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Montana X-treme
Rifle Magazine
May - June 2005
Volume 3, Number 3
Number 13
On the cover...
Cover photo by Donald M. Jones
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This story is about an odyssey – the quest for mule deer. It began back in the 1960s when a friend in high school came home from eastern Oregon with a great, heavy-horned mule deer. Growing up on the west side of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon, the local blacktail and little Columbian whitetail didn’t even come close to the classic mule deer that came out of the legendary mountains of eastern Oregon – Steens, Pueblos, Hart Mountain, Strawberry Mountain. Melvin’s buck was huge.

A year later, our entire family jammed into the station wagon and headed for central Oregon, around East Lake, and I finally saw first-hand the legendary mule deer – even an average buck would spread 22 to 24 inches with four deep forks. Then too, my stepfather Lester was a meat hunter and didn’t hold for passing on a perfectly good eatin’ buck. So he popped a fine 4x4 with Mom’s .257 Roberts, and we headed for home.

That’s about how it went, year after year, until college and the U.S. Navy sidetracked my hunting efforts. In 1971 I bought a rifle – a Savage Model 110 .243 Winchester and headed back to the high desert mountain ranges of eastern Oregon

I saw a few good deer in the next few years, mostly in the back of someone else’s pickup, but managed to take a few myself – some of which were fairly respectable. In the late 1970s, I left my real job to try freelance outdoor writing; I got lucky, sold a few stories and took up the hunt seriously.

Of course, there were distractions – mostly two kids – who went along on scouting expeditions and hunts whenever possible. As a threesome, we made a pretty good team: Jason spotting deer, Alicia cheering us on, and every now and then, we scored with rifle, bow and arrow or handgun.

As a freelance writer, I was occasionally invited on a few “free” hunts, but it was obvious that hunting on someone else’s nickel wasn’t going to net any grand mule deer. So, the only way to find a bona fide trophy was to pay my own way, but I had to hunt in areas where the odds of finding good animals were at least realistic.

For whatever reason, I sort of zeroed in on Montana, and over the years managed to tag a few good bucks with lever actions, bolt actions and a black-powder Sharps. When I couldn’t draw a tag in Big Sky Country, my second choice was Sonora, Mexico, with one side trip into the famed Paunsaugunt in southern Utah

The problem with Sonora, and a few other well-known trophy areas, was money. Most trophy mule deer hunts went for at least six grand, some for nearly twice that amount – serious numbers for most folks.

So, I enlisted the help of a friend who guided a bit in Sonora, mostly for Coues’ deer, but he knew several of the Mexican outfitters. In due course, we found a hunt that offered as good a chance as any for a “book” mule deer. Six months later I was in Sonora on what most folks would agree was the “hunt of a lifetime.”

I saw a good number of bucks over the first few days but nothing that wasn’t matched or beaten by a set of horns on the wall at home. But we kept at it, tracking and glassing, 10 to 12 hours a day, covering well over 70 to 80 miles on foot before I missed a giant buck in the flats just a few miles south of the U.S./Mexico border. We tracked that buck for another two hours, until it jumped a fence and headed out across another ranch.

Discouraged, and just plain beaten, we headed for the main ranch on the last evening of the hunt. With the sun directly in our eyes, Beto Daiz, the guide, said, “Shoot, shoot,” while pointing almost directly into the sun. I couldn’t see a thing in the shadows of the low hills.

Once again, Beto said, “Shoot.” Panning the hillside some 200 yards away through the 6x scope, I noticed several deer, all does, and one outsized animal, but couldn’t make out any horns. Beto was insistent. So, knowing the larger animal was a buck, if for no other reason than it was much larger than the other deer, I looked for antlers. With some effort, I could barely make out some measure of horns against the backdrop of mesquite and pulled the trigger.

The sound of the bullet striking flesh echoed back as the buck dropped. There was excitement all around, although I didn’t have a clue what I had just shot, other than it was a large-bodied buck.

It was a long walk across the cacti-laden desert to the fallen buck. But from well over 50 yards, I could easily recognize the size of the antlers. Beto spoke little English, and in those days, I knew only a few Spanish words, but we both knew what muy grande meant.

Back at the ranch late that night, someone ran a tape over the antlers, announcing that is was 31.5 inches wide and would score close to 180 – plus or minus – SCI. It had only taken 41 years to bring down the buck of my dreams.

Having finally scored on a great mule deer, I decided to take a breather. For the next few years, I pursued brown bear, caribou, elk, whitetail and antelope, mostly with older lever actions, and returned to Africa (Botswana, Okavango) with a Model 86 Winchester .50 Black Powder Express in pursuit of plains game and Cape buffalo. In between, there were two trips to Sonora to hunt Coues’ deer and one for mule deer. That’s where I met Mike Poulos.

