| Share or Bookmark:
Coues white-tailed deer hunting in Arizona
By Jim Heffelfinger, Tucson regional game specialist, Arizona Game and Fish Department
Coues white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus couesi) are found in scattered populations throughout southeastern and central Arizona. They occur primarily in partially isolated mountains above 4,000 feet.
Cooz or cows?
Early naturalist and army surgeon Elliot Coues never actually collected a whitetail in the Southwest. However, in 1874 another army surgeon, Dr. Joseph Rothrock, collected and saved two from the Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona and noted (correctly) that these were merely a smaller version of the common eastern whitetail. He suggested that they be referred to as Coues white-tailed deer, in honor of that pioneering naturalist. The Coues family pronounces their name “cows,” like the bovine. Just please do not talk loudly in public about the big “cows” you shot last year.
Distribution and habitat preference
Coues white-tailed deer occupy relatively rough, wooded terrain with steep canyons. Typical whitetail habitat is mixed oak woodland, but they can be found anywhere from ponderosa pine/mixed conifer at 10,000 feet down to the upper limits of semi-desert grassland. Although elevations with the highest deer densities vary among different mountain ranges, most Coues whitetails are found between 4,000 and 7,000 feet.
At lower elevations, there is considerable overlap in habitat use with desert mule deer. In these areas of overlap, hybridization between the two species happens, but is extremely rare. Most hunters who shoot “hybrids” find that they have the right tag on the wrong species. There is a lot of variation in tails, ears and antlers of both species; it is almost impossible to discern a true hybrid through binoculars.
The Sonoran Fantail
Within the range of Coues white-tailed deer, there is a common misconception that several different local types exist, the most common of which is the notion that there is an extra-small whitetail (Rock, Sinaloan, Sonoran Fantail, Dwarf) that occurs in localized areas of the Southwest. Young deer, with small 3×3 racks, are often the cause of such rumors because observers mistake them for unusually small, mature bucks. Another contributing factor is the wide variation in the color of the back side of the tail of Coues whitetails. The back surface of the tail may appear gray/brown (same as the animal’s back), reddish, blond, very dark brown, or black. These are not different types of deer, but instead are color variations found in some individuals.
Take your whitetail sitting down
Hunting is 100 percent luck, but there are things you can do to increase your chances of getting lucky. Many hunters do not want to hear this, but the point is you have no control over, and cannot forecast, where your quarry will be each day. However, there are things you can do to greatly improve your chance of being in the right place at the right time.
The most important is to spend most of the time sitting down. “Glassing” is the act of searching for game with binoculars and then sneaking within range for a shot. This is also called “spot and stalk” for obvious reasons. Many people hunt with binoculars, but do not really glass for game. Glassing has become much more common in recent years as hunters learn how effective this method is.
The old adage that good hunters wear out the seats of their pants before the soles of their boots describes perfectly what glassing is all about. At least 90 percent of your time should be sitting down behind your optics. I talk to hunters every year who say they “walked and walked and walked” and saw no deer. I tell them the reason they didn’t see any deer is because they “walked and walked and walked.”
Here are six tips to make your deer hunt more successful and enjoyable this year.
1) Be prepared
Scouting is vital to a successful hunt, yet it is difficult to get time to scout adequately. These trips allow you to find locations from which to glass, and to verify what roads are open to the public, what the turnoffs look like (especially in the dark!), and how you will get to your preselected glassing locations. Access to public land can change from year to year as private landowners lock gates where the access crosses their private land. Maps are an important part of your preparation. Even if you know the area and have been hunting it for years, a topographic map helps you plan where you will glass from and what areas you can cover.
2) Look on the bright side
When planning where you will glass from and what direction to cover, consider the direction of the sun. Always have the sun to your back. Not only does this prevent you from looking into the sun, but it assures that the deer will be. You will also be looking at canyons and hillsides illuminated brightly by the rising or setting sun behind you. Study your maps before going afield and select a few potential sites that allow you to look to the west or northwest in the morning and east or northeast in the afternoon.
3) Climb high and lay low
When glassing, climb as high as possible to get the best view. It is always tempting to convince yourself you can see a lot of country and don’t need to climb any higher, but for every 50 feet in elevation, more and more country opens up for your inspection. Climbing higher may make your stalk longer (back down to the bottom), but would you rather have a longer stalk after spotting a deer, or never see the deer in the first place? However, do not set up and glass from the crest of a hill or ridge where you will be silhouetted against the sky. Always come down the slope enough that you have a solid background.
4) Come early and stay late
To be successful, make sure you are active during the early morning periods because deer certainly are. The first hour after the sun breaks is the “golden hour,” not only because everything glows in the early golden light, but because this is when I see most of the deer in any given day. You have to plan so you are in your glassing location before it gets light. Be there until it is too late to initiate a stalk before dark.
Cryptically-colored big game animals are not going to be standing out like a neon sign on the other side of the canyon. If you are not concentrating, you will miss deer right in the middle of your field of view. Remember: the deer you glass up are not going to be moving in many cases. Ideally you become one with the binoculars and forget you are looking through them.
6) No room for random
Glassing does not entail looking around willy-nilly hoping to spot something. Glassing efficiently and effectively means you search your visible area in a systematic way. A tripod is a must if you are serious. When I first saw binoculars mounted on a tripod, I thought that was going a little overboard. Then I tried it. Wow, what a difference! The tripod allows you to search the area systematically, while stabilizing the field of view. A stable background is important if you are trying to detect a subtle ear flick or tail wag.