Gray Ghosts of Sonora

By Angelo Baio

“With his great sensitive ears –probably the best of any American game animal-warn him of the approach of lion, or man, he slips off as soundly as a gray ghost.”

Legendary El Buro

The first time I saw a mule deer trophy mount I couldn’t look away. I was awestruck by its bulk and antler mass. To my surprise the deer was from Sonora. I was mesmerized by that buck and I knew one day I had to go there.Sonora is a Mexican state that is within the Sonoran Desert. The Sonoran Desert is the hottest desert in both Mexico and the United States and covers and area of 100,000 square miles. 

Nearly twenty years later while on a hunt in Sonora for Desert Bighorn with outfitter David Artee, I noticed this impressive mule deer rack tucked away on the camp floor. Once again, I was amazed and couldn’t believe how wide it was when I picked it up. As soon as I returned from Mexico that itch to hunt desert mule deer was ignited and nurtured by a reread of a classic favorite of mine in Jack O’Connor’s, Game in the Desert

“The ordinary Sonoran Mexican simply calls any desert buck el buro, while the more literary town-dwelling Mexican calls him ciervo reyal, or royal stag.” Jack O’Connor: Game in the Desert.


O’Connor hunted the Aguirre Sierra’s of Sonora for mule deer, the species he self-described as the Grey Ghost but what the locals call el Boro. Bradford O’Connor, Jack’s son, tells me that in the early 1940’s, when he was “knee high to a grasshopper” his parent’s received an invitation from the Aguirre family’s son-in-law Al Ronstadt, uncle to the famed singer Linda Ronstadt, to hunt mule deer which they happily took him up. Once the fire is lit it hard to so a call to David confirmed a Muley hunt the following year.



Sonoran Base Camp

Having experienced Mexico before I knew it would produce a rough, remote, and off the grid desert hunt. The difference between O’Connor’s hunts and mine were the soft edges of a camp in a ranch house and not having to skirt banditos on the way from Arizona.

Today I find the state of Sonora is full of wonderfully good-natured ranch folk, rich in desert culture and amenable to traveling hunters. Unlike O’Connor’s day when travel into the country would had found much less in habited areas, I found expansive cattle ranching operations and privately owned lands.

My hunt was planned with David but thanks to Covid, his entire camp staff was infected and my hunting buddy Ty Sheffield and I found our selves on the brink of cancelling. Thankfully, David was able to get a tag from his uncle Javier Artee Sr., the renowned Sonoran Desert Bighorn sheep conservationists and outfitter to take us out on one of his mule deer hunt concessions. Javier’s oldest son, Javier Jr, would be our guide.   

Once Javier picked us up at the airport and we made our way to his lease, I knew right off that we made a great decision not canceling the hunt.  Pulling up to the ranch gate off highway 15 just fifty miles north of Hermosillo is the ten thousand acre cattle ranch named Santa Lucia.

The ranch we’ll hunt was leased to Javier Sr. more than thirty years ago exclusively to hunt Muley. We were to stay in a quintessential hand built Mexican ranch house.  The nightly January desert air dips to the low forties with and violently swings thirty-degrees each noon. However, tonight, the front porch window invited us in to relax by a roaring fireplace with the smell of ironwood burning to relax the shoulders and to signal the beginning of this journey.

Santa Lucia’s terrain and deer herd

The deserts of Mexico are hot, arid regions experiencing significant extremes in temperature and drought. Our hunt area is away from the coast and is dryer and water starved.  Although it’s been written that mule deer can survive for a few days without drinking water directly, cattle watering stations relieve the pressure here.   

As far as food for wildlife is concerned, there is more than enough here from my view. The deer in this area are well nourished and also have benefitted from a rainy December leaving the area greener and lush in desert standards. Javier tells us that “his” herd also has access to an additional nutrient supply that aids in trophy quality with the occasional raids deer make on cattle feed like alfalfa bales, calcium feed pellets and minerals.

