by Rick Bin
These ghosts of the southwest mountains are among the continent’s most sought-after trophies, and they rarely make mistakes …
“OH NO!” “It can’t be.”
“What’s the matter?” asked Greg Williams, my Arizona Coues deer guide.
“Wait, I gotta make sure,” I replied. “It is! A mountain lion, Greg!” I was incredulous.
“What? Where?” asked Greg, in a voice which betrayed he thought I was hallucinating.
“Down at the bottom of the draw, and she’s climbing slowly — putting a stalk on those two does on the opposite hillside,” I answered.
Greg swung the handle on the tripod holding his Swarovski 15X to pan the bottom. “You’re right!” He looked at me, then back through the glass. “A freaking mountain lion? Now?“
“This is terrible!” I exclaimed. “That lion is going to blow these deer out of here.” I looked through my binoculars. “Take a look at that small buck. He knows something is up.”
“Sure enough,” answered Greg. “They know the lion is there, they just don’t know where. This place is fixing to explode.”
“We have to find that big buck right now, Greg.”
“I know, and I am trying,” answered Greg. “If he is still here.”
I watched the mountain lion climb slowly from the ravine bottom, shoulders hunched, tail tip flickering, and approach a large mesquite that lay between her and the two smallish Coues deer does higher up the hill. I continued to scan the hillside for the outsized buck we had bedded down hours before at first light, then scanned my way back to the cat, knowing that all heck was about to break loose.
And the big buck still would not show himself!
We had awakened at 3:30 a.m. in a well-appointed campsite provided by Greg Williams and Chris Ringler (aka “Ringo”) of Arizona Backcountry Guide Service (www.arizonabackcountryguideservice.com). Our large wall tent was pitched just north of the Mexican border in the heart of trophy Coues deer country.
At 4:00 a.m. we left camp, swinging the backpacks into the back of the pickup which would take us the short one mile to the trailhead. I carried lunch, my own Swarovski 15X binocular and matching Swarovski ultralight carbon-fiber tripod, a Zebralight headlamp with a spare battery, and some basics like parachute cord, a knife, lighter, beanie, and tag. And, I filled my three-liter Platypus bladder about two-thirds full, figuring I was going to drink a ton before I started walking.
Three miles. That’s what Greg said. Heck, I had walked three miles and more many a time, and with the mild weather, even in the loose rocks and sand of the trail, three miles in and three miles out was something I could do, especially without having to gain too much elevation. It wasn’t until I had traveled a mile or so that I realized I had forgotten my trekking poles.
The trek in seemed longer than three miles. As we trudged on and endlessly on in the loose sand and rock, I resisted the temptation to ask just how much farther our destination lay. The first bit of doubt about my water supply crept into my thoughts as I opened the vent zipppers on my KUIU and Patagonia tops and realized how wet with sweat my upper body already had become. I was moving moisture, even in the dark chill of the southern Arizona pre-dawn.
Finally, a marathon later, Greg and Ringo veered off to the right of the trail to drop into a small, brushy ravine. The first hints of daylight could be seen over the eastern horizon as we waded through the knee-high thorny stuff, the footing a crazy mixture of large boulders, smaller rocks, and unseen holes. Eyes lit up in the beams of the headlamps ahead of us as we broke through — Coues deer feeding in the night then bounding away, not to be seen again that day.
“Just a few hundred yards up this hill, and we’ll be at our glassing spot,” said Greg.
I nodded, cognizant that I was drenched with sweat, and that these young whippersnappers had no idea what it felt like to have 48-year-old knees and a recently reconstructed right ankle in this sketchy terrain.
Their backs seemed to get further and further distant as we climbed the hill. Boulders and loose rocks ranging from the size of softballs to bowling balls and bigger hid underneath knee-high grass. The whippersnappers handled them like they had been out there before (which they had numerous times).
Me? I navigated them as best I could, but the physical exertion was showing on me as it took more and more effort to keep from stumbling under my pack in the loose footing. It wasn’t long before I looked up to see a headlamp pointing back at me — Greg slowing down to let me catch up.
Getting old sucks.
Finally, I had to stop. The slope, the packweight, and the effects of a long drive from southern California, a too-short nap the night before, and the long walk in, had me wavering unsafely without the benefit of trekking poles. I needed a blow.
“You guys go ahead. I need to sit down for a bit. I will catch up.”
“No, Rick. We’ll wait for you,” said Greg. But the look in his eye revealed what he was too polite to say: “We need to get there now, because it’s almost daylight, and you’ve been slowing us down.”
