I was sixteen when I first went to Mexico to hunt Coues deer. I was a boy scout. My scout leader and church young men’s leader arranged the trip to a friend’s ranch in western Chihuahua. We crossed the border without contracts, deer tags, or even a permit for the rifle our scout leader hid in his truck. Back then, very few people made the trip.
That’s not the case anymore.
Coues deer fanatics are a funny group of guys and gals. But even for those who aren’t fanatics, something about this miniature mountain whitetail gets into people’s heads.
There’s more evidence of this now than ever. A search for Coues deer on YouTube loads hundreds of videos from some of the biggest channels on the platform. It’s not only the availability of the hunts that make them popular. And it’s more than the timing of the deer’s rut with the end of most hunting seasons. They’re a fun deer to hunt, especially during the rut.
Arizona manages its deer herd to a minimum viable buck-to-doe ratio. Even so, the demand for hunts exceeds the supply. It’s rare to have a mountain or a glassing point to yourself. You must out-hunt other hunters to kill deer, let alone big deer consistently. Only the most dedicated Arizona Coues deer hunters consistently kill deer that exceed 100”.
Which brings us to the big misconception about hunting Sonora. So let me dispel the rumor here: the average deer killed in Sonora is not 110”. In fact, it is probably in the mid-nineties. The giant deer you see on Instagram are exceptions, not the rules.
The best reason hunt Coues deer in Mexico is for the experience. To hunt during the rut—an actual rut. You go hunting deer where the buck-to-doe ratio is nearly 50%, and bucks fight for breeding rights. You go to Mexico to experience the Mexican culture. On average (and in my experience,) Mexicans are happier than Americans despite the difference in living standards. You go to Mexico to eat great food. You go to Mexico to have a blast hunting deer while expanding your own horizons.
There are a few ways to hunt Sonora. The easiest way is to go with someone who’s done it before. The more they’ve done it, the better. This is likely through a U.S. outfitter, and there’s no shortage. The outfitter will help you through the requirements to get a rifle permit, cross the border (one way with your gun and the return way with your trophy), and get you safely to the ranch. They know what to avoid and how to do the trip safely. You’re paying for their experience with the process. They know the ranches and where to find deer. It's a shortcut to success.
As with any hunt, stick with reputable outfitters, there are many.
You can also find Do-It-Yourself hunts. These vary significantly in cost and services but are less expensive. Food, cooks, and rifle permits will likely be a-la-carte. So be certain about what is and isn't included.
Many of the those who offer outfitted hunts also have Do-It-Yourself options. We sell DIY hunts through The Mountain Project. Or check with Mesquite Mountain Outfitters.
You can also go directly to the ranch owner or a local Mexican hunting agent. This is how my group, The Mountain Project, started hunting Eastern Sonora in 2018. It started with a Facebook message that turned into a friendship with Wild Sonora Outfitters. Through Victor we met our current Mexican hunting agent, Adan Suarez.
In the early 2010s, Matt Woodward and I started the big Coues Deer Hunting Facebook group. It’s grown a lot since then, and I don’t know who runs it now. Join the group and you’ll find these direct hunts.
But be cautious with these. Ranches are allocated tags, or centillos, based on the number of hectares, not the number of deer. We often run into hunters who book locally only to find a ranch that has more hunters than deer on it, and an agent and ranch owner who don't care.
We ran into a group this year that spent a week on 3 adjacent ranches and saw only two does. It's rare to find a rancher that cares about the long term management of the deer and age class over short term ability to sell hunts and make money.
Taking A Rifle To Mexico
Crossing the border with a rifle is easy. The most common problem is knowing where to go to declare your weapons. You’ve gone too far if you get to the red and green stop lights that filter you for inspection or let you pass. Look for the word Autodeclaración, and go there.
Your weapons permit needs two signatures. One is from the customs agent, and another is from the military commander. Depending on the port of entry, the military might come to you; but sometimes, you must go to the military (so you need to know where the military base is located). But be sure to get both signatures. They’ll inspect your rifle and ensure the make, model, and serial number match what's on your permit. Since in 2023, rifle permits now require scope information. You cannot take night vision or thermal optics, and suppressors are also prohibited.
If the ranch you’re hunting is south of the 21km tourist zone, technically, you need a temporary vehicle import permit and a tourist card, called an FMM. Checkpoint authorities beyond the tourist zone rarely ask for either, so most hunters don’t get them. But if you are asked for it, you’ll wish you’d paid the $50 to get one. This is something your outfitter can guide you on. The first year I took hunters, I insisted we get them. We were never stopped, inspected, or asked about them in any way.
Is Mexico safe? What about the cartels?
There are places in Mexico I would never go, ever, period. Anywhere the cartels are fighting for territory is a no-go for me. Right now, that is anything west of Magdalena, near Caborca, or north toward the port of entry at Sasabe. A few years ago, it was along the Sonora border with Chihuahua. So stay up to date on what’s happening and where.
I have had more than one encounter with the cartels. And I’m still here. Both encounters were tense, but my general takeaway afterward is that the Cartels don’t want problems with hunters. They’re not looking for gringos to kidnap or kill. Both times, we surprised them. And both times, they were kind and apologetic when they realized who we were and what we were doing. We joked with them and even shared some of the deer meat.
The smaller local sicarios are a bigger problem. Stay out of the cities. Get to your ranch quickly, and you’ll be fine. Once you’re on your ranch, you’ll notice everything is easygoing. You don’t think about it anymore.
What to bring?
Bring big glass. Coues deer are small and gray. They blend in with everything. They spend hours bedded daily and rarely leave a home territory of just a few square miles. We call them lazy deer, which makes them taste so good. It also makes them hard to find and hunt. Fifteen power binoculars are the standard. Bigger spotting scopes are helpful. The Swarovski BTX changed the game for Coues deer hunters. If you can afford one, bring one - you won’t regret it.
Bring a rifle you can shoot accurately out to 500 yards. Most of the time, our shots are closer than that, but sometimes there’s no getting closer, and you need to be able to make a good shot at a distance. We shoot big magnum rifles, like the 6.5 to .300 PRCs and .28 Nosler. These flat shooting calibers will deliver maximum energy at range. But anything from a .243 up will do the trick if you shoot it well. The mountains are brushy, so protect your muzzle from errant debris.
Most importantly, have fun. It’s a wild experience. One you’re unlikely to forget.
Jay Park is a founder of the YouTube channel, The Mountain Project. He's hunted game animals from Alaska to Asia to New Zealand and prefers nothing more than the annual trip to hunt Coues Deer in Sonora, Mexico.