Coues Deer: A Unique Bowhunting Challenge

  Jackie Holbrook   FeaturedBowhunting   January 5, 2021

When most bowhunting seasons end and cold weather settles in across the country, a pocket of sunshine in Arizona, Mexico and New Mexico helps bowhunters extend their season. If you’ve never heard of Coues deer, you’re not alone. This subspecies of white-tailed deer is much smaller than its well-known cousin. The average Coues deer buck stands 30 inches at the shoulder and weighs less than 100 pounds.

Few bowhunters have convenient opportunities to chase Coues deer, given their limited range. But their arid, sunny habitat makes them a great quarry for bowhunters seeking opportunities to escape the cold.

Josh Kirchner, the “Dialed in Hunter,” lives in Arizona and grew up hunting Coues deer. “They’re about as edgy as an animal can get,” Kirchner said. “Their head is always on a swivel because everything wants to eat them.”

Even though Coues deer are cousins to the whitetail, you shouldn’t try hunting this unique species like the same way. Bowhunters in whitetail country must deal with crunchy leaves, so they typically use treestands. That’s not necessary with Coues deer.

“Coues deer can be killed from a treestand because they’re habitual and like stepping on their same footsteps, but spot-and-stalk is usually the name of the game,” Kirchner said.

They’re Tough to Spot

Spot-and-stalk hunting means spotting a deer and then sneaking into bow range. Unlike treestands and ground blinds, where bowhunters wait for their quarry to approach, spot-and-stalk tactics require hunters to move. To pull off a spot-and-stalk kill, many factors must come together. That means first finding the animal. With Coues deer, that’s often the hardest part.

“They’re called the gray ghost for good reason,” Kirchner said. “Coues deer disappear quickly out here.” Spotting a Coues deer takes patience, practice and, sometimes, luck, given their size, grayish coat and habitat’s topography.

“They just melt into their environment,” Kirchner said. “It’s almost frustrating, because you can look at a hillside, glass it for hours, and then—at last light—a deer will get up. It was there the whole time and you never knew it.”

Kirchner said Arizona’s landscape helps Coues deer hide in the many bumps, fingers and folds of countless basins. Coues deer also live in terrain ranging from desert flats and mesquite flats to 10,000-foot peaks.

Don’t Take the Easy Route

If you spot a Coues deer and want to stalk it, plan a route that hides you until it’s time to shoot. “You can’t take shortcuts when stalking a Coues deer,” Kirchner said. “If there’s a buck out there and you say, ‘What I should do is make this 3-mile loop,’ or ‘I guess I could go at him straight and that’s only a mile,’ you need to go the 3 miles. He’ll catch you if you take shortcuts.”

Kirchner said the same topography that hides Coues deer helps hunters sneak into bow range. By ducking into ravines, staying in the shade, and hiding behind rocks and vegetation, bowhunters can stay out of sight.

Play the Wind

It’s not just enough to stay hidden. Bowhunters must remain undetected. The Coues deer’s nose is its greatest defense. Spot-and-stalk bowhunters must use the wind to their advantage. When planning a stalking route, make sure it keeps you downwind. Kirchner uses binoculars or a spotting scope to see which way distant grass is blowing, and then plans his route to the deer.

“I try to get on a level playing field,” Kirchner said. “Most of the time I try to sidehill to the deer, because then I don’t worry about thermals rising or dropping. I just worry about wind direction.”

Practice Longer Shots

One of bowhunting’s biggest challenges is getting within bow range, which differs by bowhunter. An ethical shot is the distance each bowhunter feels confident shooting, given their skills and equipment. If you’re used to short shots at deer in dense woodlands, practice at farther distances before tackling Coues deer. Their on-edge nature and preference for open habitats makes short shots uncommon. No matter the temptation, don’t shoot farther than your abilities allow.

Other Tactics

Successful bowhunts come through trial and error. If you fail at spot-and-stalk bowhunting, set up a ground blind and hunt over water. This tactic is especially effective in hot weather or when bucks are rutting. Kirchner also suggests trying to get in front of moving deer, assuming you can identify where it’s heading.

Coues deer might be small, but they’re fun to bowhunt. They’ll test your wits and challenge your skills in their unique habitats. Check out your over-the-counter opportunities in December and January, and try a truly exciting bowhunt that lets you escape Northern winters.

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