Mexico Lindo

Desert Deer And Sonora Sunsets 

By Craig Boddington 

Originally published in the April 2024 edition of Safari Times.

Yes, Mexico is beautiful. Many head for Mexico’s famously sunny beaches when it’s dead-of-winter in the United States. Acapulco, Cancun, Puerta Vallarta. I get sunburned when the moon is full, and I am not a beach guy. Instead, my winter break will likely take me to Northern Mexico’s outstanding hunting destinations. 

Whether your thing is upland game, waterfowl or big game, northern Mexico is marvelous, and our winter months from December through February are the perfect time to go. There are good opportunities across her northern tier, from Tamaulipas to Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora and the Baja Peninsula.

For me, mid-winter is convention season. When it’s over, I need a break. Our amazing convention in Nashville wasn’t the last show of the season, but it was the last for me. I love them, but there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. This year, our gathering and Grand Slam Club/Ovis made five January conventions in a row, not counting a week fighting the inevitable convention crud. As soon as I made my way home through winter storms, I repacked and headed for Sonora. 

Many folks must have had the same idea because the flight from Phoenix to Hermosillo was packed with hunters. Naturally, we chatted while waiting to board, on the plane, and through baggage claim and customs. I didn’t take a gun this time, but there was a major stack of gun cases to be cleared.

Now, I was curious. I’ve been fixated on hunting down in the Yucatan for the last few years, but I hadn’t been through Hermosillo in quite a while. Sonora probably has northern Mexico’s greatest density of outfitters and hunting ranches, with Hermosillo as a major hub. Everybody must have had their Mexican firearms permits handy (and proper) because that line moved quickly, and the police were friendly, professional and fast. I was far back in the line to get my passport stamped. It took a half-hour, and by the time I got through and picked up my bag, most of the hunters in line ahead of me were already cleared with their gun cases and had left.

Several guys I chatted with were hunting waterfowl near the Sea of Cortez coast. Most were there for the same reason I was: desert mule deer or Coues deer. By northern standards, February is late for deer hunting. Most seasons are closed, and the rut is long over. In Sonora, the deer rut is late. Deer season runs deep into February, and bucks chasing is evident until the end.

It’s winter there, too, but winter in the Sonoran Desert isn’t the same as winter where I live in the United States. It was chilly at night, just right for a warm mesquite fire. Cold in the morning, usually warming quickly under bright sunshine. Layers came off by mid-morning. In some ways, northern Mexico reminds me of the African winter. So does the hunting. No buffalo or kudu, not quite the variety, but the feeling is similar. When you head out in the morning, you don’t know what you might see. Coues deer or desert mule deer, a pack of javelina, a coyote slinking along, maybe some desert bighorns on a distant ridge.

I was hunting with Buelna Outfitters, a new outfit on a long-established private ranch less than an hour from the Hermosillo airport. Managed by my old but young friend Andres Santos and his younger brother Santiago, Buelna Outfitters offers free-range hunting for Coues whitetails, desert mule deer and desert sheep. It’s beautiful country, a new lodge and wonderful Mexican cuisine.

As with all hunting, some days you see little. On other days, animals are on parade. Usually, we don’t know exactly why, other than the obvious: No two hunting days are alike. My first couple of days were slow, and this time, I knew exactly why. Did I mention that warm Sonoran sun? It stayed hidden behind unseasonal clouds. Heavy rain hit a day before I arrived. A blessing in the desert, but not at the moment. There was lots of water out in the brush. The same storm system held heavy cloud cover, gray and chilly for days. Desert animals like the warm sun just as much as we do. It’s no surprise that not much was moving.

Hunting is always a learning experience, and this ranch offered new lessons for me. In the past, I have always expected to find mule deer on the desert floor and Coues deer by glassing at higher elevations. Here, we saw deer of both species up on the ridges, but there were more mule deer down low, as typical. The many Coues whitetails we saw scampering through thick brush on the flats was a big surprise.

Desert deer don’t require surface water to survive, but Buelna, historically a cattle ranch, had unusually well-developed water points. In the ’80s, I was told, “Desert deer don’t come to water.” That is not true there. Trail cameras show mature bucks of both species coming to water. Coues deer, more than desert mule deer, were loosely concentrated around water. I don’t have a handle on this because I’ve never seen it before, but it was obvious. It is so obvious that a productive tactic on this ranch is to wait at waterholes on sunny days.

The week before I arrived, a hunter from Spain took a giant Coues buck. Very non-typical, it will be difficult to measure. It needs to be because it may be the largest Coues buck ever recorded from Mexico. Andres showed me exactly where he was taken. Way out on a flat, far from any hills, but water was nearby. A distinctive buck, he had been seen in that area twice. More interesting, one of the cowboys picked up his previous year’s shed about 500 yards from where he was taken.

Since I was there primarily to look for a big Coues deer, the presence of such a buck was good news. His recent demise was not a train smash. I held that amazing rack and looked at the worn teeth, a minimum of 8 1/2 years old, and lots of sons and grandsons out there. Despite poor weather the first couple of days, we saw several small to medium bucks. With plenty of Coues deer under my belt from past hunts, I had the luxury of not settling for medium.

I joined a father-daughter team, Bryan and Braylin Flanagan, SCI members from northern California. Like me, they had tough sledding under gray skies, worsened by the chill breeze. Another Mexican friend, Adrian Chahin, joined us at the tail end. Adrian owns Nic Te Ha ranch in Campeche, where I hunted tropical whitetail years ago, and we have since hunted together in Yucatan. He’s a good guy and an exceptionally experienced hunter. He needed a Coues buck to complete the Hubert Thummler award for all the Mexican deer, a very tough goal.

Well, the weather was bound to change. Adrian’s timing couldn’t have been better. He missed the gloomy skies and all-day chill, or maybe he brought warm Yucatan weather with him. On his first day, the Flanagans’ last, the skies cleared, and the sun came out. The kind of winter day Sonora should develop. Bryan and Braylin scored a rare mixed double. Braylin taking a Coues whitetail, not just a last-day or first Coues deer, but a fine buck for anyone, and Bryan, who shot a good desert mule deer just an hour later. 

Earlier that same day, Andres and I ran across an ancient, heavy-racked, big-bodied desert mule deer buck, tending does in a brushy valley. He had never been seen before. With the season winding down, he is unlikely to be seen again. I was not there to hunt mule deer, but sometimes you should take what the desert offers. That afternoon, the Flanagans made it an exceptional three-deer day. The next day, my last, with perfect weather continuing, Adrian completed his “Hummler” with a fast and brilliant shot through the brush at a beautiful Coues buck.

Under clear desert skies, at last, deer were on parade my last two days. Desert is desert. Wildlife densities are low, and, as Jack O’Connor said of Coues deer, “Even where there are lots of them, there aren’t very many of them.” 

You won’t always see deer, but I saw plenty, especially after the weather got right. 

Collectively, I lost count of Coues deer bucks sighted, maybe three dozen: fewer mule deer bucks, and a couple of dandies. I saw two exceptional Coues bucks, and Bryan saw a monster. The one I saw was just a quick glimpse in the thick brush, impossible to judge, but it sure looked big. Bryan’s buck and the other big buck I saw were chasing does. He was plenty big enough, but he didn’t stop for a possible shot. 

It’s not a problem; it’s nice to know they’re there. There will be other post-convention breaks in years to come in Mexico, Lindo. 

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