September 05, 2021
By Brian Stickland
Getting close to a mature muley buck takes effort, and after two previous attempts in as many days on this early-season monarch, another mistake could send him over the mountain this time. On the previous attempt, I made it to 60 yards before the gig was up, and if it wasn’t for a curious forky, an arrow release was certain. All I had to do was wait on them to make the next move, and by all accounts, the trio of bucks would feed into slam-dunk range in minutes. But then Mr. Forky popped up just 15 yards away. Even his young eyes knew something wasn’t quite right, and the longer he stared, the more nervous the trio got. Seconds turned into minutes, and eventually all eyes were on me. As the weight of bad luck seemed to hang around my neck like heavy chains, all I could do was watch as my target buck moved across the drainage out of sight.
I never located the bucks the following day, but as day four arrived, two of the four bucks made an appearance. Luckily for me, they were the biggest of the group and they were feeding in a direction I had witnessed countless bucks do before. Over the years, I’ve hunted this small, isolated drainage multiple times; and although it didn’t tend to carry a lot of bucks, there was generally enough to make the four-mile hike in worth the effort. Over time, you learn how the deer tend to move and I use that intel to my advantage.
As they fed toward a shallow dip in the terrain I knew they would have to cross, I eased into position. With the early morning thermals still in my favor, I hunkered down next to a patch of scrub brush and waited. The more I peered over the heavy brush to get their progress, the slower they seemed to come. Minutes soon turned into 30, and the closer they got the more my 6-and-a-half-foot frame hugged the brush beside me. Either buck would have put a smile on my face, and with the large rock face barely 50 yards in front of me, the natural pinch point I was guarding would put them in easy range if the thermals held true.
Arrow nocked, I stayed ready, and when his head appeared around the brush mere yards away, we were both surprised. I’m almost sure I jumped as high as he did, and when he initially bounded away in a flash, I thought it might be over. However, the Achilles Heel of a mule deer buck is their tendency to pause and look back. And when he did the same, my 50-yard pin burned a hole in his chest. Arrows tend to fly fast at 12,000 feet above sea level, and when this one hit with a loud crack, I knew the hunt was over.
I love bowhunting mule deer in general, but I really enjoy hunting them during the early season in particular — just something about big fuzzy antlers. The whole process of scouting, hunting and ultimately slipping in close is just plain fun. More times than not it ends up being a cat and mouse affair when you focus on a particular buck, but the reward of finally knocking over the king is what makes the experience so rewarding.
That said, there’s more to successfully anchoring these icons of the west than just showing up and rolling the dice. Although luck can be a factor, as far as I’m concerned, the luck I’m after is earned with hard work, skill and determination. When it comes down to it, success on early-season bucks boils down to a handful of skills any bowhunter can achieve.
Topping the list would no doubt be time and dedication. Although these elements are obvious regardless of the goal you’re trying to achieve, they are especially important if it involves a giant buck. With mule deer numbers sliding across much of the west and more bowhunters hitting the field chasing them, competition is high. To find top-end bucks you need to leave casual scouting techniques behind and dig deep. Although this does not always mean logging double-digit miles to get back into an area to hunt, it does mean taking the time to scout multiple locations well before the season to give yourself options if hunting pressure spoils your initial plans. Noted Utah bowhunter Sean Morgan says he’ll start glassing the high-pleasured hills in mid-June, making multiple trips a week if necessary to find a hit-list buck. To his credit, Sean has killed four bucks over 200 inches with his bow, with the latest stretching the tape nearly 260 inches last season.
This may not be ideal for everyone due to logistics or time, however, stacking a few days at the beginning of a hunt would be the next best option. Couple that with a good dose of digital scouting and you’ll be on your way. The first mature buck I killed over a decade ago came from a similar situation. Forced to find another location due to unwanted hunting pressure, I went to a backup location I had found a few days before the season and anchored a 180-inch brute.
Nevertheless, the meat and potatoes of getting close to any unsuspecting buck is patience. It doesn’t matter if you’re stalking a bedded buck or trying to ambush one that’s feeding in your direction, knowing when to strike is what separates the mule deer men from the boys. Looking back at the many failures that have been in my control, it’s when I let the fear of losing an opportunity creep in that I hastily react and blow an opportunity. I’ll admit, when time is running out you may need to push the envelope a little to make something happen. However, if time is on your side, wait for the perfect opportunity. Ask yourself if there is a consistent wind, or if there is enough cover, or do I know the buck’s precise location. And then, am I aware of the eyes around him?
Once all the boxes are checked and it’s time to move in, be meticulous in your approach. If you think you’re moving slow enough, move even slower. If the situation changes mid-stalk, slip out a few hundred yards and wait for it to improve. In my experience, it’s best to approach from above as bucks often bed facing downhill. However, a clean sidehill approach can also be effective if there’s ample cover. For me, getting 40 to 50 yards is the sweet spot. Get much closer and mistakes are magnified.
Lastly, although being accurate with your bow is a given in any hunting situation, when you throw in the likelihood of angled shots in awkward positions, a little extra pre-season practice can make the difference. With the average shot being in the 50- to 60-yard range, consistently hitting the 10-ring at such distances is important. When it comes to shooting at steep angles, remember to bend at the waist and keep your arms at right angles to your torso. Without consistent practice, we tend to move our arms, which ultimately affects the draw length and overall shot accuracy.
Don’t rush the shot either. Most hunters experience an overwhelming urge to take a shot after a long, drawn-out stalk. This leads to punching the trigger resulting in those “I hit a little far back” moments we’ve all experienced a time or two. Instead, be patient. Unless the buck is on high alert, you’ll typically have enough time to settle in for a release. Mentally visualize your shot process before it’s time to drop the string and watch your arrow fly true.