“I’ve been playing hide and seek with them since I was old enough to pack a rifle, ….” Jack O’Connor, Game in the Desert 1939 (mule deer in center)

It’s encouraging to hear about the health of the deer herd but one look outside into that impenetrable brush leaves you scratching your head whether or not you’ll get to even see one. There’s a complete floor to tree top “green screen” more than fifteen feet high above the senderos bordered by Paulo Verde, Mesquite and Iron Wood trees. Below is Rama Blanca bush and an introduced cattle feed they call Buffalo grass. It all makes sense now that a high rack truck is the best option for a hunt.

Typical high rack truck used to gain an advantage over the terrain
First impressions

On the first run when we arrived we slowly cruise dirt senderos looking for deer in the openings that may be moving between bedding, food and water and to give us an idea what to expect. On the high rack in addition to myself was guide Javier, my good friend Ty Sheffield and Martín a ranch guide. On the driver’s wheel was Miguel, also a ranch hand and guide. 

As we cruise along, Martín communicates with Miguel by tugging on a piece of twine that is also in the driver’s hand when he wants him to stop; it’s crude but effective. It was only a trial run but we did see at least a half dozen doe and one buck.

Out of the Gate

The next morning the cabin, chilled from brisk overnight temps, comes alive with the sounds of the cook preparing a hearty breakfast and the smell of hot coffee. I slept little, some from the boyish excitement to get out hunting and the other from the coyotes howling next to the cabin. The coyotes may annoy some but I’m glad to know there is still some wild left in this world.

At first light our truck creeping along the senderos everyone was wound as tight as a drum. Heads on a swivel, combing through buffalo grass and eyes straining to pierce through brush. At the slightest inkling of a deer a hand goes up, Martín pulls the twine and the truck bounces to a halt. We’ll play cat and mouse moving the truck back and forth for a better angle until someone finds an animal or signals false alarm. We droned on for hours as sun up brought rising desert temperatures and we strip down from coats and hats to T-shirts.

On a knifes edge knowing any second a buck can bust through the brush and your opportunity can be lost, I became uncomfortable at the prospect of a snap shot looking directly into the blinding Mexican sun. As a consolation to help temper my nerves the desert gives up the scent of mesquite and the amazing yellow / orange glow of a sunrise rising above the treetops.


The morning was eventful, we seen more a dozen deer and among them a young beautifully chocolate antlered buck. It also was an education on how to pick out the creamy white rump of deer in the brush and with that we broke for lunch back at camp.


Following lunch we started the cat and mouse game again. Again we see a few deer but just as the sun starts to set we pick out a nice wide but thinly horned buck.  Javier says he’s a “possible” and we follow his strut through the grass evaluating the prospect of a shot. It was the first evening and this buck wasn’t exactly what this area can produce so we let him walk.

Second Chance

A cold day two arises and proceeds like the first, slow until around 9 am and a full warming sun. About to make a right turn at a ranch gate the sun is just below the treetops and yet directly in our eyes. Miguel in the driver’s seat is lower and shaded and spots a doe immediately to his left over the cattle fence about thirty yards out. At almost that same instance a huge heavy horned buck buried in the brush materializes. Javier and I throw up our binoculars at the same moment and immediately, as if on queue, we say “shooter.”


I throw up the gun but not quick enough as the buck moves to my left and into the brush. Trying to be as quiet as we can we move the truck back and forth for a better angle but to no avail. As the buck continues behind us we back up just a couple yards and go through the gate to follow.


 Cat crawling down the sendero we get a “here and there” view as he moves further out and east about 500 yards from the sendero until the brush swallows him up. 


On a hunch we deicide to circle back and a hundred yards passes before he appears headed back to the fence. We rush about three hundred yards forward to the gate and as soon as we pass through both Ty and Miguel see the doe he was with about to cross the sendero. The sun is directly in our eyes but Ty spots the buck standing at the fence not forty yards from us behind the mesquite.  Clearly he was going to jump the low cattle fence but on our approach he stops.


We pull the truck forward to complete the turn and I prepare for a shot. The dirt road is lined with brush on either side but I’m hopeful he’ll stop in the middle.  The doe bounds off and as expected the buck jumps the cattle fence with his front feet landing in the middle and in the next motion is across the road and disappears. Clearly a shooter and aware we were on his tail, we pull up and vow to try for him tomorrow as the sun is now full up and twenty degrees hotter.

