Yes, I am from the Midwest. Yes, I hunt whitetail deer and love every minute of it. But I also love hunting mule deer with my bow. I am not sure what drove me out West with my bow over 30 years ago to chase these magnificent creatures, but since the first time I made the journey I have been hooked and look forward to every opportunity to hunt them.
I have heard it so many times – whitetails are tougher to hunt than the mule deer. I’m here to tell you, that’s hog wash! People who say that have either never hunted mule deer or just do not know what they are talking about. It is true that, sometimes, when you kick up a mule deer buck, he may run 40-50 yards and stop and look back giving hunters a possible shot opportunity. However, if you have ever bumped a whitetail buck, many times they do the same thing, but due to the thicker cover they call home, it makes it more difficult to see. Many people who know more about this than I will say that killing a big mature mule deer buck is one of the toughest animals on the continent. I don’t necessarily disagree with this.
Mule deer rely more on their eyesight and can catch movement from a long way away. Their oversized ears also work as radar and pick up the slightest sound. Their tendency to be in the high country, brush or even in more open sage flat terrain allow them the opportunity to spot a threat from a long way off. With the excellent eyesight and extreme hearing combined, the mule deer buck is a difficult trophy to say the least!
Are they curious? At times they can be, and sometimes this can play in your favor, but more times than not, you will walk right by a dozen bucks you never saw. Big bucks do not get big by being dumb. With the predators out there, from mountain lions to wolves, coyotes and bobcats, mule deer are constantly on someone elses menu.
One of my favorite places to hunt big mule deer is in the sage flats. I really enjoy finding good bucks and then developing a good plan to get after them. A few of the best tactics we have found include getting to a vantage point to locate and pattern the buck’s movement. This often means crawling up through the sage and never silhouetting yourself on the horizon, setting up and glassing for as long as necessary. We do this normally far off of the known food source at the time of season we are hunting them. So often ghillie suit tops work great with this, and sometimes I may spend a couple days locating and watching their patterns from a long way off to be certain before I go after them. As someone far wiser than I said once, “If I have five hours to chop down a tree, I’ll spend four hours sharpening my axe.” I have spent three days of a five-day hunt doing nothing but glassing to find the right buck. Once I find him, I hunt him hard for the last two days.
Scouting allows you to never contaminate the area or put unwarranted pressure on him until all conditions are right. When scouting, I want to watch what he does, pay close attention to how he leaves or approaches the food source for the morning or afternoon. check the winds and make a note of what the buck does. Sometimes he might be bumped off the field due to predators, ranchers or traffic. .
All this intel is such a crucial part of making opportunity come your way. Remember – wind is everything! Hunting the wind is paramount. When you find that buck be sure to check the winds and develop a plan of attack that will keep the wind in your favor the entire time.
Before the hunt I practice shooting from all types of locations – kneeling, standing on uneven terrain, sitting totally on the ground. Know your shooting capabilities and don’t push them. Bow hunting has always been a close-range art that truly takes patience, skill and the ability to be a true predator in open country. Use the same arrows and broadheads for months on end to know their tenancies at all distances. Practice wearing the same clothes you’ll hunt with. If you wear a face mask, practice with the face mask. If you wear gloves, practice with gloves. The details are important when chasing the buck of your dreams.
I can tell you this, there is no bigger thrill than watching a mature mule deer in open country. Waiting for him to bed down while always checking the wind and trying to not lose sight of where he is as you get closer. Then making the stalk of a lifetime and closing the distance to mere yards away, making the shot. Afterwords, field dressing and packing them out with a smile and a story to tell.
Mule deer hunting is not easy, but the reward of taking a nice buck makes it worthwhile. One of the great things about mule deer is there are large populations on public land all across the west. Found exclusively west of the Mississippi, mule deer are arguably the most handsome of all game animals in North America. It just may be my favorite animal to hunt.