Central vs. Southern Arizona Coues Deer Units

There’s a small debate amongst Coues deer hunters as to whether southern or central Arizona is better to find and hunt big Coues bucks. At least one unit in both the south and central regions has produced at least one 130″ deer in each of the last three years or more. So to be sure, big Coues deer can be found throughout both the north and the south, and within every GMU. But, there are some key differences between the central and south that you may want to think about when planning where to hunt.

As a reference to this discussion, when we talk about hunting Coues deer in central Arizona, primarily we’re talking about units 6A, 22, 23, 24A, 24B, and to a lesser extent units 21, 6B, 8, 27 and 28 (I struggled with where to put 28). The southern Arizona units would include 29, the 30s, 31, 32, 33, the 34s, 35s and 36s.

The three key differences between central and southern Arizona units are the topography, the vegetation, and precipitation – each with its own implications for Coues deer hunters.

How topography affects hunting big Coues deer

Comprising the Mogollon Rim, the central Arizona units descend from the Colorado Plateau at around 7,000 feet, to meet the basins and ranges of the Sonoran desert at around 3,000 feet. This is a stark topographical difference from the southern regions which are characterized by large, low lying desert floors with sporadic and tall mountain ranges. The difference in topography affects animal distribution patterns in two different regions, which is clear to see in the well known deer density map below. Notice the broad, though sparse distribution of deer in the middle of the state compared to the “hot-spot” distribution in the south where the deer congregate in the sky islands.

Arizona Coues Deer Densities

Arizona Coues Deer Densities

What does this mean for the Coues hunter?

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that hunters in the central units generally have a lot more land area to hunt. But because there’s more land and a lower deer density, good bucks could take longer to find. Certainly there are “hot spots” within central Arizona, and most guys I know who have one will take its location with them to the grave. It only means that in southern Arizona, it’s pretty clear where to start looking. In central Arizona, you may as well throw a dart at the map and start there. Especially for those just getting started in central Arizona.

Even though the distribution is broader in central Arizona, the hills, in general tend to round off more, making finding good vantage points to glass from more difficult to find.

Another thing to consider, is that in the southern units there’s a fairly clear separation between mule deer country and Coues deer terrain (though this isn’t always the case). In central Arizona, the two species are more likely found in the exact same country. So you’ll need to be especially careful that you know what species you’re hunting.

But this doesn’t mean that the southern Arizona units are easier to hunt. They have their own demons. Even though it’s easier to find where to start looking in the southern units, it’s not always easier to do it.

Like most guys, we tend to leave Friday after work to scout an area over the weekend. And often we don’t actually get into the mountains until well after dark. Finding a locked gate is a good way to ruin a scouting trip. So if you’re heading south, you’d better have a backup plan.

And lastly, hunters follow the quarry, so in the southern units you might expect a high concentration of gunslinging quad-riders and backcountry snipers randomly launching lead over your heads from 800 yards. So plan to wake up earlier, and hike in farther.

Vegetation Differences Between Central and Southern Arizona

Coues deer units in central Arizona have more Ponderosa, Pinion, and Juniper forests than the southern units, which are better characterized by grasslands and oak woodlands. If you’ve never hunted in Juniper/Pinion, you may wonder what the big deal is. If you have hunted it, you know how miserable it can be. Even though these trees disperse themselves relatively far from one another, their many branches and dense leaves make them nearly impossible to see through. Not to mention the difficulty hiking through the manzanita scrub that’s common in central Arizona.

What does this mean for the Coues hunter?

The Pinion-Juniper Woodlands (dark green zone in the map) can difficult to glass. To have a decent chance, you need a very high vantage point that lets you look down and see between the trees (like the picture below). And don’t even bother carrying your 15s if you’re hunting the Ponderosas. Take 8s instead, because you just can’t see far enough into the forest to use big glass. Hunters here use different tactics – salt sites, water sources, and travel routes matter more in central Arizona than in the southern Arizona game units because of the vegetation.

Typical central AZ Coues Country

Typical central AZ Coues Country

The silver lining is that the dense vegetation often means deer in central Arizona can reach older age classes because they’re difficult to find and hunt in the thick vegetation.
Oak Woodlands

Typical Southern AZ Coues Country

Typical Southern AZ Coues Country

Precipitation Differences between Central and Southern Arizona

It doesn’t rain much in Arizona, so what we do get is critical. And precipitation patterns differ in central and southern Arizona. In the southern units, most of the annual rainfall is likely to occur during the highly localized summer storms of July and August. The storms, which originate on the Gulf of California, blow in violently from the southwest. Comparatively, more of their moisture is dumped on southern Arizona than actually makes it to the central and northern parts of the state. The units in central Arizona get more winter precipitation from the far reaching winter rain and snow storms. And the rivers and creek flowing off the Mogollon Rim are fed by melting snow.

Arizona Precipitation Patterns

Arizona Precipitation Patterns

What does seasonal rainfall have to do with hunting Coues deer?

Buck patterns you establish in June for hunting in August, are more likely to be disrupted by the summer storms in the southern units than they are in central Arizona. Also central Arizona’s proclivity to winter storms, and especially snow pack, means that central Arizona has more perennial water sources than southern Arizona, where the streams are intermittent, primarily flowing during rainstorms. So in support of the wider population distribution in central Arizona, Coues deer have more water sources to drink from, further complicating finding and patterning big Coues bucks.

These are just a few of the differences between hunting big Coues deer in central and southern Arizona, undoubtedly there must be dozens more. The most important thing being to do your homework prior to the hunt. Know the region you’re hunting before you go, and there’s a good chance you’ll put your tag on a buck whether you’re in the central or the southern part of the state.