It was a blistering hot day in western North Dakota as I hunted antelope with a bow several years ago. The ground was dry as a bone, and there was no escape from the sun and sweltering 95-degree heat.
I was making a long stalk on a big antelope buck surrounded by other goats, and trying to get close enough for a bow shot took me through some low brush and a few scattered trees. I was moving low and slow, stopping often to look at the antelope 100 yards away.
It was during one of these pauses that I looked ahead to check the big buck antelope and spotted a mule deer buck bedded down only 15 yards away. I was hunting into the wind, and the mulie buck was bedded down with his nose into the wind. He apparently didn’t expect danger to come at him from behind. This buck was about the same size as the photo of a mullie buck shot by me in Wyoming.
He was safe because I only had an antelope tag. I was too close to try to circle the buck, and to turn around might spook the animal. I decided to do as some High Plains Indians used to do during a battle, and that was to “count coups.”Coup is a French word, and is pronounced “coo.”
“Webster describes it as a highly successful, unexpected strike, act, or move,” said Douglas Deihl, director of Indian and Ethnographic Art at Skinner, Incorporated, in Boston, quoted from a published article. “It is a clever action or accomplishment.”
He said the High Plains Indians, such as the Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Crow or Sioux, often used a coup stick or bone or willow riding quirt to touch an enemy.
“In Plains warrior societies,” Deihl explained, “Sioux warriors gained their status by being brave in battle, and one way this was done was known as ‘counting coups.’
“What the Indian warriors tried to do was get close enough to the enemy to touch them without getting injured or killed. Doing so was considered more honorable than going in and killing and scalping them. To touch the enemy and survive was considered the greatest honor in battle. This put the warrior close to the enemy, which offered a great risk and required more courage than shooting them from a distance.”
The mule deer buck was now less than 10 yards away, and the tension was mounting. Each step was a soft and very slow movement forward. The forward toe felt softly for any stick or piece of brush that may snap or make a noise.
Once the foot was placed, the other foot came forward, feeling for a noiseless place to set it down. Foot by slow foot brought me ever closer to the mulie buck, and I was alert to his every small movement.
I was perspiring in the heat, and was surprised his instincts had not warned him of my presence. I was hunched over in a low crouch to prevent being seen by the antelope. I eventually remembered the bow as I stalked closer.
I was now within six feet, and could have leaped on the buck, but that’s not how counting coups is done. It is the classic pitting of one’s skills against the other, and although it was done by one armed Indian against another in the old days, in this case it was man versus animal.
Each step brought a mounting sense that the deer would leap to his feet before I could touch him. Another step was taken, and the buck moved his head slightly, but didn’t turn to look at me. I eased forward another step, and was now only four feet away. Another small step was needed.
Ever so slowly the last step was taken, and I was directly behind the buck now. I settled into a kneeling position, intuitively bowed my head in respect to the buck, and slowly reached out and put my left hand on his left back leg.
The buck turned his head, looked back at me, and our eyes met, and then he bolted, nearly running me over as he headed away. One might wonder how the antelope hunt played out. I stalked within 20 yards of a buck but a roll in the land contour kept me from getting a shot at its vitals. It didn’t matter.
On that day, I had counted coup on a mule deer buck. It was similar to an Indian brave doing the same to an enemy warrior, except under admittedly less dangerous conditions.
I’ve since done it twice on whitetails, and each time under windy and wet conditions. Whitetails are more spooky than mule deer, but no matter. Under Webster’s definition, I’ve also counted coup by telling my story to my readers.
It is one of the most exciting hunting methods, and it doesn’t always work. In fact, it rarely works, and only with the right conditions (a sleepy mule deer) or two whitetails during a wet and windy storm can be claimed by me.
Each time it worked was exciting, but I shall never forget the first time I counted coup on a wild deer. It’s more exciting than shooting a trophy buck.