October 28, 2010
High-country Coues: persistence, determination and a little bit of luck.
It might have felt like luck if so much were not invested.
Coues whitetail are tough, there's no other way to put it. None other than gun-writing legend Jack O'Conner labeled them the toughest game on earth. They're downright neurotic; "wary" and "spooky" don't go nearly far enough in describing their wraith-like nature. This has everything to do with their place on the food chain, fodder for everything from formidable mountain lions to slinking coyotes. They're survivors.
They also inhabit some of the most inhospitable country around -- deserts filled with vertical rock and restless scree that grudgingly supports an assortment of stabbing, grabbing vegetation and scrubby trees. If the cunning Coues himself doesn't defeat you, the country he occupies will.
The Pope and Young minimum for a Coues deer is only 65 inches (though deer scoring into the 130s have been recorded), yet all the entries in history consume only five pages (typical and non-typical combined) in the record book -- the same number of pages devoted to archery bighorn sheep, by the way. Much of this has to do with regional availability, of course, though I know some pretty serious bowhunters with Coues in their backyards who have gone a decade without tagging one, despite considerable effort. In light of that, you'll understand why the memories I'm about to share grow continually sweeter with time.
Aldo Leopold Wilderness -- January 2001
After eight days of dawn-to-dusk bowhunting, Steven Tisdale and I remained deerless, ruminating like cattle over a daypack lunch. Neither of us had even come close to getting a shot, though we'd each seen a couple solid bucks. The rut was in full swing. It was late afternoon, and the fact we'd run into each other was remarkable in itself -- like discovering your high-school sweetheart lives in the same town after 20 years and three interstate moves; and you're both single. There's a lot of broken, brush-cursed topography in New Mexico's Aldo Leopold Wilderness.
"I really need to get home," Steven said, then grew silent for a time. "I've pretty much had it. I don't even know if I've got the energy to hike out of here€¦" I couldn't help but think of the 12 grueling miles between camp and the truck. Camp was a couple thousand vertical feet lower and five miles away, where windmill-supplied water and a crumbling cabin with rusted woodstove hunkered in a blue-oak hollow. Steven's the toughest bowhunter I know and the only person I'd even consider venturing into an adventure like this with. January backpacking isn't for everyone.
I was considering his words when a speck of movement -- half a mile away, crossing a bench of twisted junipers -- caught my attention. Through 10x40 binoculars I discovered a pair of deer traveling with purpose. Steven had taken my cue, training his German glass on the distant point. "Bucks," he offered. My spotting scope confirmed one of them was incredible -- wide, multi-tined and heavy. As if it had been choreographed, we hastily stuffed gear into waiting packs and boots into fleece stalking slippers.
We maintained visual contact with the bucks for only a short time as we quickly dodged from tree to tree. Before long, the difference in elevation hid the bucks from us. When we reached the area where they had been, we parted like bird dogs on scent, guided by individual intuition, though I occasionally caught glimpses of Steven slipping along on mincing feet. In 15 minutes, we'd covered a couple hundred yards. They'd given us the slip, though I was pretty sure I knew where they were headed.
I fell into a hurried but careful gait, remembering not to let my guard down. Fortunate indeed. I'd made it only 100 yards when I spied the smaller buck -- a solid 95-incher -- sauntering over a fall of land not 200 yards away. I slipped ahead as silently as haste allowed, focused on stepping lightly but knowing all too well this was the break I'd been waiting for all week. I was somehow convinced I'd discover both bucks over that nearby horizon -- if I could just arrive in time.
Seven steps later, I rounded a ground-hugging cedar and all but skidded to a halt. The bigger buck emerged to my left, sauntering slowly. I was amazed to discover an arrow had somehow appeared on my bowstring. I reached for my laser rangefinder, but thought better of it and instead tugged the bow to anchor. I settled the 40-yard pin on his ribs. As I went over my quick internal checklist, allowing the pin to float, the buck, as if through telepathy, paused and turned his head my way. I released the string.
