When you get outside of Tucson on I-19 you enter an area that is right out of a western movie. The Sonoran Desert and all it has to offer starts to surround you. The Santa Rita mountains start to rise up in the distance, and you wonder what you are getting into. Steep ravines, and “hills’ ‘ that are nearly vertical rise up from the desert floor to form sky islands throughout the terrain the vast expanses of cacti, ocotillos, and palo verdes shape the landscape all around you. You are about 20 miles from the border of Mexico and you never know what you might see or find while you are out hunting.
Hunters from all around head down to southern Arizona to chase the elusive gray ghost or Coues deer. These deers are about the size of a great dane, maybe weighing up to 100 pounds. The thrill of the hunt for these animals is something that every backcountry hunter should try to do at least once in their life. You hike for miles on hills that seem to never end breaking through brush and trees that poke or stick you. Once you get to the top and catch your breath it is time to finally get in position and start to look for what you came down to find the elusive grey ghost. You pull your tripod and binoculars out and start scanning the vast desert terrain looking under every tree and bush for a critter that blends right into it all.
The Day Before Opening Day
As we turned off I-19 we made our way down towards the dirt road that would lead us to camp. The true desolation and remoteness of where we were at started to set in. As we continued to drive the desert started to surround us through the twist and turns the road began to narrow and the hills began to grow around us as we finally arrived at our camping spot and the true remoteness set in. As we set up camp I looked around and took in the view we were surrounded by steep slopes and high terrain. On one side over the hill were the Santa Ritas. I was wondering what I got myself into, this isn’t even my hunt. I was down there to help a friend and to experience my first Coues hunt in true Coues territory. It was a lot different than the Coues hunts I have done up in the northern parts of Arizona in unit 22.
As we got our camp set up dug the pit for the fire were we would make some amazing dinners and dug out the hole for the toilet it was getting closer and closer to start hiking the beasts of the hills that surrounded us. Once we got set up we got our tripods and set our binoculars up we started to glass the surrounding hills. Not realizing how truly small these animals were in the vast terrain, Ray (one other hunters in our group) shouted out “got some does” as I scanned the hills looking where he told us where to spot them, I could not see any thing then Joe said ” I see them now and I think there is a spike with them.” Still frustrated I looked into Joe’s binos and set eyes on these deer.
We could not tell for sure if it was a spike or not so we came up with a game plan to go up and get closer and scout the farther draws and back sides of the desert islands. So the hiking began as we traversed up the side of the first hill pushing through thick brush getting poked and hung up on everything we walked by half way up we jumped 2 does watching these animals easily travel through the thicket and make there way up and over the hill with ease was amazing. Once we got to the first hump on the hill we set up again to glass the hills in hope to find the spike and hopefully some bigger bucks. We glassed for about 2 hours looking under every tree and bush and once again Ray and Joe were spotting them with ease and I on the other hand could not spot these animals to save my life.
We spotted up a bunch of does and the same spike. We moved farther up the mountain and continued to glass for more deer for the next day. We glassed up a few does and a nice buck. The sun started to set behind the mountains and we started to work our way back to camp. By the time we got to camp we were drenched in sweat, legs throbbing from the near vertical hikes. As the Sun disappeared behind the Santa-Rita’s we ate dinner and the true tranquility of the hunt sat in. We sat around the fire telling hunting stories and just having a great time at deer camp knowing tomorrow the hunt began.
The Hunt Begins
As the Alarms rang out at 4:30 am we fired up the stove, heated up the coffee and it was time to go. We headed out to a spot where Joe and Ray scouted earlier in the year that had promise of holding some nice size bucks. As we traveled farther back on the dirt road we got to the spot and started the hike back into some steep and deep country. With our headlamps and the moon, lighting the path we started hiking along the side of steep draw balancing our way we got in a spot to hunker down out of the wind and to start glassing the ravines across the lower openings below hoping to find sight of the grey ghost finishing up their morning grazing.
