Ask most North American hunters and nine out of ten will probably say that early season mule deer hunting is for archers. As a committed bowhunter I've spent many early season days in the mountains, along river valleys and in the prairie grasslands chasing mule deer. It is indeed a great opportunity to catch deer relatively uneducated. But in recent years I've been hearing more about gun hunting these great deer in the early season.
Aside from opportunity, the early season also presents several unique challenges. The heat alone is usually enough to keep most of us out of the woods. Daytime highs are frequently off the charts, bugs (i.e., mosquitoes and flies) are out in full force, and lush foliage on trees and shrubs offers abundant cover for the deer. To most of us, it's just not deer hunting unless the weather is cold and crisp, fall brown colors are prevalent and the leaves are on the ground. In turn, a lot of us just can't wrap our heads around the idea of deer hunting in the late summer time.
Acknowledging these variable opportunities and challenges, my wife and I decided to give it a try. After applying for several years, we were finally successful in drawing early permits in 2006.
Early Season Mule Deer - A First Hand Account
Gently nudging the truck door closed, the air was moist and cool, but certainly warmer than one would anticipate on most deer hunts. The pungent odors of late summer and an early harvest were in the air. We had hunted this same field two weeks prior during the archery opener and seen at least three wide-racked bucks. Boasting 30"- 40" spreads, these bucks would easy score at least 180 inches each.
In the pre-dawn darkness, my wife Heather and I quietly made our way across a quarter section of open field. During our bow hunt, we'd seen the most activity in a hidden quarter about a half mile to the south. Feasting on the lush green alfalfa, we estimated there were as many as 50 mule deer converging on that field each night.
Using every contour in the land for cover, we crept closer to the thin tree line bordering the alfalfa field. With 10 minutes to spare before legal shooting light, we'd arrived at just the right time. Carefully glassing the field, we saw two moose and more deer than we could count in virtually every direction.
I'd offered to let Heather take her deer first, so I was glassing hard to pinpoint a trophy-sized buck.
"There, off to the left about 100 yards … he's a bruiser … he's gotta be pushing 190," I whispered excitedly!
As Heather nestled into the grass, along with legal light came another problem. Pulling down the legs of her bipod, out of nowhere came a curious doe. Trotting toward us, she stopped abruptly, then at 20 yards, began to bob her head in an effort to get us to move.
I remember thinking, "this can't be happening," ...but it was!
Alerted by the doe, the big buck soon became agitated and began moving toward the trees. By the time Heather locked on target it was too late and many of the deer followed suit. Most were moving off the field quickly and I thought we were done for the morning.
Then, on the far edge I noticed three nice bucks and they were still feeding. One was in velvet. What really caught my eye was good mass and a lot of height. Prompting Heather to take a look, she quickly adjusted and acquired her target.
"I think the biggest would go around 170 ...if you want him, take him," I encouraged.
Moments later she hit the switch, the buck lunged forward and disappeared.
"Great shot! That's every bit of 250 yards and you hit him hard," I exclaimed. Using her Tikka 7 mm Remington Magnum she made a beautiful shot.
By the time we walked across the field, 20 minutes had passed and her buck lay just inside the tree line.
With Heather's hunt playing out so well, we cleaned up her deer and spent much of the day walking but never came across any other big bucks.
In late August and even much of September, deer are still in their relaxed bedding and feeding routines. In my experience they tend to get up every two to four hours, stretch their legs, maybe browse a bit and then bed down again. With the thick foliage heavy on the trees, visibility in the woods is highly restrictive. What does this mean for the early season deer hunter? For the most part, hunting is done in the first hour or two of daylight and the last hour or two just before dark in the feeding fields or movement corridors to and from those feeding areas.
Field Judging Early Mule Deer
The following day was a repeat performance. Doing the same thing, we made our way across the first field and through the tree line under the cover of pre-dawn darkness. As legal light arrived, several deer could be seen in the field but less than the previous morning.
After a short stalk I ended up tagging a respectable buck as well - a nice 5x4 grossing in the mid-160's. Truth is there was a bit of ground shrink. Mule deer can be tough to field judge at the best of times, but early mule deer can really mess with your head. Short hair in the early season makes the antlers stand out that much more. Remember, most of us are accustomed to seeing mule deer in the various stages of the rut when necks are swollen and hides are thick. In turn, I know for me, it was a constant challenge to remind myself that the antlers will appear somewhat larger with the early season hides.
