Spot and Stalk Mule Deer Hunting in Wide Open Country
A dark-horned 4×4 typical mule deer buck and doe were milling along the top edge of a coulee. While glassing the deer, I could see the buck was definitely a shooter in my book, since he had good front and back forks on both sides. The deer had likely been bedded on the edge of the coulee all day. Now that the sun was getting lower on the horizon, they were on their feet and heading out to feed.
They had no idea that we were nearby. So, my daughter and I stalked in to close the distance to a suitable shooting range. While doing so, the pair of deer tucked over the edge of the coulee and disappeared. I couldn’t have asked for a better scenario! Since they made such a move, all we needed to do was get to the spot where we last saw them, then slowly sneak over the top so I could put the crosshairs on the buck.
Once we neared the top of the coulee, Courtney opened the legs on the BOG Pod shooting sticks she had been carrying for me. As she handed me the shooting sticks, I put my rifle stock into the shooting rest and slowly topped the hill. While we were expecting to see the buck and doe standing right in front of us, we were shocked to see more than 50 mule deer in the coulee below us! There were does and fawns everywhere. Some were in small groups, while others were standing in pairs or as singles. Mixed in with the does were bucks of all sizes having all kinds of headgear.
Being caught off guard by the sight of so many mule deer, and stuck holding my rifle on its temporary rest, I was forced to use my eyes to check things out. Since Courtney was already tagged out, she quickly raised her rangefinding binoculars and went to work checking out the different bucks.
In short order, she whispered, “There he is at 10 o’clock, 257 yards out. He’s still with a doe and just a few feet behind her.” While swinging my focus to the 10 o’clock position, I first saw the doe, and then the buck.
I could see the big forks with just my eyes, and I knew it was him. I started the process of finding him in the scope.
With the crosshairs centered on his front shoulder, I eased off the safety. I took a couple of seconds to calm my nerves and then released a 130 grain Winchester Power Max Bonded .270 bullet, causing the buck to fold upon impact. Thankfully, he dropped on the spot because the boom of my rifle caused deer to scatter in every direction.
Mule deer hunting involves lots of walking and often in some very rugged countryside. Given the fact that mule deer have great eyesight, and great senses of smell and hearing, ambling aimlessly through mule deer country will simply make deer aware of your presence, causing them to spook from the area. In many cases, as you enter a low spot, they’ll flee, and you will have no idea they were even there. So, instead of just getting out there and walking, let your eyes do a lot of your leg work.
When hunting with my eyes, I personally like to use a combination of binoculars and a spotting scope to help me look for mule deer. When selecting optics for mule deer hunting, try to buy the best optics you can afford, since they will allow you to spend longer periods of time looking through them without getting a headache. In addition, they will provide a much crisper and higher quality view, especially in low light conditions. That quality will help you more easily determine if you are looking at antlers or twigs.
In agricultural areas, mule deer will often move from pastureland to cereal crops to feed and then head back to pasture to bed for the day. They can often be spot- ted while they are on the move. In these situations, it is often best to be set up and ready to start glassing well in advance of the time you expect to see the deer start moving. This will prevent the deer from seeing you before you see them. Often, it’s the movement of the deer that will catch your attention. However, don’t look only for moving deer, because undisturbed mule deer often slowly saunter along and periodically stop to check things out.
In pastureland, mule deer will feed on shrubs, grass- es and bushes. They often don’t bed too far from their feeding areas. In these situations, you need to use your eyes and binoculars to dissect the cover as you look for their body parts in or against the brushy cover. Some- times the deer will be standing, sometimes they will be bedded down.
During the early season, look for the deer’s white rump patch, the glint of the sun as it hits antlers, or skylighted big ears or antlers as they walk along or bed on the edges of cover. When snow is on the ground, the dark bodies of mule deer quickly give away their locations. Often, a bedded deer will be taller than the cover they are laying in, so always look for the horizontal back of deer amid vertical shrubs and bushes.
While glassing an area for mule deer, don’t just put your binoculars to your eyes and do a quick left-to-right scan of the area, thinking you’re done, then moving on to the next glassing spot. Instead, slowly scan the area in a grid pattern that allows you to completely check out the area. In the mornings and afternoons, mule deer will be on their feet. They’ll move in and out of brushy cover and low spots so keep scouring the area over and over again, until you either see some deer or you’re convinced there are none in the immediate area.
If your starting point doesn’t produce anything, it’s time to move to another glassing spot. In some instances, that may be just a short move that allows you a different angle of the original area or a look into another coulee or ridge. In other cases, you may need to move several hundred yards to get to the next glassing location. Regardless of how far you need to move, don’t give yourself away as you move along. This means walking quietly, staying low on the horizon, using low spots to your advantage, creeping to the top of a hill, and keeping the wind in your face or quartering over your shoulder.
