trophy coues deer at night
Garrett Smith

Bucks Beyond the Border: A Coues Deer Hunt in Sonora

Five friends charge into Mexico's drug cartel country for a DIY hunting adventure during the January rut

Agua Prieta. In English that means "dark water," an ominous name for a town. It sits on the border between Mexico and the U.S., a region that's had more than its share of darkness in recent years. This is drug-cartel country. I look up and see Mexican tricolor flags snapping in the dry, dusty, cool Sonoran breeze. A few years earlier, banners with the name "El Cadete" painted on them hung along the streets here. That was the nickname for the cartel boss who controlled the region, and the banners were his way of taking credit for the murders and other drug-fueled violence in Agua Prieta.

Of course, A.P., as the locals call it, is hardly the only place in Mexico that’s suffered during the carnage that’s claimed an estimated 60,000 souls in recent years as the drug lords and their henchmen seek to outdo each other with public displays of horrific violence. But it certainly has seen its share of blood.

Despite the town’s reputation, my four companions and I were determined to embark on a self-guided hunt for Coues deer, one of the most challenging big-game animals in North America. It was early January, and the rut was on.

We were met at the border in A.P. by Ronaldo. He’s a young guy, barely out of his teens, dressed in Mexican street style—flat-brimmed ball cap, loosely laced high-tops, skinny black jeans, and a T-shirt with the name of some Mexican musician, or perhaps a group, that I’d never heard of.

He said he wanted to be a hunting guide. He was a cousin or nephew—the family connection was never quite clear—of someone on the ranch where we’d be hunting.

sun cresting a mountain hillside
Glassing for deer as the sun crests the horizon.Garrett Smith

I asked him what he thought about our president’s favorite construction project­—the Wall—and whether it would make any difference in stemming the northbound flow of drugs.

He shrugged. “We don’t care about the wall,” he said. “This is a mining town, amigo. We dig tunnels.”

We were also met at the border by Beto, who cut a more convincing figure as a hunter. In his early 40s, he had the weathered look of someone who works outdoors for a living, wearing boots, blue jeans, and a faded camo jacket—the basic uniform of hunters everywhere in North America.

We drove to the ranch, about an hour and a half past the border, our crew of four hunters and one photographer in a white rental van following Beto’s small pickup. Gun cases, duffels, and coolers were stacked high in the back.

We settled into a small dwelling on the ranch: four bedrooms with a central kitchen, and one main bathroom with suspect plumbing that seemed unlikely to survive the demands that five grown men were poised to inflict. The house was decorated with pictures of horses, saints, and the Virgin Mary, and it sat at the base of a hill with a small white-stucco church at the top.

field dressing a mexico coues deer
Gathering all the meat in the field before packing out.Garrett Smith

Beto had rounded up two ATVs for us, and after checking the zeros on our rifles, we topped off the four-wheelers with gas from a large yellow plastic can, split into two groups, and went scouting.

The ranch sprawled over tens of thousands of acres. The Sonora River cut through the middle of the property, and I took one of the Rangers along its sandy riverbed.

High hills dominated the view in every direction. Far to the east, the ranch terminated in the foothills of a mountain range, but everywhere I looked seemed like a good bet to find deer. I drove to the top of one large hill with a 360-degree view.

Looking downriver, I saw a stand of cottonwoods, and the grassy slope just behind it was dotted with wild turkeys. Straight across the river, in rocky higher ground, javelinas were nosing around some cholla cactus, their black bodies easy to spot against the red dirt.

Coues deer aren’t as easy to pick out. These small, gray whitetails are notoriously elusive and masters at blending into their surroundings. Hunting them is a game of glassing, spending a lot of time staring through tripod-mounted 15-power binoculars and scanning with spotting scopes to look for the telltale flicker of an ear or a glint of sun on the antler of a bedded buck.

I glassed from the hill until last light and spotted one good buck about 800 yards away. He had been staring in my direction, then turned and slowly walked off, heading toward a ridge to the north. With the rut going, I didn’t know if he was on the prowl for female companionship, didn’t like the way I was looking at him, or both.

steven rinella holding up coues deer rack
Steve Rinella showing off a mature Coues deer rack.Garrett Smith

After the sun set, I fired up the old Ranger and followed its dim lights off the hill, up the riverbed, and back to camp. I had high expectations for dinner. I was rolling with Steve Rinella of Meateater fame and his longtime colleagues Janis Putelis and Dirt Myth. Dirt’s real name is Garret Smith, but when he was young, he had a lisp and pronounced his name “dirt myth,” and it stuck. My buddy Ben O’Brien was also in camp, another serious cook and wild-meat foodie.