Mike is from northern California and has Coues’ deer fever, or some sort of malady that drives folks to spend thousands of dollars in pursuit of the little desert whitetail. From time to time, Mike would call, reviewing his latest adventure, and trying to talk me into another trip to Mexico. When he mentioned a young man by the name of José Lizarraga (Trophy & Desert Outfitters, PO Box 399 Nogales, AZ 85628) down in Caborca, who with his brother Rodrigo had just bought a ranch where they ran a few cattle with their uncle, I gave in.

José is not only ambitious, but enterprising – required traits if you intend to go head-to-head with the established Mexican outfitters. In time, Mike and José outlined an interesting adventure, hunting Coues’ deer south of Nogales, then traveling over to the coast for a mule deer hunt. Neither area had been hunted much, if at all, and if I learned anything of value in the years traveling to Sonora, it’s that unmolested populations of deer usually hold more than just a few good animals – assuming the lions haven’t discovered the deer first. The wild card was the weather. Sonora, as well as the entire southwestern, was in the middle of a seven-year drought, but areas with good feed were still producing some outsized bucks. Not necessarily great numbers, but an occasional monster.

Originally Mike and I intended to hunt together, but job requirements confined me to the third week in January, still within the normal rut in Sonora. Mike went a week earlier.

The plan was for José to pick Roberta and me up in Tucson when he took Mike back to the airport for the flight home. At the airport I learned that the hunt on the coast was not only inspiring, but successful. They saw a number of middle-class mule deer, and Mike took a fine Coues’ deer. For the last day of the hunt, they traveled back to Caborca to hunt mule deer on José’s ranch. That evening, just before the sun set, Mike’s friend, Rick Gurrola, killed a fine mule deer. All in all, a very successful adventure. Following the short visit, José loaded us into the Suburban, and we headed south to Nogales.

That evening we arrived at Rancho Nuevo, a working cattle ranch covering some 6,000 acres with a small valley surrounded by rolling hills, ideal Coues’ deer country. While Roberta and I settled into the 100-year-old ranch house, José introduced us to the camp staff: Luly, the cook; Lupi, the camp helper; and the guides, Poncho and Fernando. The ranch’s (cowboys) worked full time and offered a hint or two about where deer were normally found in the early morning. Of course, Poncho and Fernando had scouted the ranch and had a pretty good idea of how the hunt would play out.

Early the next morning, the guides and I took a short ride in the truck into the foothills. In due course, we left the truck and worked our way up an undulating ridge with relatively shallow draws on either side. Just before the sun came up, deer were spotted at various distances, including a few bucks.

Within an hour of leaving the truck, Fernando was leading as we approached the crest of a hill. To our right, three bucks were having a free-for-all, fighting intermittently, while pursuing a couple of does. I got a good look at two of the bucks, but the third skirted the hillside and, after dropping out of sight for moment or two, showed up on an adjacent hillside, not more than 80 or so yards from our secluded position.

Judging from Fernando’s manner, he probably thought I should shoot the lone buck. I was certainly tempted, but after a good look with the 10x32 Swarovski binocular decided to hold off. After all, we hadn’t been out for much more than an hour.

So, we moved on, eating lunch near a corral and taking a short siesta under an ironwood tree. That afternoon we saw a few deer and one bobcat, but no good bucks.

The next morning we found four bucks chasing a couple of does, and after a lung-busting dash into a steep draw and up the other side, we approached the area where the bucks were last seen with considerable caution. In short order, a buck with a busted up left antler was sorted out in the shadows of the thick brush. A second buck was located on the face of another hill at 150, maybe 175, yards. By the time I located the buck in the scope, it was only a step away from cover – too late.

Some time later, we picked up our gear and headed over to where the buck dropped out of sight. In retrospect, we walked right by it, and the next thing I knew, it was running, headed for the thickest cover on the hillside.

In spite of what I thought was a good hold on the shoulder, I missed. Later that evening, we discovered the scope had taken a hit somewhere during the day, or in transit from Prescott, and required considerable adjustment, around 8 inches left at 100 yards – clearly enough to miss a deer at 100 yards or so.

The next morning, José accompanied us back into the hills, and I managed to take my first Coues’ deer from a sitting position among the dense ocotillo at little more than 200 yards, give or take a step or two. After lunch, we packed up and headed to Caborca.

