Open-Country Mulies

Open-Country Mulies

The West has millions of acres of public land. Most of it is either desert or open rangeland, where big mule deer bucks thrive.

By Richard Alden Bean

If you watch today's deer hunting shows on TV, you'll come to the conclusion that deer hunting in America consists of putting a tree stand up on a skinny pine tree next to a man-made food plot on some farmer's woodlot, and all you have to do is sit there until a monster buck wanders within range.

It's a nice, neat package, with all of the pieces fitting together, that producers create in 30-minute bites. The white-tailed deer they hunt are creatures of habit, and putting a single hunter into a tree next to a cameraman is fairly easy to manage.

As far as mule deer hunters are concerned, however, it's a sham. Mule deer hunters in the wide open spaces of the West work with an entirely different set of issues, most of which are not friendly to videotape sessions.

For one thing, mule deer are goofy, at least when compared to whitetails. A big, solitary, mule deer buck may do the same thing 10 days in a row. He'll bed in the same area - often in the same spot - move along the same game trails, feed and water in the same places. Then, on the 11th day, he'll suddenly decide to visit the adjoining state and leave without packing a bag.

If you've hunted mule deer in the millions of acres of public land we enjoy in the Pacific states, you've probably encountered mule deer that bypassed good cover in a wind-sheltered draw to bed out in the middle of flat country where their rack stuck up out of the brush like a signal beacon. These same bucks may also decide to climb above timberline on rugged mountains and bed in rockpiles, as if they were mountain goats.

This odd, wandering urge is what makes open-country mule deer hunting as much misery as it is fun. The real trick, whether you hunt with a rifle or a bow, is to realize that big mulie bucks are unpredictable at best, and utterly unreliable at worst. The main thing is to eliminate as much country as you can, and then concentrate on what's left.

There are millions of acres of government-controlled land in the West, much of it watched over by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Other huge tracts come under the control of the various states and the military (although many military installations are open to hunting and other recreation).

Photo by Brad Garfield

National forests in the Southwest are not anything like the Eastern woods. Nor are they like the rain forest and heavy timber of the Northwest. Most of the best mule deer habitat in the West is dry, and some of the best is called high desert.

Hunting deer in a sprawling wilderness of stunted trees and sagebrush is tough, but fun. You may alternately fry and freeze, have encounters with cactus (lots of those) and countless things that crawl, creep and sting or bite, but you'll see and hunt some of the most beautiful country on earth. The experience is indeed rewarding, with the biggest reward coming as the opportunity to shoot a trophy buck.

This land may look empty and desolate to the motorist speeding along a stretch of straight-for-miles highway, but some mighty big mule deer come out of just such places. Mule deer just like it there. The country that is raw and open and sprawling for hundreds of miles in all directions is their home, sweet home. And, of course, it's not all flat, featureless sand and rock.

Western mule deer country is endlessly fascinating and varied. You'll find mountains soaring to several thousand feet from empty desert floors. You can stand on the valley floor of good mule deer country and sweat in near 90-degree temperatures while looking up at snow-covered peaks on both sides of you.

Hidden springs and unexpected shelters full of greenery and shade are not as uncommon as you might think. Finding them and getting to them is the challenge. The deer know all this instinctively. They also know that such hostile conditions keep most people away - and that's what they like, their solitude.

Much of this country is not actual desert, no matter how dry it first appears. Around the edges of the really dry terrain are wonderful transition zones where true desert plants and animals give way to forms more suited for wetter, higher climes. It is in these mixed zones where mule deer truly flourish.

SPOT-&-STALK IN COMFORT


You might well spend several hours looking through glass for bucks. Comfort is important.



A good tripod reduces strain on your arms, and a cushion or small seat keeps your rear end comfortable, dry and warm. Take a look at the rigs with built-in cushions used by turkey hunters. A lightweight tripod seat is easy to pack into backcountry. It provides no support for your back, but you'll be off the cold ground. Even something as simple as a gardener's $2 foam kneepad may help.



