July 19, 2016
Finally, after a four-hour, 3,300-foot vertical climb, I had reached my destination. I was crouched at the edge of a rockslide at timberline, just below a 10,400-foot mountain peak.
It was 5 p.m. Five hours earlier, from a ridge across the canyon, my hunting partner, Darin Craig, and I had watched three muley bucks feed into a small patch of alpine fir trees and then disappear.
One of the bucks was the kind of deer muley hunters dream of — an absolute 200-plus-inch beast. The bucks' bedding site was 150 yards below me and to my right.
I mentally switched from mountain climber to predator mode as I removed my boots and slipped out of my daypack. I cautiously proceeded in stocking feet, knowing it was absolutely imperative that I spot the bucks before they spotted or heard me.
There was a steady wind in my face. Occasional gusts caused the tree boughs to sway, creating noise that would cover my approach. Fluffy white clouds floated across the face of the sun, creating alternating periods of shade and direct sunlight.
I knew from past experience that I could only move when the wind gusted, or the bucks would hear my approach. It would also be advantageous to only move when the sun was behind a cloud, which would eliminate the chance of flashing the bucks with some reflective bow part or other object.
I slowly moved toward the patch of trees where the bucks had bedded. There was a chance the bucks may not be where I had last seen them, but I was confident they were nearby. I carefully glassed the shadows as new terrain and cover revealed itself with my approach.
Suddenly, something caught my eye. Slowly turning my head, I focused on the location. A sunlit blade of grass swayed in front of dark shadows. I was tempted to move forward when a warning from deep inside, borne from past failed stalks, reminded me to check what I had seen with my binoculars first. Beyond the blade of grass, tucked into the shadows of an alpine fir, I recognized two velvet-covered tines that formed a tremendously deep rear fork.
It was him! My heart began to hammer.
Several minutes spent searching for the other bucks revealed nothing. I ranged the buck at 80 yards. Halfway between us was a small clump of trees. If I could make it to there, I would have a 40-yard shot — a range I'm very comfortable with. Keeping the trees between his head and me, I eased forward each time the wind gusted.
Several yards from my intended shooting position, I felt two rocks grind together under my foot. I saw antler tips pivot. Even in the gusting wind, the buck had heard me. I froze. He stared. After several minutes he relaxed and turned his head away, a very unusual occurrence for a buck of his caliber.
I wanted to be 10 yards closer, but I knew if he heard me again, the gig was up. I ranged the top of the tree he was laying under at 49 yards. I nocked an arrow, just in case, and waited for the wind so I could proceed. Before I had a chance to move, he slowly stood, turned broadside, and briefly looked in my direction. If I was going to get a shot, it would have to be now.
As luck would have it, the buck's attention was diverted by something down the mountain. He looked away just as the wind calmed. I drew my bow, and then eased sideways to clear the trees. I released, and the arrow hit. The buck bolted down the mountain out of sight, but I knew in a few minutes I would be tying my tag to my best buck ever.
Not long ago, a fellow hunter said to me, "Skinner, you are the luckiest sucker I know."
"Yeah, why do you think that is?" I replied
"I don't know. You must be living right," he answered.
The fact is, I do spend three hours in church every Sunday, and I believe that improves my luck. But beyond that, I've been an astute student of stalking mountain mule deer for over 40 years.
I've stalked literally hundreds of mature mule deer, most of them unsuccessfully I might add, but I've learned something from every single attempt. I analyze every encounter, and I try to improve on techniques to overcome the failed attempts.
I have gradually become more consistently successful through the years. The last three years, I've killed three super bucks on the first day I hunted them, on public land general license hunts.
Let me share a few practices that have contributed to my success.
1) Selecting Terrain That Pro-duces Favorable Wind Conditions
I used to stalk bucks wherever I could find them. I learned, as all mountain hunters do, that unpredictable wind currents can drive a bowhunter crazy.
One day I started thinking how certain terrain features caused variations in wind direction. Canyons, gullies, ridges, hills, peaks, cliffs, even thick stands of tall trees, could all cause variations in the direction of wind currents, whereas a flat, somewhat featureless surface would cause little variation.
So I began to search for relatively flat mountain faces with a west-facing slope. This would allow me to take advantage of the prevailing wind direction from west to east. When the wind hits the flat surface, it flows consistently straight up the mountain and over the top.
This allows me to get above a buck and stalk down the mountain with the wind in my face. I can expect a steady wind, because there are no obstacles to cause variations in its direction. I've also found wind direction to be more stable if the mountain face is at an elevation above other nearby mountains, peaks, or ridges. So I began to search for bucks at timberline.
