Photo credits: Josh Kirchner
Photo credits: Josh Kirchner
It’s hot, gloomy and hunting seasons are over. Soon, late summer will grace us with its presence and start the engines for hunting seasons across the nation. I know that once the summer is in full swing, it is non-stop for me and I am just drooling over the coming fall. For many of us, the planning for next fall began the moment the last one ended. It is our “big show” if you will. The temperatures are usually at their peak, bears are bulldozing fall food crops and the elk are bugling. However, there’s another thing that strikes my fancy during this time of year: velvet bucks, and more specifically, velvet Coues bucks. Our early archery deer season here in Arizona runs the last bit of August through mid-September. It is a fantastic opportunity to get out and chase the gray ghost. With any hope, your arrow will catch up with one.
I usually start getting out and looking at deer during the month of June through the early part of July. This is a great time to locate them early on and learn their whereabouts. Grabbing a vantage point high up on the mountain and scanning country with optics can tell you a lot about an area without you even stepping foot in it. Getting to watch deer be deer is invaluable. Another fantastic way to put the puzzle pieces together is by running trail cameras. Coues deer—and everything else—will be glued to nearby water sources, so placing a camera on a few of them can tell you a lot. Many hunters will also utilize salt blocks in front of a trail camera to see what’s lurking around (be sure to check state regulations). While these bucks are growing their antlers, they will hit the salt pretty hard in order to gain the nutrients to aid their antler growth. No matter what you decide to do, I suggest that you do it early. Deer that you find during the summer months will generally be pretty much in the same area in late August. Once the velvet comes off, though, they will move. Take advantage of this.
I am going to go out on a limb here and say that spot and stalk hunting is probably going to be the number one way that folks try and sink an arrow into a Coues buck. If you want to really test your spot and stalk skills, the Coues deer is one that is more than worth the challenge. They are arguably the most difficult animal in North America to kill spot and stalk with a bow. Coues deer are twitchy and seem to always be on high alert. I’ve even watched wind spook them before, which was quite hilarious. If you don’t believe me, try taking a swing at them. Make sure you save some room at dinner time, though, for some humble pie afterwards.
In order to spot and stalk bucks, you are going to need to be in country that allows you to do so. Being able to scan the hillsides with your optics is everything with this type of hunting. So, you are going to need glassable country. Generally, this is going to be the desert or high desert. It’s open and you can see. Once you figure out the general area or areas that you want to hunt in, spend time notating high points on your map that you can glass from. I like to try and make a route from glassing point to glassing point and spend about an hour in each one if I haven’t seen anything.
However, if I can see enough country from one vantage point, I will stay there the whole morning and then move to look in the shade afterwards. Once you do find a buck or bucks, do not and I repeat do not take your eyes off of them. Coues deer are really good at vanishing into thin air or melting into their surroundings. Remember, it’s called the gray ghost for a reason. Hunt them enough and they will haunt you.
Now, the stalk. All that I can say about the stalk is be on your A game. Wind, your foot placement/fall, and cover need to be on your radar. Oh, and go slow. Don’t forget that one. It is incredibly important and the formula that you need in order to wrap your tag on an archery Coues deer. Always pay attention to the wind. You can fudge a bit on everything else, but the wind is an absolute and of the most importance. Noise will get you, but with careful foot placement and foot fall, you can get away with more than you think. Lucky for us bowhunters the ground is often wet during our August hunting seasons from the monsoons we get. This can give you a big advantage when it comes to noise as it makes the ground and grass quieter to move through. As for cover, try to stick in the shade and move with the vegetation. Use lines or walls of brush to obscure your outline. You want to avoid looking out of place. If you get caught, don’t move. Many times, after much inspection, the deer will go back to whatever they were doing before. That is, of course, if the wind isn’t blowing right at them. Stick to the formula. Check out this article on deadly stalking techniques here for more information.
Generally, during the early season, hunters will glass up a buck, bed him down and then make their stalk from there. That is a fantastic way to kill bucks spot and stalk with a bow. It is not the only way though. Don’t be afraid to stalk these bucks as they are feeding in the morning or evening. Many times I have tried waiting for a buck to bed down only with the end result of the deer dropping out of sight. Blind stalks are doable, but I much prefer when I know right where the buck is. Cutting them off as they move through a feeding area is effective. The bucks are preoccupied and not moving fast at all. It’s a great time to sneak up on them. Now, if you know where they are going to bed, that is a different story. By all means, wait it out. However, if you don’t, you might consider making a move on them during breakfast time.
During this early season, deer are in their summer patterns and, in general, they stick to them. That gives you a great opportunity to try and learn them and capitalize on such things. Water is huge during this time of year and with some pre-season scouting, you can find the water sources the bucks are hitting regularly. Setting up or building a ground blind on these can pay off big if you can stand sitting in the heat all day. Don’t like the heat? No problem, you can head up into the shady pine forests in northern Arizona and either do the same with a ground blind or set up a treestand. Either place the stand on water or, better yet, I’d find the trail the deer are using that go to the water and put the stand there. This will let you stay away from the crowds and avoid having your hunt possibly interrupted. Many hunters will set up a stand and hunt that way.
This is a type of hunting that I feel both flies under the radar and just doesn’t get utilized that much. When I was a kid, this is how my dad used to show me deer. We would slowly and quietly move our way through areas, stopping every couple of steps and glancing all around us. It might sound boring, but I can assure you that it works. More than a few times over the last few years I have successfully still hunted my way right into Coues bucks feeding without them knowing I was there. This works even better after it rains and the ground is quiet, which is often during this season. I like to slowly work my way into the wind through dense feeding areas. Often it is scrub oak. This stuff can be just about head height and the bucks will be feeding on the small acorns it produces in August. Take two or three steps and then stop for a minute or so. Heck, stop as long as you want. 10 minutes is perfectly fine. Just be quiet and still. It might take you two hours to cover 400 yards. As long as you aren’t trying this in the wide open desert, you’ll be all set. This kind of hunting isn’t for everyone, especially in this fast paced world we live in. It is a game of patience and self control.
So, what’s the best way to hunt these little buggers? That is going to largely depend on the type of country you are hunting them in. What I mean by that is are you going to be high up in the pines, down in the desert, or somewhere in between? You need to let your plan of attack be a reflection on the area you are hunting. For instance, you aren’t going to glass in country that you can’t glass in. Spot and stalk sort of goes out the window there. Ambush hunting or still hunting are going to suit you better in that situation. Aside from that—just get out there and try this stuff out. I think being well rounded in all manners of hunting will only make you better in the long run. It gives you the ability to hunt a wide variety of areas and, in turn, broadens your knowledge. All of these methods are effective and have their place. The Coues deer can be found from 2,500’ all the way up to 10,000’, which is one of the things that I think is so cool about them. You can literally choose how you want to hunt them in this regard. No matter the way, these little deer are special in a big way.