Hunting the small but mighty Coues whitetail deer

Hunting the small but mighty Coues whitetail deer

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I’ve always been a fan of those ghost-hunting shows. It’s one of my guilty pleasures. Groups of people walk through supposedly haunted buildings in the dark, setting up thermal cameras and jumping at every small sound. Most of the time the things they see and hear are complete nonsense, easily explained away as dust motes or the settling of the building. Yet every now and then something pops up on those shows that can’t be readily explained. The camera will catch a figure, a brief glimpse of a form that comes into view and disappears so quickly it leaves the viewer stunned. Just like the ghosts in those silly shows, Coues deer, a petite sub-species of whitetail deer, may only allow you a glance before disappearing into the arid desert underbrush.

Found in the mountains of the American Southwest and northern Mexico, these deer thrive in some of the most difficult terrain to access and traverse. The bucks of the species rarely weigh more than a hundred pounds and seldom do they sport racks worth writing home about. They almost seem not worth the trouble, yet the Coues is quite possibly one of the most sought-after trophies in the country. Every year thousands of hunters buy deer tags and flock in droves to Arizona and New Mexico in hopes of connecting with one of these delicate deer. Many hunters question the reasoning behind it when other, more impressive trophies like elk, moose, and even regular old whitetail deer exist. Yet many of those same hunters will one day inexplicably get the itch, and will soon find themselves on flights to the desert, dreaming of tracking down a Coues buck of their very own. Why? Perhaps because all hunters love a challenge, and the Coues deer presents one of the biggest hunting challenges there is.

Spotting a Coues deer is much like catching a ghost on camera or seeing a Sasquatch: They seem to possess an almost mythical quality that leaves the viewer—and his hunting buddies—in disbelief. The barren terrain the Coues deer occupy seems largely devoid of life, empty of anything even resembling a deer, and then suddenly one is just there, having materialized from the emptiness. The Coues’ small body size and slightly mottled coat gives them the ability to completely vanish in what seems like minimal cover. An errant patch of grass or sage brush, or even an unobtrusive pile of boulders is all that a Coues buck needs to vanish into like a wraith.

Most Coues deer hunters prefer to spot-and-stalk hunt the animals, though some do find success in putting up tree stands. With either method, hunters in pursuit of them expect to spend a lot of time behind the binoculars, staring at what seems to be completely empty terrain for what is often a brief second of opportunity. Despite their small body and antler size, it is this ghostlike quality that makes every Coues taken a true trophy.

Humanity has always had a fascination with the supernatural. A desire to prove what is otherwise intangible and drag it into the light where it can be seen and touched. We don’t usually have a lot of luck with this; most of what has been called undeniable evidence ends up being debunked, drawing clearly defined lines between what is real and what is imagined. Yet Coues deer hunting tends to blur those lines. Although we know them to be real, when we hunt them, we enter a world of fantasy, pursuing a phantom of a buck that doesn’t seem to exist until, suddenly, it does.

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