I’d wanted to do this solo.
The year 2017 has been a series of self-imposed challenges. In an attempt to become a better outdoorsman, I’ve taken myself out of my comfort zone again and again this year. Backcountry camping. Fly fishing. Dealing with grizzly bears. Elk hunting. Actual, serious, call-em-in turkey hunting. This trip, to southeastern Arizona in search of the gray ghost, the Coues deer, was supposed to be the capper to all this.
I could see it in my mind’s eye: Solo, backcountry camping, long days glassing for these teeny gray deer, a great stalk, a long shot, a serious pack out. It would be glorious.
But the more I thought about it, the more I started to realize that I might be biting off more than I could chew.
I am a decent deer hunter. But only decent. My expertise is mostly with waterfowl and small game. I’ve made some long shots with my rifle before, and I’ve packed out deer and elk, and I’ve done a little camping and a fair bit of glassing. I’d even hunted in southeastern Arizona before, for Mearns quail. But put all of that together, add a 15-hour drive from Sacramento, and my resolve began to fail me.
So I called on friends for help. Every one I talked to confirmed my fears: Hunting Coues deer is hard. Hiking is part of it, sure, but so are the wild temperature shifts you need to dress for, the extreme, long-range glassing — and the often extreme, long-range shooting.
Enter John Stallone. John is a professional hunter from the Phoenix area. I’d done a podcast episode with him some months ago, and he generously offered to hunt with me as a sort of Coues deer mentor. I jumped at the chance.
Admittedly, I felt a twinge of self-guilt for doing so. With John, my chances of shooting a Coues deer buck went up tenfold. I’d wanted this to be a serious challenge of my outdoor abilities. As it turned out, it was.
But not of all of them. We scotched the idea of backcountry camping right off. My hunting unit, 34A, was not so large that we needed to rough it to that extent. Most of the unit is accessible with a day hike. We’d actually hunt much as I always do, which is to say drive forest service roads until we saw a spot to glass for deer, hike up to it and spend several hours looking.
This was my first challenge. I’ve stared through binoculars for hours before, looking for pigs or deer or elk. But this was poor preparation for Coues deer. You can’t simply look through binos and expect to see these bucks, which average about 100 pounds. Does are smaller. You need to attach your binoculars to a tripod, get comfortable and slowly, methodically stare at a far hillside until you see a buck, or give up.
I have a tendency to rip on gear nerds, and John and his friend Shane Edgar, who joined us, are definitely gearheads. But it didn’t take long to see that their optics and even their tripods were significantly better than mine: Their glass was clearer and their tripods heavier and taller, which reduced shake and allowed them to stand and glass if they wanted to. When you are staring at a hillside more than a mile away, it made a difference.
Beyond that, John and Shane live in Arizona. Coues deer hunting is normal deer hunting for them. Shane, especially, had the eagle’s eye. He always spotted deer first. Helps to be just 19, I guess. Young eyes. But both of them would spot deer before I could, and twice they verbally directed me to where deer where… and I still couldn’t spot them. Frustrating.
That first afternoon we spotted some does and a couple spike bucks. I’d vowed to not shoot a spike or forked horn until the last day or so. Sure, meat is meat, but given that I’d set aside five days to hunt, I could afford to wait a bit. And yes, I know this has gotten people burned before. I’d just hoped it wouldn’t burn me.
There was another wrinkle. My rifle. I’d broken the stock on my old Remington 700 in a previous deer hunt and had bought a brand new stock. The new rig was pretty, especially with a new Vortex scope on it. Only one problem: It no longer shot well. We tried and tried, but the suspicion is that the new stock was affecting the accuracy. I couldn’t bring this gun to Arizona. Heartbreaking. But John offered to let me use his gun, and I accepted.
John’s gun is also a Remington 700, but where mine is a basic version in .270, his is massively tricked out. It’s a .300 ultra mag, with a muzzle brake, a carbon fiber stock and a special barrel, all designed to reduce recoil. And he had a 5×20 scope on it with a yardage turret; you set the turret’s dial to the approximate yardage of the shot. This is the origin of the phrase “dialed in.” I’ve decided to call this rifle “The Punisher.”
John wisely suggested I take a couple practice shots with it. He set me down prone and told me to shoot a rock across a canyon. He didn’t tell me how far it was. “Just aim for the center of the rock,” he said. I did, and missed high on the first shot. I hit it square on the second. “That was 580 yards,” he said. Jesus. That’s by far the longest shot I’d ever taken, let alone hit.
Next morning, we went back to where we’d seen the does and spikes, reasoning that maybe a larger buck might show; the rut was about to begin, and maybe a big buck might be getting an early start.
Apparently not. Nada. We glassed and glassed in the weirdly cold conditions — roaring, raw winds that sapped the heat from you. I was quietly relieved we hadn’t seen any bucks, as I was not keen on shooting in 25-mile-an-hour winds.
The morning passed without incident, and we stopped for an early lunch in Sonoita. John had a spot he wanted to hunt on the other side of the Santa Rita mountains, but we decided to check this one canyon near town first.
