Mountain of the King

Step foot in the high desert he calls home and you'll understand why the tiny coues deer might be the toughest whitetail of all.

There is a mountain in old Mexico the local vaqueros call la Montaña del Rey, the Mountain of the King. It is named after a trophy Coues buck that once reigned there. I will tell you where the mountain is, but it will do you no good. That particular king is dead, felled by an Arizona hunter who found himself in the right place at the right time.

Small wonder an Arizonan tagged the 125-inch Coues, as most of the hunters who roam northern Sonora’s Sierra Madres in search of the diminutive whitetail hail from that desert state. Still, a few of us outlanders head south of the border each fall as well. Jack O’Connor invited me-not directly, of course, but through his many tales of hunting the reclusive little whitetail, which I read in Outdoor Life as a youngster growing up in western Kentucky.

I recalled O’Connor’s partiality for the Sonoran Coues when Jim Morey asked me to join him and others for a December hunt on Jose Morales’s El Cajoncito Ranch, a few dozen miles south of the border town of Douglas, Ariz. Morey is the head man at Swarovski USA and an avid hunter. Since glassing is so much a part of the Coues deer game, heading down to Mexico seemed a perfect way to try some of the company’s high-class optics.

El Cajoncito consists of 66,000 acres of mountains and adjoining foothills, chaparrals, creek bottoms bounded by willows and cottonwoods and vast tracts of wide-open spaces studded with various high-desert plants and trees.

When Morales, a cattle rancher, decided to start a hunting operation a few years ago, it didn’t take long for the word to spread that El Cajoncito was home to a healthy population of Coues. One of Morey’s lieutenants, Mike Jensen of Tucson, had hunted the ranch the previous year, and his reports of the handsome racks spotted there compelled Morey to get up an expedition. Besides Morey, our group consisted of Jensen, veteran Coues guide Chris Denham of Chandler, Ariz., hunting writer Tom McIntyre from Sheridan, Wyo., and me, lately of New York City.

IN MEXICO’S WESTERNMOST STATE
McIntyre and I flew to Tucson, where Jensen met us and helped load our gear into his four-wheel-drive pickup. By late afternoon, following an uneventful border crossing at Agua Prieta, Sonora, we arrived at the large adobe ranchhouse in the heart of El Cajoncito and made ready.

The next morning, after a breakfast of scrambled eggs, frijoles and freshly cooked tortillas, a couple of truckloads of us drove a few miles into the highlands along a dim trail. Our destination was an area in which Jensen had previously scouted and found promising sign.

Denham was glassing toward the southwest and along the flanks of a neighboring promontory when he spotted the mountain king browsing along an escarpment near the crown. He immediately exclaimed that he was looking at the biggest Coues he had ever seen living or dead, and Jensen, when he found the buck with his Swarovski 60-power spotting scope, was equally impressed. All of us watched the Coues for several minutes until Denham and Jensen agreed that it would be impossible to stalk him successfully because of the lay of the land.

The buck had established himself at the top of the pecking order roundabout by staking out the summit of a low mountain whose grassy slopes were studded with scattered shrubs and oaks. The Coues, which was wearing a long-tined eight-point rack that most whitetail hunters south of Canada would have been proud to have on their wall, browsed lazily without apparent concern. He knew the score. His domain was unapproachable, unless he lost his sight and sense of smell. The opposite slope was too steep for any hunter save the sure-footed pumas that inhabit this rough-and-tumble country. And the swirling updrafts helped keep the buck apprised of any unwelcome visitors approaching from the bush-shrouded foothills that rose up in varying heights around his doin.

Deliberately or not, the old buck had staked out an impressive safety zone, but it didn’t keep us from harboring hopes that he might make a mistake during our hunt. Meanwhile, McIntyre and I decided to focus on the possible instead of the improbable.

