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Desert Ghosts: Hunting the Elusive Coues Deer

Scaring up one of the Southwest's secretive deer.

Desert Ghosts: Hunting the Elusive Coues Deer

Few things are harder won than a big, DIY, public-land Coues buck in the United States. This buck was estimated to be 6.5 years old. (Photo courtesy of Joseph von Benedikt)

Ask an old Arizonan desert deer hunter what he likes best to hunt, and the answer will likely surprise you.


Coues deer—known among those of scientific bent as Odocoileus virginianus couesi—are perhaps the most fascinating subspecies of whitetail. Also called fan-tailed deer by old-timers or just Arizona whitetails, the little desert deer behave differently than common whitetails and live and thrive in habitat dramatically different than what is typically considered optimal for whitetails.

Even a mature buck rarely exceeds 120 pounds. Antlers are compact but frequently gnarly and massive. A good buck’s headgear is nearly always impressive and visually interesting. The Boone & Crockett minimum is “just” 110 inches—which is an outstanding Coues deer indeed. In most of the United States, a 95-inch buck is considered a good deer. As an interesting aside, O.v. couesi is the only whitetail subspecies to have its own set of B&C minimums.

Coues deer rarely drink, absorbing most of the moisture necessary to sustain life through the plants they eat. They live in desert canyons and crags, thriving in harsh and forbidding habitat. According to many lifelong Coues devotees, bucks build a harem during the rut and tend it much like elk, rather than briefly locking up with an individual doe before moving on as a common whitetail does.

Bucks are quite territorial. If you see a big buck once—or even just find a big, year-old shed—there’s a good chance that persistent glassing over a period of days will turn that buck up.

Diminutive size and small headgear notwithstanding, Coues deer generate a cult-like following among those who hunt them. Sitting in an elevated, enclosed box stand with a cooler at hand is no way to hunt Coues whitetails; you’ve got to penetrate rugged backcountry and hunt them much as you’d hunt desert bighorn sheep.

I think it’s safe to say that hunting Coues deer is typically far more challenging—and as a result more rewarding—than hunting most common whitetails. Therein lies its appeal. 

Where to Hunt Coues Deer

Only two states have huntable Coues deer populations. Southern Arizona offers the bulk, and the southwest corner of New Mexico possesses a few. Tags are variously available by lottery (all New Mexico permits and most of Arizona’s rifle tags) and over the counter (Arizona’s archery hunts).

Stateside hunts are typically rigorous and challenging. Public-land hunters usually must hike deep into the backcountry and hunt long and hard to find a good buck. Modest trophy quality and low success rates are common. On the plus side, such hunts are quite affordable and offer a fantastic DIY experience. 

Desert Ghosts: Hunting the Elusive Coues Deer
Big 15X binoculars are a game-changer in Coues country. Buy quality, because when you’re glassing through a bino for six to 10 hours a day, nothing but the best will cut the mustard. (Photo courtesy of Joseph von Benedikt)

Old Mexico holds far more Coues deer than the United States. As a result, hunting is easier, bucks are bigger on average, and success rates are exponentially higher. It’s been said that Arizona and New Mexico are really just fringe habitats with fringe populations, and I’d have to agree with that.

However, hunting Mexico is considerably more expensive. Most hunting there occurs on vast private ranches, and you have to hire an outfitter. Also, traveling to Mexico with a firearm is a bit of a hassle, but it can be done and is worth it to have a rifle you trust. The benefits are having a guide used to finding and killing big Coues bucks, not to mention assistance with field care, packing out, and processing venison in desert climates. 


Hunting Techniques

Hunting methods between Mexico and the U.S. are distinctly different. Prowling dusty two-tracks through craggy desert country and glassing from the truck is both preferred and productive in Mexico. Clients get to sleep in a bed and eat good food and don’t have work hard until it’s time for a stalk.

In Arizona and New Mexico, methods are more extreme by necessity. Successful DIY hunters penetrate challenging backcountry areas in order to find mature bucks. Once in good country, find a vantage point and get comfortable behind your binoculars. Ideally, hang light 8X or 10X binos around your neck for peering into close-up ravines and thickets, but spend most of your time glassing through tripod-mounted, premium-quality 15X field glasses. 