Sit with your back against solid support, say a tree trunk or big rock. Many models of folding chairs or stadium pads can take the strain out of sitting for long periods while glassing. If glassing from a vehicle, use a window mount for your spotting scope or binoculars. -- Richard Alden Bean

 

HOW THE EXPERTS DO IT

Expert open-country mule deer hunters don't wear out their feet roaming around trying to find deer. Instead, they get where they can see large tracts of land and hunt with their eyes.

So-called spot-and-stalk hunting is an effective technique in open-range country. It works as well in deserts as in mountains, as long as you have wide-open spaces that you can look into from a relatively high vantage point. The idea is to get up where you can see a vast sweep of country and to sit tight and let your eyes do the walking.

You can do this just with your eyes. I learned to hunt this way in the early 1950s, when we didn't have quality binoculars to aid us.

These days, however, a good pair of binoculars, of

ten backed up by an equally good spotting scope, is the way it's done. Spotting huntable game, especially in the warmer months of early mule deer seasons, requires getting into position early. You'll often find deer bedding as soon as the sun peeps over the eastern horizon.

While any binoculars help, and hunters often opt for lightweight styles with wide fields of view, optics with enough light-gathering capability to detect animals in twilight conditions will always be better than scopes and binoculars with small diameters, which may need full sun to give a decent image. Many spot-and-stalk guides and experienced hunters favor really big optics for this kind of hunting.

PICKING BINOCULARS

For several years I favored 11x80 Bushnell binoculars; others use similar 20x80 or 15x60 models. These large binoculars are good for casual star-gazing, but their large 80 millimeter front glass gathers a lot of light before dawn and after dusk. You can detect movement and see deer well, both before and long after daylight.

The drawbacks are that they are large and heavy. Binoculars of this size require a tripod for serious use. Spotting is a whole lot better when you observe from a steady platform. Even a good sitting position with your elbows resting on your knees is never as steady as a tripod.

You might want to add a quality spotting scope to your kit of open-country mule deer gear. While the big binoculars will help detect big bucks at a distance, you may want the higher magnification of the spotting scope to confirm antler size and contour. Don't, however, try to rely on a spotting scope to survey large tracts of land. The field of view is just too narrow to be very effective.

If you are hunting well away from your vehicle, you might think about downsizing. On some hunts, I carry slightly smaller and lighter 10x50 binoculars and a small spotting scope in my backpack. I may also carry one or more versions of lightweight photo tripods fitted with a pad on which to rest the 10x50 glasses.

A number of years ago, I talked to Dwight Schuh, a noted bowhunter and editor of Bowhunter magazine. He authored a fine book titled Bowhunting For Mule Deer about the process of spot-and-stalk hunting in the West. He detailed his views on the kinds of optical aids that work for Western hunters seeking big mule deer.

"I use the monster 11x80 and 20x80 binoculars all the time, but only for certain things," said Schuh. "I surely don't backpack them anywhere. They are major weight. I would say my general setup when I'm hiking in are my 10x40 binoculars, and a 20- or 25-power spotting scope."

Schuh told me he does most of his spotting with the 10-power binoculars. "Frankly, I don't use the scope for spotting. But if you see a deer two miles away with the binoculars, the scope is good for checking to see what it is. On the other hand, when I'm in a place where I can drive to, or I'm using llamas or a horse to pack for me, and I plan on doing a lot of sitting and glassing, I'll use my big binoculars (Steiner 15x60). I use those quite a bit, but I don't carry them a long way. They are good for spring bear hunting or mule deer hunting where I don't have to pack them."

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Early, and again in the last light of the evening, you are looking for active animals. Deer feed until daylight and heat make them seek shelter. On unexpected cloudy or cool days, which can occur even in the middle of summer bow seasons, mulies may feed until late morning, but it doesn't happen often.

That doesn't mean you should give up as midmorning approaches. You just have to change tactics. I like to choose positions that will allow me to see a great sweep of edge cover on the shady north side of a ridge. This is where you'll find the most bedded deer.

At this point you have to mentally shift gears and quit looking for deer and start looking for pieces of deer. It's a lot easier to detect the flick of an ear or the tiny movements of antlers in the shadow of a scrub oak stand if you are deliberately trying to see tiny gray spots about the size of a fat field mouse.

