The best way to get good at something is to be bad at it for a long time — but to keep trying. Failure in its many, many forms is nothing if it's not a supreme lesson giver. Every mistake or misstep in any endeavor is a clue to how to do things right during the next go-round.
Such is the case with spotting and stalking mule deer. If you've never done it, you should. There are plenty of inexpensive, do-it-yourself opportunities out there if you're willing to cover some miles in both your truck, and your boots. If you have spotted-and-stalked mule deer, you probably understand what I'm saying about failure.
It's almost a given on every stalk. Almost...
Obviously, you can't stalk a muley until you find him. The most common method of locating bucks involves climbing up on a peak and putting your eyes to some optics. This works well in an awful lot of hunting situations like high-country basins, or open prairies. In other areas, where the terrain rolls and folds every quarter of a mile, it's not so simple. You'll need to spend some time finding a suitable place from which to glass, or reverse the order of a typical hunt and stalk around until you spot one.
Eventually, no matter the terrain, you'll probably find a deer either on his feet or in his bed. That's when it's time to start planning.
Setting The Stalk
Where I screw up on mule deer most often is rushing the stalk. When I see them every fiber of my being screams, "RUN!" I want to get as close as possible, as quickly as I can, before I start crawling. This approach, quite frankly, is idiotic. It's way too easy to forget the wind, or not recognize a spot in the trail where I'll be silhouetted.
Once you've discovered a buck worth your stalking time, you need to spend some time reading the land. What is the best approach to get into bow range without getting spotted or winded? That's usually not an easy question to answer. Plan your route carefully before setting one foot toward the buck.
And even before that, take a look to see who else is with your buck. The non-target deer are the ones that get you most of the time, because you either don't know they are there, or tend to ignore them a bit too much. Scour the cover to make sure there isn't a satellite buck bedded 50 yards from your chosen buck. Oftentimes, there is. Or there is a group of does nearby. Figure it out to the best of your ability before you move.
The thing about crawling after a muley that you'll soon realize is that landmarks are important. If you slither into a sagebrush flat thinking you'll remember a specific bush, you probably won't. However you can mark a buck's location and your best route, do it.
Also, understand that a stalk is a fluid situation. Your buck might move as the sun creeps higher into the sky, or you might suddenly realize that you've underestimated the distance between a patch of cedars and his bed. All kinds of the things can change, which means you've got to be open to the possibility that you might need to back out, or wait out a bedded buck for hours. Or you might have to restart the whole thing or worse, call off the stalk because it's just not going to happen.
This is not an easy style of hunting, but it sure is fun — and rewarding.
The Red Zone
It's pretty amazing to get in close to an unsuspecting mule deer buck. The closest I've gotten to a good one was 19 yards and I had to sit on him for a long time. The South Dakota wind was whipping across a patch of public land and I went cross-eyed staring at his white rack poking out of the grass so close to me. I did a lot of things wrong on that stalk and still managed to kill that buck, but there have been far more times when I've gotten close and it has gone the deer's way.
Just like with any critter, once you're in shooting range, you've got to try to do everything right. Getting a range, timing your draw and other movements, and simply remaining undetected is no easy task. But it's all necessary.
An Arrow In The Air
You'll be shooting from your knees, or flat on your butt, so hopefully you've practiced that way. You'll also be absolutely full of coursing adrenaline and hyper-aware of the reality that if you screw this part up the whole thing is over. Personally, I like 35-yard types of shots at mule deer. That distance is close enough to be well within my comfort zone, but not so close that I'm terrified to breathe for fear of spooking a buck.
Figure out how close you need to get, and then once you do, think your shot through and make sure you know the exact range. Judging shot distance in the coulees and other craggy places mule deer prefer is hard enough for western bowhunters, but if you're a whitetail guy in muley territory, it's something else entirely. Get a range, get as comfortable as you can, and work through your shot sequence.
If you do, you'll probably be rewarded with the sight of your buck bolting uphill only to see him make it 75 yards before the lights go out, and what once seemed nearly impossible will suddenly feel very possible. And very, very good.