Ghosts of Rancho Mababi: Coues Hunting in Mexico

Ghosts of Rancho Mababi: Coues Hunting in Mexico
Photo Credit: Tim Irwin

Mexico isn’t supposed to be this cold, not if the beachy brochures are any indication. But this is a different Mexico. I am shivering by the time the sun starts to peek over the horizon. Of course, I remind myself, it is January—and I’m nowhere near a beach. Instead, I’m sitting in the cold at nearly 5,000 feet, glassing the foothills of Sonora’s Los Ajos Mountains in the light of dawn with guide Tico Martinez.

Though Tico speaks no English, and I understand un poco Spanish, he manages to direct me to a deer standing in the shadows of the opposite hillside. Through force of will and with the help of the sun’s first warm rays, I manage to suppress the shaking long enough to see the small doe through my binoculars. Even in normal conditions, Coues deer, the legendary grey ghosts of the Sonora, are incredibly hard to spot. Thanks to abundant rains during the recent monsoon season, the grass is tall this year, waist-high in some places. That, combined with mesquite trees, manzanilla bushes, and various species of cactus, provides abundant cover for a deer that doesn’t grow much taller than a large German shepherd.

Soon deer are moving out of the valley below us, heading uphill to shake off the frost and catch the sun’s rays. Tico and I spot several and relate their location to each other with broken Spanglish and pantomime gestures. Later in the morning, after hours of picking apart every inch of ground within sight, we watch a buck emerge from the cover, nose to the ground, not far behind a doe. This far south, the rut comes late, and the deer here are just feeling it. With tiny main beams and just a few short tines, this isn’t the trophy we’re hoping for. “Macho,” Tico says, teaching me the Spanish word for a buck. Then, holding his thumb and finger close together to illustrate the buck’s short antlers, “Pequeño.”

When it comes to Coues deer, size is relative. A rack measuring 100 inches is the standard bar. A muy grande deer might reach 110 inches and qualifies for the Boone & Crockett record book. Exceptional trophies go 120 inches or more. I’m just hoping for a good buck, but limited hunting pressure and smart management by my outfitter Ted Jaycox puts the possibility of a great buck within reach here on Rancho Mababi.

Ranch Life

While DIY hunts in Mexico are possible, it’s a smarter move to hire a reputable outfitter. A veteran Coues deer hunter, Jaycox has the drill down. Through a partnership with Rancho Mababi’s owners, Roberto and Alice Valenzuela, and local friend Nick Forsyth, he takes several dozen deer and turkey hunters to Rancho Mababi annually and always without a hitch. He’s a stickler for paperwork and adaptable to the ever-changing regulations with carrying firearms into Mexico. Our group sailed through the border crossing and subsequent checkpoints with little trouble and never once did I feel any trepidation with traveling or staying in Mexico.

In fact, hunting at Rancho Mababi felt a lot like being at home, mostly because of the hospitality of the Valenzuela family. Like most frontier homesteads, the once-sprawling ranch has a storied history, passing from failed Mexican settlers to a colonial British holding to Mexican revolutionaries and even, it’s said, host to an occasional visit from Pancho Villa. Life in the rough desert country wasn’t easy, evidenced by the grave of Beatrice Paxton, who passed away in 1912. Her death was the final hardship for her husband, James, who soon after abandoned the ranch and returned to Britain, broken in heart and finances.

Roberto’s parents acquired 6,200 acres of the original 250,000-acre land grant around the middle of the last century. Like most kids who grow up on a remote, family ranch—me included—Roberto dreamed of a different life. At 18, he went to school in Arizona, met Alice, and moved to California, where they both started successful Silicon Valley careers and raised two young boys.

Their dynamic reminded me of my parents. Roberto, comfortably quiet, always thinking and tinkering to keep the dated machinery working with whatever pieces and parts he can scrounge, just like my late father spent most of his days. Alice rules the kitchen, cranking out traditional meals on an old wood-fired stove and peppering us nonstop with an endless supply of questions. It wasn’t a surprise to learn she had a journalist’s background and, before moving to Mababi, founded one of the first Hispanic newspapers in northern California.

David Draper shooting rifle in desert

All that glitters is not gold, and the lure of a simpler life drew the family back to Rancho Mababi. Now Roberto and Alice live off-the-grid, down a bumpy gravel road. The cluster of squat stucco buildings are tucked into the base of the mountains near a bubbling spring. It’s easy to understand the strong pull this little Eden exerted on the Valenzuelas, who now raise sheep and a few cattle and give back to local communities, helping yet another generation find success in a land that the news would have you believe is only corrupt and violent.

Grande Finale

Dawn is a bit warmer on the second day, and once again the morning starts with eyes glued to the glass of my binoculars. I packed along two pair for this hunt. A set of tripod-mounted 15x50 binos is where I spend most of my time, covering the country in a grid pattern that I slowly pick apart for any hint of a deer: the flicker of an ear or a flash of the Coues deer’s white tail. A pair of 10x42s hang around my neck, and I use them to scan the surrounding hillsides.

It’s with this smaller pair that I spot an antler tip shining in the sun. I grab the bigger optics and dial the mature buck into focus from nearly 900 yards away. It’s walking away from us, and the rack appears wider than the buck’s ears with good tine length. “Macho,” I tell Tico, turning from the binos momentarily to direct my guide to the buck’s position. As fast I spot the deer again, he disappears, vanishing into the landscape. For the next two hours, my gaze never leaves that area as I strain my eyes to pull the deer from the surrounding scrub and give myself a headache in the process. He never reappears. Hunting Coues deer, I’m learning, is a game of patience and perseverance, and the image of that buck haunts me through the rest of day.

By now, I have the routine down, and my eyes are starting to show it. The redness doesn’t leave them, and every so often I have to refocus my gaze on something close by just to let them rest. I’m expecting more of the same on the third morning, so I’m somewhat surprised when a buck appears high on a nearby ridge just after dawn. The sun highlights his rack, not huge but close enough to the century mark for my liking.

packing out Coues buck on atv

He’s closely following a group of does. The tall grass here on the plateau makes a shot impossible from my bipod, so I scurry to where the grass gives way to rock. I’m able to get prone, and as the small herd of a half-dozen or so deer work down the opposite hill, the buck follows until he’s almost straight across the deep valley between us.

It’s a long shot, but one I’ve prepared for, putting more than a hundred rounds through my rifle, practicing at distances out to 400 yards. A chart detailing bullet drop is taped to the wood stock, and my scope is fitted with turrets that allow me to dial up just the right hold.

In the heat of the moment I forget it all and rely on good old-fashioned woodsmanship. My rangefinder reads 375 yards, and I figure the bullet will drop about 18 inches in that distance. The buck stands still for a moment, quartering away just slightly, and I settle the crosshairs in a spot just behind his head. Milliseconds after the hammer falls, a loud thump echoes back to me and the buck sprints straight up the steep hill for a short distance before piling up in scrubby cholla cactus.

When I glance over at Tico, he is smiling broadly, pointing at me. “Macho.” Then he splays his fingers wide, holding both hands above his head. “Macho grande.”

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