Marc Smith has been pursuing backcountry mule deer in the unsullied alpine basins of Colorado for well over a decade. During his mountain tenure, Smith has put down 13 bucks in Colorado’s high country. He has also successfully hunted many other western states, which gives him an overall harvest of 25 mule deer bucks — all taken with archery tackle. During the off-season, Smith puts on educational mule deer seminars across the West. He is a noted authority on the subject, and was willing to provide some valuable input in our question-and-answer conversation. So lets get in Smith’s head and unravel his high-country mule deer equation.
1) USE RECORD BOOKS TO IDENTIFY TROPHY RICH AREAS
According to Smith, a successful mule deer hunt must happen in phases. Phase one is research. Smith recommends hunters start by peeking in the Boone and Crockett and Pope and Yong Record books.
“Record books are invaluable!” Smith exclaimed. “I start by looking at the various counties in the Centennial State, and then string together those that have solid ten-year trophy trends. Once I find a consistency in particular counties, I start investigating them on the Internet. At this point, I specifically focus on the Game Management Units (GMU) in those counties. I use www.monstermuleys.com to check draw odds, and make a GMU pick at that point.”
2) NETWORK WITH OTHER HUNTERS
After Smith has chosen a trophy GMU, the next step is finding out all he can about the deer that inhabit it.
“Networking with other hunters is a pivotal part of research,” said Smith. “I have discovered some invaluable information on the state forums of popular websites, such as www.monstermuleys.com. It’s also a good idea to contact a local division of wildlife office and get the names and phone numbers of the local game warden and terrestrial biologist.
Be sure to contact these folks and pick their brains about things like herd counts, buck-to-doe ratios, predation statistics and just to obtain a few places to start using your map skills. Now it’s time to go to www.google.com/earth and start investigating the terrain you will be hunting. Take note of water sources and likely bedding areas.”
3) SELECT THE RIGHT GEAR
Now that you’re starting to get a little excited about planning a trophy mule deer hunt of your own, let’s switch gears and make sure you start accumulating the right gear.
“Mule deer hunting takes plenty of specialized equipment,” Smith noted. “Temperatures during the early bow season can range from well below freezing to a sizzling 80 degrees. For this reason the hunter must layer. Over the years I have tried every article of clothing on the market, and I only recently found my staple. It is Sitka Gear. This premium mountain gear is durable, lightweight and dries very quickly — making it second to none in terms of clothing.”
When hunting you will only go as far as your boots will carry you. A few bad blisters or sore feet and your hunt can end prematurely. Quality footwear is a must, especially on a backcountry adventure such as this.
“Having a solid foundation under your feet will make the hunt more enjoyable and comfortable,” said Smith. Walking in broken, uneven terrain with a hefty pack takes its wear on the feet. A bad selection in shoes can lead to blisters, sore hips, knees and back. You want to pick a mid-weight shoe that is 100 percent waterproof and very durable. I have found all that in the KayLand Zephyr. I then get a custom fit insert to add comfort and reduce the chance of nasty blisters.”
Last, but not least, is what carries the load in and out — the pack. Too many hunters cut corners here and invest in a mediocre, low-priced pack. This is a mistake. The last thing a hunter wants is for their pack to fail them when hauling gear in or packing meat out.
“My pack is basically my house when I’m in the backcountry — it carries everything,” Smith said. “Leave nothing to chance. Get a Sitka Gear Bivy 45 or a Badlands 4500. Both sport 4,500 cubic inches of space, which you will need to tote all your gear. Inside that pack be sure to have a lightweight tent and sleeping bag. I use the Advanced Bivy by Outdoor Research, but other great models such as the Hubba Hubba from MSR and the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL1 will keep you warm, dry and safe as well. These units are a bit pricy, but anything can happen in the high-country. I have been pounded by severe thunderstorms and other inclement weather for days. These high-quality tent systems often make the difference between life and death. As an added feature, I also incorporate a Kifaru Super Tarp. To make this system work simply attach the corners to low hanging tree limbs and stretch it tight. Another necessary item to stash in the pack is a good cook stove. There are several on the market, but it’s hard to beat the MSR Pocket Rocket.”
4) STRATEGY & TACTICS
All right, now you know where you’re going and some of the basic gear you need. Let’s jump into the hunt. First, you must know where to start prospecting for deer, and Smith recommends big bowls on south-facing slopes with east-facing canyons.
“These types of locations typically hold plenty of willow patches with stunted Jack Spruce trees mixed in. The willows purpose is two-fold. First, they serve as a woody browse and, second, they make great cover for bachelor bucks to hide in. The Jack Spruce provides adequate shade for the deer when temperatures begin to rise. The remaining part of ideal mule deer habitat is constituted of boulder fields and avalanche shoots. This is the classic muley country, and when I find this type of habitat it’s not long before I find the bucks,” Smith added.
“Once I climb high into my chosen alpine basin,” said Smith, “I put my optics to work and start looking for deer. … A lot has been written about the importance of optics, and it’s all true. Be sure to have quality glass and, preferably, a good spotting scope. My optics arsenal is made up of quality Nikon gear. I have found them to be the most clear and lightweight optics for the money. They function very well in low-light conditions when animals are up and on the move. The last piece of the optic puzzle is a reliable laser rangefinder. Pick one with angle compensation abilities as shots are often taken at drastic angles.
“Once I locate an animal I want to pursue, I take pictures of the surroundings with my digital camera. These pictures actually serve as a guide while I work myself within bow range. This is a great tip few people take advantage of. It is also imperative to approach the deer from above, but be sure to never skyline yourself. During the approach keep an eye on your arch nemesis, the wind. If the wind changes direction, you must back off and change your approach. It doesn’t matter if deer see you or smell you — once you have tipped your hand to them, they will blow out of the basin.”
Now that you have made a perfect stalk, it’s time to run an arrow through that trophy of a lifetime. Unfortunately, this is where most hunters blow it.
“Things get exciting during crunch time, but you must stay calm and keep your head,” Smith notes. “Above all, do not throw sticks or rocks at a bedded buck in an attempt to get him to stand. I know this tactic has received some press over the years, but please don’t make the mistake. This tactic does not work — period! Patience is a virtue and it’s time to exercise some. Be sure to wait the buck out and keep an eye on the wind. When he does come to his feet, settle your pin and make a clean shot.”
The elation of seeing an arrow smash perfectly through the vitals of your quarry is an amazing feeling. Take a moment to soak it all in and snap some quality photos.
Now the work begins.
5) MEAT CARE
“During the early part of the bow season the temperature can really work against you,” says Smith. “First, worry about your meat. I know those horns are beautiful, but they need to hang high in a tree for the rest of the day and night while you pack your meat back to the truck. Most likely some of your meat will have to be left behind as well; mule deer are big! What you can’t stuff in your pack needs to be pulled high in the shade of the tree with the horns. After a good night’s rest, head back in and pack the rest out. Now you can worry about horn care. During the early bow season, August and early September, horns are still growing. They will begin to spoil in two days. The sooner you can get them in a cooler or to a taxidermist, the better.”
Well there you have it. Hardcore advice from one of the best in the business. All that is left to do is take that advice to the mountain and chase down the muley of your dreams. Happy hunting!