Completing The North American Deer Slam – November 2010
Sunday, May 15th, 2011 at 12:22 pm
As we hiked up the desert drainage ditch I was trying to remember my mental checklist to make a good shot. My outfitter, Pat Feldt, and I had just climbed down from the top of the hill we had been glassing on for Coues Whitetails. Pat and my guide, Keith Hubbard, had spotted a nice buck on the adjacent hill and we were trying to bleed off some of the 650 yards shooting distance between the deer and my rifle.
We knew the eagle-like eyes of the buck wouldn’t spot us when we were shielded by this hill, but now that we were in the drainage ditch and getting into more open terrain that advantage was quickly disappearing. In addition our route was strewn with loose gravel and sand and we had to navigate through a gauntlet with prickly cactus bushes and mesquite trees. Trying to avoid the needle like plants and remain stealthy was proving difficult.
Pat maintained radio contact with Keith who was still perched at the top of our lookout, watching for any concern from the deer we were after. My intended quarry, and a few of his buddies were behaving like sentries high above our position. This is typical of Coues behavior as they are mostly nocturnal like their eastern cousins. In the dawning hours of the day they will find a resting place high on a hill and bed down under a mesquite tree, to escape the heat of the Arizona day, and watch their surroundings for danger.
As we moved up the ditch Keith radioed that the deer on the hill seemed a little spooked. Our deer was bedded down but his neighbor was getting a little antsy. We decided we couldn’t venture any further without being busted and so we climbed up out of our path and found an area to set up for a shooting opportunity. I immediately started to run through the mental checklist of points needed to make a shot in the 400-yard range. Yesterday I had missed two opportunities because of “rookie” mistakes and I was determined not to do this again today.
While Pat maintained radio communication with Keith I set up my Sako .300 Win Mag using a Harris Bi-pod and a butt rest. As I looked through my Leupold scope my heart sank. It was fogged. I tried to wipe it clean but it appeared to have some internal fog rendering it pretty much useless. I couldn’t believe my luck…
I had booked this hunt with Pat Feldt and his Arizona Guided Hunts service back in February. I am a week shy of my 52nd birthday and I have only been hunting for a little over half a decade. I was fortunate enough to harvest a 220 pound 10 point whitetail on my first Maine deer hunt back in 2006. I shot a 325 pound 10 point Mule deer in 2007 in Wyoming, and last fall I harvested a nice Blacktail deer in Washington State. The Coues deer was that last deer I needed for my North American Deer Slam.
So far everything on this trip had lived up to the advance billing. I had been lucky enough to draw a tag in the Arizona lottery for my preferred week and location, and I had arrived in Tucson two days earlier. I was picked up by Pat at my hotel the following morning and we then took a scenic drive to camp through the desert area surrounded by majestic mountains. I was hopeful that my conditioning program of the past seven months would pay off up in those mountains. We saw lots of saguaro cactus and mesquite trees. Pat had already set up the camp and the third member of his team was already there out scouting.
Camp consisted of a main trailer that acted as a bunk and cookhouse for the guides, a large army type Cabela’s tent for the hunters, a wash-up area, a fire ring for nightly camp fires and conversation, and a portable privy located in a discrete area not too far away from our tent. Inside the tent were army cots, a trash bag, and a lamp. All the creature comforts necessary for a comfortable camp and successful hunt.
After unpacking our gear and chatting with the local rancher we decided it was time to spot-check our rifles. My co-hunters had driven here but since I arrived via two flights from Portland Maine I knew I had to re-sight my rifle. We set up a target at 200 yards and broke out spotting binoculars. I set up on a tarp in the prone position and after a few rounds felt confidant that the gun was zeroed at 200 yards. My scope was a long-range scope that also had cross-wire hold points for 300, 400, 500 and 550 yards. Hunting for Coues deer may require shots out well beyond the 200-yard range.
Dinner the first night was steaks with potatoes and beans and we enjoyed the hearty meal while we sat around a campfire. My guide, Keith Hubbard arrived just as we were finishing up and we discussed plans for the next day’s hunt. We would be up early and on the trail by 5:30. Keith and I were going to hunt deep into the mountains near the western edge of our zone. There were usually a lot of deer in the area and it would give us a good chance to spot a nice buck.
After turning in, the evening fell somewhat quite except for the occasional coyote call in the distance and the sound of crickets. I got up around two o’clock since I was still on eastern-time and walked out into a bright moonlight night. You could almost read a book with the light and I marveled at the beauty of the area.
