Tag! You're It!

Just because it was tough to get the tag doesn't mean the buck will be easy to take. Here's how to make the most of your coveted mule deer tag. (October 2007)

Trying to draw a top tag is becoming more frustrating.

But if you're lucky and do the groundwork, you can turn that frustration into success.

Photo by John Higley.

Has this happened to you? After years of applying for a tag to hunt mule deer, you finally get drawn! It's a great day. For a while, your feet don't touch the ground. But then reality sets in. You begin to fret about just what you've gotten yourself into. On a whim, you had put in for a hunt that you heard about from a friend, only to realize now that you have no first-hand experience in the area to draw on.

What now? These days, your life is so hectic that time literally flies. Opening day will be here before you know it. No sweat, you decide, after mulling things over. It's a special tag, so the deer ought to be thick.

Heck, even if there's no chance to scout, finding a nice buck to tie your tag on should take only a day or two.

Oh, really?

'THERE AIN'T NO DEER!'

That was our theory several years ago, when a buddy and I drew tags for a high-desert mule deer hunt in an area we'd heard about, but had never seen. Being young and way too energetic, we figured we'd just drive to the area, set up camp, and then locate and kill some dandy bucks in a few days' time. Confidence is a wonderful thing. But it wasn't long before ours dissolved into frustration.

The area was huge. To us, it all looked the same, but most assuredly not to the deer. There were rugged canyons and serpentine draws, mahogany and juniper-smothered hills, even a few springs here and there.

We hiked into likely-looking spots and drove our pickup miles and miles on the back roads -- they were all back roads -- hoping to find some game, somewhere. Even tracks were scarce, and well-used game trails were nowhere to be found.

We hunted hard from daybreak to dusk. While taking a new route back to camp one evening, we spotted a dim light shining at the base of a rolling hill. To us, it was a beacon of hope. A few minutes later, we were parked in front of a dilapidated house trailer.

A dog barked inside as I summoned the nerve to knock on the door. In a nearby corral a horse whinnied, but it was too dark to see.

A skinny old guy answered the door in his undershirt He had at least some of his teeth remaining and a white, week-old beard. He was pleasant and chatty, perhaps because he lived like a hermit for months at a time. Turns out he was a cowboy who kept tabs on the open-range cattle.

Not surprisingly, he knew the country like the back of his hand.

I asked him if he knew where we could find some deer. And I'll never forget his reply.

"Podner," he said, "there ain't no deer!"

Considering our tender ages, I honestly don't know if my companion and I would have done things differently, had we taken a more thoughtful approach to our pre-hunt planning. But I certainly hope we would have!

Obviously, since we did practically no homework before our hunt began, we inadvertently settled on a location that looked good, but held no deer.

With the aid of a spotting scope, we eventually did locate a couple of bucks. But they were a long way off, across a deep canyon. We crossed that canyon on foot, which took us a couple of hours, but never saw those deer again. In the end, we went home empty-handed.

That was back in the days when there were a lot more mule deer around, and you could realistically expect to get a tag for the same area practically every year.

Times have changed. According to game department records, mule deer numbers have declined throughout their range. A variety of factors have contributed to the drop, but the bottom line is that lower numbers mean less hunting opportunity.

Bear in mind, the decline doesn't mean there aren't plenty of mule deer for the hunting, just that there aren't as many deer as there were a few decades ago.

Tags must be limited accordingly. So if you're one of the chosen few who get a tag, it makes sense to exert the effort to make the most of your good fortune. You never know when the opportunity will surface again.

STAY UPDATED

Even if you've been to the area before, it may have changed significantly since your last visit. It's most disconcerting to find that a recent wildfire has turned your favorite place into a charred moonscape, or that roads leading into it were washed out by winter flooding.

Moreover, even if you are familiar with the area, you may find that for one reason or another, its deer are hard to come by.

In 2006, a female member of my family (OK, my daughter Meredith) received a high-desert mule deer tag. She was excited. Her husband Robert got a similar tag the year before, so he already knew something about the area. Being young parents and incredibly busy people, they figured they could allow only a couple of three-day weekends to hunt.

Ideally, that would be enough time to find a passel of bucks from which to choose.

Wrong! In fact, the deer were scarce, perhaps because the unusually warm weather had them holed up during daylight hours.

Whatever the reason, two weekends were not enough. While the hunting was fun, their efforts did not result in a buck on the ground. Setting aside a longer continuous block of time for hunting, during which they could have explored places more thoroughly, would have given them a much better chance for success.

An acquaintance of mine had much better success. A week prior to opening day, he actually traveled to the particular zone for which he was picked. He took his time, scouting around until he found some deer, including a better-than-average buck that seemed at home in a remote basin. Armed with a plan, our hero left camp in the dark on opening day and again climbed the steep side hill toward the basin.

At first light, incredibly, he spotted the same buck feeding in a patch of thick brush on a knoll less than 200 yards away. He killed the buck with a single well-placed shot.

Getting the deer back to camp was considerable work, but the savvy hunter was more than happy to do it.

Sometimes you can do no wrong. But as we all know, deer hunting is always a game of chance. Even during the best of times, there's no guarantee of success, which is as it should be. You can do everything right, in your attempt to put yourself in the right place at the right time, and still get stymied by unusual weather events, vehicle breakdowns, illness or an emergency back home.