But like kids on the night before Christmas, we were too jacked up to put much effort into a fancy meal, and instead ate simple fajitas while poring over maps, sharing intel from our scouting sorties, and making plans for the morning.

In the Zone

The first morning, Steve, Ben, and Dirt headed off to the southwest corner of the ranch, toward a spot that Beto said held a good buck. The world’s best hunting truck is a rental, so they piled into the van and drove as far as they could, grinding through gravel and deep ruts before continuing on foot.

They were headed to a specific ridge but never made it that far. A prominent little peak caught their attention, and they glassed from it and spotted their first buck of the trip—a Michigan 6-point basking in the sun. The buck seemed agitated by some deer below him, so they moved to higher ground for a better look.

Dirt glassed up a bigger buck, and after everyone looked it over, they agreed it was a tanker. Ben thought Steve should shoot it, and Steve thought Ben should go for it—so they flipped a makeshift coin cut from a piece of salami. Steve won the toss, so the buck was his.

They watched the deer bed down beneath a tree about 1,200 yards away and sneaked toward him, crossing a broad valley and closing the gap.

Steve had marked the tree and used it as a guide to get inside the buck’s zone. Eventually, the buck sensed Steve’s presence and stood up. Steve made a 150-yard shot and dropped the heavy-horned 3x3.

Ridge Runner

Janis and I spent the first couple of days hunting the western side of the ranch, taking the Ranger into the hills and glassing. We found some bucks, including one we put a long stalk on in the afternoon of the second day, but we couldn’t locate him before dusk settled in.

By day three we were ready to see some new country and headed to the eastern side of the ranch, where it butted up against the mountain range.

Janis spotted one good deer in the morning and took off after him while I kept glassing the long fingers that radiated off the mountains. After a couple of hours, Janis came back with no shots fired. The buck had wandered off the land we had permission to hunt.

The day heated up, and the deer quit moving. We spent several fruitless hours glassing and looking for signs of life under the intense sun. About 50 miles to the north, a large white blimp hung in the air, tethered in place: an eye in the sky used by the U.S. Border Patrol to track low-flying aircraft with radar. Other than a single coatimundi bounding up some rocks with its long tail waving behind it, the hills were vacant.

hunter checking rifle while hunting
The author checking his .260 at first light.Garrett Smith

Around noon we walked toward the northern border of the ranch and talked with a vaquero wearing a Cincinnati Reds hat who was mounted on a pretty sorrel. His two heelers plopped down in the shade of the mare as he met us at the fence between the ranch he was working and ours.

He ’d seen some good bucks around and waved his arm in the direction of the long ridges I’d been glassing at first light. “I’d hunt there,” he said.

That afternoon we took the Ranger to the end of the cow track we’d been following and set off on foot, crossing a deep ravine with a stream at the bottom that was surprisingly cool in the shade of the trees.

We scrambled up the other side, working our way through a big patch of young mesquite that clawed at our clothes and left my forearms a bloody mess.

Once we got to the high ground, we worked down the spine of the ridge, stopping to glass each side for a bit before still-hunting to the next vantage point.

I was glassing down into the canyon when I noticed Janis waving me over.

He’d spotted a good buck below him, standing about 70 yards away in some tall grass. We had a quick back-and-forth about who was going to shoot him. I didn’t want to take a buck I hadn’t spotted, and Janis had left his rifle back with his pack. In truth, I just think neither of us wanted the hunt to be over. Fortunately, the deer didn’t hear our chitchat. His ears were pointed away from us, focused on something else.

I handed Janis my Melvin Forbes .260, and he pulled up on the deer and shot. Perhaps the light trigger on my rifle took him by surprise—but he missed. He worked the bolt before the deer moved and put a round right behind the shoulder. The buck didn’t go far. We ran down the hill to collect Janis’ wide 3x3.

The light was fading, and we wanted to get back to camp in a hurry, so we looked at our GPS and saw that our Ranger was about 800 yards away as the crow flies. Instead of hooking around the way we had come, we figured we’d drop down the side of the hill to the bottom of the canyon and work our way straight up the other side.

We figured wrong.

With the meat, hide, and horns on our backs, we edged down the steep slopes of the canyon only to encounter a cliff that ended in a 15-foot drop to the bottom. I’d already caught myself once from sliding down a chute and into the abyss, and I didn’t want to push my luck.

