If you hunt mule deer, sooner or later it will happen. You scout long and hard, you locate a big buck, and when the season opens, he disappears.
Mature mule deer bucks are quick to sense hunter activity, and their behavior changes. At times like this, they often “go nocturnal” until the urge to breed clouds their judgment. Typically, they will avoid roads and vacate areas pressured with human activity. Some will turn reclusive and may travel great distances in search of solitude. Many will retreat to dense cover, and some will hide in plain sight ... right under your nose!
ADAPTABILITY MAKES ’EM TOUGH TO HUNT
Mule deer are indigenous to western North America, ranging from central Mexico to the Yukon Territory in Canada, and from the Pacific Ocean as far east as Kansas and Nebraska. This medium-sized, but large-antlered, deer is an iconic symbol of the American West, and one of the most highly prized big-game animals on the continent. It’s often said that mule deer are the most difficult animal to place in the celebrated Boone & Crockett record book. Their keen senses (particularly hearing and night vision) and awareness of their surroundings, and the rugged habitat where they live, are principal reasons for that claim. After more than 50 years hunting and observing them, I tend to agree!
The notion that mule deer are less adaptable to change than their white-tailed cousins is inaccurate, for the most part. Consider that these “high desert” muleys have successfully adapted to harsh environmental conditions, including temperature extremes of intense heat and brutal cold, scarce water, meager forage and sparse vegetative cover. And when disturbed by humans or an influx of natural predators on their home turf, mature bucks have been known to move 10 miles or more overnight.
Most mule deer migrate between summer and winter ranges, but some spend their entire lives within a comparatively small home range. Researchers in Wyoming used radio collars recently to track a group of mule deer on a 150-mile migratory route –— from high Western desert winter range to mountain meadows and aspen stands where they summer — the longest migration ever recorded for mule deer.
Because deep winter snow in the mountains forces muleys to lower elevations, mule deer typically winter on the sagebrush flats of foothills and prairies, where sage provides the bulk of the winter diet, which is kept relatively free of snow by prevailing seasonal winds. In a sizeable portion of the intermountain West, they remain in these stepped, high-desert areas for the remainder of the year.
And while they are known for living in wide-open spaces, mule deer are increasingly adapting to urban environments. Mature bucks seeking refuge have actually been known to move into residential yards. Conditioned behavioral responses, like these, compound the difficulty for hunters seeking a big-antlered, bragging-sized mule deer buck.
Western hunters commonly use some variation of the spot-and-stalk hunting technique to take a significant percentage of the mule deer harvested annually. In high-desert country, this technique would be more properly described as “glass and stalk,” where high-power binoculars and/or spotting scopes are used from vantage points to search for deer feeding or moving at first and last light. This technique is less effective when highly pressured deer go nocturnal, and success depends on locating bedded deer that are often difficult to spot. Smart bucks typically bed in the thickest, darkest cover. This is often in secluded cuts at the backs of benches, or in steep-sloping ravines in hilly terrain. Thickets along stream corridors and brushy dry washes are also popular hides.
Bedded deer tend to watch for danger approaching from below; so stalking from above affords the hunter an advantage. My first big muley buck was taken by bow at close range as he bolted from his bed. But stalking close for a high-percentage shot requires bowhunters to pay attention to the wind and employ effective scent-control measures as well.
Approaching these elephant-eared deer also requires some stealth! Rifle hunters have increasingly employed long-range shooting techniques to take bedded deer; thus, they eliminate the need for stealthy stalking. However, when traditional spotting fails to locate a reclusive pressured buck, it’s time to change tactics, regardless of the chosen weapon.
Mule deer (and blacktails) are known for their pogo-stick fashion of bounding away when alarmed. This stiff-legged gait, where all four feet strike the ground simultaneously, is called “stotting” and it allows the deer to instantly change direction. This is useful for negotiating uneven terrain, particularly when ascending vertically, and it also helps to evade predators — including hunters, who often use tracking to locate a buck.
After youthfully complaining to my uncle in the mid-1960s that I couldn’t find the big buck I was hunting, he offered this sage advice: “Find his track and follow it to the end. He will be standing there. If he’s not, you are not at the end. Deer can’t fly.” True! But as I’ve learned over the years, big muley bucks can jump really high (clearing 8 feet easily) and really far (measured distance over 30 feet). This makes tracking them through high-desert brushlands and foothills rather difficult!
Admittedly, tracking high-pressured muleys is not for everyone, but tracking can be very effective where soil conditions and ground cover permit. Many hunters hunt early and late in the day only, when deer are most active and more easily spotted. I usually hunt all day, using the lower activity time midday to look for tracks — particularly in vast, low-density, high-desert areas and where heavy cover makes glassing difficult. After locating a large buck track that looks fresh, I follow it until one of three things happens: 1) Something reveals the track is not fresh — like cold/hard scat; 2) the track is lost; or 3) the buck is spotted, often lounging in bed.
This is an up-close-and-personal hunting technique. For me, it’s the most satisfying and enjoyable way to hunt mule deer. As a result, many of the muley bucks I’ve taken have come from public land between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when deer are relaxed amid quieter conditions, because most other hunters are not hunting.
WATER HERE, WATER THERE
Where mule deer are likely to move on a daily basis is notoriously unpredictable, making “patterning” exceptionally difficult. The adaptability of high-desert muleys, however, can be exploited to improve hunter success. The key to this non-typical hunting tactic is water.
Early seasons open in late summer when water is often scarce. Muleys adapted to living in arid, high-desert environments can go for days without water. When necessary, mature bucks will travel great distances from the security of daytime hideouts for some nighttime refreshment. Small, convenient water sources are visited more frequently than large, distant impoundments. Hint: Check hoof-print concentration around potholes in dirt roads that hold water after a rare rainstorm.In fact, dominant bucks will actually defend a “micro-water” source from his lower-ranking bachelor companions. They will even eat damp soil to extract remaining moisture as well as minerals necessary for antler development. So, why not create your own early season micro-water source? If you build it, they will come!
I have used this technique to take several mature muley bucks. It begins with a search in late spring for active trails near bedding and feeding areas. After trail cams are used to locate bucks with early stage antler growth that identifies them as hunting prospects, dig a small hole just off the trail and within range of the camera. Line it with plastic, so it will hold water long enough for wildlife to locate. Birds arrive first, and their chatter attracts the deer. When an interesting buck appears, I remove the plastic. This causes the water to disappear more quickly and conditions the animal to visit more frequently. If accessible by ATV, I start the process using a plastic tub that easily holds water. Successful sites are later converted to dirt. Remote sites are serviced on foot, using a water can strapped to a backpack.
Creating a micro-water source is a proven method for making muley bucks more predictable and keeping them from disappearing before you have a chance to hunt them. It requires some time and work, but the prospective payoff can be big!
Recipe for Locating Nocturnal MUlEY Bucks
• 2 large sagebrush or similar coarse bushes
• 1 wooden pallet
• a length of rope
• a saw
• an off-road hunting rig or ATV
Drive a dirt trail to a pressured hunting area, where you suspect resident mule deer have switched to nighttime activity. Use the saw to cut two large sagebrush or similar coarse bushes, like cedars. Use the rope to tie brush to the wooden pallet, and the pallet to the back of the hunting rig. Drag this brush-laden pallet down the dirt trail to “brush out” old tracks. Repeat on similar trails in the area. Return often to look for fresh tracks and repeat the brushing process as necessary. Learn to differentiate buck tracks from doe tracks, and how to “read” them for behavioral clues.