September 17, 2019
The rut gets all the glory, and not just when it comes to whitetails.
Throngs of bowhunters prefer late November and early December when it comes to targeting mule deer. Personally, I like both, but there is something magical about looking over a pristine alpine basin, your optics locked on a group of feeding bucks.
The cool morning air is starting to warm and the thermals are shifting. Your bachelor herd is on the move. They’ve filled their bellies and are looking to bed for the day. Everything is perfect, and it’s time to make your move.
Sound fun? Trust me, it is. Early-season hunting is about patience, persistence and planning. While bucks sporting velvety goodness are often easy to locate, getting an arrow or bullet in one can be quite tricky.
Early-season boy bands have always fascinated me. They hang together like brothers but in a few months will be trying to kill each other.
Bachelor herds form during the spring and typically stay together until the velvet comes off. These groups seek sanctuary in high, alpine basins and will follow a predictable food-to-bed routine.
Unlike whitetails, however, their early-season food source isn’t a planted ag field. Though high-country bucks often stick to a general area, it’s not uncommon to find a group feeding on one slope one day and a different slope the next. I’ve also seen herds border-hop between basins.
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One major reason for herd assembly is protection. Think of a schoolyard gang. There is safety in numbers, right? I’ve seen herds as small as a pair and those harboring more than 15. This is good news. Multiple animals in open to semi-open terrain are much easier to spot. However, more eyes equals more protection and, if you want to become an effective early-season muley slayer, you’re going to have to earn it.
GO REMORE, HIGH-POWERED
Solid early-season mule deer haunts aren’t hard to find. Jump on OnX maps and start looking at elevations above timber line. If it looks like good sheep and goat country, you’re in the right area. I like to locate remote basins a mile or more off any road or trailhead that offer steep slopes angling down toward a sizeable basin. Small pockets of pine trees are a bonus. Water shouldn’t be an issue. Most basins are headwaters for small creeks and drainages.
Plan to arrive at least two days before season opens, climb high and put your optics to work. The country will be big, vast and somewhat intimidating. Quality optics are a must. I recommend a 12X to15X binocular, along with a high-powered spotting scope. I like a spotter with a magnification of 60X and a lens objective around 80mm.
A lightweight tripod is also a must-have item. Pick one with an easy-to-pan head that promises smooth maneuverability and locks down quickly. While looking over your basin of choice, keep an eye peeled for alpine willow. This is a brushy, thick, green plant that can be chest high. This is a preferred mule deer food source and, if you find it, you’ll likely find bucks. I also like to locate small benches on steep inclines that offer flat spots for bedding deer.
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Be on the glass at first light. Muley bucks will be up and feeding. Pick an area and comb it with your binos. Go slow and cover small areas before moving on. A quick glance doesn’t cut it. Once a buck or bucks are located, move to your spotter and lock it in place. If there is a shooter buck in the herd, don’t move off of him. I’m guilty of finding a group, noting their location, setting my scope on them and going back to the binos to search for other deer. This is fine if you have a buddy along. He can stay on the group while you scan. When you’re solo, this is bad practice. Mule deer bucks can wander a ways from food to bed and losing them is a real possibility. Stay on them until they find their napping grounds.
Early in my bowhunting career, I blew countless stalks because I was too eager. The bucks would bed and off I would go. Don’t do this. Unless bothered, mule deer bucks will often stay bedded in the same area for hours. Sometimes they will relocate to a secondary bed, but most often they will stay put. Give them time to settle into their bed and plan your approach carefully.
Attach a Phone Skope to your spotter and take multiple pictures of the area. Pull up the photos on your smartphone and use an editing tool to circle distinguishable landmarks. You will have to loop around and drop in on the bucks from above. This often requires losing sight of them and you will want a good visual reminder of your pre-picked landmarks.
Taking time to plan your approach also gives the thermals time to switch. Around 10 a.m., warm air will arrive and the thermals will start pulling up the mountain. This is a must for the approaching-from-above hunter. Another quick tip is to play the sun. Passing clouds are common in the mountains, and clouds cast shadows. Shadows can be your best friend when spotting and stalking, allowing you to get away with risky moves that would tip your hand in bright sunlight.
Sometimes, like the song lyrics said, you gotta know when to fold ’em. If the bucks don’t bed in an approachable spot, don’t go on the stalk. Don’t push the envelope and blow them out of the country. There is a good chance you will relocate them again the following morning.
I’m an aggressive stalker. I keep in top physical shape (a prerequisite for serious mule deer hunters) and cover terrain quickly when I’m sure the bucks can’t see me. As I get closer, everything slows down. Shoes are removed and my pack is shed. I like to stalk in wool socks and have never been a fan of stalking shoes. I inch along and keep my eyes up, stopping often to let the binoculars work.
Once in position—and for me this is 60 yards or closer—I wait. I’ve read lots of articles noting that throwing a rock or a stick is a good idea—a solid way to get a buck on his feet. I’ve done it … once. It sent the herd running. You’ve done everything right to this point. Why rush it? Pull out some snacks and water and wait. Bucks stand often throughout the day. They stretch, scratch themselves with their hooves and nibble on close-by greens. Have your range and your sight dialed. Be ready. When the buck stands, settle your pin and take your shot.
Hunting early-season mule deer is a blast. The bucks are visible and somewhat predictable. Not to mention you get to spend days in rough terrain, camped out under a starlit sky.
WHERE DO I CAMP?
I get asked this question a lot. Truth be told, there aren’t a lot of great places to camp in the high country. The biggest factor is finding an area that doesn’t expose you to the elements or the deer. I don’t like to drop so low in elevation that I have to burn tons of energy climbing the mountain in the morning, but I don’t want to sleep on an open slope either. I look for a small patch of pines in a semi-flat area and call it home. The campsite doesn’t have to be big and luxurious. The lower profile you can keep, the better.
WHAT ABOUT FIREARMS?
Some states offer early season hunts for muzzleloader or rifle. These tactics work just as well when toting either one. The added advantage of a firearm in the high country is increased range. Today’s muzzleloaders make 200-yard shots possible, while centerfire rifles can reach out more than twice that distance.