How to Stalk Mule Deer
Originally written by Dwight Schuh, Bowhunter Magazine
MULE DEER WERE the first big game I ever hunted with a bow, and the sight of big sagebrush bucks was what made me a bowhunter. No wonder I love stalking mule deer.
As western bow seasons open in August and September, I’m sure many of you are planning your own mule deer hunts. During 40 years of stalking muleys, I’ve learned some things you might find helpful. Mind you, I don’t have all the answers as mule deer continue to make me look like a novice. Still, experience has taught me some valuable lessons, and maybe some of these lessons will work for you.
OPTICS. Stalking always starts with spotting, and for serious mule deer hunting, you’ll never regret spending top dollar for quality binoculars. The most popular sizes are 8×42 and 10×42. Because I wear glasses, I prefer the 8×42, but most serious mule deer hunters prefer the 10×42. Some of the top brands are Zeiss, Leica, Swarovski, Nikon, and Leupold. Buy the best you can afford. If you “economize,” you’ll suffer some serious eye strain and then end up buying expensive binoculars anyway. So buy good glass to start with.
You’ll also regret buying compact binoculars, such as 8×24 or 10×24. For serious game spotting they’re worthless, most notably because they do not gather enough light for productive spotting in dim light.
Along with standard binoculars, add a spotting scope in the 15-45x range, essential for evaluating animals at extreme distances. Again, buy quality. To get the most out of any scope, mount it on a tripod. I far prefer a scope with an angled versus a straight eyepiece. The angled eyepiece is much more versatile.
Many hard-core game spotters rely on tripod-mounted binoculars in the 15x to 20x range because using both eyes proves much easier on the eyes than squinting with one eye through a scope. If you do use your scope for long-term spotting, cover your off eye so you don’t have to squint.
VIEWPOINTS. Generally you will hunt mule deer in alpine, desert, prairie, or badlands. In the alpine or desert, you might sit on a peak or ridgetop where you can see miles in every direction. On the prairies, you might spot from a truck window out across the flat expanses. In the badlands, you might be looking up a single ravine. Whatever the perspective, good vantage points are golden. Locate as many as possible, and remember them well. They are key to your locating deer.
TIME OF DAY. When western archery seasons open in August, deer generally feed into the open at night and then, as the sun comes up, drift into shady, cool cover for the day. That makes the first two hours of daylight, when the deer are still in the open and the early morning sun virtually makes them glow, the best time to spot deer. Hike to your best vantage point before daylight and start glassing at first light. Glass from there for at least the first three hours of daylight.
If you don’t see a buck you want then, don’t give up; you might spot a bedded buck during the day. In the alpine and badlands, deer lie in shady spots under cliffs and trees, and with some diligent glassing you can spot them in these beds. In sagebrush or grass, bedded bucks’ antlers often stick above the vegetation. I’ve located many bucks during the heat of the day by spotting antler tips in the sagebrush.
DURATION. Really successful mule deer hunters spend long hours behind binoculars and scopes. Devote at least the first three hours of daylight glued to your optics, then glass for bedded bucks during the day, and finally spot during the last couple of hours of daylight to catch deer coming out of cover for the night.
To stick with glassing, you must be comfortable. That starts with a tripod for any optics over 10x. Some hunters prefer a tall tripod so they can stand and glass. If you want to sit, carry a folding stool or gardener’s knee pad to sit on while glassing. On cold mornings, pack a jacket so you can glass without shivering, and on hot days, pack your own shade. My friend Jeff Zennie, who guides bowhunters in the Oregon desert, carries a six-foot square of cloth to create his own shade.
PLANNING. Once you’ve located a buck you want, be patient. In most cases, you’re best off to wait for the deer to bed for the day, so he’s stationary and you have all day to get within range. With that said, some hunters prefer to stalk feeding deer, and that works especially well if you can ambush them as they travel from feeding to bedding sites.
Before ever leaving your spotting position, plan your stalking route. Study the area around the deer through your binoculars or scope to note obvious landmarks to guide you as you move in. If you have a partner, work out hand signals, a valuable aid in sneaking within bow range.
