The best time to glass for mule deer hunting is as the sun first appears early in the morning. The low-angle light causes the hair on their coats and light-colored rumps to glow, and will also gleam on the tines of a big buck’s antlers. Low- angled evening light is also good for locating mule deer, but glassing in the late afternoon leaves you little time to stalk within range before the sun goes down.
Glass Your Route Before You Stalk
Spotting mule deer is perhaps the easiest part of spot-and-stalk hunting. The stalk is just as important and much more physically demanding. If you spot a bedded sure that you’re familiar with the route you’re planning to take to get there. The best way to do this is to glass it thoroughly before packing up and moving out.
Pick out landmarks you ’ll be able to identify (look for ones that can be recognized from multiple angles) and make sure to remember where they are in relation to where the animal is bedded down. Start your stalk once you’ve established a clear mental picture of the path you think will put you in a downwind location with a clear shot at the buck.
Meandering Tracks Mean Beds Are Close
If a mule deer is traveling from a food source to bedding cover its trail will generally lead to a straight line (taking terrain into account). But as the animal approaches its bedding site it often starts to meander through the cover, nibbling on twigs and looking for a spot to lie down.
If you’re tracking a muley and see its trail start to wonder, turn around and backtrack for a few hundred yards, then climb above where you think the animal has bedded down so that you can approach from a higher elevation. You’ll get closer to the deer and will have a better shot at the animal if you spook it.
Don’t Shoot Deer You Can’t Reach
One of the worst mistakes a mule deer hunter can make is shooting a buck on the other side of a ravine or canyon without knowing whether it’s possible to retrieve the animal. Vertical cliffs, deep rivers, and maze-like canyons are difficult obstacles to negotiate, and some are impossible to cross. Make sure you know the terrain you’re hunting before you take a shot like this.
Mule Deer Prefer Sagebrush
If you’re hunting in unfamiliar territory, one of the best places to look for muleys is in thick patches of sagebrush. Mule deer seem to prefer this plant throughout their range. Pay special attention to patches you find in places where sagebrush is relatively rare; the plant will act as a magnet for muleys in the area.
Get In A Mule Deer’s Zone
According to Dennis Wintch, mule deer editor for Hunting Illustrated magazine, most mule deer habitat can be broken up into three distinct zones: a high zone (8,000 to 12,000 feet), a middle zone (5,000 to 8,000 feet), and a low zone (1,000 to 5,000 feet). Mule deer cycle through these zones depending on weather, hunting pressure, and food availability.
The trick is to figure out which zone they currently inhabit. If you’re hunting in a new area, look for fresh tracks and follow them until you’re confident you know which level the deer are currently using.
Getting The Range Right Under The Big Sky
The most difficult adjustment easterners make when hunting the West for the first time is adjusting to the scale of the thing. Deer tend to be significantly larger than what East Coasters are used to. Elk is 5 or 6 times better. Guesstimating ranges is a real crapshoot. Better depend on a rangefinder when hunting the wide-open spaces.
Catch Bucks Seeking Shade In The Middle Of The Day
While the most productive times to glass for mule deer will be during first hours of the morning and the last hours of the day, you can still spot deer moving during the middle of the day if you know where to look. Bucks will often change bedding sites during the middle of the day as shade shifts with the sun’s movement, sometimes browsing for a few minutes before they lay down again.
You’ll be most likely to catch this movement if you’re already glassing cover for bedded deer. Look under trees and around the brush for anything that seems out of place with its surroundings. When a buck stands up you’ll be focused in the right place.
Tag Team A Spot-And-Stalk
One of the best ways to stalk within range of a bedded mule deer is to leave a hunting partner behind at the place you first spotted the animal. Your partner can then use hand signals to guide you as you sneak into the shooting range.
He’ll need to far enough away from the bedded deer to not startle it when moving his hands, so bring a pair of binoculars and use them to check on him for instructions at regular intervals.
Let The Wind Settle Into One Direction
Wind currents can be fickle before the sun rises, so it’s a good idea to wait until later in the morning before planning a stalk on a buck you’ve spotted. In most open-country habitat, the wind will usually settle as the air heats up, blowing in a consistent direction that makes staying downwind of your target much simpler.
Don’t Let Your Bow Keep You From Creeping On Your Stomach
Creeping to within shooting range of an open-country mule deer is one of the most difficult and exciting challenges in all of the bow hunting, especially when there ’s only an open stretch of tall grass between you and the buck you’re stalking. To close with your target in such terrain you’ll need to inch forward on your stomach, keeping your head down and using only your elbows to pull yourself forward.
