20 Maddening Mulie Mistakes

From glassing like a tourist to bringing the wrong boots, expert guides reveal what hunters most commonly do to blow a good shot. (September 2007)

Even some of the best hunters often forget basics, like adjusting for uphill or downhill shots. At a 45-degree angle, reduce a range finder's reading by 30 percent.
Photo by Kyle Carlisle.

On my first solo mule deer hunt, I got skunked. I didn't even see a shooter buck.

I'd done my homework, scouted the area, and even saw signs of some respectable deer. But after a week, the final score was Mulies 1, Me 0.

During the six-hour drive home, I pondered the hunt, trying to figure out what I'd done wrong. I vowed to learn from experience by talking to some experts.

What I learned from them was eye-opening. Although I'd managed to avoid some of the worst mistakes, I did make my share.

Most hunters commit mistakes that can be grouped into seven broad categories. Avoiding any one of them might automatically prevent others. Avoid them all, and you're more likely to have venison for supper.

1. FAILURE TO PREPARE

The worst mistakes are made before hunters even leave home, simply because they didn't study in advance.

'¢ Like a knife in a gunfight. Mule-deer country ranges from high desert and sagebrush to heavy timber. Too often, guides greet clients who don't bring the right gear for either.

"Most often, I see guys come without good optics," said Dale Denne, with BearPaw Outfitters in the state of Washington. "If you don't have good optics that you can stare through comfortably for hours, you're just handicapping yourself."

Many first-timers also arrive without the proper footwear for steep terrain and clothing for the weather.

Finally, unbelievable as it sounds, many hunters bring the wrong kind of firearm or ammunition.

"Some of these deer dress out at 250 pounds," said Mark Paul of Lassen Gun & Guide, in California. "They're big animals. You can't assume lighter bullets that work on blacktails will do the job. Mule deer are just a different ballgame."

'¢ You're a stranger. Assuming you've done enough homework to pick an area with a recent reputation for big bucks, knowing the country intimately ensures that you'll hunt the area better.

"You need to be set up in your spot, ready to hunt, at O-dark-thirty because you may only have 15 or 30 minutes of morning light before bucks bed down," said Jeff Zennie of Zennie Outfitters in Oregon.

"You need to know how to get where you need to be in the dark. It's better to be two hours early than one minute late."

Careful study of good topo maps, plus phone calls to game wardens and wildlife biologists in the area, are obvious assets that will improve your odds of finding deer. But hunting them requires pre-season scouting. It reveals secrets of the land -- like how the wind shifts as the sun rises -- that you can use to better plan your hunt.

'¢ You're out of shape. Hunting mule deer usually means trekking long distances, and almost always uphill. It means spotting a deer a mile or more away and double-timing it across hills and ravines to get close enough for a shot.

It means navigating through thick brush or forest. And if you're not in shape for any of that, you're just not likely to see any deer.

"We may scout an area all summer and see some great bucks," Paul said. "But if a hunter isn't in condition to get up there and doesn't want to go, we're compelled to go somewhere we haven't spent as much time scouting."

The alternative to getting in shape, of course, is just to drive along the roads and hope for the best. Good luck with that!

'¢ Great expectations. Along with knowing the area, you need to know what kind of bucks it produces and what it takes to get them.

"The outdoor shows feature the biggest bucks and wrap up the whole hunt in 30 minutes," Zennie said. "They may not tell you it took two weeks of hard hunting to find that deer, or that they were hunting private land known for big bucks."

The bottom line here is don't pass up 16- or 17-inch bucks day after day, waiting for a 22-incher -- if no one's ever seen a buck that big in the area.

'¢ Do you know your gun? The practice of sighting-in your gun, knowing how to load it safely in the dark, and knowing exactly where a bullet's going to hit at various distances all seem obvious. But of the guides I talked to, every one has seen the same thing over and over again.

Hunters don't take the time to practice and get familiar with their weapon of choice and they muff the shot. Game over!

