Wide Open Mule Deer
September 24, 2010
Check out these proven techniques for finding mulies in traditional Western habitat -- the open range.
By John Higley
Not surprisingly, many hunters who regularly hunt black-tailed deer in this region would rather match wits with mule deer. Don't get me wrong, blacktails are a great challenge, but when most hunters think of deer hunting in the West, it's mule deer that first come to mind.
Mulies are generally bigger than blacktails, and the habitat they occupy, much of it offering good visibility, is a pleasure to hunt when compared with the brush fields and rain forests typical of blacktail country.
The only problem today is that most tags for mule deer hunting are subject to drawings. And, while the odds are much better in some areas than others, it can be years between successful drawings. Still, there are thousands of lucky applicants every year, and if you keep applying sooner or later you'll be one of them.
If the tag you finally get your hands on is for the wide-open high desert country, typical of the stuff that dominates much of the West, you'll be in for a treat.
I killed my first mule deer, a forked-horn buck, on a mountain in eastern California in the mid-1950s in an era when there were no drawings. And I remember getting tags over the counter annually until the 1970s, after which the idea of deer hunting by zone was initiated in the Golden State. Back then a deer tag cost all of $2.
My, how things have changed! For one thing, there are fewer mule deer in the hinterlands than there were in the 1960s and '70s, and for that reason game departments are much more involved in managing the annual harvest. Of course, they do that by manipulating seasons in various zones and limiting the tags available. That being the case, when you do get a tag it pays to make the most of it because you can't predict when you'll get another one.
After laying off for a least a year, most hunters are eager to get on with their hunt and come drought or deluge they're going to be out there on opening day. I don't blame them. I've been known to hunt the opener myself, but when I have a choice, and the length of the season allows it, I skip the initial festivities and go later.
Robert Feamster shot this quality 5x4 mule deer buck during a 2003 open-country hunt. Photo by John Higley
True, the animals may have scattered a bit and become more nocturnal, and some bucks certainly will have been killed. However, the relaxed atmosphere in midseason is more than worth whatever extra hunting effort is needed. To me, hunting the open country, when hardly anyone else is around, offers a sense of freedom rarely experienced in other activities.
Before we talk about specific types of hunts, let's take a closer look at the country the deer live in. While much of the sagebrush region is flat or rolling, there are plenty of canyons, occasional plateaus, rimrock ridges and isolated north/south mountain ranges that may rise as high as 10,000 feet above sea level.
Of course, in the lower areas, which still may be around 6,000 feet elevation, there's plenty of sagebrush along with juniper, piÃ±on, occasional stands of aspen and mountain mahogany. Many types of feed are available and the deer do eat a wide variety of woody plants, weeds and grasses. When they can get it, though, they prefer such things as bitterbrush, mountain mahogany and serviceberry.
Viewed from a distance, there's a certain sameness to the open country that might make you feel like throwing in the towel before you even get started. Indeed, while the area you're hunting may cover hundreds of similar-looking square miles, rest assured the deer aren't just everywhere. Some of the best-looking habitat (to me, anyway) does not support many, if any, deer.
Wide-open country can hold deer anywhere from alpine basins to timbered slopes to agricultural lands to the sagebrush flats. Generally, if it's after the start of the season, and if there hasn't been a major weather event that caused some deer to migrate from the higher mountains to the bottomlands, I start by looking for places in the foothills similar to locations where I've found deer before.
There are some prerequisites. If it's warm during the day - it can be downright hot at times during the general rifle seasons - I ask, "Where is the water?" True, bucks don't necessarily have to drink every day, but if they have a choice, they won't be very far from water during hot, dry weather. Permanent water in the high desert has several sources, including small springs, creeks and stock ponds. From a distance you can usually see some sign of moisture. Strips of riparian vegetation along a now-and-then creek or lush grass around a spring seep high on a hillside or in the crease of a draw are telltale signs of nearby water.
The next thing I look for is food. I used to scope out terrain variations that looked promising, without paying much attention to the vegetation, but now, older and perhaps a bit wiser, I try to be more selective. For example, even from afar, it's quite possible to notice the greener hue of bitterbrush in the midst of a sea of grayish sage, and the feed is definitely a deer magnet.
SPOT & STALK HUNTING
Obviously, spot-and-stalk hunting is the primary tactic in this big, open country. There are plenty of roads of one description or another, and you can't get from here to there without them, but four-wheel-drive pickup trucks and all-terrain vehicles can take you only so far. Once in a hunting area, leaving the roads behind also comes into play.
While there are exceptions, certainly, midseason bucks, especially on heavily hunted public land, aren't likely to be close to the roads if there's much activity at all. Instead, they'll be in more secluded pockets, where finding them usually takes a significant amount of hiking and more patient glassing than you might think.
It's for the latter operation that the importance of hunting optics can't be stressed enough. I prefer to look for deer when they're naturally on the move both early and late in the day. From a vantage point I'll scan the country with my 8x40 binoculars and, when necessary, I'll home in on any suspicious object or movement with a variable-power spotting scope.
With such a scope you can usually tell if such things are really rocks or odd shrubs or deer. You can separate bucks from does in a group that you can't even see with your naked eyes. I know one guy who really has the right idea. He'll sit for hours methodically picking apart the rocks and sage. While you might think it sounds incredibly boring, he knows better.
"Even with the best optics in t
he world, you only see a portion of the terrain," he said. "The tall sage, draws, depressions and rocky outcroppings can easily hide a tank, not to mention a few deer. If I wait long enough I figure any mulies in that particular location will eventually get up to change position or eat a few bites and when they move I might get a look at a nice buck."
