Mule Deer Lessons from Dad Still Apply

Mule Deer Lessons from Dad Still Apply

The author shares stories of the lessons he's learned about mule deer hunting from his father. (Shutterstock image)

"You have to get out on your hind legs and get after them," Dad would say. I realize now there are really no other kind of legs, but my dad, Wayne Haley, was right. Having cut his teeth during the golden age of Western mule deer hunting, he's a bit of a pioneer. His approach (the way I broke in) was different. It still works!

BE ORIGINAL

Dad took his first mule deer in 1961 while hunting with his lifelong buddy, George Corder. George's grandfather settled in 1918 in Little Valley, California, and started an impressive ranch that included an indoor gym. The family never left.

The hunting Corders of Little Valley have a trophy room that rivals any in the West, including one of the few, if any, rams taken on an unguided hunt from the Southern California wilderness. George and his three boys are crazy mule-deer hunters, farming most of the year then hunting the rest.

George played basketball at Reno and was lightning-fast. He and Dad were teammates in high-school but competitors in college. Dad also played football at the University of Hawaii. I competed against the youngest Corder, Tarron, in high school and college. These guys combined athleticism with their hunting. Dad said George hunted deer like a hound dog: He just ran 'em down.

Dad traded 25 sets of antlers to an artisan who made him a set of butcher knives with the buck horns he took with George. We cut and wrapped numerous deer together with those tools, which I'll inherit. He took bucks for 50 consecutive years in various Western states after that, including some big ones, before eating a tag; in his late 60s.

BUST OUT THE CHUCK TAYLORS

I was taught to get off the roads and away from crowds. Dad also believed in getting away from deer. “If you’re seeing too many deer, you won’t find the right kind of buck,” he told me. I hated that as a young hunter.

It’s fun seeing deer in lush, pretty country, but he was right about those no-nothing patches of woods and ugly rock rims without water. Mule deer don’t water daily. They can go a while without it and will travel miles for a drink. That means, extend the range of your hunts beyond what seems reasonable.

This probably doesn’t come as a total surprise to everyone, but these guys often hunted shirtless in tennis shoes. That’s quite unorthodox among today’s hunters today, who, it seems, sometimes compete for the newest/best camouflage clothing on the market. Believe, me, hunting in your Chuck Taylors can be quite liberating and makes a guy feel really quick and nimble.

Dad’s bunch was all about covering ground. And I mean fast! I was playing basketball and running track in college when I got my first taste of this method with some local mule deer junkies. I recall the story of a giant buck one of the men stepped on during a drive.

Dad, father-and-son ranchers Bud and Craig Knoch, and another lanky college basketball player, Robert Utterback, fanned out across the high sagebrush and started up the side of Bald Mountain in northeast California. I couldn’t believe the pace. I fell behind quickly and stayed there. I remember thinking, “What are these guys doing!?” It was a total race!

I lost track of the whole group, but they spotted and passed several solid mule deer bucks before we joined back up for what I thought was a break. Nope. They lined up for another hunt. This time, we ran a finger ridge where they’d spotted some dandy bucks scouting. They found a bedded 3-point they weren’t interested in and, after finishing, proceeded to plan a third hunt for me.

I had to return to school, so this one was mine. They laid out a plan that worked to perfection. I was amazed. Two guys ran the ridge to bump the buck, while others posted on the sides, fully visible. Myself and trophy hunter Boise Muse posted on the same ridge, separated by a swale, with a vantage point at 200 yards, head-on.

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Dad predicted when the buck would show. It hustled down the ridge weaving through bitterbrush. We let him come. When the buck closed to 150 yards, he whispered, “Be ready. He’s gonna smell us.”

At that moment, the buck locked, threw his head up, looked both ways and started to side-hill off the ridge. “Ok, get after him,” Dad said. I put the buck down but, to my amazement, he got up and vanished. Dad broke my trance by chiding me to get down there. Luckily, I had my Converse on!

NO LOITERING

One year, I wanted to glass high-mountain basins in Nevada with my new spotting scope. I’d done the research and tag applications, so I laid out the plan for the first morning. Our party would slip into this giant basin from different angles and glass all morning, trying to turn up the large bucks we’d found scouting. Then, we’d slowly move into shooting range and put the squeeze on them, denying exit routes.

Dad had another plan in mind, but he forgot to share it. After my cousin, Doug, and I slipped into position in the low light of morning, we posted up.

In minutes, I saw the glint of a rifle barrel in the rising sun about a half-mile out and smack-dab in the middle of the basin. We stayed two hours but never turned up a critter. Discouraged, we returned to camp to compare notes with the others.

Dad had bailed off into the basin from the rim above and walked up on a nice 27-inch 4-point, which he promptly passed up. I was livid.

The second morning found us on top of the giant plateau, again as it turned light, only farther down the canyon. I was solo this time, planted on a rock overlooking several basins and colorful draws.

Dad and our buddy, Joe, walked down the trail to my location. They asked about my plan. I explained that I would spend the morning there glassing. They would go on down the rim and hunt. I watched them walk less than 100 yards down the trail before bailing off directly below me. About 15 minutes later I heard a single shot. Joe had taken a 24-inch 4-point.

TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS

Keep your hunting simple. Outdoor pursuits have always been trendy. Fads come and go. It’s the long-range shooting craze this week, and packs and apparel the next. But it’s never one-size-fits-all. Dad’s bunch wore jeans and flannels and a piece of orange or red. They never dreamed of packing water, let alone heavy packs.

That’s unwise, I know. But the point is, let the wind and your hunting instincts determine your next move. It took 30 years, but I’m finally at that place where physical ability meets instincts. All of the information processed afield over the years comes together.

You learn to travel a low ridge, just below the skyline, rather than pushing through the head-high sage below. You learn to speed up here and slow down there. You begin to expect it to happen just before it actually does. 

I still don’t go quite as hard as Dad did. I employ a modified version of what I’ve learned and the techniques I enjoy. But there is a time and place. When I come to a fork in the trail and have to determine the next best move to turn up a buck, I remember Dad’s musings.

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