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Hunting the Grey Ghost: Stalking Arizona Coues Deer

Hunting coues deer in Arizona requires powerful optics and plenty of patience
Aram von Benedikt Avatar

I traveled to southern Arizona last year with Zeiss in search of the elusive Coues Deer, known to those who hunt them as the "Grey Ghost." Coues deer are one of the smallest sub-species of whitetail known to the USA, second only to the diminutive Key deer. Polar opposites to your standard big woods or farm country whitetail, they live and flourish in the roughest, driest country the Sonoran desert has to offer. Tough as the cactus they live among, everything in their home will stick, stab, sting, or bite you.

We hunted from dawn until dark, and then we slept. Dawn rose again, but we rose before, crossing a ridge and an arroyo and then climbing a peak to watch the sun wake the Sonoran desert with its first sleepy rays. Occasionally one of us would shout the word “deer” in a whisper, as we spotted a whitetail Coues deer, glowing in the distance like an ember under the focused stare of the early desert sunlight.
Pursuing these desert deer isn’t for everyone, but a hunter who’s got grit, determination, and a passion for the hunt can—and should—experience hunting this elusive grey ghost.
Here’s what you’ll need to pull of a successful D.I.Y. Coues deer hunt. And by successful, I simply mean a hunt where you’ll have a blast, test yourself, and your skill as a hunter and outdoorsman. But hopefully you’ll harvest one of these little gems of the desert along the way. First you will need physical and mental toughness. Nothing extraordinary (you don’t have to be a former Marine) but you should be able to hike reasonably well and possess the mental fortitude to tough out rugged country, cactus, and long hours of glassing.
You’ll also need reliable gear. Keep in mind that good optics are critical for this kind of hunting. Traditionally, hardcore Coues deer hunters use quality, high-powered binoculars mounted on a sturdy lightweight tripod—and with good reason. Long distances, thick brush, and small ghostlike deer make spotting your quarry a true challenge. Great glass helps compensate for extreme distance and will prevent eyestrain during long hours of glassing. A tripod allows you to pick apart brush choked draws one shadow at a time as you search for the flick of an ear, the silhouette of a leg, or light reflected from a curving antler tine.
Zeiss makes superb glass and their Conquest HD 15 X 56 bino is tailor-made for Coues deer hunters. I spent anywhere from 6 to 8 hours a day dissecting hillsides through a pair mounted on an Outdoorsman tripod and still managed to remain free of eyestrain and headaches.
My rifle of choice for this hunt was a custom-shop Remington Mountain rifle in 30-06. Lightweight, balanced like an Olympic gymnast, and topped with a Zeiss Conquest HD5 scope. It will hold shots in an incredible half MOA at 100 yards. But a word to the wise: Don’t bring a rifle you want to keep pristine on a Coues deer hunt. I don’t consider myself clumsier than the average guy, but the Arizona footing is so treacherous that I fell hard three times—and my beloved rifle shows the scars. Note: The cactus in this photo is of the Barrel variety. Coues deer enjoy eating the fruit that sits atop them. If you ever find yourself dying of thirst in the desert, cut off the top and squeeze liquid from the inner pulp to stay hydrated.
Other important gear in your arsenal should include a quality backpack, small lightweight cushion to sit on during long hours of glassing, and map & compass or GPS unit. Standard equipment for any hunt (headlamp, knife, water container, fire starter, etc.) will round out your day gear.
As for footwear, snake gaiters wrapped around good leather boots are a winning combination. The gaiters offered good protection against numerous cactus spines and afforded considerable mental comfort during one late night encounter with a pair of rattlers.
One of my favorite items for any hunt is a silk scarf, or “Wild Rag.” This hunt was no exception. Late afternoon glassing sessions were made intense by the glare of the desert sun and hordes of persistent gnats. Draping my scarf over my head and field glasses made conditions downright tolerable, effectively blocking the sun and shutting out the gnats.
My friends and I had an outfitter pack camp several miles into a no-vehicle-access area for us. This cost a bit but saved us hours of backpacking water and food into the backcountry on our, well, backs. We did bivy out overnight some, but having a comfortable camp to base our hunting from was a great addition to the hunt that helped keep us fresh and motivated. Another very effective method is to carry your camp on your back wherever you go. I’ve done this on many hunts and it’s an extremely efficient method. Finding adequate drinking water can be the biggest challenge, but a little research, scouting, and preparation should take care of that issue.
When you've trekked into an area that you expect to hold deer, seek out a good vantage point. Be sure to set up in or under cover and avoid sky-lining yourself. Move very carefully: these little grey deer don't tolerate pressure well. If you make a mistake, they may slip away from the area and you'll never even know they were there. Glass and glass, and then glass some more. Early in the season look for bucks in secluded and unlikely places. My buck was bedded under the high cliffs that form the peak in this photo. Look for groups of does later during the rut and you'll find the bucks that shadow them. Once you spot a shooter buck, assess the terrain carefully and plan a stalk. Close the distance as rapidly as you can, utilizing every bit of available cover. Try to get as close as possible. These deer are much smaller than their whitetail relatives and deserve precise shooting. But be prepared for longer shots if need be. The landscape often dictates shot distance.
Like every other creature, Coues deer need to drink. If you find water, you will likely find deer within a few miles.
We hunted hard every day, often not seeing camp by light of day. Thirty minutes from dark on our last evening I spotted a nice buck as he stood from his bed at the base of a desert cliff. He was more than 1300 yards away, with three small but very rugged canyons between us. We gathered our gear in a mad rush and charged the peak, sliding, falling, and scrambling our way through the canyons. The evening shadows climbed the peak faster than we could, and as we heaved our way up the mountainside we knew we had only moments of shooting light left. Belly crawling between prickly-pear cactus we made it within 280 yards. There was no way to get closer, and the buck had seen movement and was growing nervous. I rested the little mountain rifle over my pack and squeezed the trigger.
Obtaining a Coues deer tag Arizona utilizes a point system for their in-demand permits, and several points in the bank will aid in drawing a great unit during the rut. However, there are undersubscribed units that are drawable on a yearly basis. The hunting is tougher and trophy bucks are few, but the opportunity to spend time in wild places pursuing an elusive quarry makes it all worthwhile. Our outfitter, Mike Harris, was professional and knowledgeable. If you're interested in finding out more about a hunt with him, you can reach him at 520-840-5252.