A STALK GOES WRONG
That first morning, we eventually turned our attention away from la Montaña del Rey and scanned the surrounding knobs and more distant mountains. It was Jensen who first saw the two bucks feeding along a hill opposite us to the southeast. One of them sported a good rack and it was decided that I would take it. Jensen, Morales and I planned a stalk that would take us from our vantage point downslope to a dry creekbed that wended along the base of a craggy palisade. We would then slip to an area on the opposite side of the bucks’ mountain, but which was in the direction in which the Coues were heading when we last saw them.

En route, Jensen found the bucks bedded in some tall grass on the sunny side near the peak. Even better; I could bag the bigger Coues while it was snoozing. As we approached a dirt road about midway up, however, things started going wrong. When we stopped to glass the bucks again, we noticed that they appeared to be agitated by something unseen. Within seconds, they both rose to their feet and made a stiff-legged retreat around the mountain to thick cover on the opposite side.

Morales, Jensen and I were puzzled, but then the reason for the bucks’ unease became apparent. A vaquero on horseback, accompanied by a dog, suddenly came walking up. The ranch hand was out checking stock and had no idea we were in the neighborhood. The bucks’ reaction to his arrival convinced me that they were youngsters. Wiser, older bucks would have lowered their heads and stayed put instead of panicking when the wandering caballero came along.

After the bucks skedaddled, we backtracked and made our way to the scoping hill and continued scanning the area, each of us posted to cover a different compass point. We saw bucks, but nothing to inspire a long hike through the Spanish bayonets, cholla cacti and various other sharp-pointed flora. We were satisfied that this was the area to hunt, however, if only because of the number of visible deer. As if pulled by a mysterious force, our scopes and binoculars kept wandering back to the mountain of the unattainable buck, but he had moved off to parts unknown.

The next day, McIntyre got a nice 112-inch buck that was first spotted as it walked up from the valley floor after sunup. As several sets of eyes watched, the unwary Coues bedded down in a copse of junipers about 600 yards away. McIntyre liked what he saw, and he and Denham sneaked down to a point about 200 yards opposite the buck’s bed to wait out his siesta. It would be a long vigil for the pair.

Jensen and I went the other way, hoping to find a backdoor to the mountain king’s lair. We scoped his hill for several hours, discussing possible approaches and then dismissing each of them in turn because of insurmountable obstacles. Besides, we didn’t exactly know where the Coues was, except that he wasn’t where we could see him and there was no point in blundering up there without a plan.

Some four hours later, we heard McIntyre’s 7mm Weatherby Magnum roar. His hunt was over, we knew. In this country, 7mm Mags. loaded with ammo in the 120- to 140-grain range are popular among deer hunters, if only because they send a bullet a long way on a fairly flat plane after they leave a rifle barrel at more than 3,300 feet per second.

WHAT HAPPENED?
The echoes of McIntyre’s shot were long gone by the time Jensen and I shifted our attention to other vistas. Eventually, at about 1,000 yards, Jensen spotted a 110-class buck feeding on the sparse grass of a ridgeline. I told Jensen I was game and we plotted a way to reach the buck undetected. It was to teach us why the Coues’s nickname, “gray ghost,” is deserved.

Half-sprinting, we rounded the base of the mountain and dropped into a rock-studded arroyo that meandered in the general direction of our new target. When we got to within 300 yards of the Coues, we slowed down and Jensen stopped occasionally to make sure the buck wasn’t showing signs of alarm. Finally, when we had closed the distance to about 250 yards, we crouched over at the waists and eased up to a colony of yuccas that obstructed the buck’s view.

The plants also blocked my shot. While I could have attempted to shoot at the buck while kneeling, the range was daunting for an offhand shot. By slanting a few yards forward behind the yuccas, I would reach their edge where I would have a clear target while lying on my stomach and using the shock-corded Snipe Pod bipod attached to my rifle’s forend sling stud. Crawling, Jensen and I made our move, and a few moments later I was in the process of getting into shooting position when Jensen whispered, “Where is he?”