You never know in advance what's in the cards. But simply by drawing a mule deer tag these days, you've won a mini-lottery of sorts. Now, as they say, the work begins. There are no hard and fast rules, but there are definite things you can do to better your odds of tagging a buck.

Talk is cheap, of course, and the best advice is not always followed. Whatever your approach, it might work just fine for you. However, if I were drawn for a tag after several years, I'd at least try to get a head start on the actual hunt before opening day by gathering as much information as possible.

STEP 1: MAPS, RESOURCES

The first logical step is simply to get appropriate maps of the hunting area. A list of contacts is usually included with the hunting regulations, or you can look online. If the area you'll be hunting consists mostly of Bureau of Land Management territory, you can get publications and information on branches by going to www.blm.gov.

If national forest land is involved, go to . From that site, you can look up the particular forest of your choice and get background information, including the cost of maps and how to purchase them.

Standard maps show road systems, place names and offer campground information, among other things. These maps are always an asset in finding your way around or figuring out how to get where you want to go. But with few exceptions, they are not topographic and do not show contours of the terrain.

You can get topographic maps for the various places you intend to hunt from the U.S. Geological Survey by visiting www.store.usgs.gov. Topographic maps are also sometimes available from local sporting-goods outlets. Also available are state-specific books full of topographic maps produced by DeLorme Mapping Company. They are sold through many sources, and you can check them out at www.delorme.com.

Yes, there are other ways to get maps these days, through online programs and such. And if that appeals to you, have at it. You can never have enough maps.

STEP 2: TALK IT UP

Of course, simply getting a few maps won't tell you much about the whereabouts of the deer occupying the space. However, once you have a map or two and have figured out which unit your tag is good for, you can home in on potential hunting areas even before you've actually seen them, by talking with a variety of people.

One veteran mule deer hunter I know had some suggestions.

"You'd be surprised by what you'll find out if you just talk to friends," said Larry Brower. "One of them may have been to the area before, or know of someone who has.

Brower once got drawn for a zone in California that was his fifth choice.

"I hate to admit it, but I wrote the number in only to fill the space," he said. But he started checking around and learned that the stepfather of a guy he knew who lived in that part of the state had hunted the same zone a year before.

"That guy started me in the right direction," said Brower, "and because of that, I eventually got my buck."

STEP 3: THE STATE

Another thing you should do is make a phone call or two to whatever game department you'll be dealing with. Phone numbers are available online and in regulations books. The idea is to find the game biologist involved with the area, or someone else who has worked there.

Don't be shy to do this sort of thing. Game departments are in the business of creating and selling hunting opportunities, and I've found that they are quite willing to help me when I call.

Don't expect miracles, though. Unless you ask about a spot specifically, you probably won't get pinpoint directions. Rather more likely is a general overview of the unit, and the possibilities within it. And there's where your maps come in. Mark down on your map place names mentioned, along with roads, landmarks and such.

Ask about any recent changes in the area you'll be hunting. Even if you're somewhat familiar with it, there may have been unexpected changes due to some catastrophe or another.

For example, in one area where I hunted mule deer a few years ago, one of the most highly recommended spots was lost to a wildfire caused by lightning. I didn't find that out until I showed up. Thankfully, my research had turned up couple other places that filled the gap.

It would be nice if we all had the time to do a thorough job of scouting before the season opened. However, in these overly busy times, that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Looking at the whole picture, it's obvious that pre-hunt homework is especially important when you can't visit the area in advance in person.

As we've seen, another vital ingredient is simply enough time during the actual hunt. To be sure, a quickie trip is better than nothing, but it's much better to allow yourself a generous amount of time in your chosen hunting area. You can always return home early, but it's hard to stretch your days if they aren't scheduled in advance. At least, that has been my experience.

Time is important because it may not be easy to locate the deer initially. They won't be everywhere, even though the landscape all around looks much the same. That said, typical mule deer habitat supports deer in a variety of locations, ranging from alpine basins to agricultural lands and everything in between. Rugged canyons and bench lands have potential, as do mountains and finger ridges covered with sagebrush and junipers.

The only guarantee is that some of the terrain will be a real challenge to traverse in a vehicle, and even more difficult on foot. Because you can't always rely on a 4WD or ATV to get around, your physical condition is also of real importance. And if your hunt will be at high elevation, that goes double.

Because most mule deer hunting takes place in fairly open, somewhat rugged terrain, good optics are essential. In fact, for a patient hunter, glassing with binoculars or a spotting scope is about the best way to find deer initially. You won't burn yourself out physically by hiking everywhere, and you're less apt to get careless. The trick to glassing effectively is to be in position and watching at the right time -- usually early or lat

e in the day.

I say "usually" because late one morning, when I was almost cross-eyed from staring through my spotting scope, I panned a spot I'd looked at 50 times before and suddenly saw movement. Right before my eyes, three nice bucks suddenly materialized in the tall sagebrush.

My best guess is that they were simply looking for more shade. After moving just a few yards they plopped down again and disappeared completely. If I hadn't been watching at that exact moment, I'd never have known they were there.

Mule deer tags are strictly limited these days, so it makes sense to treat them as something special and try to make the most of your opportunity. Do your homework, scout if possible, and be prepared to stick it out until the bitter end. Focus on the objective, and your odds for success will really be quite good. That's your plan.

Now, all I've got to do is get a mule deer tag, and follow my own advice!

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