Strike Early for Mule Deer Success

Even from a great distance I could tell he was the kind of buck I was looking for. His velvet-wrapped 4X4 rack carried deep forks and heavy beams, and with a spread of nearly 28 inches, I would have considered myself lucky just to get close enough for a shot, let alone slip an arrow through his chest. It would be a 4 mile pack to get him back to the trail head, but when you’re chasing early season muley bucks, there’s a physical aspect of the whole affair that must be embraced.

I started this hunt four days prior in a less remote area, but after many hours behind the glass I had decided to seek better options. Deer numbers were pretty good, with one buck in particular easily making the location worthwhile, but hunter numbers seemed to be higher. After a failed attempt on an average buck and a pair of hunters who foiled another attempt as they came bouncing over a ridge barely 100 yards from my bedded prize as I was slipping into range, I felt it best to seek greener pastures.

Watching the buck as he fed, his reddish summer coat stood in stark contrast against the emerald green slopes around him, and his tank-sized body dwarfed the other bucks he was palling around with. Best of all, the bedding area he seemed to be feeding towards offered an excellent opportunity for a mid-day stalk. For nearly two hours I watched as he meticulously fed on the lush green shoots, and with each passing minute he grew more impressive through the spotting scope.

I initially located him the previous afternoon and I desperately wanted to sneak into range at that time; however, Mother Nature forced other plans. Just as I was about to ditch my pack and close to within the magical 60 yard mark, dark clouds and fickle winds rushed in unannounced. Over the years I have learned there are many things that are in a hunter’s control, but capricious mountain winds aren't one of them. Regardless of what you hunt with a bow, when the animal is mature, it doesn't take too many mistakes to send them packing. Backing out, I kept tabs on him the rest of the day with hopes of another opportunity.

During the early season, mule deer tend to keep the same daily routine if left undisturbed. And just like he did the previous day, he fed towards and eventually bedded in the same brushy thicket with his companions. With them bedded relatively close to each other, I watched them for the next couple of hours as I waited on the mountain thermals to steady and studied every detail of their lair from my elevated perch. When it comes to planning a stalk, it’s all about the details so I planned my route meticulously. Ideally, I wanted to sneak close enough for a shot, or at least get into the best possible position and wait for him to feed towards me and move in if needed.

With the wind steady and terrain favorable, I slipped without a hitch. When his thick fuzzy antlers rose above the brush and began moving my direction nearly an hour later, I adjusted my position. Time slowed to a snail’s pace as I watched him ease towards a boulder-sized hole in the brush, and when his chest appeared I went into auto pilot. Quickly pressing my bow into service, I settled my pin and gently touched the trigger.

Arrows always seem to fly faster in the thin mountain air, and when it buried fletch deep smashing his opposite shoulder, I knew the hunt was over. As I watched him bound away in the opposite direction and tip-over within sight, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. It rarely comes easy when hunting alpine bucks, and this hunt was no different. There always seems to be a higher physical and mental level on these types of hunts, but I guess that’s what makes the whole experience all the more sweeter.

I love bowhunting mule deer in general, but I really love hunting them during the early season in particular--just something about those fuzzy antlers. More times than not it ends up being a chess match of sorts: finding, patterning, stalking and ultimately killing the buck you’re after, but the reward of finally knocking over the king is what makes the experience so rewarding.

A Systematic Approach

There’s more to successfully anchoring a heavy muley buck during the early season than just showing up. Sure, anyone can get lucky. But when it comes to bowhunting in general, “luck” is earned with hard work, skill and determination. That being said, there are several factors to consistent early season success, and oftentimes it takes a systematic approach to get the job done.
Obviously scouting is key, either before the season or once the season starts. That being said, leave casual scouting techniques at home if you want to find quality bucks. This means going early and staying late. Hike in the dark so when you get there it’s prime time to find bucks moving. Don’t scout close to roads either. Although quality bucks can be found in these areas, chances are someone else has already found them. Ideally, getting at least 3 miles from the nearest road is a good start and doing this will eliminate the vast majority of bowhunters.

Once you find these buck-holding areas, scout from a distance and learn his habits. Sometimes this is best done weeks before the season, but for the traveling hunter this is generally not possible. If this is the case, spend as much time as you can afford nailing him down. Unless the buck is bedded in a prime location when you first spot him, spend time getting to know his routine, even if it’s only for a day or two. The intelligence you gain could be vital.

Without question, patience is perhaps the most critical element when stalking a mature mule deer buck. Noted bowhunter Randy Ulmer told me recently, “I can look back on nearly every good buck I have taken and point out where patience was a huge factor in the outcome.” Ulmer went on to say, because of our fear of losing an opportunity, bowhunters naturally want to move in quick and make the shot, but this often leads to more failures than successes. Ideally, you should only move in on a buck in the perfect situation. Consistent wind direction, the buck’s position, available cover, potential shot opportunities, and perhaps the most overlooked, other deer bedded in the area are all elements that should be considered. Patience generally breeds success with anything involving the stick and string, and this is especially true when trying to stalk an animal that has perfected the art of survival.

When waiting for that perfect opportunity to unfold, keep your distance. Generally speaking, watching him from 300 to 400 yards away is close enough to move in when needed, but far enough to move out undetected as well. Going unnoticed is another element to a successful mule deer hunt. Bump him and he’s possibly gone for good, but leaving him alone when it’s not right will ensure other opportunities in the future.

Although it’s something that is generally overlooked by many western bowhunters, a mule deer’s nose is as sharp as any whitetail’s, so scent control can also help tilt the odds in your favor. Utah bowhunter Kip Fowler has killed 5 bucks over 180-inches, two of which grossed over 200-inches, and he takes scent control seriously. Kip suggests hunters wipe down daily—even several times a day if necessary—with human scent eliminating wipes and sprays. When he sneaks within 150 yards of the buck he’s after, he wipes down again, changes into scent-controlling clothes and finishes the stalk. Although he always plays the wind, Kip says, “you never know when it will flip.”

When everything is right and it’s time to start moving in, be meticulous in your approach, especially once you reach the 100 yard mark. These bucks are experts at surviving and they are extremely sensitive to their immediate surroundings. If you think you’re moving slow enough, move even slower. Getting to within 50 to 60 yards of a bedded buck is ideal, but getting much closer significantly increases your chance of being detected.

Making the shot is really where the rubber meets the road. With the average shot being in the 50 to 60 yard range in most cases, consistently hitting the 10-ring at such distances is important. Uphill, downhill and sidehill shots are obviously a factor as well, and although today’s angle-compensating rangefinders have eliminated the guesswork out of the horizontal distance, you still have to send the arrow. That being said, just because you know the correct pin to use doesn't not mean it’s a slam dunk when elevation is involved. Practice every angle you could potentially be faced with well-before game day. Whether you are shooting uphill or downhill, you must bend at the waist and keep your arms at right angles to your torso. Without practice we tend to move our arms more, failing to keep the proper angle, and this ultimately affects the draw length and overall accuracy.

Lastly, time and dedication are critical to a successful early season hunt. Mature bucks don’t live in every drainage, and it takes an enormous amount of time, dedication and energy to locate the buck you want. Success with these types of hunts rarely come quick. In fact, I can only remember one time when I found success on the first day. Most of the time I ended up spending more time watching and waiting for an opportunity than actually hunting. Although this often stretched the hunt longer than anticipated, it generally paid off in the end.