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Tremendous Tips For Finding Coues Deer in the Backcountry

When hunting pressure mounts, lace up your boots and get into the backcountry.

Tremendous Tips For Finding Coues Deer in the Backcountry

For more than 20 years, hunting big Coues deer has been my obsession. As my drive to hunt these diminutive desert dwellers escalates, and my chances of being drawn in my home state of Arizona dwindle, I also apply for deer in New Mexico to “double” my odds. Truthfully, my chances of being drawn in the Land of Enchantment are just as slim as they are in Arizona; however, I have managed to draw a few tags to feed my addiction. From 2018 to 2022, I drew three tags in the same game management unit (GMU) in New Mexico. The first two hunting experiences were drastic in comparison and lessons learned on those first two hunts helped me garner success on the third, putting me back in the win column.

EARLY SUCCESS

Having never stepped foot in the GMU, I e-scouted extensively in preparation for the first hunt. Using onX Hunt, I marked several waypoints for glassing up far-off game. My favorite glassing hide required a climb of 500 feet over a half-mile to a small rock outcropping to provide a vantage at an elevation of 7,000 feet. There, facing northwest, I’d have a wide view of prime southeast-facing Coues habitat.

To the north, a steep hillside rose to more than 8,000 feet; its ridgeline continued in a semicircle north and west to produce a sizeable mountainous basin. Without climbing higher, a view of the basin’s interior was obstructed. An intermittent stream bubbled up from the farthest reaches of the bowl and trickled through the rocky stream bed below. The basin is lined with grass, brush and juniper. Pine-lined stringers top its interior ridges. The culmination of rugged terrain, diverse habitats and flowing water provide promising Coues territory, complete with security cover. Perhaps, most importantly, the basin borders a large Wilderness area, limiting access to one side.

105-coues
On his first hunt in this unit, the author took a 105-inch Coues buck on the third day.

With a few other saved waypoints in mind, my son, Colton, and I glassed from a distance the evening before opening day. We spotted several mature Coues bucks on the southeast-facing slope opposite our preferred glassing point. The following morning, we made the 500-foot climb to glass from the rocky perch. That day and the next, we turned up several mature bucks, including one giant. However, a shot opportunity never presented itself.

On the third day, again in the rocky crags, we spotted a mammoth-bodied Coues buck feeding with two smaller, but still mature, bucks. One man at a time, we leap-frogged to a nearby rock ledge—monitoring the bucks while maneuvering to an advantageous shooting position. After getting as close as possible, I made a 650-yard shot to take a 105-inch gross-scoring buck. The hunt wasn’t easy per se, but my confidence in hunting the GMU soared.

WAKE-UP CALL

Two years later, with the same tag in my pocket, I repeated the events of the first hunt, step-by-step. I glassed from the distant observation point the evening before the hunt. However, I only managed to spot a doe and fawn combo. With little intel to formulate a plan, my son joined me on opening morning, and we returned to our favorite vantage point in the rocks.

Shortly after setting up, Colton spotted a buck a couple hundred yards above our glassing hide. As I moved quickly to get a better look and set up for a potential shot, the report of a rifle sounded above us. Two hunters had beaten us into position. The two hunters field dressed the buck quickly, then worked up and over into the basin above. We continued to scour the surrounding hillsides but did not find any deer.

We glassed from our rock outcropping over the next few days of the hunt. Additionally, we tried a few nearby and far-off vantage points I had previously marked as secondary waypoints. Ultimately, with limited days to hunt, we only found one nonlegal buck, a spike. Dejected, I accepted failure and went home with tag soup.

glassing-sidebar-0
Glassing for Coues requires more than a quick scan with a handheld bino.

IMPROVISE AND ADAPT

Two more years passed before I landed the same tag. Stubbornly, I followed my routine of the two previous hunts, first glassing the rock outcropping and beyond from a distance, then climbing up to glass from my rocky perch on opening morning. On the third hunt, I had three additional spotters: my son Colton, brother-in-law Charlie Denton and family friend Chase Moore chose to enjoy—or endure—the hunt with me. On opening morning, our quartet was shut out on Coues buck sightings. I feared a repeat of my last trip, and, unfortunately, the theme continued for the next few days.

Although I’m an Air Force veteran, I often think of the slogan attributed to my Marine counterparts: Improvise, Adapt and Overcome. The mindset to deal with physical and mental hardship also comes in handy pursuing Coues deer. By this time in the hunt, we had spotted more mountain lions than shooter bucks (only one). It was time to improvise and adapt my plan. It was time to go deep.

coues-basin
This large basin in the backcountry provides all the resources Coues whitetail require.