I looked up at him. His binocular was trained on the hillside where we had last seen the buck. I was a bit startled by his question. “Why, the buck is right there where we saw it only a few seconds ago, about 230 yards from here,” I wanted to answer but didn’t. I pulled my binocular around from my back and looked for myself. The buck wasn’t there, having disappeared in an area where the tallest plants-what there were of them-were about three feet high and which didn’t have enough substance to them to fill a pillowcase.

Jensen and I stared into the drab emptiness for several minutes. Nothing moved. It was quiet, except for the desert breeze that blew in our faces. Strange. The ground where we stood was a mixture of gravel, sand and dirt that was as dry as dust and crunched underfoot like crusted snow. Perhaps the buck heard us tiptoeing along and scooted out of there. Yet it didn’t have time to bound over the hill from the last time we saw it until we knew it was gone, and we were satisfied that it had not lain down because we had explored every inch of the terrain with our optics.

The vanishing act was perhaps more perplexing to me than to Jensen, who spoke of similar incidents he had witnessed as we drove down from the high country. Riding along in the twilight, it occurred to me that it wasn’t only the inaccessibility of these deer that made them so tough to hunt, but also their instinct to detect and evade interlopers who entered their stark world. Looking out the truck window, I watched as the coulees darkened below mountaintops burnished by the light of a distant fire, and decided that O’Connor’s fondness for the Coues deer was well placed.

WAITING FOR MY SHOT
My luck changed the following day. Jensen found the young bucks that we had stalked the fted. It was to teach us why the Coues’s nickname, “gray ghost,” is deserved.

Half-sprinting, we rounded the base of the mountain and dropped into a rock-studded arroyo that meandered in the general direction of our new target. When we got to within 300 yards of the Coues, we slowed down and Jensen stopped occasionally to make sure the buck wasn’t showing signs of alarm. Finally, when we had closed the distance to about 250 yards, we crouched over at the waists and eased up to a colony of yuccas that obstructed the buck’s view.

The plants also blocked my shot. While I could have attempted to shoot at the buck while kneeling, the range was daunting for an offhand shot. By slanting a few yards forward behind the yuccas, I would reach their edge where I would have a clear target while lying on my stomach and using the shock-corded Snipe Pod bipod attached to my rifle’s forend sling stud. Crawling, Jensen and I made our move, and a few moments later I was in the process of getting into shooting position when Jensen whispered, “Where is he?”

I looked up at him. His binocular was trained on the hillside where we had last seen the buck. I was a bit startled by his question. “Why, the buck is right there where we saw it only a few seconds ago, about 230 yards from here,” I wanted to answer but didn’t. I pulled my binocular around from my back and looked for myself. The buck wasn’t there, having disappeared in an area where the tallest plants-what there were of them-were about three feet high and which didn’t have enough substance to them to fill a pillowcase.

Jensen and I stared into the drab emptiness for several minutes. Nothing moved. It was quiet, except for the desert breeze that blew in our faces. Strange. The ground where we stood was a mixture of gravel, sand and dirt that was as dry as dust and crunched underfoot like crusted snow. Perhaps the buck heard us tiptoeing along and scooted out of there. Yet it didn’t have time to bound over the hill from the last time we saw it until we knew it was gone, and we were satisfied that it had not lain down because we had explored every inch of the terrain with our optics.

The vanishing act was perhaps more perplexing to me than to Jensen, who spoke of similar incidents he had witnessed as we drove down from the high country. Riding along in the twilight, it occurred to me that it wasn’t only the inaccessibility of these deer that made them so tough to hunt, but also their instinct to detect and evade interlopers who entered their stark world. Looking out the truck window, I watched as the coulees darkened below mountaintops burnished by the light of a distant fire, and decided that O’Connor’s fondness for the Coues deer was well placed.

WAITING FOR MY SHOT
My luck changed the following day. Jensen found the young bucks that we had stalked the f