September 09, 2022
By Andrew McKean
My buddy Mark is what I'd call a lazy hunter. It's not that he's hesitant to bomb off a rimrock ledge into the canyon below, or that he'll balk at packing 100 pounds of meat and cape across the steepest terrain. I call him lazy because he only finds mule deer where he expects to.
I'm betting you know folks like Mark. When they post up behind their binoculars or a spotting scope, they look in only the most obvious places, those sun-splashed grassy slopes where you could see a buck with your naked eyes. They don’t spend the time "digging out" animals from the hard spots—the dark shadows of a steep canyon or the shade of doghair timber—despite the fact that old and wary mule deer lurk in just those inscrutable places.
That's largely because Mark is impatient, eager to get on with the most active phases of a hunt—the stalking and killing parts. But the spotting portion of any spot-and-stalk hunt is equally important, and when it comes to public-land mule deer, I'd argue it's the most critical, because everything else that happens depends on first locating a worthy buck.
There's plenty to learn about glassing up big mule deer, but in the interest of time (I know, you're impatient, too) let's start with the gear.
Let's assume you are hunting wide-open public land and that you are heading into a hunt where you have only the scarcest baseline information about where roads and unit boundaries lie. You really have no idea of the country or where big mule deer might live in it. You'll learn all those details through observation, and by far your best tool for landscape-scale observation is a variable-power spotting scope. These tripod-mounted telescopes are heavy and cumbersome, but they'll not only tell you where the deer are, they'll show you distant roads and trails both in front of and behind your target deer.
Spotting scopes are the ultimate expression of one of the axioms of optics: Buy the best you can afford. Most spotting scopes deliver a pretty good image at lower power and in full daylight. But as the light evaporates from the landscape and you ramp up the magnification to resolve details of distant targets, cheaper scopes with average glass will cause headaches and frustration with the soupy images they deliver. Higher-priced spotters are worth their cost at the beginning and end of the day and at the longest distances. Consider 80 and 85mm objective lenses, which will not only deliver a brighter image at high magnifications, but will also give you better resolution at lower powers.
To get the best use out of a spotter you'll need a good tripod, and happily we are in the early days of a tripod revolution. Lightweight carbon-fiber tripods are relatively inexpensive, readily available and capable of handling even big 85 mm and larger spotting scopes. A couple of the best are Leupold’s Alpine Tripod Kit ($399; leupold.com) and Vortex’s Summit Carbon ($399; vortexoptics.com). Both are extremely packable but have enough starch to stabilize a full-sized spotter in any terrain.
Those big scopes and tripods are great for basecamp or pickup-bed spotting. But at some point, packing all that weight has diminishing returns. In those cases, consider a small spotter. A new generation of 2-pound optics fills the gap between binoculars and full-size spotters. A couple of the best are Maven's 12-27x56 ($1,050; mavenbuilt.com) and the Endeavor HD65A 15-45x65 from Vanguard ($399; vanguardworld.com).
Many hunters use only the highest magnification on spotting scopes. That makes sense if you're counting antler points, but at their lower powers spotters can deliver plenty of intelligence about the terrain. One of my favorite spotting scopes, the Zeiss Dialyt 65 mm ($1,700; zeiss.com), zooms down to 18X. At that magnification, I can pick apart terrain features, finding in wide angle the bedding areas for open-country bucks as well as their well-traveled trails. But zoomed up to 45X, I can zero-in on specific deer and determine if they're worth pursuing.
One detail to remember about spotters: The higher the magnification, the less light transmission and the darker the image. Many consumers buy spotting scopes with only the highest power in mind, but most spotters perform at their best about 30 percent below the highest magnification, where you get the best combination of power and light.
The piece of gear most closely associated with open-country mule deer is the 10x42 binocular. There's a good reason for this—it’s relatively light and portable, has plenty of optical reach and the best models also have excellent optical clarity, so you can parse antler points from a country mile.
But if you want to maximize the benefit of your binocular, consider increasing the magnification and incorporating a lightweight tripod into the mix. Mate a 15x56 or even an 18x56 binocular with a capable tripod, and you get the best of both spotting scopes (high magnification) and binoculars (both eyes open for glassing comfort). This combination allows you to cover plenty of ground but gives you enough magnification to count points. Some of the best of these high-power binoculars are Swarovski’s classic 15x56 SLC ($2,600; swarovskioptik.com). Vortex also makes a capable and far more affordable 15x56, the Diamondback HD ($499).