2) Scouting & Locating Bucks
Mountain bucks will be near timberline from July through September, or later, depending on when hard frost affects their food supply. By mid-July, antler growth will reveal mature bucks.
This is when I start scouting. Magnum bucks are very sensitive to human intrusion. One encounter can cause them to move a mile or more, or take to thick cover. My preferred method of scouting is long-range surveillance with good glass.
The best time of day to glass for bucks is all day long. Of course, during early morning and late evening, you can expect the most deer movement. However, early season deer will feed for short periods all day.
On average, they will get up every 11„2 to two hours and feed for approximately 20 minutes. Bucks will start bedding from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. This is often a temporary bed. As the sun moves around the mountain, they will often lose their shade and relocate.
I've seen this happen many times between 10:30 a.m. and noon. This is a key time to spot a buck, because the bed he chooses at this time will be the one he spends the rest of the day in or near. Even though he will rise and feed intermittently throughout the day, he will usually bed in the vicinity, often returning to the same exact bed. This is essential information on the day you make your stalk.
I prefer to glass from a mountain opposite of the one I plan to hunt. This keeps me far enough away to remain undetected. If you're glassing from near the top of an opposite mountain, you can see all the terrain features, much like you would if you flew over in a plane. The higher you get, the more terrain you'll see.
3) Wind Velocity
Where I hunt in western Wyoming, typically during high-pressure weather systems, the prevailing winds will override thermals around noon, at which time wind direction becomes consistent. Wind velocity continues to increase throughout the afternoon until about 6 p.m., when the prevailing winds wane.
I like to make my stalk from mid to late afternoon during the highest wind conditions. Once I'm within 100 yards of a buck, I never move unless the wind gusts are strong enough to cause tree branches to sway and create noise that helps cover my approach. Swaying vegetation also helps cover slow movements. Strong winds are my best friend when stalking bucks.
That said, strong winds can cause problems when shooting, especially at longer ranges common to mule deer hunting. Be patient, and wait for a lull between gusts to shoot. Shooting from a kneeling position will also help minimize the effect wind has on your shooting form. If possible, plan your approach so that when you do reach your shooting destination, you will be screened by some type of cover that will break the wind.
Despite your best-laid plans, there will always be times when you will have to shoot in the wind. Therefore, well before the season opener, I take every opportunity to practice shooting in the wind.
It requires a different mindset and altered release technique than normal shooting. It's impossible to hold your sight pin steady while squeezing off a shot. The pin will be bouncing all around your point of aim. The normal reaction is to tense up and punch the trigger as your pin passes across the target.
I've learned to relax and patiently wait until I feel my pin moving toward my aiming point. I actually start squeezing the trigger of my release before my pin gets on target, trying to time the shot as the pin passes over my aiming spot, much like leading a duck with a shotgun. The key is to be patient and relax. You may have your pin pass over the target three or four times before you get the shot off.
4) Minimize Direct Sunlight On Reflective Objects
I believe "flashing" bucks by having direct sunlight hit reflective objects has ruined more of my stalks than any other single factor. I've had countless bucks blow out of their beds when I was 200 or 300 yards away — too far away to have been seen, smelled, or heard by them.
Hunting in the afternoon, when the sun is high, increases the chance of this happening. You are especially at risk if the buck is between you and the sun. Beware of binoculars, rangefinders, eyeglasses, your watch, broadheads, etc. Anything that reflects sunlight will put you at risk. Inspect your bow carefully, and try to paint or tape over any problem spots. If possible, move only when clouds cover the sun.
The account at the beginning of this article describes the encounter with my 2014 muley buck. I also killed excellent bucks in 2012 and 2013. With only slight variations, the circumstances of all three stalks were identical.
I hunted all three bucks on flat, west-facing slopes near timberline. I watched each buck until he moved to a permanent day bed between 11 a.m. and noon. I made all three stalks late in the afternoon when the wind was gusty. On each stalk, I was aware of the sun's angle, and I minimized the risk of flashing the bucks by moving out of direct sunlight whenever possible.
Let me end with this final thought. Just locating a magnum muley buck on public land is an accomplishment. The reality is, you will probably only get one chance to stalk him. Big mountain mule deer are notorious for disappearing after a close human encounter.
Don't be too anxious to execute a stalk. There are many factors that can prevent a successful stalk, such as other deer, terrain that is impossible to negotiate quietly, a buck bedded in a place you can't approach without being seen, changing weather conditions, and the list goes on.
It's better to wait for another day than to scare the buck away. Carefully analyze each opportunity, but when the conditions are right, don't hesitate to make your move. The next time you have a chance to hunt mountain muleys, give these techniques a try. If they don't improve your luck, you might consider spending more time in church.