“Go on, Greg. I’ll be right behind you.” I didn’t wait for a response and sat down.
“OK, I’ll be just uphill, off to the left. I’ll get the glass set up. Come left, and you’ll find me.”
I nodded, and took another hit of water in the dry Arizona air …
The sun was a few minutes from peeking over the horizon when I finally summoned the energy to shoulder the pack and get to Greg. I wove my way through the brush and cacti and almost stumbled into Ringo coming back from the opposite side of the glassing knob.
“I just got a radio from Greg. He says he has a monster,” said Ringo, his eyes excited.
“Already?” I asked.
“He should be close. Let’s get over there and see,” Ringo replied.
Greg had not gone far from the place where we had separated earlier. He was glued to his Big Eyes as Ringo and I arrived.
“You guys get set up,” said Greg from behind the glass. “Let me know when, and I’ll get you on this buck.” Then to me, “Rick, I have not seen this buck here before — he is a real hawg! And I am not taking my eyes off him until one of you has glass on him.”
I looked at Ringo, and he gave me a thumb’s up. Greg and Ringo obviously had worked together before.
I got my Big Eyes set up and was getting comfortable in the rocks when I heard Ringo ask for directions. As he found the buck in his own Big Eyes, Ringo immediately swapped to his Swarovski spotting scope with digiscoping attachment in order to film video.
And then I saw him.
There are bucks that you have to analyze, count points, estimate G-lengths, evaluate eyeguards, figure mainbeams …
And then there are bucks you see in the glass, and right away you just know they are shooters.
Greg had found the buck and known immediately he was that kind of deer, then Ringo had, and finally I had. And just that fast, we were done searching. Now, we had to plan and execute a good stalk on the buck — and kill him.
I took another drag from my Platypus and tried to keep the adrenaline at bay.
We followed the buck in our Big Eyes as he made his way along a ridge.
Finally, he bedded down. It was before 7:00 a.m., the Arizona sun hinted at the heat to come, and we had a trophy buck bedded down at 750 yards. Now the real hunt began.
It was before 8:30 a.m. when Greg and I got to the boulder, a large Volkswagen-sized protrusion just behind the summit of a rise that gave Greg cover to set up his tripod and glass without being seen. It was the last spot of good cover between us and where we had seen the buck bed: 276 yards.
Ringo had stayed behind to survey our stalk from afar and watch the gear we didn’t think we’d need on a morning stalk.
As Greg set up, I crawled my way around the base of the rock and set up the .300 Winchester on the bipod. I squirmed and scooted, elbowed up and adjusted, moved and crawled, and the pointed, baseball-sized rock jabbing my ribs persisted. That rock seemingly would become a permanent part of my body as the morning progressed.
We settled down, fought to stay in the shadows away from the direct rays of the sun, and waited, hoping it would not be long before the buck got up …
“Rick, I don’t want to risk having this deer get up without glass on him, but I really need a bathroom break. Can you take over for a bit?” The sun was now high and the shadows were short. The bruise in my ribcage was raw and numb, and I had long since stopped squirming to try and ease the discomfort.
I kept my eyes glued through my Leupold VX3 2.5-8×36 to the spot where the buck had bedded. We were not taking any chances.
And so we swapped as morning turned into afternoon. Greg insisted on the lion’s share of the duty keeping the Swarovskis on the buck, and I slowly inched my way closer to the rock as the sun arched higher overhead and the rock’s shadow diminished. Finally, the last remnant of shadow was gone. I looked back at Greg, and the sweat was dripping off his nose and chin, his shirt was soaked, and I could see his back was starting to bother him. We were both now in the full heat of the Arizona sun, glued down by the buck’s position, hot, sweating, and tired. And the buck was staying down.
“How are we on water?” I asked.
“Rick, I have one bottle left. You can have it,” answered Greg.
“That’s decent of you, but we’re in this together, and we need to share that water. Once we get back to my framepack where Ringo is, we’ll have more. Hopefully, this buck will get up soon, and we can get this done.”
Suddenly, Greg came alive: “Rick, he’s up. He’s up!”
Frantically, I got my head on the riflestock and behind the scope. The buck was up right in the spot where he had bedded. He was standing in tall, shoulder-high brush, with just his backline, his neck and his head visible.
“My gawsh, he’s big,” I stated the obvious as I waited for my opportunity. Then a few moments later, “I can’t get a shot, Greg. He’s in that tall cover, and I have nothing but his head and just a bit of backline.”
“Do what you think best, but that’s definitely him,” answered Greg.
