Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Big Coues Deer

I’ve got an interesting story about a huge Coues deer buck that I helped Randy Ulmer hunt two years ago. I think all of you that are fascinated by big Coues bucks like I am will appreciate the deer that this story revolves around.

Randy Ulmer's nephew Zach Nicholson holding the 149 gross,  143 2/8 net Coues Buck

Before I begin this story I need to let you know that Randy was very hesitant to have me tell the story on my blog because of the controversy that tends to surround a deer like this, especially with all the strange twists and turns this deer took us on. Randy asked that I preface the story by saying that, because of all the circumstances involved, he in no way, shape or form is trying to claim this buck as a legitimate hunter-killed buck.

With that disclosure made, I personally think it’s important to tell the story for several reasons: First and foremost it is a very interesting story involving a giant buck, and Darr and I got to witness it first-hand; Secondly, it may help educate and enlighten someone who may have a similar experience in the future; Thirdly, this animal, as well as all animals we harvest, need to be respected and recognized; Lastly, as a student of big Coues deer behavior, I got a great lesson watching a world class bowhunter chase a deer. As people who predominantly hunt for Coues deer with a rifle, we usually find a buck, and if everything goes well, shoot it as quickly as possible. However, it rarely works that way for bowhunters. While helping Randy, we got to spend a lot of time watching this deer and we learned a great deal about the behavior of an old, mature Coues deer buck. This experience heightened our respect for these deer and taught us volumes about why they can be so hard to find and kill.

Randy Ulmer is a very good friend of mine, he and his wife Tammy and his sons and I have hunted together frequently. In 2008 Darr Colburn and I leased a ranch in Mexico and invited Randy’s son Levi to come and hunt. Randy brought him down to our ranch and we all had a great time. Levi was able to kill a nice 4 point Coues buck and a javelina. He has since shot many big game animals and has turned into quite the hunter. I don’t think the apple has fallen far from the tree in that family!

The next year, Randy and his nephew Zach Nicholson found a ranch that they thought had potential for a big Coues deer. The only problem was the deer density seemed to be extremely low. They invited Darr and I to come hunt with them. Randy and Zach were hunting with bows, Darr and I were batting cleanup and packing rifles.

Randy and Zach first saw the big buck on the desert floor in January. Darr and I came to the ranch a few days later and were greeted by two big grins when we pulled into camp. We knew right away something was up and boy was it ever. Randy has killed some giant Coues deer with his bow in the past, so we knew from their excitement level that this must be a truly big deer. Darr and I went into their trailer and Zach proceeded to show us the footage of their little surprise. They didn’t say much but just kept smiling as Darr and I drooled on the LCD screen. The excitement level was high!

I first laid eyes on the deer the next day with my Doctor 40X from about 2 miles away and was stunned by the lopsided appearance of the buck. I know it is a commonly used hunter’s cliché, but this deer’s antlers truly seemed to be too big for its body. He looked like a freak of nature with this huge rack on a diminutive Coues deer body.

Darr and I went up the hill with Zach the next day and got a closer look at the buck. He had a very unique rack, with very tall G2’s and his G3’s swept forward, paralleling the main beams. He also had a very small drop point coming off the bottom of the right main beam. The left antler had a main beam that angled up at the end and had a curvy, S-shaped G4. There was no G4 on the right.

That night after Darr, and I had seen the buck with our own eyes, we all sat around camp looking at video that Zach had taken and guessing the score. None of us had ever seen a typical buck this big. We all guessed the score at over 130. Darr and I were sure that this was one of the biggest typical bucks we had ever seen alive or dead.

Well, in order to keep this of readable length, I’ll try to make a very long story a little less long: Randy and Zach hunted that deer for nearly 2 weeks. Darr and I spent quite a bit of time up on the knob with Zach helping to spot and keep track of the buck. However, most of the time we roamed the ranch looking for another deer that they had on their trail camera from a month earlier. (I actually killed my best deer ever during this time-you can read that story titled Sonoran Surprise in the Western Hunter section of this blog). Randy usually stayed down on the desert floor, or in the blind at the closest water hole, near where the big typical was hanging. The buck seemed to be almost completely nocturnal. He spent very little time up and moving during daylight hours.

Randy stalked the buck over a dozen times and was able to get within 60 yards of the deer many times. However, because of the thick vegetation, other deer and a whole lot of other excuses bowhunter’s are always using (ha ha), he wasn’t able to get a clear shot. In all that time the buck only spooked one time. The one time he did spook he was right back in his home territory a day later. Randy had to be very careful not to spook the deer because he was very close to the ranch boundary and could have easily ended up on one of two other ranches. (On a side note, during all the time we watched this buck he rarely moved outside a ½ mile core area and many times he bedded under the same organ pipe cactus or the same palo verde tree. We joked with Randy that if he was a truly dedicated bowhunter he would put a tree stand on the cactus and hunt from there.)

At night Darr and I would taunt Randy telling him that we had the buck in our scopes and knew the range. If he got tired of fooling around with this deer we would be happy to shoot the buck for him and put Randy and the buck out of their misery. Zach and Randy began to refer to us as the “Rifle Vultures”. I was fairly relentless needling Randy and Zach with saying such as, “you guys are taking a bow to a gunfight” etc.

