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Summer Scouting in Western Mule Deer Country

Now's the time to get a read on the bucks you'll be hunting this fall.

Summer Scouting in Western Mule Deer Country

While there’s little sense in trying to pattern mule deer, there’s no better time to get a sense of a herd than August, before hunting pressure drives bucks to cover. (Shutterstock image)

Once the shooting starts, mule deer can be difficult to pattern. They react to hunting pressure both as individuals and as herds, moving erratically to sanctuaries. Weather, too, can push mule deer from high-country summer range to lower-elevation habitats in just a few days.

Therefore, preseason scouting has limited utility in most areas. After all, most rifle mule deer seasons around the West begin in October, and, as any backpacker can tell you, there’s a lot of change between late summer and deep autumn. But that doesn’t mean you should go into the season blindly. You can learn a lot about antler growth, distribution and overall herd health by spending some time in mule deer country now, while bachelor bucks are still running together and deer haven’t been bumped by archery elk and deer hunters.

As for you archery mule deer hunters, August is the perfect time to assess individual bucks and to get a handle on access and feeding patterns for seasons that will begin in early to mid-September.

Because mule deer occupy such varied habitats and landscapes across the West—from high-country alpine meadows to powder-dry prairie breaks, from irrigated cropland to shrubby foothill benches—scouting strategies will differ by elevation and topography. The basics are the same: Using optics or trail cameras for remote surveillance, finding reliable water sources and bedding areas and understanding how deer will use funnels to move once weather and hunting pressure influence their summer patterns. We’ll detail those commonalities in a bit. First, some specific landscape considerations.

HIGH-COUNTRY BASINS

Across much of the interior West, the best early-season mule deer hunting is in subalpine parks and meadows just above the treeline. This summer range will be occupied until snow starts to cover high-country feed or until hunting pressure makes these highly visible bucks feel vulnerable.

In August, these alpine basins are where to find your "shooter" buck and where those of you with early-season tags should focus your attention. Mountain bucks still in velvet want to be in the open, where they won’t injure their tender antlers, and they’ll also want to be in the sun. Use that knowledge to scout bucks on south-facing slopes and in wildflower fields where they have both feed and snowmelt water in proximity. You should also focus on recent burns. The greening meadows beneath fire-blackened spars will attract mule deer as they transition off the highest bowls.

Use August scouting trips to identify natural funnels that will transport high-country bucks through transitional zones. They’ll almost always follow some waterway—either a defined canyon or unnamed tributary that has a good mix of shrubs, water and security cover in the form of second-growth timber.

PRAIRIE BUCKS

I live in the heart of Montana’s prairie mule deer country, and I rely on two main landscape features as I scout prospective bucks. The first is buck beds, or dugouts, that mature bucks create on flinty sidehills. These shallow coves are used by bucks from early August through September and will be on north-facing slopes, where they can get out of the searing August sun. They’ll often be near escape cover like a deep arroyo or a ridgeline.

The second landscape feature to scout is brushy creeks. Many prairie streams are grown-over in dense willow and cottonwood saplings, and summer deer use these slender groves both for shade and security cover. But entrenched prairie streams also provide plenty of shade and water, and bucks will often bed in the protected cutbanks of these streams. Aggressive scouters can walk these streams and bump bucks; less disruptive scouters will glass these cutbanks from ridgelines high above prairie streams.




AGRICULTURAL FIELDS

We’ve all seen those irrigated wheat and alfalfa fields that attract scores and hundreds of mule deer—sometimes more when the surrounding landscape is gripped in drought. Trophy-class bucks are often suspiciously absent from these visible herds, but that doesn’t mean they’re not in the neighborhood; they won’t commit to the open fields until darkness descends. Scouters can often find them lazing in adjacent hills or ridges during the day. The most effective observers are those who set up spotters at last light on August evenings or first light in the morning, to catch big bucks as they move between daybeds and forage.

MID-ELEVATION BENCHES

This habitat type defines much of the West. These are the high sagebrush tablelands, the aspen parks of the central Rockies and the lodgepole thickets of the Southwest island ranges. It’s one of the hardest landscapes in which to scout mule deer because most of the vegetation is at least tall enough to hide an elk and as lush as an English garden. It’s also commonly occupied by elk.

Because this mid-elevation country is relatively protected both from drought and from early snows, it’s a good place to find resident bucks—deer that won’t move much from summer to winter range.

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My favorite scouting tactic here is to put trail cameras on water holes and on meadows that are starting to be grown-over in pines. These will be favorite spots for bucks rubbing their antlers in another few weeks.

SCOUTING TECHNIQUES

Now that we’ve dispensed with the various habitat types of Western mule deer, let’s consider what unifies each. These are the techniques to employ across the region to get the best pre-season intel for your upcoming season.

I’ll start with the least disruptive option: optics. There’s simply no substitute for a good spotting scope, a stout tripod and a vantage point during this season to extend your effective scouting range. I’ve arranged family hiking trips to put me on dominant ridges for the evening light. And my kids have questioned why we’d set up our tents in parks that lack amenities except for an unimpeded view of east-facing slopes that are alive with early-morning deer activity.

This is a key consideration: In the heat of August, deer simply won’t be visible in the middle hours of the day. Concentrate your scouting on the first hour of daylight and the final hour after the sun sets.

Where you have the option, deploy remote cameras. Mule deer have nowhere near the fidelity to specific trails and routes that whitetails have, but if you find an area with consistent mule deer tracks and sign, consider setting up a camera to capture movements between feed and bedding areas, or between water and feed.

Remote scouters can also make good use of digital mapping sources. Many of the elevational and landscape-scale movements of mule deer are captured in the various migration maps that have been revealed by GPS-collared deer.

Most state biologists are rightly reluctant to distribute granular data of these collared deer, but a composite view of many of these maps will reveal useful patterns, especially when you overlay topographic maps that show how mule deer use landscapes as they transition from summer to winter range. These migration maps often lack a time stamp—the specific moment each collared deer is moving across the landscape—but for most of us, simply understanding how deer use terrain is a useful window into their seasonal presence.

The last consideration is trophy assessment. By late August, bucks will have put on all the inches of antler they’re going to grow, but the thick velvet that carries bone-growing nutrients can make even modest-scoring bucks appear to be Boone & Crockett trophies.

Biologists say velvet makes antlers appear about 10 percent larger than they’ll be after they shed the growth layer. So, a buck that appears to be a 190-class typical in August is likely to be an upper-170s buck after the velvet disappears.

But that’s also what makes August scouting so appealing. This is the month to see the largest mule deer in the West, no matter where or how you find them.

MULE DEER POPULATIONS BY STATE
  • Educated estimates based on biologists’ scouting data
close-up of mule deer buck
There’s no perfect method for determining statewide mule deer numbers, so it’s best to remember these stats aren’t exact. (Shutterstock image)

Before we dive into the specific census of mule deer, it must be noted that biologists and wildlife managers absolutely hate to provide statewide population data. When they do, hunters often hold them to those specific numbers and badger them in public meetings about why they have failed to manage to that population. As long as you don’t hold it against your state’s wildlife managers, here’s the best estimate of mule deer populations in each Western state from last year, with data supplied by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

  • ARIZONA: 90,000
  • CALIFORNIA: 500,000
  • COLORADO: 416,400
  • IDAHO: 282,000
  • MONTANA: 294,000
  • NEVADA: 78,000
  • NEW MEXICO: 100,000
  • OREGON: 165,000
  • UTAH: 306,000
  • WASHINGTON: 110,000
  • WYOMING: 292,000

This article was featured in the West edition of August 2023's Game & Fish Magazine. Click to subscribe.

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