I’ve long been a Coues deer fanatic. Something about the little mountain dwelling whitetail caught my interest some years ago, and chasing them has been one of my favorite things to do. Whether it’s their natural state of high alert at the snap of any twig, or the beauty of their mountain habitat, there's something about them.
I’ve been fortunate to hunt Coues deer in both Arizona, Sonora, and Chihuahua; and I’m waiting, hoping to draw a tag in New Mexico as well. I’ve killed deer that range in size from 60 or so inches, up to 112 inches, with 3 deer over the magical 100” mark - all of which were taken in Sonora. In the states, I’ve never killed a buck that broke 100 inches. While hunting Arizona, I’ve only seen a handful of them that big. So finding and killing one in the state has long been a goal of mine.
I understand that Coues deer appeal to a very limited subset of hunters, located primarily in the desert southwest. A lot of guys hunt them because they’re considered part of the slam series, but few get fanatical about them. Despite my writing about Coues deer, this “how-to” applies to any game species.
On November 9th, I met up with Matt in southern Arizona to hunt Coues deer on a leftover permit we’d drawn together in a tough unit that happened to be our fifth choice in the first-come, first-served mail in application. Even left-over tags are getting hard to draw in Arizona. But I was excited to hunt with Matt. He’s a guy who grew up in one of Arizona’s best units, and has killed 10 bucks that score over 110 inches, and helped on countless others over that mark. I wanted to learn what made Matt better at hunting giant Coues deer than me… a lesson that wouldn’t be lost.
Our hunt started out right, despite high winds that would keep deer movement down. We quickly found 3 bedded bucks on a leeward slope of a canyon. The biggest of these three was an immature 3 point, accompanied by two small spikes. We watched the deer for an hour or more, until they finally got out of their beds and moved deeper into the thick cut and out of view. Matt and I soon left to look into another canyon, while our friend Owen stayed put, hoping to located a bigger buck he’d seen in the bowl a year before.
After glassing the new canyon for an hour I walked back to the truck to grab my iPad. I was going to write. While at the truck, Owen came running back stating he’d found another deer, and we should check it out. I got back to Matt and let him know what was going on, grabbed my gear and rifle, and moved back to where we’d left Owen glassing. By this point, the buck wasn’t visible, but we knew where to look, and I’d put my optics on that spot and didn’t move them. A few minutes later, I watched a deer pop up into view from behind a juniper tree, turn around, and vanish again. I’d found it. But it was invisible behind the juniper. I moved right 100 yards to peer around the tree, and sure enough, the buck was lying down in the shade.
Matt and Owen made their way over. I commented to Matt that I thought the short tined buck was in the mid 80’s. Matt agreed, and commented that I could kill it now, or pass on it and we’d find a bigger buck in the next few days. Owen didn’t have much time to hunt, and had brought us into this location and found the deer. I wanted to kill a buck while he was with us, so I opted to shoot it. When we walked up on it, I realized it was quite a bit bigger than I’d judged it to be, and was thrilled with the deer despite it’s coming short of the 100 inch mark I’d hoped for.
We’ve all heard the axiom that you can’t shoot a big buck if you’re unwilling to pass on the smaller ones. And that’s very true. We all know it’s true. But it’s never become a part of my decision making process. On Chase and my sheep hunt, I found a ram that I liked and killed it the first morning of a 10 day hunt. There were rumors of a giant ram in the area, but I liked that one. When the chaos ensued, all I could think about was how much money I’d spent on that hunt, and how important it was that I get a ram.
And that, I think, is the psychology of wanting to kill a big animal, but settling on smaller ones. We are more motivated by not losing something already in our possession, more than we are by the potential for a bigger reward. We’d rather save $10 we already have than risk losing that $10 for a bigger payout. This is the psychology of loss aversion.
Hunting opportunities are limited, sometimes to just one hunt per year. So when given that one chance to kill a deer or an elk or whatever it might be, we’re motivated to make the most of that one opportunity. Despite our hopes of finding big animals, we often take the first animal the mountain offers us to avoid the loss of that hunting opportunity. No one likes tag soup.
To commit to holding out for a mature animal, means acting contrary to the psychology of loss aversion. It means risking the potential of going home empty handed, and having to wait another year to try it over again. Matt never even considered shooting that buck. He knew he had the entire week to hunt, and knew that he’d get additional opportunities at deer over the course of the next six days. He embraced the risk.
I’ve seen Chase and Kevin do this on each of the hunts I’ve filmed them on also. Kevin, while going for his 10th bull elk on a late archery hunt in central Arizona a few years ago passed many good bulls, knowing at any moment, we could lay eyes on a giant, something he really wanted. He embraced the risk and went home without that 10th bull.
Committing to something, and being ok with not filling a tag is the only way to ensure you get to that magical number for whatever species it is you’re hunting. If that’s your goal, it’s the only way to do it. I killed a buck, but now I have another 360 days to wait before I get to try again at finding and killing a 100” buck in Arizona. Will I act contrary to my own psychology next year? I’d like to think so. But if this buck walked out in front of me again, I don’t know that I would.