4 Mistakes You Can't Afford to Make on Mule Deer

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"Things look a lot different from 400 yards away," I thought to myself as I eased up out of the drainage and looked for a recognizable landmark. Just an hour earlier, perched up on a hillside, I had picked out two large clumps of sagebrush situated just twenty yards from the bedded mule deer. Now, as I stood at what should have been no more than fifty yards from the unsuspecting trio, I was having a hard time distinguishing my marker.

In sock feet, I started easing my way towards what I hoped was the right sagebrush bush, taking painstaking measures to ensure that each step was in silence. As I slipped behind the taller of the two clumps, I caught a glimpse of movement twenty yards ahead. My heart began to pound as I first made out the ear, then the head and body of my prey. Bringing my Darton bow to full draw, the mule deer stood up, as if on cue, and presented a beautiful quartering-away shot. With a squeeze of the release trigger, I watched as the white and orange fletchings of my arrow disappeared behind the deer's ribs. A short fifty to sixty yard dash and the deer was down for the count.

While I would like to tell you that my "trophy" mule deer made the Pope and Young record books, the truth is, it didn't. In fact, my trophy wasn't a buck at all. But on the last day of a hunt, beggars can't be choosers, and a doe in the cooler was better than going home empty handed.

It wasn't a trophy buck, but the author was still
happy to harvest this doe on the last day of the hunt.

The next morning I headed home from that 2003 Wyoming trip with a mix of emotions. While I enjoyed my time with a good friend, as well as all the experiences that came with the ten-day trip, I couldn't shake the disappointment that I had with myself. I had set a goal of harvesting a respectable buck, and had fallen short. Although I had spent nearly a year researching and planning every aspect of the trip, I could distinctly recognize four critical mistakes that I had made in the execution of the hunt. Through talking to other hunters and reading countless mule deer hunting articles, I have found that these same mistakes seem to be a common denominator in many unsuccessful hunts. Whether you are a veteran muley hunter, or just interested in giving it a shot someday, there are some lessons to be learned here. So read on and don't get caught making the same mistakes that I made!

1) Spending too much time glassing from the road.
When hunting in unfamiliar territory, this can be an easy trap to fall into. Rather than focusing on a particular area and putting in the necessary legwork to find the deer, I found myself driving the roads trying to cover as much territory as possible. Despite all the research that I had done prior to the hunt, I didn't have a lot of confidence in any one particular location. That left me running the roads in search of the honey hole that I just knew was out there. Looking for a good vantage point near the road, I would then set up and quickly glass the surrounding areas for any mule deer activity. While "road hunting" is a pretty common practice for western mule deer, it does not provide the best odds for taking a trophy animal. Deer that make it a habit to bed within sight of the road typically don't live long enough to grow respectable racks.

It's not that covering a lot of ground in search of a starting point is a bad idea. In fact, unless you already know where the deer are going to be, it is about the best way to locate an area worth focusing your efforts. It is when you limit those efforts to areas along the road that you are handicapping yourself and drastically reducing your odds of harvesting a trophy buck.

Glassing from a vehicle is common practice out west, but
it's no replacement for good ole fashion legwork.

2) Not taking quality optics.
I can't say that I wasn't warned. Dwight Schuh's book, "Hunting Open-Country Mule Deer", which I had read through twice before making the 1,300-mile homage to the Cowboy State, dedicates a whole chapter on the importance of high-quality optics. Unfortunately, I decided that I could "get by" with the pair I had rather than spending a few hundred dollars on new ones. Heck, I couldn't afford that kind of gear. In retrospect, I can honestly tell you that you can't afford NOT TO buy a good set of binoculars before going on a serious mule deer hunt. I would also highly recommend getting a good spotting scope to compliment them.

While everyone has their own opinions, I recommend a good pair of 8x40 or 10x50 roof prism binoculars with high quality coated optics. These are perfect for carefully scanning canyons and hillsides to spot bedding or feeding mule deer. Once you have located some deer, switching to a good 20-45x spotting scope can give you a better idea of the quality of animals that you are looking at.

So, why won't those $40 pair of bargain binoculars do? Well, spot and stalk mule deer hunting can require a considerable amount of time sitting on your posterior and staring through those binoculars. I can tell you from experience that it won't take long staring through a cheap pair of optics to give you a splitting headache that you won't soon get rid of.

The best way to cover a lot of ground while hunting mule deer is by
glassing from a high vantage point with a good pair of binoculars.

3) Not preparing for higher altitudes.
I'll be the first to admit that I am not what you would call a morning person. Of course, I usually make an exception when it comes to hunting. On this particular trip, however, I just couldn't seem to get up early enough to make the drive to where I needed to be and hike up to the desired vantage point before it cracked dawn. What I had originally attributed to a combination of exhaustion and laziness, I later discovered was probably the result of altitude sickness. While many people associate altitude sickness with severe headache, nausea, and weakness, the symptoms and severity can vary greatly. In my case, it simply resulted in a feeling of fatigue and a mild sense of depression.