Shortly after 7am the next morning we had crested the first major ridge and Keith and I stopped to do some glassing. We had radios to stay in contact with the other guides and hunters but we were getting deeper into the backcountry. We spotted a few smaller bucks and numerous does. It was the first day of the season so I wasn’t in any hurry to shoot and besides at 350 yards I wasn’t too crazy about trying my luck. Back in Maine it is rare to shoot anything beyond a 100 yards and the idea of shooting a deer half the size of a Maine buck at three and a half times the distance was a little unsettling to me. I had practiced at the range pretty faithfully but that was only out to 200 yards.
By mid day the sun was getting pretty hot but we kept spotting the occasional deer so we opted not to return to camp.
A red tailed hawk that was playing on the thermals that blew through these hills was entertaining us and we spotted a small family of Javelinas grazing on a hillside. Despite our perch I was having problems picking up the deer that Keith seemed to be locating at a pretty consistent rate. He would exclaim, “there’s a deer” and I would be scrambling to locate it. I now understand why these deer have the nickname “grey ghost”. If I was out here by myself I would have gone home and declared there were no deer in the area. With Keith’s guidance and great optics I had already seen well in excess of twenty or so.
After lunch we decided to head further into backcountry. We spotted several nice animals and formulated a strategy to try and get closer to one of the larger bucks that Keith had spotted. This involved about a 30-minute hike up a narrow trail where I managed to collect a nice assortment of cactus needles, both large and small on various parts of my anatomy. I worked hard to keep up with Keith and tried to keep my breathing controlled both due to the sudden physical exertion and the excitement of the stalk.
After we finally reached our position I tried to find a good rest but could not get comfortable. I tried various positions but just couldn’t get the gun as steady as I would have liked. In the meantime the deer were on the move and as soon as I would get somewhat ready to shoot they would move and I would be forced to reposition myself. All of my practicing seemed to be going out the window and I was forgetting all I had read and practiced about ballistics over the past six months. I was getting more and more frustrated and I know Keith was concerned that I would lose a good shooting opportunity. Finally I decided to take a shot.
Our hike out was initially subdued. The three empty cartridges in my gun belt and the empty backpack confirmed that I was unsuccessful in my first attempt at a Coues deer. I was upset at myself for not being calmer and taking my time with my shooting. I was upset that I couldn’t spot the deer as quickly as my guide. And, I felt that I had let down Keith, who managed to spot some really nice deer, get us within 330 yards and then I couldn’t execute.
Keith I think understood my situation and did his best to cheer me up and talk about tomorrow and the opportunities that would present themselves.
Back at camp we learned that one of my fellow hunters had tagged out. It was his first deer ever and we were all very happy for him. There is nothing like your first deer and he was grinning from ear to ear. Dinner consisted of chicken, rice, and salad and strategizing about tomorrow’s hunt.
Since Pat’s hunter had tagged out yesterday he decided to join Keith and myself on my second day. That’s how he managed to be with me when my scope failed.
After yesterday’s missed shots I felt confident about today’s setup but the fogged scope meant the hunt was about to come to a crashing end. Pat mentioned that he had a backup gun at camp but before hiking out I asked if he has some tissue paper. I grabbed the paper and wiped both ends of the scope, and suddenly the problem disappeared. Apparently there was a bit of oil on my glove and when I attempted to clear the fog off the eyepiece I smudged it. Another lesson learned.
Now we were back in business. Pat told me that I needed to hold at 350 yards for the angle of the shot. I put the 300-yard hold point on the back of the deer and relaxed. Pat and Keith both waited for me to pull the trigger. I gently squeezed my entire right hand, and the shot rang out.
Later Keith told me he saw the deer roll over before he heard the shot. Pat exclaimed “you got him” and I was both relieved at the redemption from yesterday and the fact that I had just completed my “deer slam”. Pat told me the shot was actually 416 yards. By far the longest shot I had ever made.
The hike up the steep side of the hill was seemingly effortless. The adrenaline rush kept me going and pretty soon it was evident that not only had I completed my slam but also I did it with a pretty impressive deer. He was a nice fat 8 pointer that would score nearly 96 inches. This is why it’s always good to choose a reputable outfitter with a world of experience.
More congratulations and much picture taking ensued before the inevitable quartering and dividing up of the load necessary to get the deer back to camp.
The Coues Crew - Darrell, Pat & Keith
When we broke camp the next day all three hunters had successfully tagged out. It was a milestone for each of us. I had completed my deer slam, another hunter had harvested his first deer, and our third hunter had returned for his second Coues deer hunt and now had a matching trophy to accompany the deer he had shot a few years back with Pat.
With my “slam” completed I am now thinking about new goals and hunts. At the top of my list will be a return trip to Arizona to hunt with Pat again, this time for a desert Mule deer.