2. POOR GLASSING

More than anything else, glassing is the key to a successful hunt, but there are several wrong ways to do it.

'¢ Narrowed search. If you spend all your time staring at clearings, waiting for a deer to materialize, you're in for disappointment. Despite their size, mulies can use 2-foot high sagebrush or a four-foot dip in the terrain to become invisible.

"You have to visually pick through the brush, looking beneath every tree and behind every bush," Denne said. "If you look just in open spots, you'll leave thinking that nothing's there."

'¢ Looking for whole deer? Many hunters don't train themselves to look for anything other than a deer's entire body. Study photographs of the animal before your hunt, particularly the details of its features. That will make it easier to identify the small parts you're most likely to spot.

Look for ears, antlers, body lines, the white patch on the rump or on the head. Even eyes, noses and feet may be all a deer shows. But if you know what to look for, that will be enough.

'¢ Looking too close. Bottom line, if you don't have a spotting scope, you've come into the field without one vital piece of equipment. That can limit you in two ways.

First, you'll tend to focus your glassing within a few hundred yards, instead of looking out a mile

or more, where you can spot a buck and plan out a stalk.

Second, using a spotter can save you hours of time and effort, and even save your hunt. The last thing you want is to spend hours stalking a non-shooter buck -- or worse, a doe.

3. RUSHING THE STALK

Rarely do our hearts pound the way they do when a nice buck is centered in our binoculars and all we want to do is rush to a spot where it looks like we can take a shot. Unfortunately, if you let your excitement carry you away, you're abandoning your best weapon: your brain.

'¢ Failure to judge the buck. At one time or another, every hunter has experienced "ground shrinkage." The monster buck they saw in their scopes somehow turned average after the shot. Most likely, they didn't take the time to judge the buck accurately. The best indication of the size of the antlers is the buck's ears.

But once again, knowing the area and the animal you're hunting makes a difference.

"The ears on a big Rocky Mountain mule deer are going to measure 20 to 22 inches tip to tip when flared out straight," Paul said. "Ears on the smaller desert bucks are likely to be 16 to 18 inches."

'¢ Losing track of the deer. It's one thing to have a buck fade into the scenery because you took your eyes away from the spotting scope. It's quite another to completely lose track of the deer during your stalk.

Take the time to pick out land references to guide your approach.

"The terrain looks a lot different from above than when you're at brush level, working your way towards the deer," Zennie said. "Study that terrain carefully for reference points. Even take a compass bearing if you need to. But you should always have a good idea of where you are in relation to the buck."

A hunting partner who can keep an eye on the buck and guide you with hand signals can also be huge asset.

'¢ Going in too fast. Sure, you want to get within shooting distance as fast as possible, before the deer leaves the area or while there's still good shooting light. That said, taking the time to be careful and methodical in your approach -- glassing along the way -- offers a few benefits.

First, it's quieter, so there's less chance of spooking your deer or any others. Second, you can assess wind changes and revise your stalk accordingly. And finally, there's less chance of getting hurt, especially on steep and rocky terrain.

4. YOU STINK!

It's often said that you can fool a deer's eyes and ears, but you can never fool a deer's nose. Their sense of smell is roughly 100 times stronger than ours. There are so many ways your scent can give you away that it's just easier to make a list.

'¢ Clean up your act. Using scented laundry detergent, or storing your hunting clothes where they can absorb scents from your everyday clothes, are the most common mistakes. Another is wearing your hunting clothes in your car, where the odors of gas, oil, exhaust and last night's value meal can get all over them. Smoking during a hunt is probably the best way to guarantee solitude from all of God's creatures -- followed closely by the huge breakfast of eggs, sausage and coffee, with a toothpaste chaser.

Soaps and antiperspirants are all great, but if they have an iota of fragrance in them, they're useless compared to their unscented counterparts.

