Mule Deer: How to Bag a Hot Weather Buck
July 30, 2015
The hottest part of the day is when many hot weather bucks are taken by dedicated hunters.
Inching forward I could see the top of a bucks rack poking above the edge of a cut bank. Arrow nocked, my boots had been off for the past 200 yards, making for silent stalking in socked feet.
The parched ground became nosier with each move I made. "Ten more yards," I thought to myself. "That's all I need and I'll be able to get a shot." Covering that 10 yards took nearly 20 minutes, but i was finally where I wanted to be.
Slowly coming to my knees, more of the buck's grand rack was revealed. He was big, heavy 4x4, but at this point I couldn't even see his ears. Slowly reaching full-draw, I slowly stood; that's when I knew it wasn't going to happen.
I'd just spent nearly three hours on that big buck, and where he bedded made it impossible to get an arrow into him. In an effort to escape the intense heat'“ which was projected to be in the upper 90s on that early September day in the Rockies'“ the buck climbed high, then bedded against a cut bank.
The stalk went perfectly, I just underestimated the severe angle of the cut the buck bedded against.
Backing out, I spooked the big buck. He rambled off, and I never saw him again. We'd captured the action on film for a TV show, and looking back, there's nothing I could have done differently on that stalk. In hindsight, I wouldn't have made the stalk had I known there was no shot angle.
Hunt The Shade
When it's hot, many hunters spend only the first and last few hours afield. But the hottest part of the day is when many bucks are taken by dedicated hunters.
At high elevations it's common for big bucks to seek shade by climbing high as the morning progresses. When you stop and think about why, it makes sense. At night, deer often drop in elevation to feed. As daylight comes, deer start moving back to their bedding areas, usually uphill from where they've fed.
Whether hunting early'“season mulies in the Rocky Mountain states, whitetails in the region's hills or Columbia blacktails in their challenging habitat, focus on the shade, all day long.
The uphill movement begins as cold air is falling from high elevations, meaning the deer are moving into the wind. Not only does this cool them down while they're moving, it also allows them smell predators.
As temperatures begin to warm and thermals, swirl, bucks often will mill around, feed, even bed down. Sometimes the initial bedding is brief; sometimes they may spend the entire day in that spot.
When bucks get up from their initial bed, often it's because they want to seek even higher ground, where rising air currents will eventually move across them, offering relief from the heat. Once the buck has bedded for the day, typically very high on a knoll or ridge, then it' s prime time to plan an attack. Due to rising wind currents, the best chance at a shot comes from stalking from above.
If the buck isn't in an approachable position '“ like what happened to me'“ move in as close as you can without spooking him. To pull this off, come in from the side, not below, so rising winds don't carry your scent toward the buck. If you can't get close enough for a shot, wait.
If the buck is bedded in the open, it may be in the shade now, but as the sun shifts, the buck will become exposed, eventually overheat and get up to re-bed in nearby shade. Sometimes a deer will stand, take a few steps and re-bed to be covered in shade. Other times they may travel several yards to seek shade. What they do determines your next move.
If the buck re-beds and can't be stalked, wait until evening. Being close to a buck's bedding area is precisely where you want to be late in the day.
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This is when bucks start to rise, stretch and nibble their way down toward their nightly feeding spot.
Once the buck is up, re-check and keep checking the wind, then plan your stalk. For early-season rifle hunters, you're in good position to fill a tag; for archers, there's still a lot of work to be done, but at least you the buck's location.
While deer often occupy the higher elevation areas, they also thrive in lowland terrain, including river bottoms, farmlands, marshes and even dense forest. When hunting these habitats the approach is different than when targeting them higher, usually amid more open habitats.
In thick habitats, search for everything deer need to survive, in one area: Food, cover, water.
Often, deer get all the water they need from the green vegetation they eat, but in hot regions or during drought-like conditions, deer may need to travel for water.
Riverbanks and creeks are obvious places to search for deer coming to waters, as are edges of ponds and small waterholes. Springs, seeps and tiny rills are also places deer may hit, but these sites can be tough to find.
If you can sit over a water hole, great, especially if you can see down a trail for any distance. For archers, tree stands and ground blinds are good options to get close to water, where you can sit all day.
If you can't get close to a water hole, consider setting up along travel routes that connect them with feeding and bedding zones. Often, bucks drink on their way to bed and on their way to feed, so intercepting them is possible.
Wild fruit can also produce enough moisture where deer don't need to drink. Plums, apples, pears, even vegetable crops, can provide all the moisture a deer needs to survive. When finding such food sources, bedding areas aren't usually far. In fact, deer can bed in thickets very close to such feeding areas.
In agricultural habitats, hit the brushy tangles between the feeding zones and the river or at the bases of hills. This is where the most cover and shade is, offering protection and relief to deer in the hot days of early fall.
If hunting canyons and wooded draws, look for old fruit trees or orchards in the bottom. It amazes me how many trees and orchards I've found over the years of hunting throughout the West; trees that were usually introduced by settlers to the region. Some good bucks hang out in these spots, so thoroughly hunt them.
Finding deer in hot weather is one thing, hunting comfortably, and safely, is another. Having hunted many western states during the hot months, I've found the most valuable tool to keep me going is water.
A hydration pouch with a tube extending through the strap of your pack is the best thing to keep you hydrated. It's surprising how much water you'll drink with a full hydration pouch, versus carrying one little water bottle that you don't want to take your pack off to access.
When you head afield, plan to hunt until dark. Load your pack accordingly, bringing along enough food. Archers, toss in a pair of thick wool socks, so when you do commence a final stalk on dry ground, you can slip your boots off, put the wool socks on and proceed in silence.
Invest in some high-tech, lightweight clothing as well as lightweight boots or even athletic shoes. Toss in a knife and a sharpener and be ready to bone out the meat and pack it out.
This deer season, don't let the heat beat you. Use these hot days to your advantage and hit the woods. No matter how hot it is, deer still have to eat. And now that you know where to look, you'll be amazed how productive hot weather deer hunting can truly be.
Note: This article was previously published in Game & Fish magazines in 2015. Click here to subscribe