World's Toughest Whitetails

Taking a trophy Coues deer is all about patience, field-judging skill and being able to make the most difficult shot of your life

"Gimme some numbers -- can you see eye guards?"

"Only see one, he's got his head down," Kirk answered Dave's quiet but curtly businesslike question.

"Now I see it -- he's got both."

"Length?"

"Three inches, maybe three and a half."

"What about G-2s?"

"Left is shorter than the right, about six I'd say."

"What's he got for G-3s?"

"Looks like four inches on the right and I'll give him five on the left."

Just three minutes before, we'd been bouncing along a rocky trail when Rafael, beside me in the rear seat, urgently tapped Kirk's shoulder.

"Deer, se"or," he said, leaning forward and thrusting his arm through the open front window so Kirk could sight along his pointing finger.

"Macho?" ("Is it a buck?") Kirk asked.

"Si, muy macho!" ("Yes, a very big buck!")

Seconds later doors on both sides of the Chevy Suburban flew open, and with the precision of a well-rehearsed commando raid, Dave Miller and Kirk Kelso were hunkered at the roadside, with Kirk bringing his giant 30X tripod-mounted binoculars to bear on a distant slope. Through my 10X binoculars I could see nothing but flat-topped trees casting long shadows across frosted grass that shimmered like spun gold beneath the radiant Mexican sunrise. Touching Rafael's arm for attention I raised my eyebrows and waved my hand in the general direction in which Kirk's binoculars were aimed, saying without words, "I don't see it, show me where." Then, taking my turn at sighting over Rafael's outstretched arm and finger, I picked up a colorless form between distant trees that seemed totally unrecognizable as a deer except that it was neither a rock nor a bush.

"How about spread?" I heard Dave ask, drawing my attention back to his and Kirk's intense dialogue.

"Thirteen about," Kirk answered.

"Does he wrap around enough?"

"Not quite, 15 or 16 at most."

"Give me an estimate on quarter measurement."

"I'll say 13!"

"Okay, that comes to about 47 or 48 on a side -- so he's somewhere in the 90s. He's knocking on the door but not going in."

"Yeah, let's go."

Minutes later we are bouncing along the trail again, me looking back in the direction of a near-record-book Coues deer that for most trophy hunters would be the stuff of which dreams are made, and marveling at the efficiency and accountant-like accuracy with which Dave and Kirk had appraised the buck's antlers at a distance of well over 700 yards. More remarkable still was the astonishing fact that Rafael, a Mexican guide who works for Kirk during hunting season, had spotted the deer and determined without binoculars that it was a buck.

"Bueno, Rafael," I said, patting his shoulder and pointing to his eyes, giving him a thumbs up sign of my appreciation. "I'm going to stick close to this guy," I told myself.

An hour later we topped out on a mile-high ridge that made all the long hours of travel from my U.S. home to this unnamed place in the San Antonio Sierras of Sonora worthwhile. Valleys and ridges undulated to the horizon like a many-hued tapestry rippling before a gentle air current. In the distance, perhaps 20 miles, the corrals of a rancho could be seen through the clean, dry air, but the land between seemed as timeless and untouched as when Spanish conquistadors passed through centuries before.

"This looks like the place," Kirk said, after our eyes had drunk their fill. "Let's get comfortable and find that big buck we came for."

The day before, Dave and I had met four other hunters at the Tucson Airport and had flown to Hermosilla, Mexico. There we'd been met by Kirk Kelso, who drove us into Sonora's high country until long after dark over narrow, increasingly curvy and treacherous roads. Athe end of a rutted trail, we came to a newly finished adobe bunkhouse with concrete floors, beds and even running water (sort of).

I'd met Kirk just the day before and knew him only by his reputation for finding great trophies, David Miller I'd known longer than either of us will admit, but this was our first hunt together. A few years back he'd started pestering me about joining him on a Coues deer hunt, but I hadn't been the least bit excited by the prospect because chasing the spooky critters in their thorn-and-cactus-spiked habitat was a form of torture I could well do without.

Though I once lived in Arizona, the home of Coues deer north of the border, I'd never paid the species much attention, preferring to invest my hunting days in pursuit of the record-busting mule deer that inhabit the arid "Arizona Strip," or combing the state's ponderosa-crowned mountains for elk. By comparison, the Coues, a bantam-sized member of the whitetail family, seemed short on antlers and meat, and besides, they hung out with rattlesnakes and scorpions and other unsavory critters in the punishing wastelands of southern Arizona where no sensible hunter would venture. The Coues also had a reputation for being extremely hard to hunt, which is another reason my hunting buddies and I never bothered with them.

"It's not like that anymore," Dave had promised. "We've developed a whole new way of hunting them that you'll like, and besides that I've got a new type of rifle I want you to try." The prospect of trying a new Miller rifle weakened me. I also have to admit that I'd come down with my own case of Coues fever and had decided my trophy room wouldn't be complete without a set of their craggy, tightly curved antlers on the wall.

The final temptation was word that Kirk Kelso, owner of Pusch Ridge Outfitters, had located a Coues deer paradise in the northwestern Mexico state of Sonora and that there was an opening for a late-November hunt. When Kelso talks Coues deer he means trophy-sized bucks, and I knew Miller wouldn't have been interested unless there was a possibility of taking a record-class head. This held a special attraction for me because it meant that I might be there to see him tie the record for the most Coues deer entries in the Boone and Crockett record book.

Pursuing the dainty deer with a passion that had already posted six fair-chase entries in the B&C; book, plus a recordbook pickup, Miller needed only one more record-quality Coues to tie the seemingly unbeatable seven entries held by the late George Parker. In case you don't know about Parker, he was a crusty Arizonian who is still spoken of with awe in the circles in which he traveled. He was one of the best all-around marksmen I've ever known and his general demeanor strongly suggested that you'd rather have him on your side than against you. During his hunting career he collected many record-class trophies, including the legendary string of seven B&C; Coues deer.

