50 Years of Mule Deer Hunting
July 27, 2017
Sitting in the dark in a big fir tree, I huddled into my fleece coat high on a desert ridge in southern Idaho. The breeze blowing downhill from the spring to me was chilly, even in mid-August.
With time to kill before shooting light, I dug out my cell phone. Amazingly, reception was good up here, so I couldn't resist reporting in to my friend Wayne Crownover. Wayne had hunted this country the year before and had helped me scout for my hunt and select this location, so I wanted to keep him in the loop. As a preacher, Wayne works on sermons early in the morning, so I figured he would be up.
Tap, tap, tap'¦ "Wayne, I'm in the stand. Breeze perfect."
A couple of minutes later, my phone vibrated. "Wish I was there. Shoot a buck!"
As daylight began to lighten the desert slopes, I pulled out my phone again to update Wayne, but at that instant, movement caught my eye as antlers emerged above the thick snowbrush. Slipping the phone back into my pocket, I lifted my bow off its hook. The buck apparently had been at the spring and was on his way back up the mountain. As he stepped into an opening 30 yards above my stand, I drew and released.
When the arrow struck, the buck ran downhill and stopped directly under my stand. Quickly I released another arrow and the buck tumbled 20 yards before coming to rest against a bush. Watching a few minutes to make sure the deer was dead, I grabbed my phone. "Wayne, I just killed a deer!"
IF THAT ALL SOUNDS a bit juvenile, well, it is. But it symbolizes how times have changed. The idea that I would be texting from a deer stand was unthinkable. Crazy!
Almost as crazy was the fact I was hunting mule deer from a treestand. Come August, my thoughts always turn to mule deer hunting because that's how I got started in bowhunting. My very first bowhunt took place in the eastern Oregon desert some 50 years ago, and that's firmly where they remain.
For most of those years, desert hunting has meant stalking. That's how my friends and I have always hunted desert bucks. We spot them in the distance, plan a stalk, and sneak within bow range. I have hunted this way so much I finally wrote Hunting Open-Country Mule Deer, a book dedicated wholly to stalking.
I still love to stalk deer, but with age and experience, my views and techniques have evolved, just like my cell-phone habits. Whereas some bowhunters think the value of high-tech gear is to stretch shooting distance, I am retrograde enough to think a better way to kill deer is to find ways to get closer, easier shots.
The obvious solution is to hunt from a stand. To any whitetail hunter that might seem all too obvious, but to mule deer hunters, it isn't necessarily. Most mule deer hunters still think in terms of spotting and stalking.
While a good stalker can get within bow range of deer consistently, that doesn't mean he always gets good shots. For a hunter at eye level with deer, simply drawing a bow without being detected can be close to impossible. But for a hunter in a treestand, or a ground blind, getting close shots at calm, unaware deer is almost guaranteed. And that's the whole point in bowhunting.
IN A WAY, HUNTING MULE DEER from a fixed location is harder than stalking because you're stuck in one place, waiting for deer to come to you. That sometimes seems futile because you often can see for miles, and when no deer are visible, it's easy to lose confidence. So you must have infinite patience, and, more important, ultimate faith in your stand location, knowing the deer will show up sooner or later, even if you cannot see any nearby.
Building that faith requires serious knowledge. In agricultural areas where deer feed in alfalfa fields and move to brushy bedding areas during the day, you would set up for mule deer just as you would for whitetails by placing stands on trails from feed to bed.
But in mountains and deserts with no agriculture, good stand locations are rarely so obvious. In most western states bow seasons open in August, and with the hot weather then, isolated springs and stock tanks will draw deer from miles around. On the spring mentioned at the first of this story, a perfect Douglas fir stood 30 yards from the spring. On treeless springs and tanks, a ground blind is the only option.
Like most animals, mule deer will follow the path of least resistance, so saddles on high ridges always have potential as stand sites. In late August a friend and I were hunting in Wyoming's Salt River Range. Early one morning we watched a group of bucks feed from a south slope of a ridge through a saddle to the north slope, where they would bed for the day. That afternoon, my friend built a quick ground blind in that saddle and the very next morning killed a buck there. Saddles are always good, as are any constriction points — cliffs, ravines, downed timber — that will funnel deer into a narrow corridor.
Migration trails probably offer the best stand sites in late seasons. In my home state of Idaho, come November deer migrate 50 miles and more from summer to winter ranges. During these migrations, they create very obvious trails, and intersections where two or three trails converge are always excellent places for stands.
IN VAST MULE DEER COUNTRY, good stand sites can be few and far between, so the real work comes in identifying prime locations. Detailed topographic maps and public land maps show most of the waterholes and springs, so those are good starting points, and a natural extension beyond those is satellite imagery — Google Earth. It shows the most obscure water sources, constriction points, and even game trails. How times have changed! Satellites circling the Earth take photos from hundreds of miles away, and curious hunters can see deer trails on them'¦
Scouting on paper and computer doesn't necessarily complete the process because you cannot tell whether animals are using these places, what the wind patterns are there, or whether there are good stand trees. That's where legwork comes in. On one of my favorite ridgelines, I used Google Earth to pinpoint every saddle, vegetation line, spring, and trail. I then hiked the entire ridge to analyze these sites in person and mark the best ones as waypoints on my GPS to build a reliable stand-site map.
Finally, in scouting never underestimate the value of your eyes. In dense whitetail country, long-range spotting might not be feasible, but in most mule deer country you can see for miles. Simply watching deer and noting their movement patterns can reveal key stand locations, as it did for my friend in Wyoming to a perfect saddle. Good binoculars and a spotting scope may be your most valuable scouting tools.
AS MY FRIEND WAYNE and I electronically celebrated my success shortly after daylight in Idaho, I was astounded by how much times have changed. Dwight on a cell phone? Texting? Crazy! Maybe even crazier was the fact that I was sitting in a treestand, miles out in the desert, with a buck lying dead under my stand. Yes, my approach to mule deer hunting may have changed, but the gratification was never greater. Crazy!