November 09, 2023
Setting up a little camp the day before the season opener, I quickly got to scouting. I found some good bucks and didn’t see another person, so I was pleased.
Then, soon after dark, a truck drove by. Then another. And another. All night long hunters rolled into the area. When I awoke the next morning, I thought I was at a college football tailgate party. Such are the challenges of some public-land mule deer hunts.
By daylight I was where I wanted to be, along with more deer hunters than I’d ever seen. Some were within 100 yards of me. Rather than sit and glass, most hunters headed into the tall sage that towered over their heads.
Flustered, I dove off the mountain. On my way down, movement toward the bottom of the draw caught my eye. Staring through my binocular, I saw nothing and dismissed it as a jack rabbit. Then a doe, low to the ground, neck outstretched, slithered beneath the tall sage. A buck followed. I sat and watched. There wasn’t a single hunter below me.
I saw four more bucks over the next two hours, all heading to the flats at the bottom of the draw. I made a move and killed a 4-point on the flattest ground around.
When hunting public-land mule deer, don’t let fellow hunters get you down. We’re all on the same team, hunting for many of the same reasons. Take a deep breath, try to find where deer are being pushed to and get back to hunting.
My potential mistake on this hunt was giving up too early. Fortunately, I got lucky and spotted a sneaky deer, gathered my composure and went to glassing, which paid off. Here are seven other mistakes I’ve made—and learned from—over the years.
Moving Too Fast
One October I hunted the breaks of the Snake River. Guided by a headlamp, I hiked nearly three miles and reached a designated glassing point at first light. After scouring the draws below, I saw nothing—not even a doe.
Deciding to move, I set my sights on the rimrock above, confident bucks were heading there to bed. I moved fast, as it was going to be unseasonably warm. Side-hilling a rocky knoll, I looked below me and spotted a dandy buck standing in belly-high, dry, yellow grass. It was all alone and had likely been watching me for the previous several minutes. Shame on me for not even looking up while I walked. I caught it in the open and, fortunately, it froze rather than bolt. I killed that buck, but it was pure luck. It’s OK to quickly cover ground, just be sure to hunt as you go.
One of the joys of hunting mule deer is seeing the open country they live in, but that doesn’t mean they’ll always be in the open. On a hunt in the Rockies several years back, I glassed multiple ridges from one spot. I studied pockets for bedded deer, scanned sage for feeding deer and watched high on ridges where deer often move as thermals start lifting. I didn’t see a buck.
Then, as the sun touched the brushy draw across from me, I saw a shiny object. Looking through the bino, the face of a muley buck stared at me, its black nose shining brightly in the sunlight. It had been 150 yards from me the whole morning, but I didn’t see it because I was looking for bucks in the open.
I kept glassing and found a bigger buck next to the first one. All I saw was the horizontal line of its back, which looked out of place in the vertical brush. It was in shadows, and took me a minute to piece together, but eventually I made out a gray muzzle and heavy rack. I moved toward the buck to try to get a shot. It got nervous and stood up, and I promptly filled my tag. When glassing open mule deer country, don’t overlook the brush, and look for parts of deer, not the whole animal.
Neglecting the Back Trail
On a recent hunt, I watched a big muley move into the head of a canyon and bed down. When the morning thermals began to stabilize, I came in from behind and above the buck, but when I reached my designated landmark, I couldn’t find it. I moved closer and still didn’t spot it. After more than an hour of scouring the small area, I left, assuming the buck had slipped over the top during my 45-minute stalk.
About 400 yards down the draw, I looked back, tossed up the bino and saw the buck, head down and tail tucked, moving away. It snuck out of the draw on the same trail I’d just come down. It had been bedded less than 30 yards from me the whole time I searched for it, but the topography had blocked my view. An hour later, I was skinning the buck.
No matter the habitat, always check your back trail. Mule deer can lay flat in the sparsest of cover, not moving until you walk by. Sometimes, they move before the coast is clear.
Not Being Ready to Shoot
I carry tripod shooting sticks when hunting mule deer, constantly adjusting the leg length to fit the terrain and anticipating a shot at any moment. One time in the Dakota Badlands I got lazy, and it almost cost me. I popped over a rise, and when a buck jumped out of the bottom of a draw, I couldn’t get a steady rest because the tripod legs were set too short. I was going to shoot offhand, but I was huffing and puffing and drawing figure eights with my scope, so I didn’t pull the trigger.
I let the buck go over a rise, then dropped into the bottom and hustled to where the two draws met. I adjusted the length of the sticks as I moved, knowing I’d shoot from a standing position. The 5-point buck gave me a brief window, and the hunt was over.
Mule deer habitat varies greatly, so be ready to shoot on uneven ground. Anticipate where a buck might appear at any moment, and be ready to assume a stable position. Tripods, bipods and even small sandbags make stable rests. Avoid going prone in tall grass, and make sure you’re rock-steady when taking a shot.
I’ve blown many opportunities at mule deer because I thought I could follow them. Occasionally they’d pause, allowing me to close the gap, but largely they move too fast, and trying to catch them from behind can botch an opportunity.
Rather than take up the chase, watch where the buck goes, then return later in the day to see if it comes out the same way to feed. If not, get ahead of the buck the next morning and wait for it to come to you. It might require hiking in the dark, but that’s mule deer hunting.
Not Glassing Long Enough
During a hunt in Wyoming, I was after a double drop-tine muley I had seen when on a pronghorn hunt there a few weeks prior. I glassed for two hours, then got antsy and started to move. When I turned around, the buck was standing at the edge of a tree line 125 yards away. The shot was easy, but I almost didn’t get a chance to take it because I was in a rush to move.
Once you know a mature buck is around, don’t glass and go. Be patient, pick apart the habitat and cover the entire area multiple times before moving on.
The number of people who get in a rush the moment they spot a deer dumbfounds me. They either want to move, hurry a shot or they start fidgeting. For this reason, I prefer hunting alone. I like making my own observations, decisions and conclusions and moving at my own pace. If I fail, it’s my fault.
Once a buck is spotted, stop and think. If it hasn’t seen you, which is hopefully the case if you’re glassing, take your time. Check the wind where you are and study vegetation from your position all the way to the buck. When you’ve figured out the wind, plan a stalk that will put you in shooting position. If the wind changes during the stalk, back out and come in from a different angle, or return another time. If a buck hasn’t seen you, you have the advantage, so don’t force it. It can take several hours, sometimes days, to get the right situation to commence a stalk. Slow, steady and thinking smartly wins the race.
Every mistake we encounter is a learning experience. The key is recognizing your error, adjusting and not doing it again. That’s mule deer hunting.