Largest Mule Deer
#1 Hunt The Shade
For spot & stalk hunts, your goal is to locate a muley bachelor group at sunrise and follow the bucks until they bed around midmorning. If you can’t find a bachelor group, look for likely buck bedding locations. I look for rugged high country, then scrutinize every shady location I can find.
Scan shade from afar to avoid bumping bucks. Begin your hunt from county roads or ranch trails and slowly drive from location to location while peeking into every shady hole you encounter. I’ll often stay a half-mile or more away and search with a sweep of my binoculars. If I see something suspicious, like a shiny object or a white swatch, I’ll mount my spotting scope to the window and verify the sighting.
After spotting a group, note specific terrain features so you can find that location from another direction. Everything looks different from the backside, so take careful notes. Also try to determine how many bucks are there and their approximate locations. Why just approximate locations? Because by time you complete the stalk in, the deer probably will have moved.
Deer jockey around during the first hour as they clear stones from their bed and get comfortable. Then through the day they’ll stretch, pee, and move with the sun to guarantee constant shade. If the day is cloudy, forget shade; stick with scanning rugged and high plateaus for cagey muley bucks.
#2 Treestands Work, Too
Though most Western hunters use blinds, there are plenty of trees, enough for hunters to add treestands to their arsenal of mule deer tactics.
In most instances, the same height you set them for whitetails will work for mule deer. If set up along a ledge or canyon, make sure the abrupt elevation change won’t allow deer to look in your face if they pass by on a trail of equal elevation. If the trail is below, make sure the shot angle isn’t too steep.
At field edges in early season, set your stand up on the side from which you expect muleys to arrive. Bucks often bed high in the adjoining breaks or hills and travel down to the fields in the evening. They’ll reverse that direction in the morning. If you set up nearer to a creek or river, you may be gambling that the deer arriving will feed all the way across a field and end up against the brushy cover along the river before sunset. More than likely they’ll go to water, but they may feed well into dark before they cross the entire field.
Later in the season, however, place your treestand along a cottonwood-lined bottom or insert it into the interior. Does often lounge in the lowlands all day long, keeping bucks on the bottoms as well. I shot a dandy mule deer a few years back while targeting thick bedrooms for whitetails. Now I keep my eyes open for both species in the timber.
Mule Deer Tactics-Spotting and Stalking 101
Author: Mike Schoby
If you have spent your life hunting farm lot whitetails, the first thing that will strike you about mule deer hunting is the vast open spaces. It is a complete shock, seeing miles and miles of land stretching out ahead of you in every direction. In all this space, the task of locating and actually shooting a trophy mule deer seems daunting and intimidating.
When I first started mule deer hunting, I did what most novice muley hunters do – I tried to cover the land by foot. I figured I could flush them out of the draws and canyons like rabbits. After an entire season of this tomfoolery, all I had to show for it were strong legs, calloused feet and an unfilled tag.
Then one afternoon, my partner and I split up in a large canyon on the Snake River in Washington. After a bit of walking, I decided to sit and watch for the rest of the afternoon. I was fed up with steep ridges, hiking and mule deer in general. I glassed the far hillside with my 8 power binoculars; there simply wasn’t any deer in the area. I put down my binos and opened my pack to snack on my leftover lunch. Glancing back across the canyon a few minutes later, there stood a doe.
Surely she couldn’t have walked across the open hillside without me seeing her, I thought to myself. She had to have been bedded right in the open the entire time. She was looking over her shoulder, intent on something. As I watched her, another doe literally sprouted up next to her, seeming to emerge from the grass, like an apparition. This doe too, was looking over her shoulder. I followed their gaze and saw my partner ambling along the bottom of the canyon, at least 600 yards below them, unaware of their presence. Within the next five minutes, 13 more mule deer stood up out of the same patch of grass that I had previously “glassed”. Most were does, but a small spike and a two point were with them.
The deer watched my partner walking along the bottom of the canyon for several minutes before “pogo bouncing” over the low saddle and out of sight. When he finally worked his way up to my position he was out of breath, and the sweat on his brow told the tale of his hike. I was sitting in the shade of a small tree sipping water from my bottle.
“How many deer did you see?” I asked
“One doe” was his only breathless reply as I handed him the water bottle.
“How about yourself?” he asked after taking a long draw of the slightly warm, but still satisfying water.
“13 does and a couple of bucks.”
He looked at me with amazement when I told him how they watched him walk up the valley and disappeared before he even saw them. It was from that time forward that we started hunting mule deer in a completely different fashion.