But it can be difficult to remain silent when you’re carrying a bulky, awkward bow in your hands. You can keep your arms moving freely by placing the bow on your back. When you’re close enough to shoot, simply slide the bow into your hands, knock an arrow, sit up on your knees, and shoot quickly.
Glass For Bucks In Comfort
It is very important that you situate yourself comfortably when glassing for mule deer. Choose a place to sit that has solid back support, such as a big rock or a stump, and bring foam pad, or, if you can spare the weight, a small, folding tripod stool to keep your butt off the cold, hard ground.
You should also invest in a tripod with adjustable legs for your binoculars and/or spotting scope, which will reduce the strain on your arms. Never spot for deer with your rifle scope; you’ll end up pointing the muzzle of your gun at targets you do not want to shoot.
Stalk When The Wind Blows Strongly
If you spot a buck bedded in grassy, open terrain, wait to stalk it until the middle of the day, when the wind usually blows steadiest and strongest. The strong wind will wave grass, leaves, and branches back and forth, and you can use these natural movements to camouflage your progress into a shooting position.
Wear a ghillie suit for further protection from a mule deer’s sharp eyes; the loose strips of fabric attached to the suit will move with the wind, making you look that much more like a part of the landscape.
Use The Right Binocular/Spotting Scope Combination
Large, 11×80 or 20×80 binoculars of the type designed for stargazers make excellent mule deer spotting tools because they gather a great deal of light, giving you an excellent picture during the twilight hours, which is when most muleys will be moving.
But if you’re hiking long distances to reach your hunting areas, you won’t want to carry such heavy glass. A good compromise is to use a smaller pair of 10×50 binoculars and also bring a small, 20- or 25-power spotting scope.
The combined weight of both these optics will be less than the weight of the larger binoculars, and you can break the weight up by storing your scope in your pack as you hike. Use the binoculars to spot movement at long range, and then use the scope to get a closer look at whatever caught your attention.
Be Prepared To Hike Long Distances
Always wear a daypack when you hunt mule deer. You often have to cover long distances to find them in the open country they live in, and you don’t want to get stuck far from your truck without the proper equipment when the weather changes suddenly, as it often does in the mountains.
Make sure your pack fits well and is roomy enough to carry a change of clothes, rain gear, a good knife, rope, binoculars, a compass, a survival kit, and extra food and water. Bring your pack even when you think you’ll be hunting close to your camp or your vehicle; you never know when a fresh track might take you deep into the backcountry.
Locate Clear-Cuts To Find Feeding Mule Deer
One of the best places to hunt mule deer in evergreen forest habitat is a recently logged clear-cut. Deer-friendly shrubs and plants grow rapidly in these clearings as their roots penetrate the disturbed soil and their leaves soak up sunlight normally blocked by large trees.
You may have to walk a few miles to reach such clear-cuts, as most logging roads on public lands will be closed to public vehicle traffic, but with unpressured, top-notch feeding habitat as your reward, the hike will be worth the effort. Contact your local BLM or Forest Service office to get information on where these cuts have taken place (you want cuts that are 10 years old or younger), and plan your hunt accordingly.
Use Thermal Currents When Stalking Bedded Bucks
Early morning air that has been cooling all night tends to flow downhill; later in the morning, as this air heats up in the light of the sun, it will reverse direction. These uphill/downhill flows are called thermal currents, and they are important to remember when stalking hot-weather bucks.
If you’re glassing a clearing for feeding deer at first light, make sure you’re positioned so that no downhill currents will carry you’re sent to the animals. Later, as the deer move uphill to bed, plan your stalk so that you approach them from above.
Look For Bucks In Edge Cover On The North Sides Of Ridges
A great place to look when you’re spotting for bedded mule deer is edge cover (thick brush lining clearings or other openings in which deer can remain concealed while still enjoying a good view of their surroundings). Look first along the north sides of ridges, which generally get more shade.
Since deer here will already be bedded down, try to pick out pieces of the animals. Ear flicks, hind-leg scratches, and antler-glints may be the only clues you’ll have to find the buck you’re hunting.
See And Be Seen
When glassing for mule deer, keep in mind that if you’re sitting in a place with a 360-degree view of the surrounding terrain, deer on all sides will have a good view of you, as well. Make sure to hide your silhouette by sitting on a rock, some brush, or a stump at your back.
Follow The Farthest Track
When you are thinking about Mule Deer Hunting, remember mule deer are very alert to the sounds and smells of animals following their back trails and will spook easily if they see you before you see them. To make sure you get the drop on an animal you ’re tracking, avoid looking too closely at its individual prints.
Instead, keep track of the overall trail by picking out the furthest clear track you can see, then still-hunting up to it, keeping your eyes peeled for movement in the distance. Repeat until you find your target.