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Columnists : Roy Keefer
Last Updated: Feb 22nd, 2007 - 18:37:03

Hunting Desert Muly's
By Roy Keefer
Aug 31, 2006, 10:32

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I love hunting in general whether it is big game, birds or varmints, but I really enjoy pursuing desert mule deer.  In this article, I'll try to give you a flavor of how I do it and explain some of the techniques my family and I have developed over the years to increase our success.

Roy with his Montana fork horn

Archery hunting mule deer season usually takes place in August or September, depending on the state.  In my home state of Nevada, the season is always in August.  The good thing about the timing is that it allows me to get an early jump on the hunting season.  The bad thing is the weather.  We get very little rain in Nevada but most of it comes in August, so we get some terrible thunderstorms during the season.  Lightning and torrential downpours are commonplace.  This means you have to be careful where you set up your camp.  Once we were nearly caught in a flash flood and we're always worried about lightning striking nearby trees.  The rain can make tracking a wounded deer tough as well.  Another thing about the weather, it's hot in August.  Temperatures in the 90's are the norm. 

Some people think mule deer are stupid, especially people who have never hunted them.  Trophy size mule deer do not get big by being stupid.  They are always on the alert and once they are bumped, you usually don't get to see them again.  Younger bucks are inquisitive, much like young whitetails and they often make the mistake of staying too long to gawk at the strange looking creature stalking them.  Since we hunt the more mature deer, the younger ones are safe when we run across them.

I have come to realize after putting too many miles on my hunting boots that continuous walking is not the way to hunt desert muleys.  We hunt in an area which is covered by sage brush ranging from two to five feet tall.  Sometimes you have little or no cover so if you're walking around looking for deer, you have pretty good odds they will see you first.  Instead of walking, we sit and glass the area we're hunting.  We may sit for hours, glassing the same area over and over until a mule deer materializes in a place we glassed just moments before. 

This type of hunting requires some essential equipment.  You can only glass as long as you are comfortable, so I always take a foam cushion to sit on.  I use a lightweight tripod to hold my binoculars.  Without the tripod, your arms get tired , you can't hold the binoculars steady and  do the intensive, continuous surveillance that is needed.  And last, but not least, you need a good pair of binoculars.  Buy as good a pair as you can afford.  My personal preference is a pair of 10x42 Swarovskis and 12x50 Bausch & Lomb Elite binoculars.  Sometimes I use a Bushnell spotting scope for really long ranges. 

The main advantage of good binoculars is the clarity they provide.  Also after staring into an eyepiece for several hours you don't have the eye strain you get with inexpensive binoculars.  In my opinion, binoculars are the most important piece of equipment in hunting desert muleys.

I like to sit on the highest point in the hunt area so I have a panoramic view.  After spotting a buck, the fun begins.  There are two methods you can try to connect on your quarry.  You can wait for him to bed for the day and cautiously stalk in for a shot.  Much of Nevada is rocky and this makes stalking difficult.  Bucks usually are with other bucks this time of the year and you have too many eyes watching and ears listening to have much success in getting close.  I use Carlton Stalkers but still I make more noise than I would like.  If I forget to bring along my Stalkers I take my shoes off and go stalking in my socks, but you must go slowly, very slowly.  Glass ahead as you stalk looking under every sagebrush bush for an ear, an eye or some horns.  You will likely make several stalks before you have success.   

Instead of stalking, I prefer to set up ambushes.  This involves determining the path a buck is taking, getting there before he does and waiting for him to walk to me.  The main advantage of this is the noise factor.  I'm not making any noise as he approaches and if the wind is right, he moves to me and the element of surprise is on my side.
Another method I have used is staging in an area I know the deer are traveling, perhaps to food or water, and waiting for them.  Because my hunt area has numerous water sources, I usually don't hunt water holes.  I don't do anything fancy.  I take a chair, get as much cover as I can and wait.  Sitting for hours in the blazing sun is not fun, but it is necessary.  You want to get to your spot well before the evening sun begins to set and wait for the deer to begin moving.

Mule deer are unpredictable and that makes hunting them difficult.  They usually don't travel the same trails on a regular basis.  They may be in the same general area but don't regularly use a particular trail.  There are exceptions and last year was one of them.  I was hunting in eastern Montana and before daylight we were situated on a hilltop glassing a clover field that deer were frequenting.  From a mile away I saw several deer grazing as the sun rose in the sky.  One of them had a nice spread but I couldn't tell how many points his rack carried.  His body size indicated he was a mature buck.  The friend I was hunting with told me the area held few real trophy bucks due to a winter kill a couple of years before so I wasn't going to be too particular about the animal I would shoot but I did want a mature deer and this one fit the bill.

After feeding the deer left the field and the buck went up a steep hillside to bed for the day.  We went to the base of the hill and I saw three trails led off the hill.  My plan was to build a brush blind as close to the trails and ambush him in the evening when he returned to eat. 

At four o'clock I was set up and began my wait.  As the sun began to set, I heard rocks being moved on the trails above me.  The buck appeared 30 yards away; my shot was true and the double lung shot quickly dispatched the big muley.  I had not examined his rack carefully before I shot but I did see that he had a wide rack.  Imagine my surprise when I saw he was a forked horn with a small kicker on one side.  The rack was heavy and 25 inches wide and G1's each measured 14 inches long.  The taxidermist told me he figured he was five years old.  My guess is that he had some weak genetics and that probably accounted for the weakness in his rack.

Another nice stalk produces results

This year was a case of a plan coming together.  My son and I were glassing one of our favorite places when he spotted a herd of deer over a mile and a half away.  Through his spotting scope my son could see there was a decent buck in the herd and I began to gather my gear for the stalk. 

The deer were moving to our left and would go through a patch of cedars if all went well.  My plan was to either intercept them or let them bed down and try a slow stalk.  Quickly I made my way 400 yards closer to them.  The deer had quit moving and so I thought they would bed down for sure. 

This was the next to last day of our hunt and it was 8:30 in the morning.  I decided to sit still, let them get very sleepy and try a stalk.  Sitting in the shade of a tall cedar tree, I was comfortable and in no hurry.  I figured this could be my last chance of the season and I didn't want to blow it.  The time ticked off, 30 minutes, 45 minutes and still I sat.  I wanted these muleys to get real sleepy.  

Suddenly I heard the rustling of brush and rocks.  Turning I saw the herd 15 yards from my tree; they had snuck in behind me.  They spooked when they saw me and side stepped another 10 yards.  The next few seconds were automatic, the bow came back, the sight pin went to the buck's shoulder and I estimated the yardage. 

At the release of the arrow, the buck's front legs buckled and he bounded off.  Sixty yards away he collapsed.  He was a beautiful 4x5 (we don't count the brow tines in the West).  My stalk had inadvertently turned into an ambush, but it worked.  It doesn't hurt to have a little luck once in a while.

The thrill of the chase gets your heart pounding and when it all comes together there's a great sense of accomplishment.

This muly is a keeper

Is it any wonder that I love to hunt desert muleys?
 

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