The majority of time I've spent chasing big game has involved ambush hunting whitetails. That's the reality of living in the Midwest, and I love it. However, there is nothing quite like the freedom of traveling out West with a mule deer tag in my pocket.
Spot-and-stalk mule deer hunting is an archer's heaven. Being proactive and making hunting opportunities happen every day is always a refreshing deviation from the world of whitetails. The only thing I wish I had known when I started mule deer hunting is how bad I would truly be. And I was bad, terrible really.
These days I'm better at hunting the big-eared prairie and mountain dwellers, but it has come at the cost of plenty of mistakes over the years. Trial and error while spotting and stalking has resulted in a firmer understanding of what to do — and what not do — during each individual stalk, and my success has slowly but steadily climbed.
If you've got visions of 30-inch wide, deep-forked bucks dancing through your head and just happen to be planning a mule deer hunt, listen up. Following are seven tips that will help you seal the deal once you do step out of the truck and inhale your first lung-full of that delicious, sage-scented western air.
Rcognize the Lost Cause
I suppose there are a few individuals out there who could potentially kill every buck they spot, no matter the situation. I'm not one of them and am not very likely to be mistaken for an Ulmer
any time soon, so I've learned to recognize the lost cause. Some deer can't be stalked because of their position. Terrain, wind direction, and timing all play into whether you can legitimately sneak into range.
Take your time to be honest about each opportunity and decide if it's possible. If not, don't push it. You'll do far more harm than good. Don't use this as an excuse to not stalk a deer, though. Sometimes stalks are hard but doable. Learn to recognize the difference between the two and you'll be much better off.
Bird in Hand
As important as the lost cause can be, so can the 'bird in hand' buck. This might be the deer that is not quite as big as you'd hoped, but he's there and he is stalkable. That's the buck you should hunt. I hunt every buck I see that fits this description from 24-inch forkies to 180-inch gagger bucks. That's part of the reason I enjoy mule deer hunting so much — I don't trophy hunt.
I'll take a big one, don't get me wrong, but I'll also take a little one and be very happy with him as well. Set your expectations accordingly and you'll suddenly realize that there are far more stalkable deer than you once thought. And spot and stalk hunting is largely a numbers game for bowhunters. The more quality stalks you embark on, the more chances you'll have to loose an arrow. It's simple.
Find the Loner
The 'bird in hand' buck might be bedded in just the right spot, but he's also likely to be a loner. Lone mule deer represent the best possible scenario to the creeping bowhunter. One set of eyes, one set of ears. That's all you have to beat. If you can find a lone buck bedded somewhere, you are really on to something. Last fall on public land in South Dakota
I spotted a five-by-four bedded all by his lonesome on a hillside.
The wind was right and he was positioned to allow me to sneak in close. He measured right at the Pope & Young
minimum, and was fairly easy to stalk as far as mule deer go. The reason? He was all by himself. Find a loner and you've got a good chance.
Find Everyone Else
Finding loners sounds great on paper and can certainly happen, but it can also be a tough deal. Mule deer are social critters inside and outside of the rut, and that means when you find one deer, you usually find more. It's always the one you don't want to shoot that blows your stalk, either. If you find a deer you want to get after, spend serious time on the glass to see who else is with him.
Scour the entire area for non-target deer before you ever set out. Oftentimes you'll see a little buck tucked 50 yards away under a cedar, or a doe group bedded in the tall grass just down the ridge. Those non-target animals will make all of the difference in whether you get close enough or not.
To find any deer, you need to be able to observe. These days, sites like ScoutLook
allow you to scour aerial photos of your hunting area for peaks to glass from. Find likely observation points for each day of your hunt and learn to watch.
Oftentimes, it's a matter of getting out at first light and watching a basin for a few hours as deer show up and disappear into cover and folds in the terrain. Time spent watching is time spent gathering the best intel available. Eventually you'll see a buck make a mistake and bed where you can get to him, and then it's time to plan the stalk. Observe, observe, observe.
Sprint then Crawl
A lot of first-timers in mule deer territory go far too slow when they start a stalk. I watched a buddy of mine glassing two bucks below him as they walked through a valley. He covered about 1/100th of the distance he needed to and they simply strolled out of his life. There is a time to be shy on a stalk, but it's not at the beginning. I once got a shot at an awesome buck opening weekend in North Dakota
after watching him bed.
He was nearly a mile from a two track road and bedded in a washout on the side of a high ridge. I hit the backside of that ridge and ran the entire length of it until I reached the cedar I used as my marker. Then it was time to crawl into range. It worked perfect, and the only downside was that I totally whiffed the shot. Perfect stalk, horrible shooting. Don't be afraid to run before you crawl.
Lots of Patience
Forget the immortal words of Axl Rose and remember that once you do get close to a deer, you'll probably need as much patience as you can muster. The South Dakota buck I shot last year was easy enough to get close to, but he was bedded in such a way that I had to sit on him for hours. It was grueling to be so close and not be able to move or shoot.
Prepare for that inevitability, because the deer aren't on our schedule. Two or three hours, or five or six, is nothing to a wild animal. It can be brutal, but will be worth it when he rocks back and forth and finally stands up to offer you a perfect quartering away shot.