August 26, 2021
Crossing a fence in the late afternoon, we approached the water tank, circled it and knelt to take a look at tracks in the mud. One was bigger than the others—well over 3 inches long.
A buck in this canyon had likely watered at this tank, but under the light of the moon and not since. He'd had a drink and then bedded down for the day, likely within a mile of there—but where?
This was dry country with few trees and fewer water holes, ground given to the farming of dry-land wheat. Glancing at the sun, I guessed we had two hours before darkness fell.
Bill, my hunting partner, was on my left. Our plan was to still-hunt, trying to stay 10 yards apart in the bottom of the coulee above the water tank, sometimes splitting up to check a feeder canyon or look into a ditch.
Well over half a mile from the tank, I signaled Bill with a lift of my hand. Here, the Great Basin wild rye was chest-high—deep enough to hide a buck. Some sixth sense told me to stop. A moment later the buck erupted from the October rye. It had overplayed its hand and now was out in the open, broadside.
This was Bill's first mule deer hunt and here was a buck with two points on each side, long eye-guards and antlers as brown as the creosote on the telephone poles it had used to rub off its velvet. Figuring out how this buck used the landscape to meet its needs at different times of the day gave Bill a lasting memory on his first hunt. And the same process can do this for you on every mule deer hunt.
There may come a time when we hunt that country again. I like to think that when we entered that coulee, we solved a problem.
Where does a buck go during the season? Where does it feed? Where does it bed? Where does it escape? These last two, in particular, pertain to middle-of-the-day hunting, and now we know at least one place, in that kind of country, where bucks are likely to be during part of the day.
TRACKS AT WATER
In much of the arid West, accessibility to water defines one of the most important features of a buck's home range. But even in dry country we tend to miss some of the most important water sources.
Creeks, rivers, lakes, farm ponds and cattle tanks are the most obvious ones, but there are less obvious water sources that do not show up on a map and are important to big game. Guzzlers installed by ranchers or wildlife agencies are one possibility in a few areas, but there are two more common options, even in arid country: seeps and small basins where water collects after a rain.
When you do find water, make sure you have a tape measure handy to sort through the prints left by does and fawns. In the places I hunt, the magic starts with prints that are 2 7/8 inches or bigger; few does leave tracks bigger than that. Any buck with a track that measures 3 inches or more is a buck that should be looked at with a spotting scope.
Lay out a topo map on the hood of the truck. Mark that water point and triangulate with other known water sources. A buck will want to have several sources of water in his home range, and big bucks get to choose the best home range.
First, look for those blue lines that indicate a dry creek bed or the low spots where water collects in the rainy season.
Where are the ridges? Next, look for contour lines and hilltops marked for elevation. Bucks tend to bed toward the tops of canyons and three-quarters of the way up a slope, especially where they have overhanging rimrock or shade-giving boulders. Study the topo for clues, then turn to an aerial photo or an app and mark potential bedding spots.
GONE TO BED
A buck's bed is often nothing more than an scraped oval in the dirt, a flat spot dug into the side of a slope with a view for hundreds of yards, or a hole in the brush with three ways out for fast escape. It might be just downhill from the crest of a ridge or it could be out in the flats under a scrap of sagebrush.
Bucks live or die based on their selection of bedding spots. It's easier to locate a younger buck’s bedding locations—they tend to pick more obvious spots, such as beneath a juniper tree. But bucks live longer when they use beds that are hard to approach undetected. Prior to the rut, look for solitary bucks in one of several places.
1. High Ridges: These provide safety because they are difficult to approach and offer good visibility. The presence of shade is important—not only is it cooler, but lying in a shadow makes it easier for the buck to remain hidden. Only a scrap of shade is necessary, but consider the time of day. A morning bed on a west-facing slope may not be as ideal in the afternoon. Glass just downhill from the crest of the ridge and try to peer into shaded spots. Later, with the sun at a different angle, glass that same ridge and try to find the alternate spots once the shadows have shifted. These beds allow the buck to watch other deer or even cattle below to stay alert to any threat. From a perch on a faraway ridge, the buck can watch a road or a parking spot. Threat detected, the buck can rise, slip over the spine of the ridge and be gone fast.