It seemed familiar. As we drove, I realized I’d hunted this canyon before, for Mearns quail back in February. It’s a long canyon, wide and flat at the bottom, with folded, rolling cliffs on the other side covered in grass, oaks and the evil shrub cat’s claw; you can guess why it’s called that.
John and Shane didn’t have high hopes. It was midday, all the deer would be bedded down — making them even harder to see. They started talking about hunting coyotes and foxes while we all glassed the opposite side of the canyon. “Go get the gun,” Shane said. A fox? A coyote? “No, Hank. I’m talking to you. It’s a deer.”
Whoa. I’d gone from kinda sleepy post-lunch chill to amped in about three heartbeats, which were getting faster by the second.
This was a good buck, too. Even I could see that. I could tell it was at least a six-point buck, and Shane and John estimated it would score about 75 inches or so. I am not well versed in such things, but they told me this was a nice one we should go after.
The buck was bedded down under an oak tree on the other side of the canyon, chewing his breakfast. We set up The Punisher on John’s pack, with some nifty shooting bags we’d brought along. Even still, I could not get into a decent position. If you’ve never tried to shoot something a long ways away, one of the hardest things about it is just getting the damn thing in your crosshairs.
You look through the scope, nada. You look over your scope. OK, there. Nudge the gun. Nada. And you do this again and again until you get it right at 5x magnification. Then you increase it, hoping to hell you don’t nudge the gun again, which, at, say 20x magnification, will knock the deer completely out of the sight picture. Grrrr…
This wasn’t going to happen. We moved, set up again. Same dance. Only this time I managed to get the deer set in the crosshairs. “How far?” I asked, not really wanting to hear the answer.
“About 525 yards,” John said. Christ. More than a quarter mile. John and Shane said it was perfectly OK to not take that shot. We talked about moving across the canyon to a fold in front of the buck, where we might be able to get a very close shot at him. But there were two problems: It hadn’t rained there in months, so everything was crackly and dry. Noisy. And the wind was wrong. The buck would smell us before we got set up.
Shit. Shit. Shit. “OK, let’s do this,” I said.
I got into position. It hurt, my neck was all jacked up, but I was steady. Fortunately I am decent with a rifle. I knew I could make this shot if I could keep it all together. There he was, still chewing, staring off to the right absently. I lined the crosshairs up on his shoulder. Deep breath, exhale, slow squeeze on the trigger… BOOM!
The shot felt pretty good, but the deer jumped up and bolted off to the left, looking confused. I thought I’d hit him, as did Shane, but John wasn’t so sure. And I couldn’t get the crosshairs back on him. He was walking. Shit! I got him in my sights again, in time to see him walk over to patch of cat’s claw below a deadfall oak and sit down. OK, at least he wasn’t dashing off anytime soon.
And then the wait began.
John and Shane could see the buck behind the cat’s claw, and I had the crosshairs on where he should be, but I couldn’t see him at all. This stand off lasted a full 90 minutes. My arms would ache, my neck would cramp. I kept getting up, out of shooting position, for a second or two to relieve the tension, all the while being ready to get back on the gun — without nudging it off the deer — should he decide to get up.
Finally, he did. Just below this buck was some seriously thick brush. If he walked into that, it would be game over. But I was on him. “How far?” I asked. “About 425 yards,” Shane said.
Crosshairs on the shoulder, there is he is, squeeze…
I could see the deer go down through the scope. I knew that was a serious hit, and felt good about it.
We packed up, went back to the truck to grab our knives and pack frames and, after waiting a half-hour, clambered across the ravine to where the deer ought to be. Shane and John were stoked, but I’d never shot an animal quite this far away, and I was nervous. When you start nearly a quarter mile away, a lot can happen before you get to the animal.
Thankfully, after a short search we found him, piled up in a dry creek bed at the bottom of the cliff under an oak.
Thank God. Oh, and that first shot? I had indeed hit the buck. Grazed the top of its shoulders. Another 1 1/2 inches lower and I would have severed its spine. Dead deer.
We skinned and quartered the buck in short order. The pack out was easy, especially since I finally bought a proper pack frame. Meat secured.
Now I was happy. I’d eaten tag soup — failed to kill a deer — in two previous attempts this season, so this little gray buck would be my only source of venison for the coming year. Won’t last, but hey, it’s something.
On the long drive home, the hunt’s events swirled through my mind. The terrain, the glassing, the shooting.
Could I have done this solo? Maybe. Maybe I’d have been able to spot a legal buck in the five days I’d allotted to hunt. But with my gun out of commission for the moment, I’d never have had the confidence to shoot 400+ yards without a tricked out rifle like The Punisher. And only now do I know exactly what to look for on distant hillsides, and what sort of terrain may have deer — and what won’t.
All in all, this turned out to be a graduate course in spotting, stalking and shooting deer in the West. And I passed. It was exactly what I needed to return here next year. Only this time, it’ll be solo.