5. YOU'RE LOUD

'¢ Making it worse. OK, say you ignore the rule about not stepping on anything that you could simply step over -- and sure enough, some twig pops like a cannon. Hunt ruined?

Not likely, unless that expletive behind your now snarling lips manages to find its way out.

"A twig can be snapped by anything," Denne said. "It's a natural sound in the woods. But an audible 'Dammit!' . . . well, that's another story."

Rather than curse at the forest, it's better to just sit still and wait a few minutes. Deer startled by a noise won't automatically bolt unless they see or smell a threat. After a few minutes, they'll generally go right back to feeding or snoozing if you stay quiet.

'¢ Loud clothing of a different sort. This is any kind of garment that makes noise when it gets dragged along brush or branches, instantly putting any nearby deer on alert.

If you can rub your hand on your chosen clothing and hear any sound, you should go with an alternative, preferably wool.

Likewise, clasps on your gun sling that squeak when you walk, or anything that dangles and could conceivably collide with something solid and make noise, should be silenced.

6. YOU'RE AN EYESORE

Compared to its other senses, a deer's eyesight is best described as "decent." But that doesn't mean hunters have a wider margin for error. There are lots ways to get made.

'¢ Glassing in the open. Unless you plan to stay perfectly motionless, sitting down in a clearing to glass a hillside puts you at much greater risk of letting your movements give you away. Look for bushes, brush, trees and shadows to provide cover and break up your outline.

'¢ Too much walking. Animals are looking for any movement that could be a predator.

If they see you walking around, they'll just vanish into the brush. If they're close, they may just lay low and let you walk right by.

"Just take five slow steps, then stop and look around, glassing everything near and far, especially in timber," Paul said. "Deer would rather watch you walk by. But if you move slowly and stop, it can really unnerve them and may create a shot opportunity."

'¢ Muzzle madness. Most hunters already know better than to walk along a hilltop or ridgeline, where every living thing below can see them. They know to use the terrain to their advantage.

But there's one mistake that some guides see over and over.

"When you're stalking, you need to keep that gun barrel down and off your shoulder," Denne said.

"I've had too many clients use the terrain to hide their body. But they've got the gun on their shoulder, and there's the barrel sticking up like a flagpole over the ridgeline."

7. MUFFING THE SHOT

Books could be written about the mistakes hunters make when they take the shot. You could eliminate many of them by spending enough time at the range.

There are two mistakes, however, exclusive to the field.

'¢ Rushing the shot. In Hunte

r Safety, we all learned that if we're uncomfortable with the shot, we shouldn't take it.

But in the heat of the chase, it's sometimes easy to forget to focus, think and really set up the shot.

"Hunters are too quick to shoot. The deer busts out, and then they unload on the thing, trying to shoot freehand at a moving target," Zennie said. "That creates a huge risk that the animal will end up wounded instead of in a game bag."

'¢ Forgetting to work the angles. This is another one right out of Hunting 101, but it's amazing how much you forget when the biggest buck you've ever seen is only a couple of hundred yards away.

When shooting uphill or downhill at an angle, don't forget that the distance to the animal is only some percentage of what shows up in the range finder. At a 45-degree angle, for example, the actual distance is about 70 percent of what the range finder shows. Forget that, and you're likely to shoot over the deer's back.

'¢ Losing good meat. With a 250-pound deer at your feet, dragging the deer back to camp isn't an option.

Unless you have buddies who can come to your aid, you're going to have to quarter the animal or bone out the meat.

"It amazes me how many good hunters don't know how to bone out a deer," Zennie said. "There are plenty of books and videos that will teach you. It's worth the investment so none of that deer meat goes to waste.

So which mistakes did I make on that first hunt? I'll never tell! What matters is that I learned from them and became a better hunter for it.

I've also learned to appreciate the whole hunting experience, even when a perfect hunt doesn't put venison in my freezer. Sometimes the game gets away, no matter how good you are, and most of us wouldn't have it any other way.

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