The hills are alive

After a good lunch the evening hunt takes us to the opposite side of the ranch to a hill only two hundred feet higher in elevation and a great lookout over a vast portion of a block.  Ambling up the hill I feel we are way to exposed so I’m thinking this is a futile endeavor.  In no exaggeration, as the truck bounces to a stop, as soon as binos go up we all ring out,” I got one here, here’s one”, …and in seconds we have five bucks picked out.

Everyone focuses on a small buck a hundred yards in front of us laying down facing us full on. As I slide my binoculars over to see, I find a shooter a hundred yards to that buck’s right. I call him out, “whoa, whoa look at this”, but for some reason everyone was focused on other animals and I’m not heard.

My intense whisper go no one’s attention except Ty, who now sees the buck that had already got up and slowly strolls off to our left.   I believe it was a shooter but without Javier’s confirmation I didn’t make any effort to raise my rifle. The buck disappears into the brush for an awesome end of night two.

Threes the charm?

Sunrise is again cold but the enthusiasm of the group is off the charts and keeping us warm. Trying to reproduce the luck from the morning before on the fence-line buck we head out to the grass flats and the watering holes. Unbelievably, that effort doesn’t pan out.   To end the morning hunt we walk up and post on top of  “observation hill” thinking deer will sun themselves but again, no luck.

After lunch Javier tells us the hill is a part of the ranch that’s “natural Mexican desert” and untouched. Personally I like the area and let him know that after we cruise the grass flats I’d like to hit that area again before dark.  

Just like the morning the flats didn’t produce so we head to the hill. While on top again for the second time it doesn’t pan out.  With little light left we decide to cruise on back to camp.

One the way down not more than a few hundred yards and at the foot of the hill we make a sharp right turn ,and BAM , a buck busts from the brush in front of us. He looked young so the effort wasn’t forced to keep moving but simply to get a better look.

As we inch forward Javier catches the buck moving to the left behind brush about one hundred yards out to the left of the truck.  Ty ranges him for confirmation and the then Javier lights up, “wait,.. it’s not the same, it’s much bigger.” “He’s a shooter, he’s a shooter”.  Ty in anticipation of a shot jumps down from the rack with Martín, I prop the rifle up and Javier in the glass keeps saying “he’s a shooter, he’s a shooter; take him.” 

I find the deer in the scope but all I can see is his shoulder and rear. I turn to Javier and in an intense whisper, “I can’t see his head, are you sure this is the deer?” 

Javier, just over my shoulder, “Yes, that is him, he’s a shooter.”Putting his fingers in his ears waiting for the shot.

Back on the scope my instinct is not to shoot if I can’t confirm it myself.  “Are you sure it’s not a doe or a small buck, I can not see his head?”  Javier standing slightly right over my shoulder with a better angle, “Yes, shoot him.”  

I take a bead on the shoulder with his legs screened by brush, flip the safety and squeeze; the rifle jumps and the buck slams to the ground head first and its at that moment I see a flash of the rack and he looks huge.  Javier yells out “he’s dead, he’s dead, good hit” as the deer starts kicking his back legs but can’t get up;.. And then,.. goes still. 

The truck erupts in congratulations and high fives all around and my hands are now shaking like a leaf and I take breath so I don’t pass out.

Not so fast

No sooner does the smoke clear and a minute later in the corner of my eye I see the buck get up and jump one bound into the brush and he’s gone.  The whole crew goes silent,.. What the hell just happened?  Javier calmly claims, “it was a good hit, he’s dead.”  Javier warns we should wait but with what I seen I was convinced like others he’d be right there. I get down from the truck and the five of us pile into the brush in a race with fading sunlight.

We find blood immediately and some nice eight-inch long swipes on the brush shoulder height that appears to be getting thicker. To everyone’s amazement the blood stops not forty yards into the brush. We circle over and over again and no additional sign of the deer, or blood. As light wanes I had to accept idea we had to return to camp and the misery of the inevitable sleepless night. My stomach suddenly went sick.