Once you see a suitable buck in a shootable location (not all will be), you can also use optics to investigate the route your stalk must take. Take your time. And, that's the best part of spot-and-stalk hunting: It gives you the time you need. If the buck is bedded, it won't go anywhere soon unless you startle it with a poor stalk. If it's actively feeding and moving around a lot, chances are you couldn't work into a good shot location without being detected anyhow, so take your time and plan it out. If you work it right, you'll get the shot, or at least get a good chance.

Spot-and-stalk hunting can be done solo. A good hunter operating alone can get the job done, but things always look different as you move in on a bedded buck. That rock over there, is it the same one you could see from your starting position? Or, how about that group of small trees on the left? Is the buck on the right side or the left? Even experienced hunters can get turned around while creeping up on a bedded buck in open country.

SPOT-&-STALK FOR BOWHUNTERS


Since the archer needs to get close to his buck to have the hope of a killing shot, spot-and-stalk bowhunting is an ideal method. By seeing your buck long before it sees you, and then waiting for it to bed down for the day, it is possible to stalk and kill it without ever alerting the animal.



Team hunters can make good use of large binoculars, but you can't expect to cart 20 pounds of binoculars and a tripod along on a stalk. If you leave them behind when a stalk begins, chances are they will be there forever. With today's GPS technology, however, you can leave your gear, capture the GPS coordinates, and be able to retrace your steps.



You might well be better off with some of today's lighter binoculars in the 10x50 or 7x50 range. I recommend pairing those with a laser rangefinder, which will determine the exact range to a buck. It's also helpful during the stalk for checking the ranges of landmarks near a bedded buck.



Be very careful to keep your binoculars, clothing and other gear out of the way as you draw your bow. Nothing ruins a careful stalk faster than a bowstring encountering an item draped around your neck.



Wind is a big factor in any bowhunting stalk. Don't think that spotting a bedded buck allows you to be sloppy -- he'll smell you and depart the area at high speed. You also have to be silent, which calls for soft-soled boots and completing the last few yards in stocking feet. -- Richard Alden Bean

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HAND SIGNALS

It's a lot easier to accomplish the stalk if you have some reliable help. A two-person team is a lot better. One makes the stalk, while the other stays at the spot the quarry was first detected from, and acts as an advisor to the stalking hunter. You coordinate with hand signals. By remaining at the spot the stalker starts from, and watching both the hunter and the bedded buck, the guide or hunting partner can direct the action. If the hunter looks back, the guide can indicate direction and distance with pre-arranged hand signals. This can get the hunter within just yards of a bedded trophy buck without the deer sensing anything.

Arizona guide Duwane Adams has developed a good system for hand signals. "Common sense with the hand signals is the key. I get into an opening where they can see me when they look back in my direction. Most of the stalking situations I work, the deer is 600 to 800 yards away. You have to make a movement the hunter can see. They should be using binoculars to look back to see me.

"Remember, I'm a long ways away when they get close to the deer," Adams said. "If the buck is to his left, I use my left. If it's to his right, I use my right hand. If it's above I hold both hands over my head. If it's below him, I hold my hands below. That way he can see the motion and get the direction quickly. That tells him left, right, high or low."

"When he gets real close, and I'm concerned about him spooking the buck, I'll start twirling my hand in a circle. It's simple. Once he sees that circular motion, he knows he's on top of the buck."

Don't worry about spooking the buck with silent signals. The guide or partner will almost always be too far away for the buck to notice. Indeed, the hunter should use his own binoculars to look back and locate the partner to see hand signals. I had one guide tell me he always takes off his camo jacket and hat so he is easier for his hunters to see as they look back for directions. Another tip would be to hang a blaze orange hat or material so the hunter can spot it easily.

Some hunters have tried using two-way radios with earpieces, but you will need to check your state's game regulations to ensure this is legal.

This year, if you draw tags for a big mule deer hunt in the West, don't drag your tired body up and down mountains in search of a trophy. Sit down, break out the binoculars and let your eyes and brain do the heavy work for you. Spot-and-stalk is a method that pays off.



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