When you spot some deer, try to determine as best you can whether any of them may have potential as a target animal. If a particular deer piques your interest, bring out the spotting scope and zoom right in for a magnified assessment. If the deer isn’t a shooter, then go back to glassing. However, if it is a shooter, it’s time to figure out a game plan.
Use-Your-Legs – Stalking
With a target buck located, you need a plan. Unless the buck is going to strut past you within shooting range, you’ll have to stalk in closer to close the distance.
Before getting up and moving, take some time to assess the situation. Can you pull off a successful stalk on a bedded or feeding buck—or are you going to have to move into position to cut off its movement?
If this is a morning hunt and you find the buck bedded, you can try to figure out a route that allows you to stalk into shooting range without being spotted. While you’re moving, make mental notes of prominent landmarks.
Once you leave your glassing spot, the terrain will look very different. If you don’t have some landmarks to keep you on track, you may end up spooking the buck by getting too close. You could be seen or completely miss him by taking the wrong path. If the buck is moving, keep watching him move. It likely won’t be long until he beds down. Then, you can move in for a shooting opportunity.
If you spot a buck bedded mid-day, you may elect to stalk in and get close enough for a shot. If it’s mid-day or later and the buck is up and moving, you may want to figure out where he is headed, then try to get ahead of him in order to ambush him as he moves along.
We’ve all heard stories of how naive mule deer can be, and how they either don’t run, or run and stop, or simply let you get super close. No doubt these stories are true but they may generally apply to does, fawns and small bucks. Big bucks are big because they have managed to survive the early years of their lives by figuring out how to avoid contact with hunters. If you’re targeting a big mature buck, use your A-Game while after him.
Hunting The Rut
During late November and into early December, mule deer bucks are on a mission to find and breed does. It’s common to see bucks on the hoof all day as they travel from doe group to doe group. In addition, some of the biggest old bucks that are nocturnal for most of the sea- son may let down their guard and move during daylight hours.
If your season overlaps this magical time of the year, I highly recommend that you take advantage of this timeframe. Since the deer are on the move for most of the day, pick a prime spot where you can glass over a vast area. If you don’t see any deer, it will simply be a matter of time before you do, so fight the urge to get up and move. Be patient, use your optics, and you should be rewarded for your efforts.
Once you spot a shooter buck, figure out where he is headed and try to get into a position for a shot. My preference is to try to figure out where he is headed in order to cut him off or ambush him. Although the bucks may be thinking about does, you still need to take all precautions to avoid having deer detect you.
While the bucks will often drop their guard at this time of year, the does are often the ones that spook. When they take off running, the buck will simply follow them. So, if you spot a bedded buck or a buck just standing still for extended periods of time or milling around
in the same area, assume that there is a doe or does in close proximity. Be very careful to avoid spooking any does you don’t see when moving in on the buck.
Cold Weather – Prime Time
When winter hits mule deer country, bringing cold temperatures and snow, these animals will turn on the feed bag. This time of year is a close second to the mule deer rut for being the best time to hunt. If the rut and winter weather collide, drop everything you’re doing to get out hunting!
Cold weather hunting is so good because mule deer will feed longer in the mornings and earlier in the evenings. During extremely cold weather, it’s common to see mule deer feed all day long to capitalize on the warmest time of the day.
With the deer out in the open comes a prime opportunity to see lots of animals and try to find the biggest buck in the area. Once again, glassing is the best way to check out all the animals to see what’s out there. When glassing, try not to spook any deer you are not going after. Let them go about their daily routine and not get stressed or abandon a prime feeding area.
Two of the best times to hunt mule deer during the winter are just before and just after a blizzard or winter storm. The deer know the bad weather is coming and will feed right up until the winter weather hits. Then they’ll hunker down and wait out the bad weather until it breaks. When the snow quits falling and blowing, the deer will come out of the “woodworks” and go on a mass feeding session.
If I have to choose between hunting before or after a winter storm, I always go with after. The reason for this is personal safety. If you get caught out in a winter storm and can’t find your way back to camp, it can prove disastrous. Another thing to consider is that if you do shoot a deer in the hours or minutes leading up to a storm, you may not be able to track or find your deer. Retrieval could also prove to be a nightmare. On the other hand, often the day after a storm can be bright and sunny, making it easy to spot hungry deer that may have been laying low for a day or two without feeding. While there may be more snow and snowdrifts on the ground then, you will be able to see those hazards and navigate around them without getting stuck or lost.