SIT & WAIT HUNTING
There is another hunting option that I've grown more fond of as I age, namely sit-and-wait. Yes, even in this big country, mule deer often have discernible patterns, especially when it comes to favored feeding areas and in the case of warm, dry weather, getting water.
On a hunt a few years ago I found a spring in a drainage where two ridges came close together to form a funnel of sorts that led downslope to a piece of rugged, juniper-smothered landscape where it's obvious the deer weren't bothered during the day. I never went in after them, and I don't know anyone who did, but the deer had to come out to feed and drink, and I found one of the main routes they used.
The last time I sat and watched the trail nothing happened for hours, but during the waning minutes of shooting light, three respectable bucks slipped out of the draw and walked within 70 yards of me. Only two of them left the area, and rather quickly, I might add.
The next morning, when I went to pack my buck out, my son Mark spied another buck nipping brush near the water and made a successful stalk on him.
HUNTING IN THE OPEN
In 2003, Mark, my son-in-law Robert Feamster and I were drawn together for an open country hunt that we looked forward to for months. To access the country, which I'd seen only one time before, we set up a dry camp in the sagebrush and junipers. From there we could fan out on foot or by vehicle to familiarize ourselves with the area and, hopefully, to find some deer. Since it was the third weekend of the season there weren't many other hunters around, which is just how we like it.
After a chilly first night and a quick breakfast in the dark we decided to check out some places on a mountain where I'd seen bucks in the past. The first location we tried was at about 9,000 feet elevation and was easy enough to reach with our 4WD pickup via a steep two-track road that ended at around the 8,000-foot level. It was all footwork from there. Separating as the sun reached the slopes, we explored the country in three different directions, looking for sign and glassing extensively as we went. Naturally, all of us carried rifles, pack frames and basic gear, just in case.
The country was beautiful, with rock outcroppings, hidden basins and isolated pockets of cover and feed. It looked like a perfect place for deer and evidently it was - earlier in the year. The sign was old, the beds had not been used recently, and tracks were few and far between. We saw only one young spike buck all morning.
If we learned anything from our initial campaign it was that the deer were somewhere else. Where they were was the question that needed an answer. After mulling it over, we guessed that they were either in the deep sagebrush in the lower foothills or hiding out in the juniper thickets that tumbled off the mountains into mini canyons, most of which were steep and isolated. We figured that most of the deer had vacated the more open high country areas shortly after opening day.
Changing course seemed like the smart choice, so we headed back to camp for a late lunch and a short nap, followed by a long afternoon of scouting new locations. Eventually, we bounced to a stop on a snail's pace road a long way from the valley floor and spread out to search until dusk. Being the oldest and slowest, I took my binoculars and spotting scope and followed an easy path to a place where I could watch the junipers. Meanwhile Mark and Rob hiked at least a steep mile to the top of a windy ridge from which they could glass practically forever.
I'd like to report that we really got into them and had bucks showing up all over the place, but that wasn't exactly the case. I did see a few does just before dark and Mark found lots of tracks and beds, but nothing with hair. Rob, on the other hand, was excited to report that he saw a big buck in a draw a half-mile away and several hundred feet below his ridge-top vantage point. We thought he'd never stop talking about it.
In the morning it was clearly time to get serious. Rob decided to climb to the ridge from which he spotted the buck and glass for the animal again as the sun came up. Mark and I would try a couple of new places nearby and keep our fingers crossed.
As it turned out, Rob did, indeed, spot the buck again. It was feeding in the sage in a brushy draw about 200 yards from where it was the evening before. The buck was a long way from any roads, and obviously undisturbed. I doubt if any hunters had been anywhere close to him all season. But Rob isn't just any hunter. Athletic, young and fit, he was ready to go to a deer wherever it happened to be.
So, after studying the situation for a few minutes and marking a knob far below as the place he wanted to be, he dropped behind a fold of land and barreled downhill. When he got to the knob he slowed, caught his breath, and snaked his way through the sage to the top of the hump. There, on the edge of the draw about 150 yards away, was the buck!
Mark and I never heard the shot, but Rob's heavy-antlered 4x5 buck fell right where it stood. We carried small two-way radios and when they crackled to life he told us about his luck. Joining him as quickly as we could, we spent the rest of the morning taking pictures, processing the buck and packing the meat, head and hide a mile to the nearest two track.
Yes, Mark and I got bucks, too. Mine, a 3x3, came out of the junipers that evening during a sit-and-wait session, and Mark's 4x5 was spotted in an open sagebrush basin at dawn the following day. Our bucks were just average, but since we only had a couple of days left to hunt we were both delighted.
WHATEVER IT TAKES
If you're going to hunt wide-open mule deer country, be prepared to do whatever it takes to find the deer initially. Be sure to acquire good topographic maps of whatever area you're hunting and take a compass and/or GPS unit to stay oriented and identify landmarks for future reference. Be prepared for sudden changes in the weather with clothing and boots to fit any occasion.
Be ready, also, to hike miles, to glass for hours, to shoot straight and to pack your buck, in pieces if necessary, from wherever you killed it to the nearest practical access road or back to camp. We take extras in our daypacks, which are usually mounted on pack frames, such as ammo, snacks, flashlights, knives, rope, game bags and water. Properly outfitted, we can hunt all day should the mood strike us.
When you come right down to it, flexibility is a big part of what we're talking about when we're hunting open-country mule deer. With the aid of optics to lessen the footwork, look for the type of terra
in the bucks like as well as the feed and the water they need. This is huge country. If at first you don't find the bucks, look higher or lower or change locations altogether.
Take your time and sooner or later you will be on the same page with the deer. With any luck at all, the buck of your dreams will then materialize magically somewhere out in the open country that plenty of mule deer still call home.
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