Bowhunting for Bruiser Bucks
October 04, 2010
Incorporate these proven tips into your bowhunting regimen and increase your opportunities for arrowing a monster mulie this year.
By Lynn Burkhead
It seems so easy. That is, it seems so easy when a coveted early archery season mule deer tag dreamed about all year finally shows up in the mailbox or is purchased over the counter at the local sporting goods store.
But a few weeks later, after many sweat-filled miles spent hiking up and down the rugged mountains, through the sagebrush-lined flatland, or the cactus-studded rolling desert country, many Rocky Mountain bowhunters that dream of monster mulies end up with an unpalatable item on their fall menus: tag soup.
No one ever said bowhunting trophy mule deer bucks was easy, especially in these days when hunters and biologists are trying to figure out just what is going on in mule deer herds across the West. But while tagging a bruiser mulie buck may not be easy, it isn't altogether impossible either, as the exploits of two Utah bowmen have proved in recent years.
Bryan Reed, an employee of Hoyt USA in Salt Lake City, and Jeremy Houston, a veteran bowhunter from Kanab, have both lived the monster mulie dream in recent years, tagging the bucks of a lifetime while hunting in southern Utah.
Just a couple of days into the 2002 archery mule deer season in Utah late last summer, Reed tagged a 31-inch-wide 5x4 velvet-horned mule deer buck that boasted a gross score of 190 inches and netted 177 5/8.
Pre-season scouting helps hunters like Doug Rodgers locate suitable habitat to hunt once the bow season begins. Photo by Lynn Burkhead
Houston, who bagged a 30-inch wide 180-class mule deer buck in 2001, did even better last year by tagging a 30-inch-wide 5x5 velvet-antlered mulie on opening morning with a gross score of 198 2/8 inches and a net score of 195 inches even. That's good enough to earn a Top 5 all-time billing for velvet-covered typical mule deer bucks according to the latest edition of the Pope & Young Club's Bowhunting Big Game Records of North America.
With three awesome mule deer bucks to their credit in the past two seasons, these two archers obviously know a thing or two about tagging bragging-sized bucks. So what's their secret, you ask? Fortunately, Houston and Reed are willing to reveal their most guarded hunting techniques.
Well, sort of. While neither archer is actually ready and willing to give away directions to the prime locations they hunted, they are willing to share some of the tactics they use to find coveted spots and to be successful once they get there. Assuming you have a tag in your back pocket this season, their tactics are likely to work in the part of the Rocky Mountains that you chase mule deer in.
PRACTICE Both Houston and Reed stress that there is far more to successfully tagging a monster mulie buck than simply picking up a bow a week or two before the season opens, firing a few arrows at a 3-D target to make sure the pins are still sighted in, and then heading out the door to hunt.
For these two veteran archers, the formula for bowhunting success begins months earlier with careful, deliberate practice routines.
"I shoot pretty much year 'round," Reed said. "We have company 3-D shoots every Wednesday during the summer. When we get to crunch time right before the season, I just go into preparation mode. It's on my mind all of the time and I don't want to be unprepared. I try to take every conceivable shot that I can take.
"The more you shoot, the more prepared you are," he added. "When it comes down to the moment of making a shot, you're just shooting a target."
Houston agrees that proper practice with archery gear is essential before heading afield.
"The first key as far as archery hunting is being able to make the shot when you get the chance," said Houston, who has arrowed 15 mulies, two elk, and one pronghorn in his decade plus of bowhunting. "That's by far the biggest key I think. A lot of times, there are enough good deer in there, but I hear people say, 'I missed one here or down there, and I wish I had made the shot.' I shoot my bow year 'round, and it has paid off considerably."
In fact, Houston's admission that he shoots throughout the year is, well, a bit of an understatement. Just consider his average practice routine: "I bet I'll go out and shoot anywhere from 100 to 200 arrows," Houston explained. "But on every shot, form is the key to consistency. I'm probably a fanatic - if my arrow doesn't fly good or I don't hit where I want to, then I want to know why."
To keep his bow in top shape, Houston does all of his own tuning and shoots a mixture of field points and broadheads. Most of the time, whether he is shooting at a 3-D target, a bag target, or even stump shooting at the ground outside of his home, the young archer's field points and broadheads hit in virtually the same spot. Even during the height of a Utah winter snowstorm, Houston is able to religiously practice in his 18-yard basement shooting range.
While both archers stress taking only quality, ethical shots at any big-game animal, they admit that the average Rocky Mountain bowshot at a mule deer can stretch out a bit farther than a shot at its Eastern whitetail cousin. That's why both hunters routinely practice at distances of 40 yards or better.
"If you can make a 60-yard shot, those 40-yard shots are a little easier," Houston said. "You've got to be pretty intimate with your equipment and practice every day or at least several times a week to be confident at shooting that far."
Like his Kanab counterpart, Reed believes that with practice and well-tuned equipment, hunters can extend their lethal range and still make a clean, humane, ethical shot on a big mulie buck.
"I practice most of my ranges from 40 to 70 yards just because with mule deer, your average ranges are longer when you get a shot at them," he said.
|Acing the Monster Mulie|
Are you dreaming of tagging your own big mule deer buck this season? In addition to practice, preparation and persistence, these tips will help.
Draw better tags - You can't kill a great mulie buck where they don't exist. Research record books and talk to biologists to find hotspots and sleeper areas before applying for tags.
Hunt the backcountry - Bucks don't grow legendary headgear by hanging out near roads. Get into top physical condition and be prepared for some serious hiking. The deeper you go into a hunting area, the better your odds of tagging a bruiser buck.
