August 16, 2021
Question: I will be hunting mule deer during the rut for the first time. The terrain consists of a mixture of crops and native grasslands. What tips and tactics do you recommend to increase my chances for success? B. Monroe, via e-mail
Answer: Hunting rut-crazed muleys is a blast, and after you experience it, you will be craving more. I love hunting rutting bucks, and early in the rut is my favorite time to do it. Locating animals is the first part of the equation. Cropland areas typically have plenty of county roads to drive, so burn up the miles searching. Note where you find pockets of does. Even if there isn’t a buck with them yet, there will be one close by. Use your optics, especially from vantage points that provide even the slightest elevation advantage. A quality pair of 10X binoculars paired with a spotting scope is essential for locating deer off the beaten path. Landowner apps such as onX Hunt, BaseMap, and HuntStand are key tools when hunting in areas with private land to avoid trespassing, and they also help tremendously when trying to gain access to private ground.
Bucks become more visible each day during the early stages of the rut as they scent-check groups of does in search of the first doe to come into estrus. A cruising buck looking for love is the perfect scenario to use a decoy — by far my favorite tactic for hunting rutting muleys. Anticipate the cruising buck’s destination, and then position yourself in his line of travel with the decoy highly visible. Oftentimes, the buck can’t resist the urge to investigate the lone doe, resulting in a shot. Be ultra-aggressive in these situations, because rutting bucks are love-drunk and can be easily fooled. Do whatever it takes to make sure he sees the decoy. Once he is locked on, assess the situation further; hang tight if he is headed your way, but if he loses interest, move closer until he acknowledges you again. Nothing works all the time, but being aggressive will pay off more often than being passive in these situations.
Traditional spot-and-stalk hunting is always an effective tactic, regardless of the time of year. Once a buck is located, wait until he is bedded for the day and then plan your stalking route. Be mindful of the wind, obviously, but also where other animals are bedded. Crosswinds often result in better success than keeping the wind in your face, as the phrase goes. Ideally, a buck will be alone when stalking, but as the rut progresses, that is rare. A muley buck will build his harem of does, making a stalk increasingly difficult. Err on the side of caution, but even in these situations, being aggressive and taking chances will prove to be effective.
Being aggressive is a trait most successful bowhunters have, regardless of species. Through my years of experience, I would much rather scare a deer off by being too aggressive, than sit back passively and never get a shot. Experience has shown that you can get away with more movement than expected when stalking rutting mule deer. This being your first time, I would stalk as many bucks as you can, even if you don’t intend to shoot them. You will build your own playbook the more stalks you make.
Lastly, when the shot finally presents itself on a muley, take your time and make it count. It is easy to rush the shot when hunting at eye level. Generally, we have way more time to execute a good shot than our brain is telling us. Have fun, and good luck this fall!