Because José’s ranch is only a short distance from Caborca, he quartered Roberta and I at his home, which is just a couple of blocks off the main street, where his parents run a nice little restaurant (Lupita’s) that caters to the “lunch” crowd.

The next morning after a hardy breakfast, best described as “American with Mexican on the side,” Poncho, Fernando and I headed for the ranch that covers some 24,000 acres of cacti and brush among intermittent palo verde trees.

From the west edge of the ranch, Fernando and I headed out on foot, while Poncho drove the truck around to the other side to pick us up later that morning. The drill was walk and glass, hopefully to pick up a track of a good buck. But after a three-mile sojourn, we saw nothing, not even a sizable track.

We met Poncho and he drove us to higher ground where we mixed a short walk with a bit of glassing from a rock-covered hillside. Considering the soft sand prevented any semblance of tracking, glassing from a vantage point made a lot of sense. At least we could see fairly well out into the desert floor for 300 yards or so, in a wide radius.

By noon we decided to head over to the main corral and water tank for lunch. The day grew overcast, and it started to look like rain.

Following lunch, Poncho and I took a walk, gradually gaining elevation as we headed for the “pass” between two mountain ranges. Within an hour or so, we spotted two does and a young buck.

Just as Poncho and I reached the ranch road where Fernando was to pick us up that afternoon, it started raining. Fernando joined us and it started to rain steadily. Within an hour, it was pouring.

As the sky grew darker and the rain increased, I was thinking about how good the tracking would be in the morning; the soaking wet desert would reveal a fresh track easily. It would be like a walk in the park.

I was jolted back to reality when Fernando said, “Shoot.” I looked in the direction he indicated but saw nothing. He said, “Shoot, shoot.” Looking more to the left, I saw a large deer, with another buck to the left; although at 120 or so yards, the rain and wet brush made it difficult to make out the horns against the backdrop of brown/green brush and cacti.

I pulled the Kimber Model 8400 7mm WSM up and looked through the scope. It was a good buck, but the horns were masked by the wet palo verde. I pulled the rifle over just a bit, centered the crosshairs on the chest, just behind the shoulder, and launched the 120-grain Barnes Triple-Shock at just a hint over 3,300 fps.

The sound of the bullet slapping wet hair and hide echoed back, signally a direct hit. In milliseconds, the buck bolted to the left, then disappeared behind a palo verde while the other buck turned and ran directly away, revealing respectable headgear, although it can be a big mistake to judge antlers from the south end of a north-bound buck. Immediately after the shot, I glanced over at Fernando. He had a wide-eyed look of disbelief, or amazement; I couldn’t tell which. It appeared as if he thought I missed or the animal was only wounded. Either way, Fernando and Poncho were quite excited, and I wasn’t sure why.

It took a few minutes to navigate the cacti-laden obstacle course to where the buck went down. By the time I arrived on the scene, Poncho and Fernando were already celebrating.

It’s odd, hunting for days, or a week, with folks who don’t share a common language. You use your hands a lot, and try to find a word – or a facial expression – that echoes your intent. In time, you begin to understand and get along amazingly well. As we moved around the giant buck, there was absolutely no confusion or misunderstanding. We knew we were looking at one of the greatest bucks to ever come out of Sonora.

Fernando, Poncho and I saluted the great buck with a befitting toast, a Mexican cerveza, took a few photos in the intermittent rain and headed for the ranch house.

On the road to the ranch, we met José and Rodrigo headed for town. Poncho pulled the Toyota over on the side of the road, and I stepped out, walked around to the front and watched for their reaction. Rodrigo is normally somewhat subdued, purposeful. As the Dodge Ram passed by the bed of the Toyota, Rodrigo’s eyes widened as he shoved the door open and reached into the back of the Toyota and grabbed the antlers. José ran around the front of the Dodge, smiling like a kid with a new bicycle.

There was a lot of talking, mostly in Spanish, but I could tell from the jestering that Poncho was telling José where the buck was taken. They shook their heads. The story was told and retold, as I began to understand that it would be told for months to come.

Hunting Mexico

Most of the annoying paper work that was required to hunt in Mexico has disappeared in the last few years. All the outfitter requires is the normal personal information, Hunter Safety Certification (if required in your home state) and the serial number and caliber of your rifle. The outfitter will use that information to obtain hunting and rifle permits. He/she will have that ready when you arrive in Mexico, either at the airport or when you cross the border.

In lieu of proof of purchase (a receipt will do), you will need proof of ownership for your rifle, or a U.S. Customs Form 4457: “Certificate of Registration for Personal Effects Taken Abroad.” The form is obtained by taking your rifle to the closest U.S. Customs Office. It’s good for as long as you own the rifle – so it’s a one-time deal for each firearm. The rest of the paper work is for Mexican authorities, which the guide/outfitter will take care of.

