until he could check the antlers and verify.
The buck sensed something was wrong. He stood and immediately began walking up the hill, keeping the trees between us and him. By the time he reappeared, he was 400 yards away and still moving. I tried to find him in the scope, but I couldn't get it done before he crested the hill and vanished.
We rushed around the base of the ridge to find the buck, but he was gone, swallowed up in a deep tree-lined canyon that stretched a half-mile. I cursed. We'd spent half a day chasing the deer and had lost him completely. It was my fault. If I'd have been ready to shoot faster when he appeared high upon the ridge, we might be celebrating instead of eating a silent lunch in the shadow of a fire-killed oak tree. The horseshoe I'd found didn't seem to be doing its job.
After lunch we decided to head far across the ranch to a different mountain. There we were met by outfitter Ted Jaycox, who had been glassing the western side of the ranch. It was the afternoon of the fourth day, and that meant one more full day of hunting. I was hoping my best chance at a Coues buck hadn't just walked over the hill and out of sight on the other side of the property.
But that wouldn't be my only opportunity of the day. Shortly after Ron and I climbed a peak on the western side of Mababi, Ted called on the radio and said he'd spotted a big buck in a canyon not far away. That prompted another scramble down the mountain and another leg-burning climb to get into position above the buck. This time when we got into position the deer was unaware of our presence.
I locked the rifle into Ron's Triclawps tripod mount as he looked the buck over. “That's him,” Ron said. The buck was a 6x5 just as Ted had indicated. We knew about the deer because another hunter in camp, Josh Dahlke, had seen him earlier on the hunt. Josh had said the deer was big, and he hadn't been exaggerating.
I centered the Mossberg Patriot on the buck's chest. At the shot, the deer rolled down the hill. The 130-grain Federal Terminal Ascent 6.5mm Creedmoor bullet broke the opposite shoulder as it exited. Ron slapped me on the back and congratulated me. I sat down on the rocky ground with my arms resting on my outstretched legs to gather my breath for one last hike across the mountain.
When we found my buck, I knelt beside him, still gasping, and Ron slapped me on the back again.
“Congratulations,” he said. “That's a great buck. You just killed a monster."
I held up the buck's head and looked at the green streaks of manzanita on his brown tines. There was a cut over the buck's left eye that he'd most likely received in a fight with another deer. I tried to speak, but only one word came out between short breaths.
Some people are fearful of crossing the border to hunt in Mexico, but I didn't encounter any problems. Instead, I learned that Mababi was just as magical as the hunters that had been there before me had promised. On the last day of the hunt, when the meat from my deer had been butchered and all the requisite paperwork was filled out, I left that horseshoe with a collection of others piled in a small garden near the main ranch house. That discarded horseshoe has a story to tell about that magical place in Sonora, and now so do I.