The arrow rocketed in low and forward but the buck lurched before blasting over the adjacent rim. I stood in disbelief and cussed myself vehemently. I'd misjudged the range short. More importantly, I'd allowed myself to panic and hurry the shot. I'd blown it.
I found my arrow after a short search, remarkably intact considering that ancient lava rock abounded. Even the NAP Shockwave survived the impact. The blade slots held tufts of barred hair, the vanes only specs of crimson. I'd only winged him. I spent an hour searching for Steven and, failing, returned to the scene to seek further evidence of my botched opportunity. Remarkably, there was blood. More than I could've hoped for.
Farther down the mahogany, cliff-faced ridge, tiny specs and drips turned to fist-sized splotches. I allowed myself to hope.
I jumped him an hour and 300 yards later, sending three ineffective arrows after him as he labored straight out of that bottom at 100-plus yards. I was feeling sick and hopeless as he reached the canyon rim. But then the remarkable occurred. He flopped into the black shade of a dusky silver oak and vanished from sight. It was a half hour later, after carefully negotiating loose, clattering rock, before I peeked over that rim. Through piercing German glass I found him; shadow on shadow. It seemed my breath had left me.
I bounced a laser pop before coming to full draw -- only two arrows left to my name.
Struggling to steady the 50-yard pin between labored gasps, I let it fly.
The arrow sucked into the dark void and he exploded over a fold of land. I sprinted uphill, attempting to watch the direction he might take, finding only hanging dust. The landscape was as quiet as the inside of a church. I searched the area frantically, frustrated nearly to tears, wanting this buck more than I had ever wanted anyth
Two hours later, the sun perched in the ragged crest creating the Continental Divide, I had no choice but to approach the problem the old-fashioned way. I was tired beyond words, pleading with God aloud. I moved that trail 200 yards on hands and knees, moved it with blood specs and dislodged rocks, discovering where I'd missed a sudden downhill twist as precious light oozed away.
I was formulating plans for the morrow, too drained to carry on. Three steps later, the buck lay stiff as lumber, sprawled on an open swatch of grass. I nearly cried to have found him, to finally hold those gorgeous antlers. He was something, a sure Booner (B&C minimum is 110 inches, this buck was seven inches bigger) and for the time all I could do was sit and thank God for favors granted, making promises that would endure for months.
Aldo Leopold Redux -- January 2002
There was no doubt we would return to the Aldo the following January. A success like that made it a foregone conclusion. We were off and running with the New Year's season opener, discovering a basin literally alive with deer pushed from higher, and thicker, elevations by snow that had made ATVs mandatory for traversing 37 miles of mining road leading to the trailhead.
One of those bucks was something, a true 5x5 (rare in Coues) with unbelievable mass and an extra-wide spread. I guessed him at something close to 125 inches, not quite as big as Sergio Orozco's 130 1„8-inch Arizona world's record (taken in 2001, the same year as my 117-inch buck you just read about) but still a solid No. 2 -- which is currently held by a Mexico buck scoring "only" 119 7„8 inches. Just to prove my guesstimate was correct, later in the week I stumbled upon that very buck's matched sheds from the previous year.
They scored about 120.
It might've been three days in when I found him in the right place at the right time. You don't outright trick Coues, you simply prove persistent enough to be in the right place when they make a rare mistake. He was with five does, feeding up a relatively open hillside well below warm bedding ledges Coues naturally gravitate to during nasty weather. I was forced to make a two-mile circle to take advantage of the wind and available cover. Along the way, I was temporarily pinned down by a 100-inch buck and would have been giddy to approach if not for the prospect of world-class antlers.
After some tricky maneuvering across open ground and several, 100-yard belly crawls, I emerged from a shallow gully to find him 70-some yards uphill and unaware I was in the same county. Unfortunately, one of the does was very aware of my presence, or at least sensed something afoot, and that's all it takes when bowhunting Coues. I'd run out of cover. It was a shot I knew I could make, but past 60 yards, things become a bit dicey and confidence is easily shaken. Before you become hot and bothered by the very prospect of such numbers, understand Chuck Adams' former world record was taken at 63 or so yards. It's simply the nature of the beast.
