If you’re up for the challenge of a high-country adventure, then mulies are the deer to hunt.
Extreme elevation, sheer vertical terrain, and high alpine basins surrounded by rimrock are what mountain mulies call home. These big bucks use every bit of the terrain to their advantage, astonishing you with their ability to circumnavigate areas where you would think only goats and sheep could survive. Their sure-footedness and ability to detect the slightest movements miles away are what makes them so difficult to hunt and places them at the top of Western hunters’ lists.
While on a hunt, I often stand in amazement, looking up at the majestic chiseled peaks that lie above me. I wonder if they harbor the mountain monarchs that have filled my dreams for so many months. If you’ve found yourself doing the same, you’re not alone. There’s something to be said about a hunter’s desire to climb the tallest mountains in search of game.
Is it to see what’s there? Admire its one-of-a-kind view of the landscape below? Or is it the challenge of facing the mountain to persevere against overwhelming odds?
I think it’s all of the above. This is a magical place with its own unique climate, ultimate views and unforgiving terrain. Now throw big mule deer bucks into the mix, and you’re ready for an adventure of a lifetime.
If you want to hunt true mountain mulies, you’ll need to focus your efforts on the highest peaks exceeding timberline. That could mean hunting at elevations of up to 12,000 feet and above. To do so, you must be in ultimate physical condition, and prepared to match wits with some of the mountains’ wisest inhabitants.
It’s no cakewalk by any means, and there’s no room for error in this treacherous terrain. Those who aren’t prepared usually return home with an unpunched tag. Whether or not you’re successful in taking a buck, after this type of adventure we all share a true respect for the mountains and the majestic mule deer that call them home.
During the months of late summer and early fall, mule deer bucks are very easy to spot in open areas above the timberline, where they travel in small bachelor groups. At this time of year, their well-disciplined survival skills are compromised, largely due to the following factors.
- Velvet Antlers. The first and most important factor aiding your ability to spot these early-season bucks is their antlers, nearing completion of their growth stage and covered in velvet — a conduit of blood and minerals.
Until the bucks shed this velvet cover, the antlers are very soft, tender and extremely susceptible to injury. Thus the deer tend to steer clear of heavily treed and thick brushy areas to avoid obstacles like branches that could bruise and damage their antlers.
Later, as their horns harden, deer will revert to their normal behavior patterns and prefer thicker brush to conceal their whereabouts.
- Bachelor Groups. Because the bucks are forced into the open and are now traveling in small bachelor groups, their ability to conceal themselves and their movements has been drastically compromised.
Bachelor groups vary in size from three or four to larger groups of 10 to 15 bucks. They establish a hierarchy according to age and antler size. Over the years, I’ve observed many groups consisting primarily of bucks of 4 points or better, while others contain mostly forkhorns and a few smaller 3-pointers. The bachelor groups comprised of smaller bucks always seem to be located at lower elevations than those of the larger bucks.
Later on in the season, these same big bucks will split from the others and become solitary creatures that eat, sleep and travel alone.
- Escaping The Heat. Bucks seek out high alpine basins to escape the heat trapped in the canyons below. Rising thermals provide them with a natural built-in air conditioning and a cooler climate overall.
Another reason why they move to higher elevations is to escape the fierce population of bloodthirsty insects that relentlessly attack their velvet racks.
- Nutrition And Water. High alpine basins usually contain a number of springs or small seeps that produce a variety of lush vegetation that many hunters refer to as “groceries.”
These nutritional areas provide deer with the minerals and proteins essential for antler growth. If the early-season groceries are good, antler growth will be good too.
- Vantage Points. Big bucks enjoy an unobstructed view of the surrounding area below them and will almost always bed facing downhill.
It’s common to find a big buck bedded above timberline at the base of a rocky bluff or in the shade of a boulder. Given a high vantage point like this, it’s highly unlikely that an intruder could penetrate his citadel successfully without being detected far in advance.
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