When some local elk hunters pointed me to a to a nearby mountain saddle that was frequently used by good numbers of mule deer, I had just two days left to hunt.

The first morning, I completely miscalculated the drive and got to the location well after daylight. I watched from the truck as numerous deer filtered through the pass and down the ridge on the opposite side. Although I tried to get up to the top in time to spot the deer before they bedded, it just wasn't meant to be. The deer had vanished into a thick, brushy draw. At that point, I was determined to make it back the next morning and be waiting in that saddle well before daylight.

The best laid plans don't always come to pass, though. The effects of high altitude had completely drained me of my energy. The next morning found me half-way up the mountain as daylight broke and the deer slipped through the gap. The bucks slipped down into the deep, brushy draw. Three does, on the other hand, came on down the ridge and bedded down below two large sagebrush bushes. One of the three was the doe that I would take just a short time later.

The lesson here is obvious; you must allow yourself plenty of time to get acclimated to higher altitudes, and plenty of time to get setup at a good vantage point well before daylight. I had made the mistake of going full blast, from well before daylight to well after dark, starting the moment I arrived and setup camp. I should have taken it easy for at least a day or two in order to allow my body time to adjust to the higher altitudes. In fact, the more time you can allow for this, the better. The experts recommend allowing one to three days to acclimate, and if you are going above 10,000 feet, only increase your altitude by 1,000 feet per day. If you do start to notice signs of altitude sickness, don't go any higher until the symptoms subside. I can tell you from experience that the fatigue can not only cost you a nice mule deer, it can also make the trip much less enjoyable than it could be.

4) Rushing the stalk.
Probably the most common mistake that beginning spot-and-stalk mule deer hunters make is rushing the stalk. For a flatlander from Kentucky, who is used to sitting in a treestand and waiting for the deer to come to me, stalking was a completely foreign practice. On top of that, the excitement and anticipation as you approach a bedded mule deer is enough to rattle even the most experienced hunter's nerves. The best way to counter this pressure is with a plan of attack.

You have to be able to fool the mule deer's three main senses in order to execute a successful stalk. The first of these is the deer's sense of smell. If you can't make your stalk with the wind in your favor, then there is no sense wasting your time. Just like their counterparts to the east, mule deer have exceptional noses, and it only takes one sniff of something out of place to send them bouncing off into the next county.

The second sense that must be overcome is the deer's vision. You have to take into account the direction that the deer is facing, and plan your stalk from behind. If the deer stands up to stretch or feed during the stalk, then it may be necessary to stay motionless for a long period of time.

That only leaves fooling the deer's sense of hearing to get you into shooting range. I learned quickly that the dry grass and sagebrush of Wyoming can be a tough place to walk quietly. That is especially true if you are wearing big, heavy boots. I found it necessary to stalk the last fifty yards on a deer in my sock feet. That may sound crazy, but it allows you to feel around and carefully place each step as quietly as possible. It also makes you pay careful attention to where you step in order to avoid picking cactus needles out of your foot the rest of the day!

When bowhunting mule deer in big, wide-open spaces like this,
getting close enough for a shot requires a careful plan of attack.

Spot-and-stalk hunting for mule deer can be both an exciting and frustrating adventure. It's not an easy task, but if it were, it wouldn't be nearly as rewarding. No, I didn't harvest the trophy buck that I had hoped for, but I did harvest a nice doe and learned some valuable lessons for the future. So if you find yourself heading west for your first mule deer hunting adventure, take my advice and don't make the same mistakes that I did. Who knows, you may just find yourself putting a tag on a big trophy mule deer buck.

Brian Grossman is a wildlife biologist, freelance writer and avid outdoorsman from Mt. Washington, Kentucky. You can visit his web site at www.PoorBoysOutdoors.com.


jim boyd's picture

Man, for a guy that wants to

Man, for a guy that wants to go out west on his first hunt, this article is like finding a gold mine.

Well written, I can not wait to try to put some of these tips into practice.

I have good glass, at least I have that part down.

While the author did not take a giant buck, against odds like that, I might even consider a "win" just to get close to A deer - much less one you can actually shoot.

I see no shame at all in taking a doe, in fact, I think you should be proud. You came, you hunted and you conquered... simple as that. I call that a successful hunt.

Many times, and I was guilty of this in Illinois this year, I think we have a mindset of a monarch buck - and we take nothing... waiting on the biggest buck.

I will keep my standards - but like you - I am going to "keep the hunt in mind"

Great writing - I enjoyed the fact that it was a story and a well taken set of tips all mixed into one.

Congrats on the deer and thanks for putting into print some great words of wisdom that we can all use - I will bookmark and read this several times.

Great tips, guilty of a few

Great tips, guilty of a few that you mentioned can hurt your hunt

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