Added magnification enables you to separate small gray deer from the dusty desert habitat. If you can afford it, a 15x56 Zeiss Conquest, Swarovski SLC, or Leupold BX-5 Santiam HD will undoubtedly increase your chances of success. And it’s critical to note that the added stability provided by the tripod is a game-changer. Outdoorsmans’ mid-height tripod with pan head is the world standard among serious backcountry Coues deer hunters; it’s shockingly expensive but worth every penny. The Vortex Ridgeview is another great, and less expensive, option.

Desert Ghosts: Hunting the Elusive Coues Deer
Mexico is where the bulk of the Coues deer population exists. Hunting is easier, bucks are bigger, and success rates are far higher. So, however, is cost. (Photo courtesy of Joseph von Benedikt)

Mornings and evenings, watch ridgeline saddles, canyon confluences, slopes beneath major cliff faces, and other pinch points and travel routes for movement. Midday, peer into every shadow under every bush and tree, no matter how small, and keep returning to look again as the light changes and provides a different perspective throughout the day. Look for an ear or the curve of an antler. Coues deer earned the nickname “gray ghost” the genuine way, and rarely do you see a full-body outline during the midday hours.

Look far away, too. The last Arizona hunt I did, my brother and I both shot mature bucks we found by glassing basins more than two miles away.

Once a big buck is located, stalk aggressively but quietly. Play the wind and stay out of sight. Get as close as possible but be prepared for a long shot, because “as close as possible” is often still pretty far.

Archery hunters play a different game. Although stateside seasons often provide early-season opportunities, the best hunting is during the January rut, and both New Mexico and Arizona offer rut-hunt permits. Spot and stalk if you can skulk like a mountain lion; more effectively, most bowhunters sit on travel routes and water sources (even though they don’t have to drink frequently, Coues deer do drink).

Guns & Gear

It seems counterintuitive to state that you need a more capable rifle for these diminutive Coues whitetails than for the bigger common whitetails. But such is the case. A lever-action .30-30 is not a Coues rifle, nor is a .243 with a fast, light bullet.

Instead, pick a superbly accurate bolt-action rifle setup for precision shooting in the field. Keep weight light, because you may be in near-technical high-desert terrain, but prioritize precision capability. Look at rifles such as Springfield Armory’s Waypoint, Seekins Precision’s Havok PH2, and Christensen Arms’s Ridgeline.

Desert Ghosts: Hunting the Elusive Coues Deer
Coues whitetail deer inhabit harsh, mountainous deserts in Mexico, Arizona, and New Mexico. Resourceful and elusive, they combine the ultimate hunting characteristics and challenges of both mountain and desert game animals. (Photo courtesy of Joseph von Benedikt)

Pair your rifle with a high-quality scope with well-designed dial-up turrets. I’m partial to Leupold’s 20-ounce VX-5HD in 3-15x44 with the CDS-ZL turret and to Swarovski’s 16-ounce Z5 in 3.5-18x44 P BT with customizable turret rings.

A sleek, light sling with a rubberized inner surface and a good mountaineering-quality bipod completes your Coues rifle. Personal favorites are Red Kettle’s M19 sling and Spartan Precision’s Javelin Pro Hunt bipod

Choose a cartridge that’s capable of shooting long and pair it with an aerodynamic projectile that will buck strong desert winds and reach out far with authority. However, you don’t need a dragon-stomping magnum.

Ideal cartridges include the popular 6.5 PRC, the new 6.8 Western, and the .280 Ackley Improved. And, yes, high-octane magnums work beautifully, too, as long as you don’t mind the recoil.

Because of their light physical construction, Coues deer don’t require tough, controlled-expansion bullets. You’re better off with a super-accurate projectile that will enable you to put your shot into the sweet spot. Dedicated Coues hunters trend toward Hornady’s ELD-X and ELD Match bullets, Berger’s VLD Hunting bullets, and similar. 

Coues deer hunting isn’t for everyone. But if you love a challenge, if you love remote desert settings, and if you love interesting, elusive game, you owe yourself a try for the Gray Ghost.

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