By July, the game plan is set. We have tags in our pockets and four or five spots picked out on a map.
It's a new area every year. Seldom do we hunt the same place twice. And it doesn't matter whether we are after mule deer, blacktails or Western whitetails, we are students of deer behavior, and we try to hunt according to a system.
Deer adapt to a wide variety of habitats. They thrive on browse, especially the twiggy shrubs that account for about 55 percent of their diets. In October, in the desert or in the forest, I like to look for shades of red. That might be bitterbrush in some locales or willows or any number of foods that deer clip the ends from in the fall.
Food, water, shelter and escape habitat, these elements are easy to identify and the deer will be there, but I don't look for deer on flat ground.
To hunt our plan, we need elevation changes, and it doesn't matter whether we spot deer from below or from above — the habitat dictates the strategy.
In open country, whether it is in the coastal mountains or on the high desert, long outcroppings of rock offer good shelter for deer that need a place to bed out of the wind and to watch for predators. In the mornings, they can catch the wind coming up from the valley below and listen for predators in the rocks behind them.
WITH THE SUN at your back, arc in to specific points on the rim and put a tree or some piece of cover behind you so you aren't sky-lined. Between glassing spots, walk directly away from the rim so you don't catch the eye of a deer. Glass deep into the shadows beneath juniper trees and large boulders. Look for the line of the back, the crook of a leg, the shine of an antler, the flick of an ear.
Instead of looking for deer, look for the feed and locate the adjacent bedding areas. Look for water, especially water that doesn't show up on other people's maps. Then look for tracks. A mulie buck's track might be 3 inches long or longer, its front feet bigger than the back feet, the prints splayed with its outsize weight. If the prints are fresh, chances are good the buck is close, within half a mile from its water source.
Set up a spotting scope on a hilltop, and stay on the glass for the first three hours of the day. Glass the feeding areas first then start to watch the bedding areas. Look for the tips of antlers, for the horizontal line of a back, for the crook of a leg, the shine of a nose, a white throat patch. That's the first approach, and when it doesn't pay off with a buck to stalk, the next step might be rim-walking.
In the Coast Range, in the Cascades, in the Rockies and the Sierras and in the high desert country, wherever the ground rises and falls away, a hunter can find exposed rocks with boulders scattered down the slopes below. Deer, especially small groups and singles, seek out the shade to tuck in and chew their cud, to wait for the shadows to arrive and then feed.
It's a form of still-hunting. Take a step and glass beneath the trees. Take another step and use the new angle to see into different cover. Don't move too fast. See the deer first. It's easy to blow a deer out and spook it by moving too fast or standing suddenly sky-lined.
Instead of just walking along the rim, a better plan is to ease up to the edge, peer over, looking at the close spots first. Wait, take another step and see habitat that was previously hidden. Some desert hunters call it scrolling, because it's like dialing down the computer screen with the Page Down button.
Look in the shade of junipers, look in the shade at the base of a boulder, look for a deer bedded in the lee of a tall sagebrush. Then back up and circle out, away from the rim to come in at another spot. In this way it is less likely to spook resting deer.
Walking along the rim, make a half-circle away from the edge and walk back in. Go slow, check the wind and look at the best bedding areas first. There will be a lot of beds that don't have deer in them, but now and then, a close, careful rim walk will reveal some of the most secretive deer.