August 15, 2022
By Russ Carone
High-country alpine mule deer hunting has become extremely popular in the last decade. Truth is, there are some phenomenal bucks to be found in subalpine areas, especially in Colorado. If you’re like me and want to avoid high-pressure alpine hunting, this is your guide to success in the subalpine.
Beginning in 2020, Colorado Parks and Wildlife threw a wrench in the archery mule deer season by pushing back the opener for the next five years. The archery season in Colorado historically began on the last Saturday of August, which meant the opener could be as early as August 25 or as late as August 31. For the 2020-2024 seasons, the archery hunt begins on September 2. The season change works wonderfully for pursuing bugling bulls in the rut, but velvet muleys become dramatically harder to kill after the first few days in September.
Without a doubt, your best chance to kill a mature target buck with a bow is on the first day or two of the season — regardless of the date. Summer scouting can help a bowhunter find a crusty old buck and learn his habits and movement patterns. Such a deer will likely remain in those daily patterns until hunting pressure ensues. Therefore, the season-date changes won’t affect your opportunity in the first few days of the season.
Scout Like A Madman
If you can take advantage of those first few days of the season, your best chance to kill a great buck is to put in the legwork over the summer. Late June and early July are fantastic for locating bucks, as they are feeding heavily during daylight hours. However, antler growth at that time of year is still in its early stages. Personally, I like to scout during this time of year because I’m not looking to kill a buck with a specific score, but rather a large-framed, older buck that gets me excited. Later in the summer, bucks spend less time away from cover, but sport fully developed headgear.
Considering these logistics, I think the best approach to summer scouting is to spend some time in early July trying to locate as many large-bodied bucks as possible, mark and record their locations, then check in on their antler growth in August to see which of those bucks grew the biggest rack.
The Camera Conundrum
In years past, after I located a large-bodied buck, I’d wait for him to leave the feeding feature for his midmorning bed, and then set a trail camera or two. I’ve found that this minor disturbance may alter the buck’s daily routine for a day or two, but they like that area for a reason and will quickly return to their normal patterns. After about a month of letting the cameras soak, I’ll swap the cards, make some placement adjustments, and fix any problems created by curious bears. Because I’m not constantly checking-in on the bucks throughout the summer, my cameras allow me to spend more time finding big bucks in new areas. Unless I’ve found a true giant, I’d rather find 10 big bucks across several areas than watch the same area every weekend and only have a buck or two located.
The Weekend Before Opener
I probably shouldn’t write this, but here’s a secret to creating some security for big-buck honey holes. I like to set up two or three tents on the Sunday before the opener once I’ve decided on my top-two areas to hunt: One tent is my actual camp, and the other is a decoy to make hunters think the area is crowded. This secures my preferred campsite before the masses infiltrate the mountain.
I started doing this after getting burned a few years ago. I located a great buck the night before opening day, only to find other hunters’ camps: One where I wanted to camp, and one way too close to the buck’s core area. I was forced to pick a spot that lacked shade and was farther from water. I never killed that buck, but the frustrating part was those hunters were hunting elk not deer.
The next season, I staked my claim the week before the opener and took things a step further by setting up another “decoy” tent closer to where the bucks were living to prevent people from camping there. The bucks didn’t seem to mind the unoccupied decoy tent, and I dealt with far less hunting pressure.
Let The Games Begin!
In terms of killing tactics, I focus on spot-and-stalk hunting during those crucial first days of the season. I live for this style of hunting, but it will not likely be feasible in the coming days when bucks spend less time in open areas. I prefer to set up on a vantage point overlooking the core area of one of my target bucks. Doing so allows me to glass from above, and from a spot that is far enough away that downhill morning thermals will not give me away and I’m close enough that I can hustle to make a stalk before a buck vanishes in the timber.
These first few days can seem incredibly passive, but the prepared hunter must be ready for aggressive action at a moment’s notice. Yes, action will take place in the gray light of morning or evening, but during cloudy days with inclement weather, I’ve found that bucks will enter an opening to feed at any time of the day. If it’s hot, keep your eyes on the edge of the timber, and don’t feel too guilty if you take a glorious midday nap!
A note on areas that have ATV access — stealth makes wealth. Do not be tempted to drive a four-wheeler or dirt bike from camp to your glassing position. Instead, wake up earlier and quietly hike to your first-light position, and I guarantee you will see far more animals. This sounds like a no-brainer, but I’ve witnessed other hunters making this mistake far too often and I know this is solid advice.