As with field judging other deer - height, width, number of points, and of course mass are the key characteristics to look for. If a buck has all of these, chances are he's a monarch. Mainframe 4x4's are common, bucks with more than four points a side are considerably less common and non-typical bucks with funky points or better yet, drop-tines are rare indeed and perhaps most coveted. Most often bucks have one or maybe even a couple of the aforementioned characteristics, but rarely do they have all. This in turn, makes them more difficult to judge. Mine had a fifth point on his right side that adds nice character to the rack and to be honest he is a great buck, but not the one I was originally hoping to tag.
Focus on the Feed
I've hunted mule deer in a variety of terrain and habitat types and I believe the biggest advantage from a timing perspective is hunting early season mule deer in the farmland areas. In the early season, mule deer haven't yet been disrupted. They're still enjoying their lackadaisical bedding and feeding routines. Food is plentiful and cover is abundant. Knowing this, the early season mule deer hunter is usually wise to focus on food sources close to protective cover.
Depending on the terrain you're hunting, finding mule deer in the early season can be relatively easy. Mule deer, like most ungulates migrate within a given home range throughout the year. Where they winter is typically different from where they spend their summer months. In some instances they congregate to breed during their annual rut cycle. In the early season, before the pre-rut, it's all about finding the feed and knowing where they travel to and from bedding.
Nomadic by nature, mule deer are more difficult to pattern than whitetails, at least in many habitats. For instance, while whitetails will often bed in the same area of a woodlot and use the same game trails to enter and exit a feeding field, mule deer will often vary their choice of bedding area and travel routes. This is not always the case, but probably more the rule than the exception. I recall hunting a big buck a few years ago that was coming into a pea field. He, along with three of his peers would follow the exact same trail each morning and evening. My hunting partner arrowed that buck at 15 yards, all because he was traveling the exact same trail each day. Recognizing that that is an anomaly in the world of mule deer, seldom do hunters get that kind of a gift.
Often times, hunters focusing on mountain of foothills habitats can locate meadows or clear cuts where mule feed consistently. These feeding situations create an opportunity for hunters to capitalize on increased exposure. Likewise in prairie grassland environments mule deer act similarly throughout the hunting season - with the exception of hunting pressure, that is. With far less cover, escaping to the safety of the trees is a less available option. Pressured mule deer in the late season can become schizophrenic.
During our 2006 early mule deer hunt, Heather and I spent several days covering about 10 square miles. We checked out every possible feeding field and secured permission on the ones that held the best available feed and cover. For us, this strategy paid off!
Ambush Hunting is Most Productive
Early season mule deer can be hunted from tree stands, ground blinds, by still-hunting or spot-and-stalk hunting. Given their less reliable movement patterns, stand-hunting is seldom considered a preferred method. When focusing on feeding fields in the early season, hunting in blinds on or near a field edge or locating a quality buck then planning a stalk are the two most common methods. I know many hunters who effectively hunt early mule deer each year by simply walking a field edge, locating a well-used entrance/exit trail and sitting nearby in a portable blind. They may not see the same bucks during every sit, but given that the game trail is heavily used, a variety of deer inevitably travel that path and its only a matter of time before something big steps into view.
One strategy that works well for those who favor tree stands is setting up on a mineral lick. In the early season, heat is an issue. Mule deer, along with other ungulates, visit these licks on a regular basis. In my experience, as soon as the temperature drops and the leaves begin to fall, these licks can become less productive.
Spot and stalk hunting is my favorite strategy for early season mule deer. The green grasses tend to be soft underfoot allowing the hunter to execute a much quieter sneak. This approach involves locating the animal, waiting until it beds down or stops moving and then planning the best and most concealed approach. With the heavy foliage on the trees, my wife's hunt was straightforward. By sneaking in to the most heavily used feeding field and using darkness to conceal our approach, we were able to get into position for a shot. We combined the use of high-powered optics with a strategic and careful approach to move into shooting range.
While early season mule deer may not be for everyone, it's certainly something to put on your "must do at least once" list. I'll certainly be doing it again!
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.