The Arizona weather was gorgeous, with temperatures nearly 80 degrees warmer than Tulsa when I arrived in Phoenix in mid-January. It sure felt good! My old pal Dick Tone’s recognizable license plate beckoned as he pulled up shortly after I lugged my bow case and gear to the curb.
Those of you who have followed my Trail’s End column might recall a heartbreaking experience I had a year ago while chasing Coues deer. Simply stated, I’d stupidly missed a fine buck; my fault, no excuses, though of course I could invent a few. The bottom line is I wanted one of those desert ghosts as badly as anything I’d ever hunted, and now I had one more week to try and get it done.
Unbeknownst to me, Dick had been in touch with my wife to find out if there was anything special I might need on this adventure. The medical profession had given me some time off after another series of cancer treatments. As they evaluated their next steps in search of a cure, I was free to do whatever I felt like. So, against most folks’ wishes, I went to Arizona. Dick and I have been friends dating back to the ’60s and then ’70s, when I had him hired as product manager at Ben Pearson. Dick is a superb archer, bowhunter, guide and coach who led the 1992 U.S. Olympic Archery Team when Jay Barrs brought home the gold.
We headed south across the beautiful landscape of southern Arizona, a land that’s drawn me since my early varmint calling days back in the ’60s. By late afternoon, we made a “primitive camp” in a room at the Quality Inn in Sierra Vista and organized our gear before meeting Dagen Haymore — a local Border Patrolman and very, very serious bowhunter — for dinner. Haymore was late but called to say he was helping his friend Frank Sanders, an Alaskan guide, drag out a buck he’d shot just before dark. Since dinner was on hold for a while, Dick consumed two large bowls of chips and salsa and I ordered a drink.
Eventually, the happy pair made it to dinner and Dick began to jaw with Dagen about where we might find a Coues deer. Dagen, who grew up hunting the area and regularly chases bad guys through the desert wilds, knows the will-o-wisp Coues as well as anyone. Thus, Dick and I paid much heed to what he had to say. On the way out, we admired Frank’s fine buck lying in the truck and, fully charged, went back to our primitive beds at the Quality Inn where I fell asleep thinking about the following morning.
A Fling and a Scare
Our plan was pretty straightforward. Dick would shoot javelina, I would shoot deer and both would try for coatimundis (a raccoon-like desert carnivore). Simple enough.
That first morning, we hunted a familiar stand from the previous season; the same one where I’d missed the buck. It required a short, uphill hike, which pretty much wiped both of us out. Dick’s not doing perfectly well himself, though both of us let out a strange, hollow laugh when I joked about two old guys staggering around in the desert until they croaked. That morning produced nothing but a few does and a cottontail. That afternoon, we traveled through Fort Huachuca and out the west side to another secret location and followed it up the next morning too. Altogether, we spotted seven does, scrub jays, two gorgeous blue-tinted squirrels, a flicker and assorted juncos. But no bucks, no javelina, no coatis and no shots.
Though the rut was on, there was scant evidence of bucks chasing does, no visible scrapes or rubs and, though I admit to being something of a novice regarding Mr. Coues, I expected more action.
That afternoon, we gathered at a Chili’s restaurant and waited for our friend, the extremely successful and widely traveled Dr. Jack Frost, to join us. Dagen told Dick and I he’d show us a spot after he got off work, so we returned to our primitive camp for a little (much needed) rest. Dagen called us around 3:30, and shortly thereafter we were off. The area was near 30 miles away and quite different than our previous locations. It consisted of a wide, thickly brushed dry riverbed sprinkled with a few very old cottonwoods. Because my legs don’t work worth a damn, it took everyone’s effort to get me into one of the taller cottonwoods where an old Swivel Limb stand was placed. The ascent was pretty hairy, and getting down would be even hairier. But that could wait. About two hours of daylight remained when the boys left me alone to wait and see.
A doe wandered through shortly thereafter, and a little while later, a series of rustles in the dry creek caused me to peer over my left shoulder. The ground was covered with a troop of coatimundis. I counted 15 as they scampered around the arid creek bed, but try as I might, I could not get turned to draw my bow, which I should mention only pulled 47 pounds, and that was a strain! Rather than cross to my good side, they disappeared to the west. Some of those must have weighed 25 pounds, I thought to myself!