The last regulation I read indicated 50 rounds per rifle (two rifles, 100 rounds). The outfitter will advise hunters of any changes.

Accommodations are usually in older, authentic Old Mexico ranch houses. I’ve been in camps with five or six other hunters, and I’ve had some camps to myself, plus Roberta as a non-hunter. One year, when the rest of the hunters had taken their game, I had three guides, indicating they were willing to put as many trackers/guides on the ground as it would take to get me on a buck.

For most of us, there is a bit of a language barrier, but schools in Mexico require students to learn basic English. So younger guides usually speak pretty good anglo, but older guides may only know the basics – “shoot” or “no shoot.” My friend Toñyo, who passed on a couple of years back, was in his 70s and didn’t speak a work of English, but he was an excellent tracker and within a few hours in the field, we both spoke the same language – hunting.

It makes sense to pick up a small English/Spanish dictionary – after all, we are in their country and common respect suggests we know the basics of their language. José Lizarraga went to school in Arizona, so he handles English exceptionally well. Most guides want to know English, and I’ve spent a number of hours around camp, or in the field, trying to dig up the right word or phrase in English, so they can tell me the meaning or words in Spanish. Venado Bura (mule deer) and Venado Colablanca (Coues’ deer) are fairly self-explanatory, Bura (mule) and Colablanca (whitetail). Elliott Coues was a U.S. Army doctor, and the proper French pronunciation of his surname is “coo,” rhyming with “zoo”; therefore, the possessive is Coues’ (“cooz”).

Trackers I’ve hunted with in Mexico are at least the equal of those in Africa. Most are cowboys, vaqueros, who work on the ranches, and they know the area like the backs of their hands. And if you spend much time on a track, you will learn more in a day than most folks learn in a lifetime.

No camo manufacturer I’m aware of, with the possible exception of Faded Sage out of Nevada, can match desert flora. So until they come up with something that blends in with barrel cactus, cholla, senita, ocotillo, saguaro, yucca, mesquite, palo verde, agaves or prickly pear, forget camo. Light colors – green, tan and khaki – are fine. Temperatures in Sonora vary from near freezing at dawn to the mid-80s at midday.

A day pack with waist strap to carry a camera and personal effects is a good idea. Likewise comfortable boots with good ankle support for walking long distances are advisable.

The Kimber Model 8400 7mm WSM with a Leupold VX-III 3.5-10x 40mm I used weighs in at around 7.2 pounds, loaded with a nylon sling. I’ve used 9-pound mountain rifles and regretted it by the end of the second day. A Ruger Model 77 MKII Ultra Light .270 WCF strikes me as about ideal as well.


The rain that came to the Sonoran desert on the day we took the great mule deer was one of several storms that came out of the southern Pacific Ocean and played out across the Baja and northern Mexico. Weather experts now tell us the winter of 2004/2005 was the third wettest on record, which goes back to 1831 or thereabouts.

As a result, the normally arid desert that receives minimal rainfall during the winter and summer monsoons is soaking wet. In effect, Arizona, New Mexico and Sonora are having a tremendous spring growing season, which includes browse for big game: elk, mule deer, whitetail, javelina, rabbits, you name it. There is water standing and grass growing where there has been nothing but dry dirt for the better part of the last nine years. The various cacti that serve as food for mule deer and Coues’ deer in the Sonoran desert are filled out like linebackers on steroids. In short, the desert is blooming.

Because the deer in the Sonoran desert, including southern Arizona and northwest Mexico, shed their antlers in late February or early March, depending on the geographic locations, they will be putting on fat during what would normally be lean times. So, the antler growth should be unequaled in the history of the desert, with exception of those other two unusually wet years, which no one alive remembers.

So, hock your car, mortgage your house, sell your first born, do whatever it takes, if you ever thought about hunting mule deer or Coues’ deer in the Sonoran desert. Not only are these animals putting on weight in the dead of winter, but the antler growth should be unprecedented – consider the buck I took put on all that bone at the end of a seven-year drought!

Don’t get me wrong, these animals are well adapted to the desert environment and really don’t need water tanks and wells to survive, if the cacti and brush they prefer are doing reasonably well. But the stress the animals usually experience during late winter and early spring simply didn’t happen this year. As soon as the shed antlers hit the ground, the bucks will start a new growth during one of the wettest and mildest winters on record. If you are ever going to hunt Sonora or Arizona or New Mexico, 2005/2006 is the year to make it happen.

Accurate Powder
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