We clawed our way back to the top. Nearly three hours later, we made it back to the Ranger.

grassy slope
Side-hilling across a grassy slope to get to a vantage point.Garrett Smith

Down to the Wire

Janis and I spent the next couple of days back on the west side of the ranch. Ben, Steve, and Dirt had scouted one good lookout in that section, and that’s where we headed. At the base of the hill, which was in a particularly remote part of the ranch, was a large number “1” made out of stones that was visible from the air.

Dirt innocently asked the ranch hand, who was with them when they discovered it, what it was for. The ranch hand looked down at the ground, mumbled something inaudible, and walked off. Whatever was being dropped off from the sky clearly had nothing to do with cattle ranching.

From our promontory, we had a commanding view of the countryside. We started picking out deer all around us, most of them tucked into shady cover either bedded down or feeding on browse.

I was hoping for a break and got one when I glassed a hill to my left and saw a large ocotillo swaying back and forth. A buck was raking the tall spiny branches of the plant, working out his aggression and marking his turf.

hunter coues deer in the field
Taking a moment with a deer in the field.Garrett Smith

He was nearly 1,000 yards away, and after he was done beating up on the thorny shrub, he crested the hill and vanished.

I gave a lot of thought to that buck that night. Over dinner and beers, we compared observations. Differentiating between a nice 100-inch buck and a 105-inch trophy at those distances is tough, but we concluded that he made the grade.

Janis, Dirt, and I hiked that same hill before first light the next morning. I spotted the buck lower down, walking from left to right. The best chance to get him was before he rounded the side of the hill and walked out of sight.

There was a second ridge between the buck and us, and, using the rangefinder in my binocular, I found a clear shooting position that was roughly 400 yards from the deer.

There was no time to lose. This was the last day of the hunt. I grabbed my pack, rifle, and shooting sticks, and took off. I beelined for the bald patch and crouched down as I sneaked onto the ridge.

I grabbed my binocular and spotted him next to a cluster of cedars. He was still walking and had only 40 yards to go before he moved out of view.

I tossed my pack down, took one last reading from my rangefinder—407 yards—dialed the turret on my scope, and took a rest off the pack. I croaked out a bleat to stop the deer. He paused. My bullet took him high in the chest, and down he went, the third trophy-size buck of the trip—a tall, heavy 3x3 with nice eye guards.

john b. snow posing next to ocotillo buck
Posing with the ocotillo buck.Garrett Smith

Paid in Blood

El Gigante was the mythic deer we were all looking for. At different times over the week we felt we’d laid eyes on this giant buck, and we even had one fuzzy Bigfoot-quality picture taken through a spotter that seemed to show a deer with a mass of bone towering skyward above his head.

That last afternoon, we surrounded the area we thought was his home turf, hoping to get Ben on that buck.

We spent the rest of the day on glass looking for this deer, picking apart the terrain bit by bit, trying for a glimpse of that magnificent rack among the cedars and grass. Shadows pivoted as the sun moved toward the horizon, but none of us saw the deer.

To keep things interesting, Ben decided to have a wrestling match with a cholla cactus. He fell into the plant with both hands and drove dozens of thorns deep into his flesh. One thorn had gone about 2 inches into his wrist, puncturing a vein. While he was trying to yank it free, it caused his pinkie finger to twitch and get rigid. Steve, who was with him, could only look on. When he tried to help, the cholla thorns dug into his flesh, so Ben had to figure it out on his own.

boiling a set of deer antlers
Boiling a skull in order to bring it back across the border.Garrett Smith

Janis, Dirt, and I were across a broad valley from the place where Steve and Ben were hunting. Near last light, Ben and Steve made a move on a buck not far from where the rest of us were. But as they approached his location, the wind shifted, and a bunch of does they hadn’t seen blew out of there and headed toward the buck. They took him with them as they high-tailed it out of the country.

Ben sat down on a rocky outcropping to watch the sun set, figuring the hunt was over.

Janis, however, wasn’t ready to admit defeat. He glassed up a buck a couple of ridges away, and he, Steve, and Ben took off for one final try.

Dirt and I stayed on our hill and watched them move into position. We saw one good buck moving with a doe, but there was a stand of trees between him and Ben’s position.

The crack of a shot reached us in the twilight. Ben had connected on a large buck. We’d gone four for four on mature Coues deer in the wilds of Sonora.

We headed to Agua Prieta the next morning and crossed back into the U.S. The prevailing current of those dark waters, stained with the blood of the drug wars and cartel violence, undoubtedly flows from south to north, bringing narcotics and people desperate for a better life. But we found they pulled us in the other direction as well—to experience as pure a spot-and-stalk deer hunt in open country as you’ll find anywhere in North America. And as we drove home, we made plans to return the following year to do it again.