The sun was dropping fast when the sight of a buck coming through the thick trees brought me to full alert — only a sleek 6-pointer, but good enough! The light breeze had quit, and it was as still as the inside of a bank vault as he drew closer and crossed 20 yards below. THUMP! The bow went off as he reached the perfect position. Without missing a beat, the buck dropped and exploded forward as if launched at Cape Canaveral as my arrow ricocheted of the top of its back. Damn it! My eyes actually clouded with tears as I replayed the shot in my mind. “Why can’t I get this done?” I wondered aloud. Shots like that come around rarely on pretty much anything, much less the little desert whitetails. I just sat there shaking my head until my friends showed well after dark.
Getting me out of the tree took a great deal of effort and strength on the part of Dagen, while Dick remained below, ready to catch me should worse come to worst. Once safely on the ground, I said I didn’t really want to go through that again.
“We’ll put up my Double Bull,”
said Dick. “That should work in this thick cover.” So, with that settled, we returned to our primitive campsite.
It seems Coues don’t necessarily move around really early like normal whitetails. Most sightings seem to happen later in the day, so we weren’t in a frantic rush to head out the following morning. We had a light breakfast at the camp’s complimentary café, grabbed some more coffee for the road and arrived at our parking spot as full daylight began to flood the Arizona desert. I promptly fell down crossing a barbed wire fence, gashing my release hand pretty good. Dick pulled me up for about the fifth time, dusted me off and asked if I wanted to hunt or just lay around. “Let’s just get the blind set up, smart ass,” I replied.
We were carefully slipping through the wash, trying to avoid brush thick with claws and daggers, when we spotted some javelina trotting ahead of us. Dick drew an arrow from his quiver and snuck forward. After a few long minutes, he replaced his arrow and we resumed moving. But we had not moved another four steps when he stopped abruptly, nocked an arrow again, drew it back and shot a big javelina boar that was standing motionless in the shadows not five yards from me. The boar spun around in a three-foot circle and died. “Darn good start,” I said. Dick grinned as I slapped him with a high five.
In a smallish opening not far from where I’d missed the buck the previous evening, we found a good spot for the blind, set it up and climbed inside. On the way in, I noticed the ground was pocked with fresh scrapes, which gave my attitude a little boost. Hey, maybe this could work out. Forty minutes had passed when a flicker of movement caught my eye. Two does were acting squirrelly, flicking their tails and jerking their heads. Though I could only see bits and pieces through the mesquite trees, they were heading in our direction. Very carefully, I picked up my Hoyt, just in case.
As the does closed the distance, another quick movement flashed through the trees, and I caught a glimpse of antlers. “There’s a buck following the does,” I whispered to Dick, who was just beginning to snore. “Hush up!” For what seemed a very long time, the three deer pranced and whirled in and out of the trees. Several times I had clear shots at the does, but never the buck. Then, the does blew out to our right and the buck began to follow. As he materialized through the trees, I could see he was much wider and heavier than last night’s 6-pointer and carried more points. As he entered the opening, I somehow got to full draw, settled in shakily and released. Dick jerked up as the buck bolted, and we listened intently to the sounds of his flight, hearing a loud crash, then silence. “That sounded good!” Dick said.
“Must’ve run through a tree,” I said, referring to the loud crash.
A half hour later (after we returned from the truck to find my tag where I’d dropped it), we set out to take a look. After a few yards, we found some blood on the dry, sandy soil, then more. The trail could be clearly seen across the dry riverbed and up the far bank to where my buck lay piled up at the base of a large tree. He was a mature buck, with several broken points I couldn’t have cared less about. I admit to feeling pretty darn emotional. Standing over the buck, a three-year quest interrupted by numbing up and downs, mostly downs lately, had finally ended, and the results overshadowed all the previous trials.
Dick was jubilant. “We got ‘er done, Pal!” he exclaimed. “He’s a booker.”
“Yep,” I replied. “We got ‘er done.”