Put these tips in your back pocket, and get ready to take that heavy-antlered mule deer buck you've been searching for.
You've made your plans, and you've done your scouting. Now it's time to put your plans into action and tag that mule deer buck.
However, it is November, and although the bucks are getting close to the rut, they have been hunted for a couple months. They are alert and watchful, the mature bucks even more so. They haven't survived this long without learning how to avoid hunters.
So, before you hike into those mountains, it might be a good time to take a little advice from a couple of seasoned mule deer veterans, and put these tips in your back pocket. Because, when the time comes, you'll need every bit of savvy advice you can get to tag that broad-antlered buck of a lifetime.
HUNT THE HIGH COUNTRY
In order to take that buck, you have to find him first. And a good place to start is at the top.
Buzz Ramsey is a name that is well known across the West, and while he is best known for his fishing prowess, he is a first-rate big game hunter with dozens of quality trophy animals to his credit. He has taken mature mule deer bucks in many Western states, and succeeded in killing good bucks in three different states in 2016.
In other words, he knows mule deer. And he knows where to look for the best ones.
"They like the high country," noted Ramsey. "You'll find them from three-quarters of the way up and farther on the high ridges." He explained that they like to be able to spot any trouble coming from a long way away. "They like a good view," he added.
Brian Lewis of Twisted Horn Outfitters has hunted and guided for mule deer across the West, and he agrees with Ramsey. "The big bucks will be in the rock draws on the biggest mountains," he said. "They love to bed up in the rocks. Look for rock draws on south-facing slopes. They stack up in there." For the bucks, it's a safety issue. "They want that million-dollar view," he noted.
Mule deer inhabit wide-open country, and their eyesight is their number-one defense from predators, both human and otherwise. It just makes sense that they are looking for a good vantage point with sweeping views around them. If that's where they are, how do you find them?
AND MORE GLASSING
The most effective way to locate the mature bucks is to scour those hillsides with some quality optics. It is a factor that both Ramsey and Lewis point to for their continued success, and they blame a lack of patience for stacking the deck against most hunters.
"It takes lots and lots of glassing," advised Lewis. "Guys don't glass enough, and that's a fact."
Those big bucks will sit tight for a long time. You need to be there, glasses in hand, when a buck decides to move. "Scan back and forth," said Ramsey. "Sometimes a buck will eventually get nervous and stand up." If you just scan the ridge once and move on, you may miss him.
"Mule deer can hide in nothing," he added. A buck can make use of a single clump of sage brush, put his head down, and disappear.
"If you know the numbers are there, trust yourself," said Lewis. "Just be patient." He advises hunters to just sit back and glass until that buck shows himself.
High quality optics will be your best friend at this point in the hunt. If you want to be able to dissect that ridge, parcel by parcel, you don't necessarily need the most expensive scope or binoculars, but going cheap just won't cut it.
GET BACK IN THERE
If you want mature bucks, you're going to have to get back away from the roads.
"Most hunters are hunting about a mile in," said Ramsey. Those guys are looking for easy bucks, and Ramsey hunted that way for years himself. Although he killed bucks, they weren't the quality he was seeking. "Now we hunt 3 or 4 miles back in," he said. And he now kills larger, older bucks.
Of course, it takes planning and preparation to hunt deep. First, you need to be in shape to leave those access points behind. And if you get something down out there, you need to be able to pack it out.
"We go in prepared to spend the night, so if we get one down in some canyon, we can hang it and pack it out the next day," he explained.
The strategy is to quarter the animal after some photos and pack it out that day if there is time. If there is not enough light left, then the deer is skinned, wrapped and hung overnight. The hunters either stay with the meat, or leave it and hike in early the next day for the retrieve.
LEARN TO SHOOT LONG
The ability to make long shots can be key to the success of the Western mule deer hunter. Consider the wide-open ranges that mule deer call home. The ability to make that long shot accurately and kill your game cleanly may make the difference between eating venison all year, or hamburger.
"You'll double your success if you can shoot 400 to 600 yards plus," said Lewis, who explained at that range mule deer do not consider you a threat. "At that distance the buck might see you, but will not bust immediately," he added.
However, if you intend to try the long shots, you need to be able to do it. "It's unsportsmanlike to take shots over 250 yards if you're not capable," said Ramsey. He has taken mule deer up to 430 yards and dropped them cleanly, but he did not learn how to do it overnight.
"Being prepared to take that longer shot takes practice," he said. "And you have to put some effort into it." He explained that hunters need to experiment with their rifle and loads until they find the right balance. The tools are out there. "Modern scopes and rifles will allow for those long shots," he noted.
"If you are just trying to shoot a mule deer, then shooting to 250 yards is OK," he said. "But the bigger bucks won't let you get that close very often. By November, the game is on high alert."
SCENT TO A KILL
A mule deer buck's second line of defense is his sense of smell, and if you do not pay close attention to the wind once you find a buck to go after, you may end up with nothing more than a view of the buck's backside as he heads for the next county.
"Mule deer are really dependent on smell," said Lewis. "You should use scents to cover your own, and pay close attention to the wind." This can be tough to do in some situations, since wind can swirl and shift in the high country. Still, if you do not use the wind to favor your stalk, you may end up with nothing.
HIRE A GUIDE
Certainly, your odds of tagging a trophy mule deer will go up if you hire a good guide. "We did it all by ourselves for years," said Ramsey. "I didn't go on my first guided trip until 2010." He is glad he has started to do it now. "You can learn so much from those guides," he added.
The advantages are obvious, and include local knowledge of the animals, as well as the logistics to take and pack out your deer. And, there is the fun of an outfitter adventure. "The horse hunts are really fun," noted Ramsey. If you haven't the time to scout, or have scant knowledge of the area, hiring a guide can up your odds exponentially.