The buck turned away from us as Greg spoke, revealing his tailbone and the back of his neck and head protruding from the brush. And there he stood for what seemed like hours. My finger tightened on the trigger, but …
“Greg, I don’t feel good about this shot,” I said as the buck lingered in that position. “I need him to move a bit to give me a clear look at the vitals.” The buck stood for a few moments more, then took a step and was gone.
“I lost him,” I said.
“He moved off to the left,” said Greg. “He’s still there, but he’s in a depression with cover all around. He really knows what he’s doing.” A few seconds passed as I searched in the scope, then Greg spoke from behind the Big Eyes, “He’s down again.” A sinking feeling hit me in the blazing sun as I realized the buck had found new shade and probably would not be up again for hours.
“Oh man, I had a shot. It was not the shot I wanted, but … I had a shot! Gawsh I hope I don’t regret that pass!”
Greg remained silent, and his tight-lipped expression behind the glass spoke volumes.
I looked at the Lexan bottle standing in the shade, and it was half full. Greg, still stooping behind the tripod and Swarovskis, moved his hands off his lower back to wipe the sweat off his brow, then held his back again, grimacing. I licked my lips, focused on the buck’s bedding area, and once again cursed the rock jabbing my ribcage.
I had not needed to pee in over two hours. The Lexan bottle was long-since empty, and the sun’s shadows were longer now, with a cooler breeze beginning to stir through the desert.
“That buck has been down for hours, Greg. I can’t believe he has not re-bedded in all this time.” I licked my lips.
“That smaller buck that was with him got up, and it looked to me like he made his way off to the right,” Greg replied. “But the big one never got up. I have not taken my eyes off that spot, and he has not moved — or at least not that I could see.”
“You think it’s possible that he got up without us seeing him, maybe in the high grass, and moved away with that smaller buck?” I asked, sensing the first crack of doubt.
“I doubt it, Rick, but if they did they would be in that cut to the right that we can’t see from here. We’d have to set up again in order to get a look at both spots. And I would hate to blow this now after all the time we’ve sat on him!”
A few minutes later: “Rick, I hate to do this, but can you stay on this buck? I am going to work my way around to a spot I know not too far uphill where I think I can get a peek at that cut.”
“I got it Greg,” I said through a tongue that stuck to the roof of my mouth.
“Be back in a few. And Rick, do not take your eyes off that spot!” My lips cracked as I smiled at Greg’s thoroughness.
It was now, with Greg gone, that I accepted that my physical condition was compromised. Most of the left side of my ribcage was numb from laying on the protrusion in the boulder for hours. My head was starting to throb, and I was lightheaded, dry-mouthed, and very thirsty. My leg was asleep, but I dared not move and lose sight of the buck’s bedding area. Through the scope, I visualized the buck standing, stretching his neck, turning broadside to give me a clean shot, and killing him before Greg arrived. My hands were beginning to tremble on the McMillan stock.
“Rick, I think we should move,” I had not heard Greg approach, and he startled me out of my mild daydream.
“Where?” I asked.
“Just up the hill to a spot that …”
“No, don’t even tell me,” I interrupted. “Let’s just get there. Just give me a second to collect myself.”
I backed off the boulder slowly, and as the blood rushed back into the spot on my ribcage that had been gouged all day, the deep ache and pain were enough to wake me up. Needles and pins flooded my leg as the blood rushed in, and I waited, knowing the leg would not bear weight yet. Finally, I was able to back away from the promontory on my hands and knees, stand, and sling the rifle on my shoulder. I closed my eyes as the front of my head throbbed with the change in blood pressure.
“You all right?” Greg asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine, but this little walk is going to do me good. Let’s do this before that buck decides to move.”
Greg gave me a hard look, slung his pack with a wince, and started trudging along his chosen route. All I could think about as my side screamed was how much I missed my trekking poles.
Soon, we reached Greg’s spot in the shade of an oakish tree, and we settled in to glass some more. First we found the spot where we presumed the buck still lay, then we scanned and searched. The new angle on the hillside revealed new vistas and geographic features — and new deer, some bedded and some up and feeding already as the sun continued to drop. It was getting late, dark, and cool, and the deer on the hillside were making strange noises and acting skittish.
And then I saw the lion.
She was at the bottom of the draw, slowly making her way up the opposite hillside, shoulders hunched, tail flickering, staring intently in the direction of a large mesquite tree farther up the opposite hillside. Uphill from the mesquite were two Coues deer does, alert, heads rotating, searching for the danger they sensed. And the hillside was suddenly alive with deer, up and vocalizing, the danger alert circulating.