We had read about spotting and stalking and even thought we were doing it correctly. We had binoculars and would look over the country but when we didn’t see anything with a cursory glance, we would start walking. This was our first big mistake; glassing takes patience and commitment.
Binoculars are a must have item and are a good start towards become successful at spotting game. They are easy to use, are always at hand and work great for scanning over large areas. I prefer to use models in the 8-10 power range when hunting mule deer. I find that they are easier to hold steady, and create less eyestrain then higher powered glass. Remember, you don’t need to see extreme detail – that’s what the spotting scope is for.
A spotting scope is almost as important as a rifle for mule deer hunting. I spend 90 percent of my time behind it and have found many bucks that never would have been spotted without it. Semi-compact, lightweight models are available that are rugged enough to withstand the rigors of a tough mule deer hunt. The Cabela’s Alaskan Guide model is a great choice. It has a 20-60 zoom, and incorporates a slim design that is easy to pack into the backcountry. It is also totally fog and waterproof so it can be used during the worst of conditions.
A short tripod is another necessity for extended glassing sessions. For quick look, laying a spotting scope on your pack works ok, but if you are planning on setting up for an afternoon, a small tripod with adjustable tilt, pan and height is needed.
Like I described in the beginning of this article, we were attempting to spot game, but were not doing it right, and consequently passing over many bedded deer. The key is to sneak into an area with good visibility, (this can be on top of a hill overlooking a flat section or on a side of a canyon glassing the far canyon wall) and start with a set of binoculars. I cover the entire area, looking for deer out in the open. After I give it a good once over, to make sure a whopper is not standing out in the open within range, I break out the spotting scope.
Divide the ground in front of you into square grids and begin dissecting them with the spotting scope. Look at every bush, rock and shadow. The biggest mistake novices make is that they look for a whole deer. Most of the time spotting a full deer is unlikely. Instead, look for the glint of an antler reflecting in the sun, an ear twitch or a dark shadow you can’t quite define. It doesn’t take much cover to hide a muley, but when your eye gets trained to look for bits and pieces, you will be amazed at how many deer pop out at you.
After you have glassed the entire area, glass it again. I am constantly amazed at how many deer materialize from areas I thought were barren. Depending upon the terrain, I spend anywhere from one to two hours glassing one spot.
This is a simple procedure, but it still took me a couple of years to fully understand it. We used to start spotting deer at first light, locate a good buck and put on a stalk. With a rifle, the odds of completing a stalk are pretty high, but with a bow, actually getting a shot are about one in ten. So if you blew the stalk, you were back looking for another buck. As the day continues, spotting deer becomes more and more difficult as they lay down to sleep.
Muleys (especially in the early season) tend to get up in the evening, feed all night and get back to their beds by mid morning where they will spend the rest of the day. They generally won’t leave these beds until they get up to feed again in the evening (they will only move a few yards to stay in the shade). Because of this it makes them difficult to spot during the heat of the day. We discovered that instead of spotting a deer and immediately stalking him, we could drive around and spot and mark as many as 10-20 deer in a morning that were worth stalking. Then, after we had enough deer “stockpiled”, the stalking would begin. If we blew one stalk, we just moved on to the next deer that was bedded. One individual area may contain as many as four or five stalkable bucks. Once that area was exhausted, we would drive to the next area, reconfirm the deer were still bedded with spotting scopes and start the process all over again. This way it is possible to stalk deer all day long without pause.
If you are using a rifle or muzzleloader, stalking within your effective range is an easier proposition than with a bow. The most common mistake rifle hunters make, is trying to get too close and blowing the buck out of his bed. Get only as close as your effective range and take the shot when you have a clear view of the vitals. If the bedded deer’s vitals are obstructed, a soft whistle or a thrown pebble will often make a bedded deer stand up, offering a clean shot. Just make sure you are in position and on target. If a deer doesn’t see you, he will stand there for quite sometime before bounding away, but if you try to move into position after the deer is standing, he will likely take off on a dead run, not offering you a clean shot.
For bowhunters, stalking a good buck to within bow range can be a daunting task. However, it can be made easier with a few simple items. In my pack I have a set of Bears Feet (fleece covered stalking overboots), knee pads, elbow pads and gloves. The key to working into a mule deer’s inner zone undetected is to move extremely slowly. After I spot a bedded deer, I try to close the distance to a couple hundred yards relatively fast, from then on it is an inch at a time, usually on my belly. Without the added padding, this last couple hundred yards is often painful, with sharp rocks and thorns poking into your knees, hands and elbows. If you can’t stalk in comfort, you tend to rush and often spook the buck before you are in range.