2. Cut Banks: These features offer shade and protection from the wind. Out in open country, where the tops of the wheat wave in the wind, bucks have ample escape cover with defined bedding options in the coulees. Down in the ditches where tumbleweeds gather, on the banks of catch dams and wherever a fold in the ground offers shelter from heat and wind, bucks will scrape out their beds. And the very best beds—the most remote and least likely to be found—are taken over by the bucks that can hold their claim to them. This is where careful examination with a topo map can pay off. If it’s hard to get to, that’s where the big buck is.
3. Sagebrush Flats: These offer little shade but good visibility. On a topo, or while driving or glassing, look for tilted tablelands with scattered patches of sagebrush. Ideally, the ground is as large as four football fields or bigger. A bucks that beds here knows where danger might come from—the nearest roads and trails—and by swiveling its head can see the approaches but keep its back is to its backdoor. For this reason, do not approach from an angle where light will wink off lenses or gun barrels. Instead, slide over rimrock and glass for that buck out in the middle somewhere.
4. Manzanita or Mountain Mahogany: These are the hardest of all to penetrate. When pressure ratchets up in the first few days of hunting season, bucks slink into thickets of mountain mahogany, their bellies close to the ground on trails fit for a cottontail, and position themselves so they can watch their back trail. They are safe in these spots because the ground cover is dried leaves and twigs that snap, crackle and pop. Most hunters know bucks use these thickets, which can be a half-acre to hundreds of acres in size, but they give up before they start because it is hard to locate or get a shot at animals in this thickest of cover. A treestand might be a good option. Another way to approach it is with moccasins and the wind in your face. Hunting these places can be a long-shot, but remember: A place that’s hard to hunt but holds a nice buck is always more productive than a place that’s easy to hunt and holds no deer.
SPOT OR STEALTH?
With potential bedding spots isolated, the challenge is to look into each one with the long glass. In a lot of mule deer country, this is impossible because of timber or a lack of roads. Flatland sage is almost impenetrable with optics, and there is usually only one way to hunt a grove of mountain mahogany—low and slow and into the wind. Habitat dictates the hunting strategy, whether that means mornings and afternoons behind the glass or ghosting through bedding cover with a two-man drive.
One of the mistakes we make is identifying a big buck track and then looking into average bedding spots to find that deer. The bucks that get big are the ones that choose bedding and feeding areas that are hard to see into and to move in without making a lot of noise.
The biggest buck I ever saw was 36 inches wide with main beams as big as my forearms. This was the opening day of archery season on a year when I had drawn a rifle tag. The buck was bedded in thick sagebrush on the valley floor, and because I had scouted some smaller bucks early in the day, I was taking a shortcut back to the truck. I happened to walk right into that buck’s bedding area and pushed him out. The buck stopped a rifle shot away and looked back.
Big bucks haunt our memories. Those memories can teach us a lot.
MAP IT OUT
Sketch a plan of attack before you begin a stalk.
On a two-man hunt, once you and your buddy have spotted a buck while glassing and are beginning to plan your approach, take out a piece of paper and a pencil. They don’t take up much room in the pack, and a sketched-out battle plan enables a smarter stalk.
The idea is for one hunter to keep watch from the glassing spot, while the other hunter attempts the stalk. The problem for the stalking hunter moving toward the buck is that the landscape “on the ground” will often look different up close than it did from half a mile away.
So, before the stalker heads out, locate landmarks and draw them on paper in relation to the buck’s bed. Take note of rock formations, broken snags or anything that creates a waypoint that’s easy for the hunter to recognize, even if approached from the opposite direction. Next, scan for non-target animals and locate them for the stalker, too. Take note of the prevailing wind and indicate that on the paper.
Devise a system of hand signals that will help the spotter communicate with the stalker from time to time.
With the stalk planned, one hunter keeps an eye to the scope while the other one begins the sneak.