Improve your knowledge - You can never know too much about trophy deer. Read books and articles, improve your hunting skills, listen to experienced hunters, and talk to wildlife biologists about the needs and preferred habits of mulies in the area you hunt.
Punch the clock - Prowl the woods as often as work and family responsibilities allow. There's simply no other way to learn where to sit or stand to be in position when a big mulie strolls by. -- Lynn Burkhead
PREPARATION There seems to be little question in the minds of both Houston and Reed that an archer has to be prepared to make the shot of a lifetime when it presents itself. That's why they practice so hard.
But the two hunters also stress that making such a shot on a fine mulie buck isn't going to be necessary most years unless a hunter has done his or her homework in the field to locate a whopper buck and good hunting grounds during the pre-season. In other words, if you want to arrow a monster mulie, get out in the woods early and often and do plenty of scouting when you're there.
"Between me and my buddies, we start scouting in May," Houston observed. "The deer are getting up into their summer range and they may only have nubs on their heads, but we start hitting it hard. Every year, we find three or four bucks that we would love to put our tag on."
Reed is also adamant on the role that effective scouting plays in a hunter's success. While his Salt Lake City area home is some 260 miles away from his mule deer hunting area, he still points the truck south several times a year to scout his hunting grounds. Such commitment to pre-season scouting was a big key for Reed last year in arrowing his southern Utah mulie, along with an Idaho spring bear and an Idaho 5x5 bull elk.
"We scout it (the mule deer hunting area) typically two to three times per year," Hall said. "I think that gives us a leg up on some of the other hunters."
Take the 2002 season for instance. With drought conditions gripping the Southwest, Reed knew where to look and where not to look for his dream buck.
"We went down there with the idea that water would be the key," he explained. "I normally hunt a sagebrush flat area. In a dry year, the sagebrush will be dead and the deer will not be in that unit. There's not much water that is in there."
Last summer, Reed checked his primary hotspots and found little to be encouraged about initially. But when he began to zero in on spots where the mulie bucks could quench their thirst, bingo. Reed was soon fine-tuning his hunting strategies for a bachelor group containing seven bucks including two bona-fide wallhangers!
Houston agrees that pre-season scouting time spent looking for spots that meet a mule deer's basic daily needs for food, water and cover is a big key to his success. In fact, by mid-July last year, he and his hunting pals had located the region and the bucks they wanted to hunt.
But such familiarity can also lead to complacency. Houston and his hunting pals always have their eyes and ears perked up to hear a whispered big buck rumor at local sporting good stores, gas stations and local cafes. "I'll follow any lead that I can find," Houston said with a laugh. "But a lot of times, someone's big buck is just an 18-inch 4-point."
PERSISTENCE Practice and pre-season scouting are essential ingredients in the two bowhunters' formulas for arrowing big mulie bucks. But remember that old adage about the best laid plans of mice and men? Well, let's just say that when it comes to bowhunting in the West, you can never have too many aces up your sleeve.
A case in point was Reed's hunt last year. After practicing to the point that he could literally drill nails with his bow by summer's end and knowing every nook and cranny in his hunting area, the bowhunter found himself facing a dilemma after an opening morning hunt from a tree stand near a prime water hole.
"The tree stand didn't work out very well," Reed lamented. "There was way too much hunting pressure. I imagine that the bucks that I had seen, other hunters had seen them as well and there was too much pressure."
In simple terms, Plan A didn't work. But with 11 years of hunting the same general area under his belt, it didn't take Reed long to come up with Plan B.
"I knew that I had to focus on water and that I needed to get away from the crowds," Reed indicated. "That required me to hike in farther than most people would. With plenty of roads, that can take a little effort and a little sweat, but its amazing what will open up to you if you'll get a little farther away than others are willing to go."
After quickly relocating to a new area with fewer hunters and a good number of bucks, Reed basically spent the first evening in scouting mode. The next evening however, a monster mulie paused a second too long on a hillside in the new spot and the Salt Lake City bowhunter made good on his shot opportunity.
While Reed does everything he can to prepare himself in the pre-season for the shot opportunity of a lifetime, he admits that things haven't always gone as planned when a big buck shows up at the same time as an adrenaline rush does.
"I'm not sure that you can prepare yourself mentally for that moment," he laughed. "I've missed my share and put in my days in the field."
That has led to a valuable commodity that every hunter must earn the hard way - hunting experience. Reed credits both the ups and downs he has experienced afield over the years in helping him successfully tag his monster mulie last season. Persistence does indeed pay off.
While it is true that Houston's monster mulie buck fell on opening morning, don't think for a second that it was a case of beginner's luck. With more than a decade of bowhunting behind him, the Kanab archer has earned his own experience in the field. That gives Houston a leg up on even having a Plan B when the first plan goes awry.
"One of the biggest keys is just having a game plan and knowing what you anti
cipate them doing," Houston said. "Obviously, when you're scouting, you know their hideouts and know where they go when they get boogered."
PAYOFF The formula of practice, preparation and persistence looks good on paper. But does it actually work in the field?
Well, the fact that Houston and Reed both tagged monster mulies last season in a severe drought year would seem to indicate that it does work. And while the formula might not prove to be golden each and every time, it certainly can help tilt the balance in a bowhunter's favor. After all, when it comes to tagging a trophy mule deer buck, that's about the best that any bowhunter can hope and pray for, right?
"Probably, for the most part, it's 90 percent luck - being in the right place at the right time," Houston admitted. But with a chuckle, he added a very important caveat. "The harder you hunt, the more time you put in, the more time you practice with your bow, the luckier you get, I guess."
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