Old-time Arizona hunters I've gabbed with tell me that back in Parker's time the standard hunting technique for Coues deer -- and most other species -- was the "flush 'em and bust 'em" approach, meaning that the hunter, either on foot or horseback, simply sneaked through the thorny cover -- seldom seeing ahead more than a few yards -- and hoped to surprise a hidden buck or, more often, stabbed quick shots at the small, fleet targets. An alternative method was to spot deer from a hilltop lookout and then try to stalk within rifle range. In those casual days of lever-action .30/30 saddle carbines and open sights, a 200-yard shot was a pretty long poke, especially at a diminutive deer.

The technique used by Miller and Kelso to spot Coues deer builds on that old sit-and-look method. But whereas Parker might have considered himself blessed by the luxury of 7X binoculars, modern-day hunters scour the countryside with optics of much greater power and definition. Kelso uses long 30X binoculars with objective lenses as big around as a loaf of Italian bread, while the always mechanical-minded Miller has combined two Bushnell spotting scopes with 30X wide-angle eyepieces into a binocular-like arrangement that sifts Coues deer out of great expanses of territory. "Let your optics do the walking," he says, along with his favorite phrase, "You can always spot an expert Coues deer hunter because his boots look new but the seat of his pants is worn thin."

Being able to spot and evaluate trophy deer from considerable distances is a great advantage, but it solves only half the problem of getting a buck into the record book. The other half of the problem is getting a bullet to the target with a killing shot. That's why Miller had wanted me to see and try his new rifle.

Among aficionados of elegant shooting-ware, it's no secret that the David Miller Company produces what are very likely the finest bolt-action hunting rifles ever made. The "Company" is composed only of Miller and his partner Curt Crum, who share a passion for excellence and refuse to take on extra help, despite a frenzied demand for their rifles and yearlong wait lists. One reason is that every piece of a Miller rifle is hand-finished and scrutinized for perfection by the two-man team. Additional workers, no matter how skilled, might dilute their pursuit of perfection. This helps explain why a Miller rifle once sold at auction for over $200,000, the highest price ever paid for an unmatched (not paired) rifle of modern make. Even the "ordinary" Miller Classics start at about 30 grand each, so anyone with a hankering to buy one probably won't find it at the local Wal-Mart.

The popular Miller Marksmen, on the other hand, sells for considerably less (starting at $10,500 in case you're curious) and is the end product of Miller's dream of a rifle that best matched his calculated way of hunting Coues deer. As originally intended, Miller's rifle was to be a one-of-a-kind for his personal use, but before it was off the workbench visitors to the Miller shop liked what they saw and ordered duplicates. And thus was born the Miller Marksmen.

Though Miller will add extra features such as fancy wood to his Marksmen rifles, he draws the line at anything that will compromise performance. For example, if a customer thinks he can get by with any scope mounts other than the super-strong system that Miller makes, he's politely told that customers have no say in such matters. Miller is equally hardheaded about choices in calibers, barrels, stock configuration, triggers and even seemingly trivial items that most of us don't think about but are considered by Miller to be essential ingredients of the total performance package.

Beginning with a special version of a Pre-'64 Model 70 action made by U.S. Repeating Arms and ar power and definition. Kelso uses long 30X binoculars with objective lenses as big around as a loaf of Italian bread, while the always mechanical-minded Miller has combined two Bushnell spotting scopes with 30X wide-angle eyepieces into a binocular-like arrangement that sifts Coues deer out of great expanses of territory. "Let your optics do the walking," he says, along with his favorite phrase, "You can always spot an expert Coues deer hunter because his boots look new but the seat of his pants is worn thin."

Being able to spot and evaluate trophy deer from considerable distances is a great advantage, but it solves only half the problem of getting a buck into the record book. The other half of the problem is getting a bullet to the target with a killing shot. That's why Miller had wanted me to see and try his new rifle.

Among aficionados of elegant shooting-ware, it's no secret that the David Miller Company produces what are very likely the finest bolt-action hunting rifles ever made. The "Company" is composed only of Miller and his partner Curt Crum, who share a passion for excellence and refuse to take on extra help, despite a frenzied demand for their rifles and yearlong wait lists. One reason is that every piece of a Miller rifle is hand-finished and scrutinized for perfection by the two-man team. Additional workers, no matter how skilled, might dilute their pursuit of perfection. This helps explain why a Miller rifle once sold at auction for over $200,000, the highest price ever paid for an unmatched (not paired) rifle of modern make. Even the "ordinary" Miller Classics start at about 30 grand each, so anyone with a hankering to buy one probably won't find it at the local Wal-Mart.

The popular Miller Marksmen, on the other hand, sells for considerably less (starting at $10,500 in case you're curious) and is the end product of Miller's dream of a rifle that best matched his calculated way of hunting Coues deer. As originally intended, Miller's rifle was to be a one-of-a-kind for his personal use, but before it was off the workbench visitors to the Miller shop liked what they saw and ordered duplicates. And thus was born the Miller Marksmen.

Though Miller will add extra features such as fancy wood to his Marksmen rifles, he draws the line at anything that will compromise performance. For example, if a customer thinks he can get by with any scope mounts other than the super-strong system that Miller makes, he's politely told that customers have no say in such matters. Miller is equally hardheaded about choices in calibers, barrels, stock configuration, triggers and even seemingly trivial items that most of us don't think about but are considered by Miller to be essential ingredients of the total performance package.

Beginning with a special version of a Pre-'64 Model 70 action made by U.S. Repeating Arms and a