One night Zach recounted the day’s events for us, and later that evening when Randy pulled up we got Randy’s account. Randy was finally able to get under 20 yards from the bedded buck. He says he saw 3 branches he had to clear to get his arrow to the deer’s vitals. Randy stood there for what seemed like forever with the buck’s head facing directly away from him and his body broadside. He calculated where his arrow would be at 3 yards 5 yards and 10 yards to shoot over or under each of the branches. He drew his bow and shot. He says none of the 3 branches he was worried about moved so he was confident he had hit the deer. The buck jumped up and ran about 40 yards through the thick brush, slowed to a walk and immediately laid down. From the hilltop Zack could only see the bedded deer’s head but it was still up and alert.

After half an hour Randy slowly belly crawled over to where the buck had been bedded at the shot. He found the back half of his arrow lying in the bucks’ bed. He could see where the arrow had clipped a cat claw branch a few feet in front of the deer. The arrow had hair on it, but no blood. The bed also had a little hair, but no blood. Randy didn’t want to move any further forward to look for any more sign because the buck was now bedded a mere 50 yards away. It was evening so Randy waited until dark and backed out.

Back at camp we made the plan to go up on the knob and glass for the deer first thing in the morning and if we couldn’t find him, go down in the valley and look for him. The next morning we spotted him bedded, not far from where he had gone down after the shot. He still looked alert. At that point we began to assume that Randy had missed him or, if he had hit him, it was not a mortal wound. The only thing that puzzled us is why, if he wasn’t hit hard, he ran such a short distance before going down.

By that time it was a mute point to us-we needed to stalk him again and shoot him. Randy positioned himself a few hundred yards from the deer, so that if the buck got up, he could sneak in and try another stalk. The deer got up right at dark and walked slowly a short distance and bedded down again.

The next 2 days Zach spotted him again with the same routine, Randy waiting close by for a stalk opportunity. Unfortunately, the deer only got up a few times during the day and bedded down almost immediately. Randy never got another shot. The next several days we looked hard and expanded our search area but never saw the buck again. The season was nearing an end and we all had work and family commitments Randy and Zach had spent much more time there hunting this buck than they had planned. (I shot my big buck during that time) We all headed north, back to Arizona.

A few months later Randy got a phone call from Mexico saying a ranch cowboy had found the big buck dead in the same area where we had been hunting him. The deer had been dead for some time and the bones were picked clean. The most shocking news was that the cowboy found the front half of an arrow at the carcass. A friend of Randy’s involved with the ranch, put it up in his bedroom closet for safe keeping. Sometime later, unbeknownst to him, his young son climbed up into the closet and pulled the head out and dropped it, breaking the ends off both G2’s. His wife put it back up and didn’t think to look for the 2 broken points.

Looking back, it is more than a little embarrassing that we did not confirm, at the time, that the deer was hit. However, in our defense, after the shot, the deer rarely moved much. When he did move it was very early and very late in low light conditions and we were a good ways away. His behavior was definitely different during the days following the shot, but not that much different. The only thing that changed was he got up less frequently and moved much less and he stayed in the thick brush –all things that could be attributed to the fact that he had been shot at from a distance of 15 yards and, at minimum, slapped hard by an arrow.

Hind sight is a wonderful thing and looking back perhaps we should have realized the deer was hit. The bottom line is we didn’t-at least we didn’t think he was mortally wounded.

Because the deer was not a routine, hunter-killed deer and Randy wanted to be in full compliance with the law, he contacted the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Agency and asked them how to legally import the antlers into the US. It took 18 months to get all the proper documentation and permits from the US Fish and Wildlife Agency as well as their counterparts in Mexico. Randy was finally able to get the buck across recently.

Well that’s the story. It is tragic in that, any deer, let alone a deer of this caliber, died the way it did. Unfortunately, no matter how careful or ethical we choose to be as hunters, wounding is an unavoidable part of hunting.

Though the buck obviously can’t be entered officially, he has been scored by a Boone and Crockett measurer at 143 2/8 net typical, as-is, even with the ends of the G2’s broken off.

I’m attaching some photos of Zack holding the antler’s in Mexico. The video quality is not that great because it was taken with a hand held Handicam through a spotting scope at a long distance-you know how that goes. Anyways… enjoy!

I was able to harvest a great deer while all this was going on but that’s another story that you have all heard (he scores 130 5/8 net non typical)

I was amazed at the persistence and patience that Randy and Zach had while chasing this giant deer. I got a first-hand look at how Randy goes about trying to harvest an animal and it is something I will never forget. I have already incorporated things that I learned on that hunt into my normal hunting routine and I feel it has made me a better hunter. There is now no doubt in my mind why Randy’s trophy room is full of huge animals. His dedication and attention to detail while hunting is like nothing I have seen. I am convinced that his biggest asset as bowhunter is not that he shoots a bow better than anyone (even though he does) but his persistence and dedication to the exact animal that he is trying to harvest.

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