Nonetheless, most muley hunters will opt for a walk-about 10x42 binocular, and one of the best trends in sporting goods over the last several years is the development of rangefinding binoculars. These optics combine first-rate optical performance with laser rangefinding, so you can spot and range a buck in the same motion.
My favorite of this breed of hybrid optic is the Zeiss Victory RF 10x42 ($3,550), which combines superb optics with an intuitive rangefinder that connects via Bluetooth to a mobile app that informs ballistic holds and functions.
This spot-and-range capability is especially useful for guides or parents who might be helping their clients or children to a successful hunt. Combining rangefinding with observation reduces both time and movement, making those who wield ranging binoculars more effective hunters. Good models to consider include Vortex's Fury HD 5000 AB ($1,999) that connects with a mobile app and ballistic libraries, and SIG Sauer’s KILO 3000BDX ($1,352; sigsauer.com) that connects with a mobile app as well as BDX-powered riflescopes.
The final leg of the mule deer optics stool is the device you'll rely on for the culmination of your hunt—your riflescope.
There are dozens of good options to consider, and you'll make the final determination based on variables unique to you, from first- or second-focal-plane reticles, to MOA or mil turret and reticle values, to magnification ranges, to whether you prefer to dial a shooting solution or use holdover and holdoff references in the reticle to place long shots.
What I will report about riflescopes is that you’d better be able to place shots in an instant. If you can only make hits by reducing the distance to mils or MOA and then judiciously dialing the turrets to your target, then you might be out of luck in mule deer country. Old, wary bucks won’t wait for you to dope your scope. They'll be busting out of cover and on the run in a snap, so any scope that enables you to make quick adjustments is a worthy mule deer scope.
My favorites are second-plane models that have enough magnification range to give me plenty of optical horsepower, but also have reticles with bullet-drop references and hold-off marks to use in heavy winds. Consider the Leupold VX-3HD in 4.5-14x40 ($599) or the Burris Veracity in 2-10x42mm ($719; burrisoptics.com).
I started this piece with my buddy Mark’s inadequacies as a glasser. He’s gotten better, largely by embracing the suck of long-distance spotting. The first step is to put your face into the wind. In the fall’s chilly breeze, this is uncomfortable, but any time you can put the wind in your face, you’ll increase your odds of spotting a trophy buck.
Why? Because the physical discomfort you endure is the wind chill your quarry is avoiding. Simply put, you'll see deer seeking thermal refuge on the lee side of hills.
Think about this equation in the way Mark used to: By putting the wind behind him and spending all day seeing nothing in his spotter because the deer were doing the same thing—hiding out of the wind behind hills. In order to see more, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. That requires a good wind-shedding jacket, maybe sitting on a foam pad and anchoring your optics with a heavy tripod. Once you open yourself to the discomfort of in-your-face glassing, you'll see more animals than spotters who escape the wind.
You also need to plan your day to get to a good glassing vantage an hour before sunset. If you can get set up and deploy your optics from a specific spot, you'll see more animals than if you greet sunset on your feet, moving between bedding areas. You might not shoot a buck from your spyglass perch, but you'll have a good idea of his core habitat and be in a position to shoot him the following day.
Low-light glassing isn't effective just because that’s the time animals move. The lower angle of the sun creates more contrast and vibrancy on the landscape. That quality of light can make animals "pop" out of the background.
Once you're in position, pick apart terrain in a methodical fashion. I like to start at the top of a series of ridges and sweep left to right, making a grid of the landscape so I can cover its every inch from a distance. Other hunters like to grid from top to bottom.
However you do it, have a plan, but also realize that trophy mule deer bucks might announce themselves only by the twitch of an ear or the glint of an antler. It's rare to see the entirety of a mature deer in full daylight.
This is the best argument for packing a battery of quality optics. Maybe you sweep the landscape with high-resolution binoculars. Your next step is homing in on a bedded buck by deploying your tripod-mounted spotting scope, followed by an accurate measurement of the range. Lastly, make sure you can find your target in your riflescope, and that you have the skill and ballistics knowledge to make a sure shot at the extended distances that Western mule deer can require.