Conversely, afternoon hunts in ATV country do not have to follow such rules. In years past, I have sped up the mountain after work, parked my ATV within a quarter-mile of a glassing point, and have not disrupted deer movement in the evening. This is because mornings are generally calm and quiet, while afternoon thermals lift the air and sound upward, and the bucks are not yet in any feeding features. Bottom line: Please don’t ruin your hunt, and mine, by being lazy in the morning.
The Second Week
Even the best-laid plans can lead to an unsuccessful first weekend of the season, and every muley hunter should be prepared for the hardships of hunting the rest of the season. Patterns will change as hunting pressure ensues. Bucks become vampires in mid-September, regardless of hunting pressure; they’ll spend far less time in typical feeding areas during daylight hours and more of their active time in stands of aspen where food availability is remarkable. Between the extra cover security and availability of quality nutrition, almost all mature bucks will eventually transition into these areas.
At this point, I generally sit on a master vantage point before first light, where I’ll glass for 30 minutes to an hour, before making my way down into the timber to still-hunt. I love days with a bit of wind because it covers my sound and movement. Mule deer bucks may only spend the first few minutes of daylight in open areas but will then feed in stands of aspens for an hour or more before they settle down into their first bed to chew their cud. In terms of weather, I’ve found that cool mornings yield longer timber-feeding sessions, and warm temperatures lead to an early morning bed. An hour or so after they bed, the rising sun will force bucks to move into a secondary bed that has better shade.
Obviously, still-hunting in the aspens is considerably more difficult when the bucks are bedded down than it is when they’re on their feet feeding or moving to a secondary bed. Therefore, I focus on still-hunting in the early morning, and then around 10 a.m., when they transition to their next bed. Furthermore, the bucks you targeted over the summer will most likely not stray far from where you saw them in August, so you could encounter them in the timber while still-hunting. The bucks may not be as visible, but they like that area for a reason, and they probably haven’t left it as a result.
One last tactic to employ during this phase of the archery season is to use treestands and ground blinds. This whitetail strategy can pay dividends at any point in the season but is a great option when the muleys seek refuge in the timber. A local hunter I exchange notes with has killed many 180-plus bucks out of a treestand. He learns their movement patterns by setting many trail cameras; then he sits on stand in the mornings and evenings. If you spend your morning on the glassing vantage with small openings in the timber, you may get lucky, but still-hunting and sitting in treestands and blinds can multiply your odds of finding a great buck during this second week of the season.
Weeks Three And Four
At this point in the season, bucks will most likely transition to new areas on the mountain. If you were seeing them at around 10,000 feet in early September, you can bet on them relocating anywhere from 500 to 1,500 feet farther down the mountain. I hypothesize that they’re moving due to the following factors: The high-country feed is becoming less nutritious, there is increased hunting pressure, they are rubbing off their velvet in the timber, and they are staging for the upcoming rut.
These bucks need to prioritize putting on as much weight as possible to set themselves up for success in the breeding season by moving less, reducing human-imposed stressors, and eating more. In low-country areas with flatter terrain, the same concepts can be applied. But instead of dropping elevation, they will move to thicker cover.
Because you can hunt anywhere from 5,000 to 11,000 feet with many archery mule deer tags in Colorado, don’t overlook the brush zone below the subalpine. Many hunters think that mule deer only migrate to that country later in the fall, but many resident deer call it home.
The major drawback in this country is a lack of visibility. Gambel oak, pinyon pine, and juniper trees provide deer with great cover, which limits hunters to ambush-hunting tactics. I’ve killed two mule deer bucks in this area, but I definitely prefer hunting the subalpine.
A few years ago, I set up on a heavily used trail in the pinyon/juniper country, where I had a buck come in to 30 yards and only got a glimpse of his rack before he stopped broadside with his head behind some branches. Thinking it was a different buck, I took the shot and walked up on my target’s younger brother. While I was thankful for the meat, putting my tag on that younger buck was a tough pill to swallow. That experience in the brush made me decide that I’d only hunt there if I found and patterned an exceptional buck.
Basically, if you still have a tag in your pocket by mid-September, you need to start thinking like a whitetail hunter. Muley bucks will be less visible, so once again, trail cameras should come back into play. While the trail camera/treestand combo is my least-favorite method of hunting, it’s still a useful tactic for killing a great buck.
This article began as my personal hunt plan and outline for filling my 2021 archery tag, but I realized that it might be useful for other hunters as well. My scouting season turned up a few excellent bucks. I followed my game plan and killed a crusty old muley while still-hunting in the timber on the breezy evening of September 10. I’m hopeful that the 2022 season finds you with a subalpine muley tag in your pocket and that my approach helps you punch it!
The author is a physical education teacher and coach in Palisade, Colorado. This is his second feature for Bowhunter Magazine.