We scoured underneath every tree and bush and only spotted a few does. Around 10:30 am we started to head back down to get back to camp, and come up with a new game plan. Once we got to camp we glassed the hills again and this time spotted a fork we decided it was time to go back up that intense incline and the hunt was on. We started working our way up the hill taking a different route this time to try to get around the deer and stay with the wind. On the way up we found what appeared to be the begging of an old mine and an old gold pan. We continued up and spooked some does and a fawn up. We got back up to a new glassing spot which allowed us to see directly across on to the hill where we spotted the fork.
We glassed the hills for about 2 hours and did not see the fork thinking it might have gone onto the back side so we decided to pack up and start heading around the mountain. As we started to hike we spotted an ammo cash stashed under a bush (only could guess who placed that there). As we worked our way around the hill we spotted the fork! As Joe worked his way into the shooting position after working our way around the hill he got within 200 yards he lined up and pulled the trigger… He missed, we watched the fork go up and over to the back side of the hill.
We started to work our way all the way to the top of the hill which was a near vertical climb and the hunt was back on. The loose gravel made it near impossible to climb. We got to the back side of the hill (the picture at the start of the article) finally and started to scan the valley below and the draws far off in the distance. We spotted the buck again way off as we watched it graze its way along the side of draws we were at a tough decision with only a little over an hour left of light we had to decide if we would attempt to get into position for a long shot or do we head back down and hope that it is still around tomorrow. Deciding not to pressure it any more and chase it farther out of the area we decided to head back down and call it a day after 7.5 miles of hiking. As we got to camp our legs pulsing harder than the day before. We cooked up some brats on the fire and called it a night not knowing what tomorrow had in store.
the strong wind day 3
As the alarms rang again at 4:30 am something was different this day the wind was blowing hard shaking the tents and making it very cold. As we brewed the coffee we huddled around the stove to warm up as we got ready. We decided to go back where we went the previous morning hoping that the steep ravines would act as a shield from the wind. We were wrong as we started to hike back up the ravine the wind was blowing in every direction not working in our favor.
We decided to start glassing mid way up the ridge this time trying to glass something up that is hunkering down low out of the wind. As we started glassing we noticed in the field below people way out were walking towards the valley. Feeling that they would push the deer away we decided to keep climbing up the ravine. On the hike up higher the wind was still blowing and it was so cold that we found a bull snake frozen with a full belly from the night before. We worked our way up and got back in position to continue glassing down and higher up on the draws.
As we were glassing towards the top we noticed another hunter above us and we decided to move on with all the pressure that was in the area. We drove deeper into the rugged desert looking for prime glassing areas. About another 10 miles into the drive we spotted a location that looked to be promising. It was as we started to glass the hill sides we glassed up 2 big bucks about 400 yards away and the hunt was back on.
As Joe and Ray started the stalk I sat back and watched the deer as it meandered along the side of the hill, then suddenly they took off. There were two hunters that were walking up the valley below that scared them off as they were being as loud as a rock concert in the desert. When Joe and Ray returned back to where I was at we decided to go back to camp to get some lunch and come back in a few hours hoping that the deer would return. As we got back to camp we ate some lunch and started glassing the hills by camp just to see if any deer were close by and worth trying to go after. Long behold there was on the first hill right by camp there was the fork again and a doe.
Joe and I hopped out of camp and started to go toward where we saw the buck and doe. As we got about 300 yards from camp we spotted the doe not more then 100 yards from us just barely out side of some thick brush as we sat and watched the doe patiently knowing the buck was near the buck appeared from behind a yucca were it was laying and Joe lined up for the shot! Taking his time and and waiting for the perfect time the buck started to turn broadside Joe took the shot and the deer fell. After about 15 miles of hiking and some cold mornings Joe finally had his buck and the hunt was over. Joe Field dressed the buck and we hiked back to camp. We got to camp knowing we were eating good tonight. We fried up the deer heart for a little snack then made some awesome elk fajitas and enjoyed the night and the end of a successful hunt!
Driving back home thinking of all the challenges that the hunt had and how hard it was to spot and get to these magnificent animals, I understood why they are called the grey ghost and I was addicted to hunting them and cannot wait to get drawn and go back down and continue the pursuit for them.