My Birthday Buck
by Jim Wilkins
I had a huge surprise party for my wife’s 50th birthday in July 2007. Friends and family members from numerous states came to celebrate with her over the three day weekend and it became “the event” in our family for the year. My wife, Jean, was extremely appreciative of the effort and decided she wanted to do something equally special for me. After consulting with the life long best friend, Mark Walter, Jean decided to arrange for me to go on a special hunt for my 50th. With Mark’s assistance she ended up getting me a Coues tag for unit B on the San Carlos Indian Reservation for this last December and early Jan. 2009. Jean made sure this hunt would be extra special so she purchased a tag for Mark as well.
Mark and I have been hunting together for over 35 years. However, over the years it has become quite obvious that Mark has an inherent natural instinctive ability to find, get on and take trophy animals that I have never had. Jean’s purchase of Mark’s tag served two purposes. It made sure I would have a fun and enjoyable hunt because I would be hunting with my best friend, and it increased the chances of me taking a nice buck.
When I first learned about the hunt I was both excited and concerned. I have never really hunted these small deer. However, I knew from my prior discussions with Mark that these deer are very smart and elusive. In addition, I am exclusively an archery hunter and I knew this would be a gun hunt. My concerns were twofold. First, because of stories I have heard about Mark’s prior successful hunts, I knew it was possible that I would have to make a shot of 400 yards. Second, because of my complete lack of gun hunting experience, I have a hard time seeing through a rifle scope, and an even harder time quickly locating, within the scope’s field of view, what I am suppose to be shooting at. So, even though I knew this was a great hunt opportunity, I had my reservations.
My immediate hunt preparations began with the purchase of Duane Adams’, How to hunt Coues, book. In addition, I made some web inquiries and consulted Doug Koepsel, a.k.a. redrabbitt . Doug provided me with topos of the area, which allowed me to get an idea of the country. During the summer I had a shooting lesson with Mark. I felt okay out to about 200 yards, but was not at all consistent at anything beyond that distance. Again, notwithstanding Mark’s encouragement, my apprehension about my shooting abilities remained.
My excitement was building as I continued to obtain information and waited for the season to arrive. Through Doug I was able to get Amanda Moors, a.k.a., CouesWhitetail.com, phone number and had a discussion with her. She confirmed that the areas Mark indicated we would be hunting were good spots. She also confirmed that it was reasonable to expect to see 100 inch bucks during the hunt. In addition, I badgered Mark throughout the summer for details of his prior successes on the San Carlos. I became convinced this would indeed be a hunt where I would have an excellent opportunity to take a good buck, as long as I made the shot.
December finally came and on Saturday December 27, 2008 I drove from Fresno to Phoenix to meet Mark. We got an early start Sunday morning and were headed to San Carlos by 4:30 a.m. We saw a little buck on the way into camp, and spent the rest of the early morning getting the trailer and camp set up.
Sunday afternoon we took a hike up the mountain to the triple saddle area Mark was very familiar with. We spent several hours glassing, saw several deer, but no shooter bucks. We did see one “big buck” , but he had broken off a large portion of his left side. We figured that was a good sign that the rut was on. However, this was too early in the hunt to be thinking about taking a busted up buck. Because my pre-hunt efforts confirmed that San Carlos has very nice coues, I set my goals pretty high. I told Mark I was looking for a buck which would score around 100 inches.
Monday December 29, we spent the day going to various vantage points to glass for rutting bucks. Again we saw several deer, a few nice ones, but no shooters. To our surprise, the deer did not appear to be rutting very hard. We saw several does with no bucks, and a number of bucks without any does.
Tuesday December 30 we were up on the mountain in the triple saddle area glassing at sun up. We did not see any shooters in the morning. However by mid afternoon Mark spotted 3 bears and then, he spotted what look like it might be a shooter, who was hanging around a doe. We closed the distance to about 1500 yards and spent some time studying the potential shooter through the 20×60 Swarovski spotting scope. It had good mass, great eye guards, great width, but was only a 2×3. Mark said he knew the buck would be near 95 inches, but could not be certain it would make 100. We also saw another nice, but smaller 3×3, trying to get on the doe but that larger buck was keeping him at bay. This was the first real sighting of good rut activity.
After considerable debate, and studying those great eye guards, I told Mark I wanted to see if we could take this buck. Mark put together a perfect plan for a stalk. We ended up getting to within 100 yards from where the shooter buck was bedded but could not see the buck because of the vegetation and terrain. We decided to stay put and wait for the buck to start feeding out in the open area once the sun started to go down.