Mule deer hunting is not the same as whitetail hunting. Is it more difficult? I wouldn’t say so, just different, but by using the spot and stalk technique successfully, you will not only see more bucks but possibly get a chance to put a tag on one.
It sounds easy – find a mule deer, sneak within range, and make a clean shot. Sometimes it is that simple, but usually it won’t be. Here are some tips and tactics that bring success to top mule deer hunters:
1. Carry great optics and use them – Binocular and spotting scope. An 8X binocular won’t enlarge quite as much as a 10X, but it’s easier to hold steady and it takes in a wider field of view. Neither 8X nor 10X will reveal much about antler formation anyway, so use the advantage of lighter binos with a wider field-of-view to locate deer. Then switch to the spotting scope to size up antlers.
2. Look over there… WAY over there – If you don’t find what you’re looking for with the bino, employ the spotting scope on lowest power to scour even more distant landscapes. Patience, my friend. The deer are out there, but they aren’t as easy to spot as the open terrain might suggest. This is especially true after they lie down, which usually happens an hour or two after sunup.
3. Start at the crack of light – Even if shooting hour hasn’t begun, get your eyes working. Mule deer, especially big bucks that get harassed, are like vampires heading for the shadows at first light. Scan feed fields and routes toward bedding cover, either woods or brush pockets. They’ll lie in ditches, gullies and coulees in plain grass if they have to.
4. Key on feed fields – After a long summer drought, most native grass, forbs and shrubs are dried up. If there are any irrigated crop fields, deer will find them. So should you. Glass for green patches at dusk and dawn.
5. Miles to go before they sleep – Mule deer are travelers. They’ll easily hike four or five miles from bed to food and back again. Scan the landscape for at least two hours before dark and after dawn.
6. Hit no man’s land – If you find a spot that looks like the middle of nowhere, it’s probably the middle of mule deer paradise. They like peace and quiet. But if hunters are moving everywhere, mule deer are perfectly capable of lying low in skimpy cover right close to human travel routes. They can out-whitetail a whitetail when it comes to hiding.
Browning A-Bolt in 270 Winchester, 8x42mm binocular, 4-12 Leupold VX3 scope and rangefinder all contributed to bagging this good Colorado mule deer. Antlers that spread to the ear tips and reach an equal distance upward constitute a good quality buck. Add mass and deep forks, and you have a great one.
7. Don’t shoot the first big one – If you haven’t seen many mule deer, be prepared to be fooled by those tall, wide antlers. Even a small one looks huge. If possible, study mounts near home or at places like Cabela’s. Note how mass really makes a difference. A really nice buck’s antlers should reach to the tips of his ears and stretch equally high or higher. Deep forks are a big part of score. They should be at least as long as one of those mule-like ears.
8. Call – Like whitetails, mule deer does live in extended family groups, and the does will often run to the squall of a predator call, thinking it’s a fawn in distress. During the rut, the bucks that attach themselves to the doe groups will come with them. And even if they don’t come running, they may jump out of cover to expose themselves.
9. Wait – If you’re hunting woods, forests and deep brush, you may have to out-wait your deer. Study tracks and find feeding sites, then wait for deer to appear. Fawns and does will emerge first. Big bucks often hang just inside cover until dark. So scour those fringes with your optics looking for shine from antlers, noses and eyes. A big buck can freeze motionless for fifteen minutes, just watching before emerging. Stay low, motionless and quiet.
10. Hunt early or late –In September bucks live in bachelor bands and feed in the light since days are still fairly long. In the high country they usually stay above treeline. In October they usually hide out in deep, dry forest where they don’t make a sound and you do – crunch, crunch. Try sitting waterholes if it’s dry and you must hunt October. Pray for snow. Better yet, wait until after November 10 when bachelor bands are broken up and big bucks begin wandering in search of doe groups. During the last half of November the rut is on and bucks expose themselves. Alas, not many states permit hunting during this vulnerable season. But some offer late season hunts via special permits. This is when high country snow pushes deer into small, low-lying valleys and hunting is much easier.
11. Become a better shot – Too many new muley hunters don’t train themselves to shoot far across open country. They miss their chances. A man or woman who can drop a bullet into a 12-inch circle with confidence at 300 yards has a much better chance at success. Extend that to 400 yards and you’re really sailing. But you have to be able to make the shot every time, not just some of the time. Practice, practice. And use a bipod or tripod. Natural rests are hard to find in grasslands.
12. Watch, listen, learn and enjoy – Even if you don’t get your deer, you’ll be alive in some of the most beautiful land God created. You’re using your eyes anyway, so revel in everything you see.
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