Anyone watching the Arizona Coues deer episode of MeatEater is going to see something strange. I’m not referring to the rattlesnake that coils back at me and then gets eaten, or to the way that Coues deer seem to emerge and then vanish into the desert like ghosts, or to the bottom of that gorgeous canyon that looks like it was created by a Hollywood set designer. Rather, I’m referring to the fact that I kill a visibly wounded buck.
At the time it happened, I was in the middle of putting the moves on a trophy-sized and perfectly healthy buck. The larger animal had passed by on a ridgeline about 700 yards from where I was glassing in the half-light of an early morning. And while there’s no way to say that I would have actually gotten that buck, there’s also no way of saying that I wouldn’t have. It was far away and out of sight, yes, but the wind was right and the topography was perfect for a quick approach. As I moved uphill toward a rise where I might have been able to shoot from, I was thinking that I had a 50% chance of killing that buck as long as I gave it 100% of my effort.
And then it happened. I was about halfway up the hill and I caught a glimpse of something moving in my peripheral vision from right to left. I saw that it was a branch-antlered Coues deer buck, about 400 yards out and moving at a slow walk. At first I thought he was doing that weird sort of tiptoe-walk that spooked deer will do now and then. But after a careful look it was obvious that the buck was wounded. It was favoring its front right leg. Not exactly packing the leg, but certainly favoring it.
Any suspicion that the wound was fresh was quelled by the fact that the deer was behaving casually and stopping often to feed. That’s hardly the behavior of an animal that’s been shot or mauled within the last couple hours. The buck was headed in the same direction as the big buck that I was after, so I was reluctant to spook it. If I did, it might go hobbling over the hill and send the bigger buck running for cover. So I hunkered down to see what it was going to do, and in those seconds of observation I was struck by a series of thoughts that poured through my mind: 1) I thought about the likelihood that the buck was injured by another hunter, since the season had been running for about five days in that area and I’d seen evidence that other hunters were on the land; 2) if that was the case, I wondered, then what were my responsibilities to that hunter and to the deer that he or she wounded?; 3) I thought about the burdens of being an ethical hunter, who puts the well-being of his prey in front of his own vainglorious notions about trophies; 4) I thought about how satisfied a lion or bear or coyote would be if they found that deer and could make a quick kill without the usual risks associated with attacking a healthy, mature buck; 5) I thought about the 50% likelihood that I wouldn’t find the larger buck, and that this buck would be the only chance I’d get to fill my tag; 6) I thought about the possibility that the buck’s meat would be compromised from being stressed; 7) I thought about sharing the buck’s meat with my friends and family, who wouldn’t give a damn about how big its antlers were or whether or not it was injured so long as it tasted okay; 8 ) I thought about what my decision in this scenario was going to say about me to other hunters who watched this episode.
All of this took just a few seconds, just long enough for the buck to make its way to a thicket and bed down. It vanished almost completely into the brush, though I was still able to make out the gray of its muzzle and the whitish markings around its eyes. I then had my final thought, which had to do with the pain and fear suffered by wounded animals. If I moved forward a bit, I figured that I’d be within a very doable shooting distance of 350 yards. I checked my gear, made sure my scope was clean and clear, and then began inching forward toward a good place to shoot.