Unfortunately the wind started to swirl, which continued for the hour or so that we waited for the shooter to surface. By the time the sun was getting close to setting, no deer were feeding in the obvious open area where we expected to see them. Mark went down to where the buck had been bedded and it was gone. We packed up and headed over the ridge to get back to the truck. As we topped the ridge, and were making our way through the saddle, we saw the shooter buck off to our right. I quickly set up and Mark reported the buck to be at 300 yards. I took the shot, which was a clean miss. It did not move so I shot again with the same result. It headed over the ridge and we went to check on whether there was any evidence of a hit. After looking around for 30 minutes or so, and finding no blood or other evidence of a hit, we headed over the saddle and down the mountain with the use of our flashlights.
So much for my first effort to take a coues deer. I was disappointed, and again concerned about my ability to shoot at distances in excess of 200 yards. As expected, Mark told me not to get down on myself and explained that he has missed similar shots as well. I thought to myself that Mark was being honest, but I suspected his misses were probably made a long time ago when he was much younger.
Wednesday December 31, New Years Eve 2008, we went to another area and were glassing by sun up. By late afternoon we had seen a number of good bucks, but no shooter. We packed up and were headed to the truck when we saw a mature buck standing in a clearing about 150 yards out from the truck. It was staring directly at us and we could not get a good look at his rack. We had this stand off for about 5 minutes, when it finally turned its head slightly and Mark declared: “Jim that is a shooter get your gun”. By the time I got in position to shoot, the buck was on the move and it did not stop until it was at 300 yards. I shot and was sure I hit it. I climbed up the hill only to find the buck staring back at me about 100 yards out. I quickly aimed free hand and missed again. I spent the next hour trying to find something to show I had hit the buck. However, all I did was confirm what I already knew, once again I had missed a good shot at a nice buck. By the time I got back to the truck I was convinced I would never hit anything that was not tied down and less than 100 yards. I don’t remember seeing much the rest of that day. I was beginning to feel some pressure because I knew Mark was putting all his efforts in getting me my buck, and that his tag was going to have to wait to be filled.
Thursday Jan. 1, had us back up on the mountain at the triple saddle area before first light. We only saw a couple of does early, again no bucks anywhere near them. We concluded that the rut activity was inconsistent because it was early. Later, we moved up to the next ridge and were glassing different canyons when I spotted a couple of deer I thought Mark should take a look at. When we set up the scope, we were more than 1500 yards out, Mark quickly confirmed that one of the deer we were looking at was the shooter buck I had missed on Tuesday.
We continued to watch the deer, 6 in all, 5 bucks who were all keeping watch on a doe that must have been pretty hot. One of the other bucks was a decent 3×3, and the others where much younger and smaller bucks. The previously missed shooter buck was clearly the dominant buck in the group and the only one the doe would allow to get close to her. We watched the dominant buck and doe bed under a big mesquite.
Mark then made a plan for what turned out to be the perfect stalk. We had to come off the ridge we were on and get to the backside and below the saddle where they were bedded. We then would have to get up on top of the ridge immediately above the saddle. An hour or so later we were on a ridge directly above the buck.
As we peaked over the ridge I was surprised how I had completely lost perspective, from this vantage point, of where the buck had bedded with the doe. Mark looked over and stated that he believed the buck would be in one of the mesquite trees directly in front of us. As I put my 10x42s Swarovskis up I immediately saw the buck exactly where Mark had indicated it would be. Mark ranged the buck at exactly 200 yards and then patiently coached me through the shot preparation, doing his best to make sure I was relaxed and calm. I took the shot and before I could get back on target and reload I heard Mark say: “Congratulations Jim you got a great buck”. I asked Mark how he could know so fast and be so certain I had hit the buck and he stated: “well he is down and he is not getting up.” I was thrilled as I made my own personal observation of the situation.
We then began the work of quartering and caping the buck out. We managed to fit the entire buck in the new Eberlestock J107 Dragonfly Pack my wife had bought me for Christmas, especially for this trip, again after consulting with Mark. We headed off the mountain with the weight of the building pressure I was feeling on my shoulders completely lifted, by the new added weight on my back.
For the next 3 days, we hunted hard for Mark’s buck. We continued to see numerous deer on a daily basis, and a couple of really nice bucks. The weather started to play a role as we got rain, snow and very low clouds that made glassing difficult to impossible much of the time. Mark ended up taking a nice buck in the rain late Sunday afternoon, but that is a story he will have to tell.
My buck is my first Coues, and the first big game animal I have taken with a rifle. We rough scored it back at camp at 98 inches. I could not be happier about that buck. Of course I have to thank Jean for a great Birthday present. However, there is absolutely no question that without Mark’s expertise, patience, and guidance, I never would have taken such a nice buck.