To make a long story short, I'll just say I didn't take the shot, the group spooked, and that, as they say, was that. I sometimes contemplate that opportunity while lying awake at night, and it haunts me still. I hunted that buck three more days until Steven was due home.
Meanwhile, I had been chosen for jury duty -- again -- and my presence was required elsewhere. The 73-year-old man was driving home from playing canasta with friends.
Stopped by police due to imperfect driving, he was asked to emerge from his vehicle to confront icy wind and sub-zero temperatures and a sobriety test. He declined the opportunity. He was charged with driving while intoxicated. I voiced my unregulated opinion in the matter and was shortly released from duty. I would be backpacking into wilderness alone.
With snow melted the behemoth Coues had vanished, though I might have seen him briefly the first morning back, at something like a mile -- though I can't be 100 percent certain. After five more days of rising in the bitter-cold dark of morning and returning to that lonely cabin well after dark, I'd failed to locate him again. Prospects appeared dismal indeed. I was physically beaten up and desperately homesick.
Late that evening, wearily making my way along a desolate ridge, pausing occasionally to probe a traditionally-productive bowl with binoculars, contemplating tomorrow evening's season close, I discovered a mule deer buck. He was the best-scoring desert muley I'd witnessed in 25 years of bowhunting the region. He was a perfect, even, wide-antlered 5x5, and he was surrounded by no fewer than 35 does. He was actively participating in the rut. He was also far out of reach. I watched him as the sun plunged into the west, knowing I was in for hell getting off this dark mountain, but I believed I knew where he was headed.
Morning dawned deathly cold, not a breath of wind stirring. Only by climbing did I warm, my bow handle burning through wool gloves, by legs rubbery and undependable on the treacherous rock. The inner voice was coaxing a retreat. I paused to allow crushing waves of sheer loneliness to fade and pushed upward. It was a long shot at best, but I had to know I'd tried, not surrendered without a fight.
Remarkably, the mulies -- all of them -- were where they were supposed to be. It was a good place, a stalkable place I knew by heart. The going was painfully slow in that swallowing stillness, my steps clumsy and unsteady avoiding loose rock, cactus and scabs of crunchy snow. But those deer were busily distracted, abuzz with hormones.
Mountain mahogany grew densely, but I was closing on them with an arrow on the string, maintaining patience uncommon for me. I could see the 5x5; nosing does, breaking into spirited lunges, in pursuit of love. But there were does all around and I had to be alert. A quiet step around a cactus and the mahogany exploded before me, rocks clattering and brush crashing, a flash of white flag and impossibly massive antlers -- Coues!
I cut a corner of brush in five aggressive bounds to reach an opening, a truly desperate move. Movement; right to left. I jerked the string to anchor. A Coues buck stepped into a narrow opening some 55 yards away. No time for rangefinders. I swept the correct pin into his vitals and dumped the string hurriedly.
The arrow arrived with an incredible crack, like a home-run ball smacked just right, hitting the buck low in the shoulder. More arrow than not protruded and then abruptly spun away as the Coues bucked high and scrambled from sight. I was running like a crazed man, nocking an arrow on the run, the Coues buck appearing in an open patch of yellowed desert grass. I started to draw but the buck reversed thrust, running backwards, his hindquarters failing him, tumbling into the gamma and kicking wildly. The NAP Scorpion XP had found his heart.
It wasn't until handling him that I understood what I had. He carried 48 inches of mass and 7-inch brow tines on a tight but long and awesomely thick rack. Even with 9 inches of main beam and another 2 inches of a G3 broken off, he still scored 114 inches! As I exulted in the moment, I couldn't help but glance eastward, perhaps 500 yards, and note a hillside where only 373 days before another drama involving Coues had unfolded.
Only then did I understand what an extremely lucky man I was.