High-Mountain Mule Deer
September 24, 2010
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.
Preparing yourself physically for severe conditions is crucial to the success of your hunt. There's nothing quite like the trials and tribulations you will face as you push your body to its physical limits, day in and day out. It's key to remain physically strong to sustain the level of motivation required to continue on with your pursuit of a big mountain buck.
Do yourself a big favor and months prior to your hunting trip, start a strict cardio and full-body strengthening program. I found that cross-training works best to prepare me for what I know lies ahead. Bicycling, hiking, weight training and swimming are just part of my daily workout routine.
Most importantly is my cardio workout to strengthen my heart and improve my wind. That gives my body the ability to recover quickly and be able to continue on, no matter how hard the challenge
or how steep the ridge.
For this I purchased an elliptical machine a few years ago. For 45 minutes a day, I push my body to its max while the machine is set to its highest climbing intensity level. Believe me, when you've completed 45 minutes on an elliptical machine, you know you've worked out!
MULE DEER TACTICS, TIPS
Here are some tips that will give you a safer, more enjoyable experience and increase your chances at taking a trophy mule deer that only dreams are made of.
1. Acclimate Yourself
Most people in the West live at an elevation below 2,000 feet. At 10,000-plus feet, the air is so thin that your body strains with every breath as your lungs try to take in more oxygen than is available.
Trying to climb the vertical terrain while stalking mule deer, your thigh muscles burn, and as you become lightheaded and dizzy, you begin feeling the effects of the altitude.
This is normal, if you have not given your body a chance to acclimate prior to your hunt.
Let me give you some very valuable advice: Don't drive for hours to your hunting spot, get out of your vehicle and start packing your gear up the mountain to set up camp.
You could be in for a very rude awakening -- and quite possibly, some very serious physical trouble. Altitude sickness is serious and is not to be taken for granted.
I live pretty close to sea level, so for me, the change in altitude when hunting high mountain mulies is quite drastic. I arrive at my destination at least two to three days before beginning my hunt. I try to keep from doing anything too strenuous and give my body a chance to acclimate to the change in altitude. Then when my body is ready, I strap on my backpack and meet the mountain head-on.
2. View To A Kill
Quality optics are the most important tool for locating game. They'll also save you miles of walking and give you the advantage of spotting bucks before they spot you.
For my hunts, I use both a 10x42 binocular and a 20-60x85 spotting scope. The binoculars allow me to look over a great deal of terrain in a short amount of time. I use the spotting scope for longer distances and to determine trophy potential.
When glassing for hours from a high vantage point, mount your binoculars or spotting scope to a quality tripod that's lightweight but strong enough to resist high winds.
The more comfortable you feel, the longer you'll be able to glass, and the more game you will find.
Transition zones are areas where deer feel secure as they walk to feeding and bedding areas. These zones provide cover to conceal bucks' movement, plus a somewhat clear field of vision to detect danger.
If you find this type of area, try to intercept a buck as he enters or exits from it on one of his travel routes.
If highly pressured, most mature bucks will become nocturnal. The trick is not to educate them of your presence. At least an hour before sunrise, position yourself on a high vantage point. With your high-powered optics, try to locate bucks leaving feeding areas that contain water and plenty of lush vegetation.
High alpine bowls along the northeast slopes are usually good areas to watch. Glass them as bucks meander to higher ground on their way to their well-established day beds. Now it's time to set up your plan of attack.
Wary old bucks prefer to bed in shady cool areas at the base of bluffs or tucked against rock ledges. With their backs protected and the wind at their face, they relax comfortably while escaping the heat of the day. Mule deer could scratch out their bed from the ground within a small group of trees, a lone boulder or just nestled in the sage on the side of a slope.
4. Spot And Stalk
I position myself well before first light in a spot where my optics can reach out and comb a large area. I spend hours carefully dissecting the shadows cast by every boulder, bush or tree. I try to pick out the smallest of movements: an ear twitch, a slight tail movement, a patch of leg.
Once in a while, you can catch the full figure of a buck or movement of his rack as he repositions himself to escape the sun's rays.
When I find a buck worth pursuing, I put him to bed and give him plenty of time to settle in for the day.
There's no rush, because the waiting game has just begun.
Next, you must wait for the thermals to change and flow upward. This usually happens during the mid-morning hours. Don't begin your stalk before the thermals have stabilized. Swirling wind currents will give you away.
Now it's time to make your move and slowly position yourself for a stalk. Use the contour of the land to conceal your movements. Most of the time, the terrain will be so steep that a slight-angle approach from above is best to secure your footing and to prevent rocks from dislodging.
5. Hunting Water Holes And Seeps
Depending on where and what months you choose to hunt, temperatures can be extremely warm, and water can be scarce
Seek out a water hole or even a seep where deer feel secure enough to sneak in for a drink every day.
Setting up a tree stand or pop-up blind near a water source can be productive if you have the patience for it. If you decide on this method of hunting, be prepared to sit it out all day.
Remember that deer need water, and it's not unusual for a big buck to get thirsty and visit his regular watering hole during midday hours.