It doesn't matter whether you are planning on hunting mule deer in the sagebrush hills of Wyoming or the alpine peaks of Colorado or if you are chasing them during the last days of summer or the peak of the rut — some general tips and tricks can help you notch your tag on a bruiser buck in any state during any season. Mature mule deer bucks can be hard to find and harder to harvest, which is why we are here to help. Capitalizing on our hunting experience and other experienced hunters will allow you to succeed in your first year out West.
The perfect habitat for mule deer depends 100% on the region. In some spots in of a state, mule deer live in the wide-open, hiding in coolies to get a break from the sun. In other parts of that same state, mule deer call the peaks and draws above 10,000’ their home. Regardless of where they live, they all need three main things: food, water and cover. Food for a mule deer can vary; however, they tend to prefer greenery to sage hillsides. Water can be scarce in the West, so if an area lacks any water source, it will most likely hold no animals. And remember that cover can be anything: anywhere from a steep ditch that gets shade from the sun to a thick timber patch filled with deadfall. Keep an open mind when seeking out cover. Overall, if you have all three of these things and are a reasonable distance from the road and trailhead, the area has the potential to hold mule deer.
Whenever you are hunting mule deer, the hardest part is finding them. This is why I say that a good vantage point is a key to success when chasing mule deer, especially mature bucks. If possible, I like to position myself in a glassing location where I can see multiple basins at a time. This will increase my chances of finding mule deer and, hopefully, it means finding a couple of bucks and getting to decide which one I would like to go after. Remember to pay attention to the wind direction, sun direction and have a plan for movement. If you are glassing a meadow a few hundred yards away, but you are sitting in the wide open, what will happen if a good buck pops out? Will you be able to move in without spooking him or will he pick you out? This is why I always look for cover for myself. When I have cover, my playbook gets opened up significantly and my chance of success increases.
Besides finding suitable habitat and a good vantage point, the next thing that will increase your success rate is hunting all day. This means being at the glassing location before dawn and staying until you can no longer glass anymore. The more time you can spend behind your binoculars or spotting scope, the better the chance that you harvest an animal. Mature bucks are primarily only active at dusk, dawn and mid-day when they stand up to move a few feet or stretch their legs. If you are not there ready for them, then you might miss the opportunity to see and get to harvest a buck.
Once you have found suitable mule deer habitat and an excellent glassing point, your patience is about to be tested. Hours and hours behind the glass, searching over hillsides, basins, shaded spots, other nooks and crannies will strain your eyes and your hope. Then, all of a sudden, you will spot a buck and you will switch into “go mode.” This is when I find myself making mistakes and rushing the opportunity. Instead of rushing, the next time you find a buck, stop and slow down. See what he is doing, where he is heading, what his behavior is like and then plan a stalk or get ready for the shot. If you have picked a good glassing location, there should be no reason that you cannot get a shot off at the deer eventually. The last thing you want to do is rush it and ruin the opportunity.
When it comes to preseason scouting for mule deer, there is only one season that I usually find worthwhile, which is the earliest opening season. In most states, archery is the first season of the year and I usually only plan on doing extensive boots on the ground scouting before this season. This is because mule deer are migratory animals even if they are only heading down the mountain to the valley. Early on, bucks are in their summer patterns; however, after a few weeks of pressure, they change their location and behavior. They change again during the rut and, then, post-rut happens when they change their location and behavior again. Since they are constantly changing elevations, locations and movement, it is safe to say that every year will have to be treated differently and hunted as if you do not know where the bucks are. If you can do this, you will increase your success.
Overall, mule deer hunting for mature bucks can be a challenge on the body and mind. I love chasing these bucks, but they wear me out climbing up to alpine level, blowing stalks and losing track of solid bucks. Though hunting mature mule deer is difficult, it can be one of the most rewarding animals to hunt. They truly can live in any habitat, have strong survival instincts and are constantly on the move. Hunt hard and follow these basic tips and you will be into more bucks this fall than ever before.