Low Country Mule Deer Hunting
In trying to cover some of the things that I don’t think books and magazine have done a good enough job explaining how to hunt, I realized that mule deer hunting foothill and canyon type country seems to not get enough press. Books like David Long’s “Public Land Mulies” are great, but have nothing to offer those who don’t draw a limited tag for early high country hunts, especially in Wyoming where a nonresident can’t even hunt a wilderness area without a guide. While that is a spectacular way to hunt, the tactics simply don’t apply to country that you can routinely hunt. Since it's early October, and many of you have rifle seasons that are about to start, I figured it was time to address some of the lower country options.
I can break this down a lot of different ways, but I want to get away from the idea that mule deer hunting needs to be a high altitude, big timber affair. Certainly there will be deer up there, but by the time most of us get a crack at them with a rifle in mid to late October, they are starting come down from the mountains anyway. Instead, let’s focus on areas with resident deer herds that then receive an influx of deer from the mountains later in the season. Included in those areas are agland deer, canyon country deer, subdivision deer and foothills deer.
Hunting resident deer makes your scouting much easier as there will always be at least some deer present year round. There will generally be very few large bucks throughout the summer and early fall in areas with a migratory deer herd, but if you’re just hoping to get into deer, that isn’t such a bad thing.
In some areas, it can take quite a bit of map perusal to find, in other areas, it can be quite easy to find agricultural bottom lands that back up to BLM, State or Forest Service lands. Accessing these lands can be quite difficult, but they are generally chock full of deer. It’s not uncommon to have to hike a mile or two around various private parcels from an obscure access point through rough country to get to a nice choke point near the fields. Very few deer will bed in the middle of a field, so catching deer heading into or out of the pinyon-juniper or scrub oaks is a pretty useful tactic. I’ve had great fun sitting fence lines at obvious crossing points in thick pinyon-juniper, but shots are going to be quick and close. You can’t be too picky here unless you’ve been able to scout bucks in the fields ahead of time and know what caliber of animal to expect. Features I’ll look for along the fence lines are downed wires that make it easy for deer to cross, hair snags on the barbs, or deep gouges in the soil from a place where deer are obviously jumping back and forth. Some farmers and ranchers can get sloppy with their fencing in small finger draws, so you might be able to find a good crossing point in one of these.
Subdivisions in the foothills and canyon country can also be difficult to hunt, but the deer here are generally used to human presence. Identifying potential areas on a map can be a pain, as the access point can be a half mile or more into the subdivision. The roads leading into those places, unless gated are usually public roads, so driving around the back end (or whichever portion of the subdivision is closest to public land) really can’t be stopped by anyone looking for an access point. The access is rarely advertised by anything more than a tiny forest service marker, so make sure you have your GPS and a good map with you.
One thing to note here is that unlike in aglands, there isn’t normally going to be a major food source to concentrate game. Sometimes the deer will be using the neighboring public lands as a bedding area, and then feeding in the subdivision, but more often than not, the real prize is access to land that would otherwise be impossible to hunt. The public lands behind those subdivisions are usually very lightly pressured and make for an enjoyable hunt once you get over the awkwardness of parking next to someone’s house to hunt “their” back yard.
For more conventional low elevation hunting we have the foothills and canyon country mule deer. Much of this country can be considered winter range, and will have its highest deer densities late in the year if connected to significantly higher mountains. However, there are usually a few residents hanging around all year long. If hunting an area like this, try to find as late a season as possible. Even if you can’t hunt it in November or December, the leaves on scrub oaks or mountain mahogany should be gone by October, giving you great visibility.
In gentler foothill country, there are several ridge features that I like to look for. As I’ve mentioned before, I try to look for the longest ridge in the area that dumps all the way down into true winter range. These ridges are often major migration corridors and work great for bucks on the hunt for a little company. Also notice the quality of the trails on these ridges. There is usually a very well defined game trail somewhere right near the top of that ridge. When hunting those ridges, you’ll notice that there is a marked difference in the vegetation types between the two aspects that the ridge separates. The north and east faces should be more heavily timbered than the south and west faces, but if the timber is still sparse on the north face, you may want to focus your attention there. Deer will have little reason to leave the comfort, security and quality forage of a sparsely timbered north face.
Another ridge feature I like are perpendicular finger ridges coming off a main ridge. These can be great places to glass deer from, especially early in the mornings as the deer move up the slopes. The main ridge will give you a great vantage point and make it easy to determine where to intercept moving deer if they don’t bed. Most foothill country will be pretty arid on the slopes above a major creek or river. However, you can occasionally find seeps or springs partway up a hill. These can be game magnets, not so much for water itself, but the greener forage they provide. Lastly, for various reasons, deer can be found around weird rocky outcrops. Sometimes it’s for the shade they provide, sometimes it’s the only cover around, on a south face on a cold morning the rocks will gather heat and there’s probably some additional rationale for finding deer around large rock outcrops, but it really doesn’t matter why. They like em, so glass the edges of the outcrops in the morning and at midday.
In mesa and canyon type country many of the same features that I like to look for in foothill country apply. However, sheer cliff faces are far more prominent and a great place to spot bedded bucks. It’s easiest to see bucks bedded on cliff faces from above and across whatever drainage formed that face, but can be very difficult to approach them after you find them. A tactic I enjoyed when I lived in some minor rimrock country in Central Montana was to carefully try to spot the bucks from above the cliffs they are bedded against. Though you may occasionally make some noise kicking an occasional rock, the bucks will generally only get up, run a few feet and look back towards the source of the noise, allowing plenty of opportunity for a shot.
For still hunters, creeping around the face of the cliff in the soft dirt trails at their base can be very effective, but still difficult to give yourself a chance to trophy judge a deer. If you’d rather hunt the tops of the mesas you’re most likely to find the trails coming up and out of the canyon somewhere near the mouth of the canyon. The bottom of the mouth is also generally the wettest place in the canyon, and a great place to find a small hidden waterhole or lush vegetation. In higher pressured country, those routes up and down the cliff faces are great places to ambush bucks trying to sneak away from other hunters.
Hopefully some of the above thoughts are something you can apply to your hunting instead of the usual stuff about alpine mule deer hunting in September. Low country mule deer hunting can be slower paced, less physically exhausting and more productive than hiking to the furthest peak in search of the only buck on the mountain. And if you’re tired of trying to find them up high, think about planning a lower elevation hunt next year. All it takes is a little map work before you send out that application to find an area with some potentially huntable terrain features and landownership patterns.