Optics are an open-country mule deer bowhunter’s best friend. The trick to using them is learning to look for ants instead of elephants. Searching for large, grey bodies seldom yields results. More often than not, bucks are given away by small details that look a little out of place, like a white spot that turns out to be a rump or throat patch. The buck we were watching was given away by glare off an antler as he disappeared into a tangle. It had been a quick, distant glance, but I saw enough to know I wanted another look.
I was hunting the Eastern Plains of Colorado with my son, Lane, and for an hour or so we waited patiently, but only a couple of does emerged from the tangle. We knew the buck was still in there, but Lane didn’t have much time to hunt, so we needed to try to find one elsewhere.
The good news was it was the peak of the mule deer rut, when anything can happen! Two days prior, Lane had spotted a buck he was anxious to relocate. It was a narrow-framed buck with tremendous tine length. I wasn’t as impressed with him as Lane was, but he was convinced I’d misjudged him. Like most bowhunters, my dreams are haunted by stereotypically wide-framed muleys. That can lead to a tendency to underestimate bucks that lack spread. It really didn’t matter, though. The buck was just off the property we had permission to hunt, and now he was nowhere to be found. I didn’t mind. I was just happy to be hunting with my son.
I’m proud to say Lane is one of four young bowhunters I’ve raised, but without a doubt, he’s the one most smitten with it. When a kid insists on including his Hoyt bow in his senior pictures, you know he’s got it bad. The problem is, bowhunting isn’t his only true love. He has two — bowhunting and football — and those two passions don’t easily mix.
As a linebacker for Western Colorado University, Lane has enjoyed a decorated collegiate career and will return for his senior season this fall as the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference’s current career leader in tackles. Although undersized, hard work and determination always seem to put Lane in the right place at the right time. Funny how the same can be said of just about every successful bowhunter I know.
Football season runs from early August through mid-November, eliminating Lane’s ability to participate in most Colorado resident archery seasons, and making it difficult for me to plan hunts and still make it to his games. Fortunately, the Eastern Plains archery deer season runs late in the year, and so long as we draw tags, I get a chance to hunt with Lane, and he gets a chance to scratch his bowhunting itch.
As the prime evening hour arrived, we returned to where the buck had vanished into the tangle. With no sign of deer there, we gambled that they’d be moving toward a feeding area farther down the creek. We arrived to find does moving up the creekbed, and when he stepped out behind them, I nearly dropped my binoculars! This buck was a monster! Wide, long, heavy — he had it all. Before I could get a word out of my mouth, Lane belted, “That’s a massive buck!” They were about a quarter-mile away in the bottom of the creekbed, so Lane moved quickly to close the gap while I watched from a distance.
Just as he was beginning to crest the bank overlooking the creekbed, Lane spotted a set of doe ears fixed on his position. She’d obviously heard something but never got a good look at him. When Lane raised his bow-mounted decoy, she just stood there at 30 yards, staring at what she perceived was a buck looking over the hill at her. The rest of the does looked up, too, but they didn’t spook. Amazingly, the rut-crazed buck never even glanced at him. His nose remained buried in a doe’s back end right up until Lane’s arrow pierced his lungs!
Stalking mule deer during the rut presents a unique set of challenges. Whitetail bucks typically chase a doe out into an isolated spot, and then dog her relentlessly until she finally submits. Once she does, they keep her in lockdown, away from all distractions, breeding her multiple times over a 24 to 48-hour period. Muleys, on the other hand, don’t typically attempt to chase does away from the group. Hot mule deer does usually stay right with the herd throughout the entire breeding process.
Editor Curt Wells wrote after a rut hunt he and I once shared, “During the early season, a lone, mature buck is a gift. During the rut, it’s a miracle.” While seeing young bucks by themselves during the rut is fairly common, it’s rare to see mature bucks alone. When you do, it usually means one of two things: He ran out of hot does to breed, or he got run off by another mature buck. Either way, unless he’s injured, he’ll be covering ground fast in search of new does. In my experience, this is a golden opportunity, but you have to act quickly.
If the buck is in a well-defined travel corridor, you can try to get ahead of him for an ambush, but my favorite method by far is to show him a doe decoy. Now, everyone knows I’m a decoy junkie, but it’s for good reason. Whether you prefer a bow-mounted decoy like the Stalker from Ultimate Predator or a Heads Up, or even a handheld Montana Decoy — if you can get the wind right and get in front of the buck undetected, and flash a doe decoy at him, get ready to draw because he’s going to come! Just make sure to use common sense with your decoy.