One of the deer the lion was stalking pounded the ground with a front hoof, then stood still, except for the rotating ears and the obviously searching nose.
As the vocalizations continued, deer that we had not seen all day began appearing, standing from their beds and joining in the search for the danger.
I searched the hillside desperately for the buck, rotating between the spot where we had bedded him, to other deer that appeared in the brush, then back to note the lion’s progress up the hillside. It was clear what was about to happen as the lion disappeared underneath the canopy of the large mesquite.
And then, we waited.
“Greg, can you see the lion?” I whispered after a few minutes.
“Nothing,” he answered. “And I just don’t know where that buck could be! There are deer everywhere. But not him.”
“The light’s starting to fade,” I said, it seemed like a long while later. The lion had not emerged from under the mesquite, and the deer were still standing on the hillside. They were alert to the danger but apparently not sure where it was nor in which direction to flee.
And then she came. In a flurry of yellow blur, I caught the rush in edge of the field of view of the binocular and instinctively focused my attention on the action. The deer had been ready, and the hillside suddenly exploded with bounding Coues deer, scattering right and left and escaping over the horizon. The lion made her charge, but the cover had run out at the edge of the mesquite. She had waited for her break, but the deer had too much advantage. And like that, they were gone.
“Where, is the buck, Greg? Where is the buck?” I said out loud with my eyes glued to my binoculars. The spot where he had bedded hours before was vacant.
“I don’t know, Rick. He’s not there …” And then, “Ohhh Rick, he’s on the horizon.”
My heart fell. Greg’s tone indicated to me that all was lost. I scanned the farthest horizon with the binoculars, to no avail.
“Dang it, Greg. Well, where is he? I don’t see him.”
“He’s on the skyline, Rick.”
I kept scanning the farthest horizon.
“I don’t see him,” I said, and at that point, I didn’t want to see his apparent escape.
“Rick,” Greg said sharply, “put down the glass, and look with your naked eye! He’s on the skyline!”
I dropped the glass, looked at the top of the closer ridgeline, and there he was. He was silhouetted against the red Arizona sky and in range, looking back at us, but just a quick step away from escape. I had to get on him, and fast!
“Range,” I spat as I flopped to the ground, knowing Greg had his rangefinder out.
“Two-ninety- … three hundred yards. Three hundred!” answered Greg.
I hit the ground, rifle on the bipod, slapped my cheek on the stock and got a Leupold full of buck and antlers about to disappear over the hill. I instinctively held the horizontal crosshair on the backline and sent the 168-grain Berger right now. Even through the recoil, I saw the back legs buckle, and then I heard the sound of a solid hit. The buck stumbled, falling forward toward our side of the hill and went down on his side, still struggling.
It all happened in an instant. After hours in the bush, a hunt on the very edge of success or failure was resolved in seconds.
“You nailed him!” exclaimed Greg. He looked at me and sat back on his haunches. “Oh my gawsh, Rick, you just killed a big Coues deer buck.” I could hear the relief and the pride in Greg’s voice. Then he returned to the Big Eyes. “He’s still moving.”
“I spined him, Greg.” I had seen it even in the recoil as the buck’s back legs buckled under him, and his front legs scrambled for balance as he fell. “He’s not going anywhere, but we’ll need to get up there.”
And then, with a long, long night ahead of us, I realized just how tired and just how out of gas I was already.
It wasn’t long before Ringo showed up, with a big grin on his face. He had sat at our original glassing spot all day, watching the show through his own Swarovskis — and babysitting gear. He carried his KUIU backpack as well as mine, saving me what at that point would have been a grueling extra hill climb. The whippersnappers loaded up and made their way toward the buck as I tried to squeeze an extra drop of water or two out of my Platypus, in vain.
We got to the buck as fast as we could, and indeed, he needed to be finished. As we approached him after the coup de grace, I could not believe how stunning an animal Greg and Ringo had helped me take. He was a virtually perfect eight-point, with a gorgeous, symmetrical basket, and thick main beams that curved forward, the tips seemingly reaching for each other. He was superb! It was clear he was over 100 inches, and with the virtual perfect symmetry of the rack and its aesthetic appeal, I was over the moon.
We rushed to take the obligatory pictures before we lost the light of day, and then Ringo dug into his pack and brought out the Havalon knife. In no time, he had caped the buck. Greg had brought meat bags, and Ringo performed “the gutless method” on the buck, preparing two equal bags of meat, one for him and one for Greg. I had the honor of packing out the cape and head.
