By Jessi Johnson
A few months ago, over more than a couple beers, I was included in a conversation around a Coues deer hunt in southern Arizona. How the idea came up is still a bit fuzzy, but as conversations over dream trips often happen, this one expanded and traveled. What I do remember is the notion of it being a hunt to experience a new landscape, an opportunity to bring new people together, and an attempt to archery hunt one of the country’s most elusive creatures…the high desert Coues deer.
After 16 hours of driving and more than a few plane rides for some of us, we finally came together at 11pm at a friend’s house in Tucson, Arizona. Tired, excited, and wildly unprepared, we cracked a couple beers and sat around a living room speculating on the trip ahead. Some of us were old friends and others were just getting to know each other. All of us are from the hunting conservation world - repping companies like Hunt to Eat, Go Hunt, and Maven and others working for organizations like 2% for Conservation, Right to Roam, Artemis, and Wyoming Wildlife Federation. We all have a common thread of conservation and the defining factor of a love of hunting.
The arid mountain-scape is the definition of big country with topography that is intricate and deceiving.
The next morning, the road into our camp was lined with saguaro cactus. Like sentinels standing watch, some of them have seen hundreds of years’ worth of hunters journeying into this place to find deer, spirits, and solitude. The arid mountain-scape is the definition of big country with topography that is intricate and deceiving.
Our mornings started before the sun. We were greeted each morning by sunrises veined with pinks and oranges, and stirring cerulean Mountain bluebirds. Spiny plants ripping at hands and clothes helped set the stage for days spent absorbing the Arizona sun. Hours were spent behind a pair of Mavens atop a tripod peeling country for a small grey deer that only seemed visible if they were moving. Stalks on dog-sized deer, whose ability to stay three steps ahead of us at all points bordered on magical.
Each evening we returned to camp filled to the brim with stories. While sitting around the campfire, we feasted on hamburger helper, drank beer, passed around bottles of whiskey, and solved the world’s problems. It’s a unique thing to sit around a campfire with 5 people who have built their lives around conservation and hunting and who are dedicated to leaving this earth and this privilege better than we found it - each from diverse backgrounds with their own sense of awe at the place we were in.
Halfway through the trip, having been thoroughly humbled by the Coues deer, we switched locales and headed down to the flats at the base of the jagged mountains…this time in search of an Arizona mule deer.
It’s one thing to be perched on a ridge, gun sights on a big buck and be able to take a shot from a few hundred yards…it’s an entirely different playbook with a bow in hand and playing with yardage in the 30-40’s.
Hidden away in arroyos and working ridges with more cactus than dirt, we walked into a maze of deer, desert, and downpours. Hunting the rut of any animal is a different game, but deer seem to be an entirely different species during their annual rituals. It’s one thing to be perched on a ridge, gun sights on a big buck and be able to take a shot from a few hundred yards…it’s an entirely different playbook with a bow in hand and playing with yardage in the 30-40’s. Our campfire stories were of monster bucks disappearing over ridgelines, javelina and their ever-present stink, and guesses on how much rain we were due to receive that night.
Our last full day found us contemplating the day’s trajectory over breakfast in the Maven truck while awaiting a break in weather - the ultimate decision being to hunt regardless of sogginess. Throughout the day and in between glassing sessions, we spent our downtime on group text threads of photos and jokes; we had reached a level of comradery that is only established after a week spent in tents and trucks, sunburned, waterlogged, and skunked by deer. The evening hike out boasted a howl-off with a distant coyote - of which the winner is unclear.
Not one of us filled a tag, but anymore it hardly seems it was the reason we went down there in the first place.
As I sit and write this, home again in Lander, Wyoming, surrounded by big spaces and lots of snow, my skin can still feel the full-bodied rays of the Arizona sun. My soul now recognizes a different spiritual fullness, one crafted of big landscapes, saguaro, cholla, and a tiny grey ghost that flits between realms. The desert got into the cracks of our spirits caused by long winters and filled them with joy and good friends. Not one of us filled a tag, but anymore it hardly seems it was the reason we went down there in the first place. Instead, I think we all walked away and waved a hasty “see you soon”...knowing that we will return to this place and continue the lessons we have only just started - a teaching of patience and decision, of bold action and silent footsteps with a Coues deer on the skyline and a 200 inch mule deer in our dreams.
Each of us shared our unwillingness to leave this place, and all promised to return. The heavy electric scent of heat and rain on the horizon will hang in our memory long past when the sun on our skin fades.
Arizona: thank you for this experience, I expect we will be seeing you soon.
THE COUES CREW
Go Hunt: @gohunt
Hunt to Eat: @hunttoeat
2% for Conservation: @2percentforconservation
Right to Roam Podcast: @right_to_roam_podcast