Also, take plenty of time to locate other animals around your target animal. If you bump into unseen deer, you’ll start a stampede. Game over.
Above all, study grass or bushes around your quarry to determine wind direction at his location, and figure out how to approach from straight downwind, or, at the least, crosswind. Yes, scent eliminators help, but when you’re baking under an August sun, sweating like a hog, you cannot rely on them 100 percent. Get the wind in your favor. Period.
CONCEALMENT. Head-to-toe camouflage that blends with your surroundings always helps your cause. Several companies make sage and evergreen patterns that blend well in mule deer country.
More important are how and where you move. The best stalking motto is “Go Slow.” You might be able to hustle the first mile or two toward a buck, but as you get close, slow down! If you move fast, even the best camouflage won’t help; deer will see your movement. In contrast, if you move slowly enough, you often can crawl within plain sight of deer and not be detected. Above all, stay off the skyline. Animals can spot movement on a skyline from miles away.
Take advantage of terrain and vegetation. On a sage flat, you might need to crawl on hands and knees to stay below the brush line. In shorter vegetation, you might need to belly crawl while setting your bow in front of you a few inches at a time. On steep mountain slopes and in cliffs, you can stalk down from above in a crouch as you peek over the cliffs below.
SILENCE. Again, this starts with clothing. For hot summer stalking, superlight polyester fabrics, Cabela’s light Microtex garments, ultralight fleece from Day One Camouflage, and clothing made out of “T-shirt” weight cotton are great. They’re cool, supple, and very quiet. For cooler weather, go with synthetic fleece, wool, and knit clothing. Any kind of nylon and stiff, heavy cotton don’t cut it in stalking.
Lightweight shoes with soft rubber soles work best. To improve on that, slip fleece boot covers over your shoes, and to take it one step further (conditions permitting), take off your shoes and stalk in your sock feet. I usually carry a heavy pair of wool socks in my pack specifically for stalking.
Again, the “Go Slow” motto applies. As you get within 100 yards or closer, deer will hear any sound you make. To remain silent, place your hands and feet slowly and deliberately. It’s all about time. If you take enough time, you can creep within bow range of virtually any deer.
NOT TOO CLOSE. The closer you get, the more likely a deer is to sense your presence, and the more explosively it will react. Also, the closer you get, the more intense the situation and the more nervous you’ll get. So I suggest you get within your effective range and stop. If your sure-kill range is 30 yards, stop there; if it’s 20, stop there. Then wait for the animal to present a shot.
LET HIM STAND. In some cases you might be able to shoot a bedded buck, especially if he’s lying under a cliff or tree in steep terrain. But in flatter country, you probably won’t get a clear shot at a bedded deer. In virtually all cases, you’ll do best to wait for the deer to rise to feed or stretch on its own. That gives you a shot at a calm, unaware animal.
In a squirrelly wind, you might want to make something happen before the animal smells you. I’ve had success flipping rocks to make animals stand up, but this takes caution. One windy day in Nevada, a buck couldn’t hear the rocks hitting the ground, so I tried throwing closer — and hit him in the head. I didn’t get that one.
GET THE RANGE. If you shoot with sights, a laser rangefinder helps immeasurably, but never think it’s foolproof. In the Hoback region of Wyoming I tried to range a buck at 40 yards, but strands of grass kept throwing off the reading. As I tried to get a clear reading, the buck saw me move and headed for a different mountain range. To avoid that, range off objects around the deer while he’s still bedded, and be ready to shoot at the first good opportunity.
COOL IT. The emotional pressure of stalking can be overpowering. When you’re sitting 15 feet above the ground in a treestand, you can look down on animals with almost calm detachment. But when you’re within spitting distance of a big muley buck at eye level, the atmosphere is electric.
As much as you want to hurry the shot, take your time. Be patient! When the shot seems imminent, take some deep breaths and go through your normal shot routine. Control your emotions long enough to make a dead-on shot. You’ll have plenty of time to celebrate your stalking success after your buck hits the ground.