I was confident the area we hunted still held several bucks. However, I wanted a new perspective into the farthest reaches of the basin. On the fourth morning we fabricated a new strategy to access this spot. Our journey began with a long ride in the side-by-side to a stream-bed that provided the most accessible way into the basin’s interior. From there, the bouncing light of our headlamps guided the mile-long hike up the narrow, rocky creek.

As the faintest hint of light reached the horizon, we turned 90 degrees, pointed west and climbed up 500 feet over a quarter-mile run. We were on the southeast-facing hillside we had previously glassed on several occasions and near where my first buck was taken. After the 30-minute climb, we sat down and glassed the farthest reaches of the basin. Immediately, I caught movement on the back hillside—a buck. Soon, one buck turned into three. Finally, I was in business.

Recommended


glassing-observation
Observation from a distance allows the Coues hunter to be efficient by hunting fringes and breaching the backcountry at the perfect time.

OVERCOME!

Now, I was faced with a new dilemma. The stalk would include traversing a mile with an elevation gain of 1,000 feet through impenetrable brush and several routes requiring some technical scrambling. Moreover, there was no way of knowing if the bucks would still be present and visible on the brushy hillside when we arrived. We planned to leave Chase as a spotter while Colton and I moved in. Almost two hours later, worn out from the technical climb and pushing through the thick vegetation, Colton and I were on a small rock ledge overlooking the bachelor group of deer.

Minutes—that felt like hours—later, I made a 350-yard shot, toppling a 100-inch unique-racked Coues buck. It took another half-hour to get to the fallen deer. Chase joined us after taking a separate route up the creek bed. After field dressing the buck, we followed Chase’s route down the canyon; the hike back to the truck was just as treacherous as the stalk. After several hours afoot and the pack out complete, we finally celebrated our success at the tailgate.

100-waypoint-2
On his third hunt in New Mexico, the author made a 350-yard shot to topple this 100-inch Coues buck.

LESSONS LEARNED

I consistently remind deer hunters, even the most seasoned ones, “If you aren’t hiking straight up a steep mountain an hour or two before daybreak to get to a vantage point, you aren’t hunting Coues deer.” The statement rings true in most cases. However, the mantra has a narrow focus: climb high and glass. During this string of recent deer hunts, I was reminded of its occasional failure and the need for a more comprehensive strategy to tag Coues bucks consistently. One strategy is having a solid plan to get farther into the backcountry quickly when an opportunity requires it. Here are a few others.

SCOUT EFFECTIVELY

Scouting before and during a hunt, especially when hunting unfamiliar country, is paramount to success. Avoid scouting by observation only. Instead, identify terrain, vegetation and other resources prominently used by Coues. Generally, the deer feed on south- or east-facing slopes, seek shaded cover to bed and sip water opportunistically. Begin an investigation using a mapping app; use layers to research, uncover and mark various resources as waypoints. Once in the field, investigate marked waypoints to determine their viability. Scout during the hunt and continually fine-tune and home in on Coues deer.

105-coues-3-1
Getting as close as possible, the author made a 650-yard shot to take his first New Mexico Coues whitetail.

HUNT FRINGES AND EDGES

Coues whitetail are edge-habitat creatures, meaning they reside where two prominent flora or topographical features collide. Often, a rapid change in elevation aids in creating this effect, but not always. Finding and hunting fringes or edge habitat with challenging access helps eliminate competition from other hunters who may not be willing to get farther from the road. Additionally, it will aid in finding bucks seeking solace when hunting pressure mounts. Large roadless areas, Wilderness borders, GMU boundaries or similar land features create prominent single-access habitats suitable for hunting fringes and infiltrating their depths at a moment’s notice. Start in the outermost, most accessible reaches. As needed, penetrate deeper into the backcountry for ultimate success.

BE PREPARED

Like most hunts, the difference between an unsuccessful and successful hunt for Coues deer balances on a steep fulcrum. At any minute, momentum may turn on a dime in either direction. Preparedness promotes the chance of a positive outcome. Preparation is a pronged endeavor. First, physical fitness is a necessity. Climbing extreme heights and breaching the backcountry is not for the faint of heart. One does not have to be an Olympic athlete, but a poor man’s sheep shape is preferred for a poor man’s sheep hunt. Second, mental fitness is crucial; the oscillation between momentum swings takes its toll on a Coues hunter. The ability to endure extreme peaks and valleys creates mental homeostasis. Lastly, always having the appropriate gear allows responsiveness. Whether it’s food, extra ammo or hunting gear, being packed and ready goes a long way when you need to take immediate action to kill a Coues deer.

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