In Search Of Mule Deer

I was in position above the buck, managing to slowly crawl towards him while maintaining silence in the unsteady terrain. Four hours earlier I spotted this buck bedded in the shade on an east facing slope. Moments like that are ones to cherish, but I needed to make a move. Quickly I slipped out of sight, checked the wind, and made my move to get around the coulee and above the buck. I had a little trouble trying to locate the brush I picked out, which would signal where I needed to start to drop down. I removed my boots on top of the ridge, and as I glanced down while inching towards the buck, I kept noticing how beat up my wool socks were getting from the past season of stalks approaching on different bucks and bulls. Time for new stalking socks when I get back home!

Picking apart the terrain.

Backing up a little bit, this hunt started Halloween night 2010. When I finally arrived, I threw my pack on, grabbed my bow and headed out for some quick glassing. I located a few different groups of muley does feeding in the fading light, but the bucks were evading me on this first evening.  After an evening of glassing, I setup my tent for the night and had a quick bite to eat. Day two brought a new sense of reassurance in my area, as I spotted four bucks this morning. Most of the bucks were still pretty young, and it was only a matter of time before I would lock my eyes on a shooter buck. The evening came by; I switched drainages and located 13 does. I glassed this area until I couldn’t see through my binoculars, and as the sunset, I went without locating a buck.

Sunset after a hard days hunt.

The phase right before the mule deer rut is one of the hardest times to locate a shooter buck I believe. There is just something about a mature buck not wanting to leave his bed during the few weeks prior to the rut, which makes spotting and hunting them tough. The rut was still weeks away, but smaller bucks were getting a little ahead of schedule, pressuring the does. I had a lot of work in front of me, as I just wasn’t seeing the quality and number of bucks that I was looking for. So I did what any bowhunter would do. I had to dig deep inside, and keep turning over in my tent every morning at 4am to beat the rising sun in the eastern sky.

The third day found me pushing deeper and further into the steep draws and coulees. This meant waking up even earlier in the morning to get a start on the hike. I was able to watch some does and a small 3×3 work their way from where they were feeding in the morning, to a small stand of scrub pines where they would spend the day hiding out from the sun. Around mid-day I left this small group of muleys be, and hiked to a different drainage that would provide great glassing opportunities as the sun started a slow descent to the west, creating cooler temperatures on the east facing slopes. Just like the first few days of hunting, this evening I spotted more does and young bucks. One decent 4×4 caught my attention for awhile as he lay in his bed. But he was borderline, so I passed him up, as I still had more days ahead of me.

Sunset on night three.

It was now day four of my hunt, and my GPS was showing that I had now been bowhunting mule deer for 42.3 miles in this scenic, yet rough terrain. Days prior were spent picking apart the folds in the terrain during my long glassing sessions. Each winter and on through the summer months, I spend countless hours tuning my bow, building arrows, shooting, and keeping my body in shape for the grueling hunts we face out west. This hunt I was no different, I was thankful for the off-season practice, as it helped every step of the way.

I approached this basin on day four after a morning glassing session, I knew the area looked like great mule deer habitat, and an even better place for a buck to hide out during the heat of the day. I started by glassing to the north, slowly working my way from the ridge top, to the narrow canyon walls below and back up, for any sign of a buck. As I worked my way glassing to the south, I instantly did a double take with my binos. My second glance confirmed my initial drive of adrenaline… a great muley buck lay sleeping in his bed. Soon after I put the binoculars down and setup my spotting scope to get a better look at the buck and scrutinize his rack a bit more. He had great fronts, and average backs, but from the distance I was at, he looked like he would make for a great archery trophy to put a stalk on. As I sat and glassed this buck in the early afternoon, I noticed he was not alone. The buck was bedded 20 yards away from two does, who would periodically get up to feed and re-bed. I am not sure if this buck was using the does as extra eyes for safety reason or if he was getting his harem started for the rut. But either way, I needed to play it cool on my approach, and keep a slow place to not alert the sleeping buck, or the two eagle-eyed does.

The stalk was on! After locating my reference point for where I needed to start the decent, it was now all about being silent, and hoping the thermals stayed consistent for good approach. It always seems like breaking into that 150 yard buffer zone on a muley buck is the toughest part of a stalk. Out past that distance you can get away with slight movement, but once you are in that zone, you need to crank it up a notch, and take extra precautions on where you place your hands and feet so you don’t knock down a rock or break a branch.

I used a small sagebrush in front of me for cover, and waited, and waited some more, for the buck to finally stand up and stretch. Bowhunting is as much or more of a mental game, than it is physical. And when you are in position watching a buck for a long time, it is easy to let your adrenaline take over, and get your heart racing uncontrollably. When your heart starts racing, it is bowhunting at its finest hour! Controlling your emotions is half the battle! The wind was perfect; a slight midday rising thermal to keep my scent steered in a direction away from the deer. As soon as the buck looked fidgety, I placed my knees in a solid position on the slope to get ready for the shot. My slider sight was already set to 57.3 yards. It was now or never, so I drew back, placed my pin, took a breath, and let my arrow rip.

It wasn’t a difficult track job, since I saw the buck start to slow down and trot past a distinctive tree shortly after the shot. It looked to be a great double lung shot, and when the arrow exited it looked like it might have broke part of the opposite shoulder. After some photos, I quartered the buck out to cool the meat, hung the hind quarters and rack in a tree, and left it there to cool for the night. It was a 3.5 mile hike back to camp at this point, and I had my gear, plus the front quarters adding some weight to my pack.

My 2010 archery mule deer.

The most difficult task was the big push out of the steep basin. After it was all said and done, I didn’t make it to camp until after 10:30pm. It was easy to sleep that night, as I just shot a great public land mule deer on my own, bow in hand! I treated myself to a hearty fill of oatmeal for breakfast and was back on the mountain just after sunrise to pack out the rest of my trophy.

Long climb out of the steep coulee I shot him in.
On top finally, and looking back into the area I shot him.

Overall, this was a very exciting and tough hunt. I was able to hunt a lot of country, and I never saw another hunter all week chasing mule deer. I can’t wait to be back at it again!

Work hard, play hard, and bowhunt even harder!!!