October 12, 2023
My first out-of-state DIY mule deer hunting road trip, back in the late 1970s, was a complete bust. In my defense, I didn’t have the advantages of Google Earth, mapping apps, a scouting camera or looking up the weather on my smartphone. I basically went in blind, and my results showed it. Though I hunted hard and used some off-beat tactics, I only saw some does and small bucks. While I don’t remember all the specifics, I do recall that I had no idea what I was doing. Today, however, I have a system that works. Here are the seven principles I use to find consistent success on public lands.
1. GATHER KNOWLEDGE
The foundation for any hunt is pre-hunt research and diligent scouting. Your goal is to "shrink your focus." By that I mean you must shrink the general area of the hunt from a large, unmanageable piece (the entire game management unit) down to a specific mountain range, then down to a drainage or two. Break those drainages into smaller chunks that can be thoroughly hunted in the amount of time available to you.
You start this process at home, long before the truck is gassed up. Game departments have all the statistics you need about recent deer harvests, buck-to-doe ratios, winter kill statistics and even hunter numbers and pressure. Use Google Earth, HuntStand, onX Maps and other mapping and hunting apps to give you a clear picture of the ground. Use this information to form a basic plan built around a scouting list. Then, once on the ground, you’ll have more time to hike and glass, making it easy to stay mentally focused instead of wondering what to do next.
Whenever possible, you should scout prior to opening day. Making a summertime trip to the area is great if you can do it. There are many reasons for this, but two stand out. First, while hunting apps are great, there is no substitute for boots-on-the-ground knowledge about the hunt area. Second, only by putting eyes on the area can you learn some of the small things that can make a big difference. Is a road washed out, a trail closed or a traditional water source dried up? Are there roads that are not shown on your maps (this happens more often than you might think)? What crops are area farmers growing? Are the oaks loaded with acorns this year? Little things can have big impacts on a hunt.
2. BUDGET ENOUGH TIME
No matter the game you’re pursuing, this basic fact remains: The more time you can be in the field, the better your chances. A weekend is great if that’s all you have and you’re hunting locally. When traveling, my basic program has always been at least two weekends and the week in between, including travel days. That’s seven full days afield, which is my minimum. Also, the amount of time budgeted often depends on the kind of tag I am hunting. If it’s a general tag that’s relatively easy to obtain, I hunt hard. If it’s a once-in-a-lifetime special draw tag, I may burn all my vacation days and hunt for weeks at a time. When it comes to time in the field, there’s no such thing as too much.
3. HAVE A VISION
When I was young and much dumber, I thought the key to mule deer hunting was to get out before dawn and hike as many miles as possible each day, hoping and praying with every step. All I did was spook huge numbers of deer, and I never did kill any good bucks. Then an old man showed me the error of my ways.
"Let your eyes do the walking," he told me, loaning me his battered 7x35 World War II binoculars. Then he helped me glass up and shoot my first really good buck, and I was sold.
In the 1980s, a good friend, Arizona hunting guide DuWane Adams, pioneered putting the then-cutting-edge 15x60 Zeiss binocular on a tripod, and we started finding bucks nearly a mile away without any chance of spooking them. Glassing is the foundation of spot-and-stalk hunting.
Modern-day mule deer hunting is an optics-driven game. It is hard to hunt public ground today without running into other hunters who mount 15X binos atop lightweight tripods (accompanied by a buddy packing a spotting scope) and hunt with sniper-accurate rifles topped with riflescopes having a top-end magnification of 14X or more. They hunt with a high-volume pack that allows them to easily transport their optics, bow or gun, and other essentials.
4. GLASS PROPERLY
The old man who showed me the importance of glassing had another important rule. "Don’t be afraid of the dark," he told me. "You have to be set up and ready to glass before first light and stay until you cannot see anymore. That means hiking in the dark."
Simple advice, but I’ve met a lot of hunters who don’t like the dark, and therefore miss out on the most productive few minutes of each day.
Step one is to pick a vantage point that allows you to see a lot of country. Glass every inch, but always remember that mule deer—especially older bucks—favor the shade. The old rule of thumb was to never glass to the east in the morning, but mule deer like to bed on north- and west-facing slopes where the shade is deep, the temperatures cool and the browse lush. To glass them, you have to face south and east at first light. Also, be ready to glass all day. Serious glassers pack along a foam pad to sit on, and/or use a tripod that allows them to stand up and glass from time to time.
Many hunters only hunt and/or glass in the early mornings and evenings, which of course is “prime time” for mule deer movement. However, deer move throughout the day, typically to change beds as shady areas change. In the evening, glass until it’s too dark to see. If I find a good buck at last light, I know where he lives and can concentrate my efforts there in subsequent days.
5. MAKE YOUR MOVE
Once you’ve located a buck at distance, you have to move in for a shot, and you must be methodical. If hunting with a buddy, leave him behind to monitor the buck as you close the gap. Communicating via hand signals keeps you in the loop if the stalk causes you to lose sight of the buck for some time.
In the morning, you can often watch a buck bed for the day before making your move. Sometimes you can see him lie down; other times he’ll go into a cut, canyon or brushy hole and not come out, so you generally know his location. That’s when you move into range, set up and wait him out.
I’ve witnessed many successful hunts proceed thusly: A good buck is glassed a mile away first thing in the morning as he disappears into a dark canyon. The hunter takes his time to sneak into position before shooting the deer at last light as it emerges for its evening food run. A big advantage to this "controlled aggression" type of hunting is that even if you don’t get a shot, you typically don’t spook the deer and have a great chance of making it happen the following day.
6. RESPECT THEIR SENSES
As a hardcore bowhunter, it’s ingrained in my DNA to always respect an ungulate’s eyes, ears and nose—and I don’t forget it when packing a rifle either. This applies not just to my target buck, but also any lesser bucks, does and yearlings that might be in the area.
Always use whatever terrain you have to your advantage, whether it be a ridge, bluff, gully or tree line. Get out of sight and allow yourself to move quickly without fear of being seen, heard or smelled. Never underestimate a mule deer’s hearing, and constantly monitor the wind as you make your way to the deer.
Remember that mature muley bucks bed with a great deal of care. They like beds in the shade, looking downslope on the lee side of some structure such as rimrock, a clump of trees or a ridge. Winds often swirl when flowing around this structure, which allows them to smell everything behind them while they are looking forward. That’s one big reason why, once a buck has bedded for the day and has committed to a general bedding area, he will rarely move far until evening.
7. PICK YOUR POCKETS
Public ground gets pounded these days. Mature bucks have survived by avoiding lazy, careless hunters who hate leaving easy access or the comfort of a truck cab. Part of my pre-hunt research and scouting program is trying to locate little out-of-the-way pockets of isolated cover where deer can bed without being spotted from a road or major hiking trail. By budgeting lots of time, I can seek out these pockets and hunt them thoroughly. You should, too, even if they require a long hike.
- This article was featured in the West edition of September 2023’s Game & Fish Magazine. How to subscribe.