The pack back to camp was brutal. In retrospect, it is clear to me that I was dehydrated well before we left the kill site, indeed since mid-afternoon. Numerous times on the trail I caught myself stumbling and heard myself mumbling. I began counting steps … one, two, three … and told myself I would stop to breathe at every thousand. Multiple stops later, we still were not close to the trailhead. The trek became a long blur. I remember falling hard once and laying in the middle of the sandy, rocky trail with a sore arm from breaking my fall and a badly throbbing head and wanting nothing more than to fall asleep right where I lay.
Eventually, we got close to the trailhead, and the last uphill required a stop. Then Greg was gone, and I dozed. I was awakened immediately, it seemed, by Greg handing me a water bottle and Ringo taking my pack, despite my half-hearted objections at the latter development. They had made the last trek of a quarter mile to the truck, dropped their gear, grabbed some water, and came back to pick up the old guy, who was in bad shape.
I vaguely remember pounding a Vitamin Water at the truck, getting back to camp at 10:15 p.m., and making my way straight to the roomy wall tent to get out of my clothes. As I removed my sweaty shirt, I began shivering uncontrollably, feeling much colder than the Arizona night chill warranted. I crawled into my sleeping bag “just to warm up.”
And that is exactly where I awakened sometime well after daylight.
It was a hell of a hunt!
We were breaking down camp when a pickup pulled in. A few guys hopped out and came into camp.
I felt much better after a good night’s rest and a Coues backstrap breakfast.
It took me a few weeks to realize our big buck, now my big buck, just might have stayed bedded until well after shooting light if not for the rare company of a hungry lion.
So, thank you Ms. Lion. Without you, I don’t think I would have taken such a fantastic Coues deer, with two hardcore Coues deer hunters and even better companions, on a hunt I will never forget.
And, next time, I’ll be watching my back as well.
Guides and Gear:
Arizona Backcountry Guide Service is a solid operation. Greg and Ringo are committed Coues deer hunters, and every year come hunting season they have a lot of territory pre-scouted. Naturally, some areas are more difficult to access than others, but they know where the deer are, and they will take you there. Many of their spots are much easier to access than the spot I helped select. Also, they run an excellent camp, with top gear, and great service. They can meet almost any hunter’s needs.
My particular hunt was difficult physically, but much of that involved me being out of shape due to ankle reconstruction surgery and a long recovery the year before, plus my own carelessness at not bringing enough water into the bush. Make no mistake, if you are hard core, Arizona Backcountry Guide Service can take you there. But these guys can and do cater to hunters of all levels, and they take big Coues deer regularly. If you are interested in a trophy Coues deer, I cannot recommend them enough.
It was no surprise to me that all three of us owned and carried Swarovski 15X binoculars. These units mounted on tripods are the gold standard in Coues deer country, and for good reason. If you are contemplating a Coues deer hunt, you’d do well to search out a set. Besides Coues deer, I have found mine eminently useful anywhere big game hunting involves big country. Bottom line: From Alaska, to Montana, to New Mexico to Arizona, if I can glass using my Swarovski Big Eyes, I do.
Tripods play a crucial role in using Big Eyes, as normally these high-magnification binoculars do not lend themselves to being hand-held. As such, tripods need to be stable, have superb heads, and be light. In my case, I also insist on a tripod that I can stand behind comfortably for long hours without needing to stoop. Since I am 6’2″, this can be challenging. After trying numerous high-end tripods, including an aluminum hunting-specific unit that ran north of $1,000, my choice by far is the Swarovski carbon-fiber Traveler. It is ultra-light, stable in the wind (another benefit of carbon fiber), boasts a superior head, and is tall enough for me to glass standing if need be. Mine goes with me on every hunt, and sees duty under spotters and cameras as well. It is well worth a look.
Clothing on a backpack hunt can play a big part in your comfort, endurance, and ultimately in your success. A lot of gear now sits in my closet since I discovered KUIU ultralight gear. For this hunt, I used an Attack pant, a lightweight Tiburon long-sleeve shirt, and an incredibly light Ultra 6000 backpack. Again, I was not surprised to find a professional like Ringo decked out in the same gear, as it simply excels in the conditions we hunted.
Other standouts include Zebralight headlamps, which are super light, super bright, and feature rechargeable batteries. Havalon knives are also super light, super sharp, and with one extra surgical blade along you can process multiple animals. I love nice knives as much as anyone, but for breaking down animals back in the bush, Havalon is the ticket. Asolo boots are not very well known in the hunting community, but as a hunter who suffered from a bad ankle for many years, I tried many, many top-end boots from all over the world. The Asolo Fugitive GTX is a mainstay among special operators, and for good reason. I highly recommend them. _______________________