A careless myth has perpetuated over decades across the townships and counties west of the 100th Meridian: mule deer on the open prairies and tablelands of the West can’t really see you or, if they can, they will tolerate your presence to their demise.
Neither is true.
Hunters who underestimate the vigilance of open-country mule deer risk blowing stalks, taking irresponsibly long shots or simply overlooking bucks, whether in the sagebrush tablelands of Wyoming, the juniper breaks of New Mexico and Arizona or the high alpine meadows of the Cascades and Rockies.
The myth of obliviousness comes naturally to beginning mule deer hunters. Mule deer will tolerate the presence of humans more readily than their whitetail cousins will. They’ll stay motionless longer as you approach, giving the impression that they either don’t associate you with danger or that they are somehow less intelligent or reactive than flagtails.
But underestimate the watchfulness and the ability to evade danger of mule deer at your own peril. They are watching. They are assessing their escape routes. They are ready to disappear in a single bound. And the older and more experienced the buck, the cagier he will be, to the degree that most of us never see those heavy, wide and deeply forked older bucks.
Both their watchfulness and their occupancy in wide-open country are indications of their evolution. While whitetails rely on their prodigious sense of smell to detect danger, mule deer are more reliant on their keen eyesight and sense of hearing than on their noses, adaptations that have served them well in places where they need to see and hear the approach of predators. So, how do you close the distance on a vigilant open-country buck? By using the landscape in much the way mature muleys do.
RELY ON OPTICS
Your eyes will never be as good as those of mule deer, but you can use your own evolutionary advantage—adaptation of tools—as a pretty good substitute. Use optics. Magnifying glass will save you miles of walking but, more importantly, it will allow you to spot deer before they spot you and give you the greatest advantage of a hunter over his or her prey: the element of surprise.
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I generally start any mule deer hunt behind a spotting scope, either mounted to the window of my pickup or on a light, packable tripod, picking apart the landscape for bedded or feeding deer. Once I see a buck worth pursuing, I’ll try to assess them through the glass, but I’ll also use a spotter to ensure that there aren’t any deer (or antelope, or cattle) on my stalking approach.
Once I begin stalking, I’ll scan middle distances in front of me with my binocular, confirming, for example, that a particular clump of sagebrush isn’t a bedded deer or that there’s not a buck watching me from the rimrocks a thousand yards up the canyon. Some of my hunting companions claim I overuse my binocular and they may be right. I’ll glass ahead of me every 100 yards or so just to ensure I don’t jump a bedded buck.
This bears repeating, though you’ve probably heard it before: keep the wind in your face. Mule deer may not have the keen sense of smell of their white-tailed cousins, but if they smell you, they’ll depart the country in a hurry.
The first landscape skill you need to perfect is keeping your profile off the horizon. This is known as “skylining,” and it’s the kiss of death for an open-country hunter. Any animal, whether a pronghorn or a bison or a mule deer, that makes a living in wide-open country keeps an eye trained on the horizon at all times. They will pick you off, whether you’re a mile away or not, the longer you stand on a ridge or rim of a basin.
That doesn’t mean you can never cross a ridge. Just do it quickly and discretely. Pick a spot where your crossing might be obscured by rocks or vegetation. If you can’t find cover, then at least cross quickly, then drop to your butt after you’ve lost enough elevation that you are no longer skylined. Scan the landscape in front of you with a binocular, confirming that no critters are wise to your presence.
USE TERRAIN FEATURES
This is a corollary of the prior rule. Even wide-open country isn’t featureless; it’s riven with little ravines, stream beds, boulder fields, and secondary ridges and coulees. Use them to hide your approach.
Here’s an example that I learned in an early mule deer hunt. The herd, including a high-racked buck, was bedded in a sagebrush flat that looked to be at least 1,000 yards from the nearest cover. But a dry streambed snaked from the cover through the flat. I managed to belly-crawl undetected to the cover, then dropped into the dry creek bed. I had to crawl for some of my approach, but the cut was deep enough to allow me to keep my feet for most of it. I was able to glass, then creep, then glass, until I closed to 400 yards. I set my rifle on the edge of the creek and killed a buck in his bed without him knowing I was anywhere in his neighborhood.
UNDERSTAND ALARM PERIMETERS
One reason mule deer have a reputation for complacency is that they will tolerate a certain amount of intrusion into their world. They will sit tight, for instance, as a pickup parks on a distant ridge. Or they’ll look up from feeding and stare, motionless, as a hunter picks his way down a slope 1,000 yards away. But once you understand the species’ zones of toleration, you’ll become a much more effective hunter.
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I call the most distant zone the “cognizance perimeter.” It can extend 1 to even 2 and 3 miles away, depending on the landscape. This is the distance over which a mule deer knows that humans are present. Maybe it’s the sound of a pickup at 2 miles or the sound of hunters laughing at a mile. Whatever it is, older bucks won’t sit still; they’ll move away from the sound long before hunters notice them. Younger bucks are likely to rise out of their beds or stop feeding until they decide whether the hunters are targeting them or not.
The next is the “agitation perimeter.” This is the zone in which a deer will prepare for flight. In wide-open country it might be a mile; in tighter country maybe it’s 1,200 yards. But you’ll know it because deer will be on their feet, looking your direction, and maybe stamping their feet or milling about nervously. Be careful here. Those deer are on trip-wire sensitivity and it won’t take them much to clear out of the country.
Finally, there’s a mule deer’s “alarm perimeter.” This is when you’re so close that they don’t hesitate, but rather bolt for safety. If you breach this zone, which is generally about 500 yards in most terrains but as distant as 1,000 or as close as 250 yards, then you’d better be ready for action—have an arrow nocked or a bullet chambered. You may get a shot, but it’s likely to be hasty.
DEATH BY PRONGING
The final confirmation that you have busted a stalk is when you see a mule deer (or several) pogo-sticking away from you. This straight-legged bounce is called “pronging,” and it’s a classic mule deer maneuver.
Biologists who have studied the gait claim that it gives mule deer a much better ability to cross hazardous terrain —think boulder fields or ground pocked with badger holes—than predators who merely lope. The pronging allows deer to change course almost instantaneously while still maintaining a high rate of speed. Think about a muley bounding across a treacherous boulder field. The deer is able to “prong” straight over rocks predators have to go around, giving it an edge. But it’s a bad sight to a human hunter because it means that your stalk is blown, and deer are heading to the far horizon.
There is one consolation here, one that generations of open-country mule deer hunters have capitalized on: Mule deer will often stop and look back to see if their threat is pursuing them. Often, they’ll do this 300 to 400 yards from you, giving you a chance to make a quick and certain shot at a stationary animal.
If you can’t shoot a mule deer in its bed, then take them on this pause between prongs. It’s likely to be the last chance you’ll have before that mule deer disappears into the wide-open country.