Follow your instincts

The following morning at the crack of dawn we are in the desert searching. Everyone is still mumbling that they can’t believe what happened. Javier, the eternal optimist and thorough-out the exhausting eight hour day; a man who only a month ago had knee surgery pressed on claiming, “it was a good hit, we will not give up till he’s found.”

Javier had a secret weapon, a vaquero who lives on the ranch and knows these grounds like the back of his hand. No sooner does Javier tells us he’s coming to help, he appears from the brush like a ghost with two dogs hot on the heels of his horse.

He doesn’t even look up at us, he gets direction from Javier, states his opinion and all business, he whirls and is off into the bush.  According to Javier he goes only by the name chicharron, a moniker he likes, but given to him to mock a childhood injury to his skin.   A man slight in frame, weather worn, chaps scratched down from years in the brush and a character right from the pages of a western novel.

I could only make out hand signals as he spoke with Miguel not understanding Spanish but Javier interpreted that he got a quick glance of a wounded deer moving in the opposite direction before it moved off into the brush and he was going to explore an area in that direction.  He was convinced the deer had circled back. 

The entire crew was starting to wrestle with the idea that we had lost this magnificent animal to circumstances we couldn’t explain.  The day was heating up and exhaustion was on the face of everyone as the temperature rosde and sunset loomed.

An hour later and back at the truck with no direction left to search and out of options, we see Miguel rounding a corner running down the sendero toward us in a panic. Miguel, who ran more than a mile from observation hill excitedly declares,” he pushed him towards the gas line road, Martín has him fifty yards in front”.

Adrenaline overpowers exhaustion and we race the high rack down the sendero. The truck slams to a halt when we see Martín and the vaquero skylined and pointing right at us. There’s barely a hundred yards between us but no one sees the buck.

 Martín is frantically pointing straight at us while Miguel tells Javier the buck is lying down just out of sight, not sixty yards directly in front. It’s total chaos on the rack, three of us scanning in every direction but no luck. 

I suggested we go in the brush but Ty suggests we stay in the truck not to lose the height advantage. We wait, one minute scanning in every direction, creeping the truck forward and back. It felt like an hour and Martín is frantically pointing directly at us again. I made the decision; we have to flush him out.

Javier and I jump down from the rack and Miguel and I head slowly into the brush, two steps at a time and stop with the rifle at the ready. I had a death grip on the stock trying to pick apart every bush and my heart is in my throat.  We slinked in fifty yards and no buck.  Martín on the hill hand signals we are off track, move to the right. The brush in front of Miguel and I was over our heads and too thick to get through. Javier falls back and I move another two steps wrestling brush that cut my hands and arms to ribbons; and then the buck explodes five yards in front of me.

The buck must have been lying head down and in a single slow motion jump he passes to my right. The brush is so thick and his injury slows him down and he takes a second jump. Knowing I’m clear, shooting slightly down hill I immediately drew up my rifle and swing to place him in the scope and yank the trigger when the crosshairs hit his neck. The buck folds at the sound of the rifle and hits the ground in a nosedive from a lucky neck shot.

Miguel is whooping it up while everyone converges on the kill site. My hands were trembling and tingling from my death grip on the stock. I suddenly feel the Mexican sun burning me down, my mouth is as dry as cotton and I almost couldn’t hear anyone around me over the heartbeat in my ears.

In a hunter’s crude autopsy we later found the first shot was a complete bullet failure, a little high shot no doubt but the bullet exploded on the tip of the shoulder bone, not breaking any bone the shards skirted under the spine leaving some behind and exited the other side.

I took a deep breath, thanked him above for this wasn’t just my hunt; it was ours.

The Author with his Desert Mule Deer
Angelo Baio
Angelo Baio

calls the Sandhills region of North Carolina home and has sought high adventure hunts for more than forty years across the globe. Inspired by Jack O’Connor, chasing rams on the world's sierras, especially those of old Mexico has been at the top of the author's life list since childhood. You can follow more of Angelo's adventures here