First off, try to hide your lower body. If you shoot from your knees, it takes little cover. Second, don’t just stand there like a statue. Reach up and flick an ear, or if you’re far enough away, lower the decoy like the doe is putting her head down to feed. Quick flashes of a doe that’s there one second and gone the next can put a buck into don’t-let-her-get-away mode, and that’s when things get really exciting!
But like Curt alluded to, when it comes to mature bucks, that scenario is an exception to the rule. Most times, to complete a successful stalk on a mature muley during the rut, you have to contend with several sets of savvy doe eyes, and that can be tough in open terrain. Yes, sometimes the stars align and present you with enough topography to slip within bow range. But in open country, you frequently run out of cover.
Once again, I prefer to have a decoy at the ready, but in this situation, I like to use a buck. The reasons are simple. First, if you run out of cover, you have something to try instead of just giving up. If you have plenty of time and are confident you can find the same buck again, backing out to stalk another day could be the right move. This is seldom the case for me, and during the rut there’s no guarantee that buck will even be in the same county the next day, so why not try? Second, just like it did for Lane, a decoy buys you time. Sometimes, even an extra second or two can mean the difference between putting a giant on the ground or eating tag soup. Finally, the reason I almost always use a buck decoy is when a buck already has a hot doe, he doesn’t care one bit about other does. The only thing that will typically get his attention is another buck that’s invading his space.
With his biggest muley to date on the ground, Lane had to head back to school, so now it was my turn. Almost a week had passed by the time I found the narrow buck Lane thought I had underestimated. Once I got a second, closer look, I knew this buck was far better than I had first thought. The only problem was, he was five miles as the crow flies from where I had permission to hunt, so I wrote him off. That was on November 30, at 4:09 p.m. I know, because I used my Phone Skope to shoot some long-distance video of the buck.
Here’s where the story takes a crazy turn. The very next morning, December 1, just 15 hours later, I found the buck on my hunting ground following three does around like a lost puppy! I couldn’t believe it. Considering the fact that he had just covered five miles overnight, there was no time to lose.
After landmarking where he and the does bedded down, I attached a Stalker Buck Decoy to my bow and donned a head-mounted action camera to capture the stalk. They were bedded in a good spot with a large bank overlooking their position. I covered ground quickly on the initial approach, and made sure to perfectly align all of my landmarks before cresting the bank overlooking their beds.
Slowly peeking over the hill, I could plainly see the bush the buck had bedded next to and ranged it at 60 yards, but he wasn’t there! Anxiety set in as I inched forward behind the decoy, scanning for antlers, when suddenly I could feel his stare. There he was, lying in a new bed, and looking right at me. When he stood up, my anxiousness shifted into full panic. I drew in full sight of him and was attempting to settle my bouncing 60-yard pin on his vitals, when it dawned on me that he was looking at a buck, not me! He’s not going anywhere, I told myself, and with that, I slowly let down to collect my nerves and see how he was going to react. It was a good decision!
After watching me crest the hill, and then draw and let down in plain sight, the buck glanced over toward his does, then back up the hill at me and pinned his ears back. Bingo! On he came in my direction. When he stopped again at 35 yards to posture and lick his lips, I drew again, but this time settled, triggered the release, and sent a Rage Trypan through his heart!
When I walked up on the buck, I knew Lane was right — I’d grossly underestimated him. This narrow, deep-forked buck was definitely the most unique muley I’d ever taken, and this was by far the best mule deer season ever for the Farris household. Lane’s buck gross-scored 190 6⁄8 inches, while my narrow buck shocked everyone, stretching the tape at 200 5⁄8 inches gross!
Based on the title of this article, some of you may have thought you were going to be reading about some nefarious act. But “Postseason Muleys” refers to the post football season hunt Lane and I shared. This one is going to be really hard to beat. But you can bet we’ll give it our best shot.
Authors Notes: My equipment included a Hoyt RX-3 bow, Gold Tip Velocity Valkyrie XT arrows, Rage Trypan broadheads, Spot Hogg Hogg Father sight, SIG SAUER optics, Browning Wasatch apparel, Kenetrek boots, and a bow-mounted Stalker Decoy from Ultimate Predator. Lane used a Hoyt Carbon Spyder bow, Gold Tip Velocity Pro arrows, Spot Hogg Tommy Hogg sight, Rage Hypodermic broadheads, Browning Speed apparel, Kenetrek boots, and a bow-mounted Stalker Decoy as well.