Planning your mule deer hunt in elk country

Mule deer

What dreams are made of. Photo credit: Jake Horton

Whether you are an avid or novice mule deer hunter, we are always searching for those hidden nooks and crannies that allow a mule deer buck to grow to trophy size. Quite often, alpine mule deer and elk share the same habitat, which can cause major issues for hunters who are solely chasing mule deer. The main problem is not that elk and mule deer share home ranges, but that the elk and mule deer seasons in most states overlap, adding to the number of hunters in the woods. In many states, mule deer hunting is more limited and is considered a draw hunt for a unit while the elk tags for the same unit may be abundant or over-the-counter (OTC). Hunters who draw a limited and coveted mule deer tag can become quickly disheartened when they arrive at a unit they plan to have to themselves only to find elk camps with large numbers of people planning to hunt the same basins. In my experience, there are two strategies to deal with elk hunters when trying to plan a mule deer hunt in elk country.

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1. Researching for mule deer by researching for elk

The first strategy starts before a unit is selected and a permit is drawn. This strategy involves researching and hunting in units with limited elk permits or a unit that doesn't allow OTC tags for elk in order to guarantee fewer people in the unit. Using goHUNT INSIDER, you can choose your five or six most desirable mule deer units within a state. Then, also using INSIDER, you can check out the elk statistics and Draw Odds of the same unit. You are essentially cross-checking any place you want to hunt with the other seasons during that time-frame. If the unit has OTC elk tags or a high number of elk permits available, then it might not be the unpressured mule deer hunt worth saving your points for. I am a firm believer that doing your research ahead of time and setting appropriate expectations will allow a hunter to have a more enjoyable hunt — whether they have a chance to harvest an animal or not. 

2. Elk hunters guide you to mule deer

Using elk hunters to help deer hunt

Sometimes... using elk hunters can help you find mule deer. Photo credit: Brandon Evans

The second strategy — and the one I prefer — is to allow the elk hunters to guide you to the mule deer. I call this planning your mule deer hunt by planning an elk hunt. If left unpressured, elk and mule deer share the same habitat, the same feeding areas, and watering holes and, even, some same trails. However, when we inject the pressure of hunters, mule deer and elk change their natural behavior and act differently. This pressure comes from hunters who are typically using two different hunting strategies, especially during September. Typically, to hunt elk, hunters will cover a lot of ground spotting and moving in order to find their quarry. These hunters use strategies such as bugling, cow calling and/or raking trees to try to lure a bull within range. These elk strategies are vastly different than the typical mule deer strategy. In general, a successful mule deer hunt is determined by how much time you spend behind glass and how quietly you can sneak up on a bedded buck using cover and the wind to your advantage.

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Hunting mule deer in elk country

A strategy I use when planning a mule deer hunt involves me using goHUNT INSIDER to pick my most desirable unit to hunt based on harvest statistics, trophy potential and public land percentage. I do pay attention to what other species can be hunted concurrent with the season I plan on hunting. However, I don't let this deter me. Instead, I use it to my advantage. As an avid elk hunter, I plan my mule deer hunt by figuring out where I would elk hunt in a unit or specific basin. Elk need food, water and cover so any place that has all of those basic necessities will have elk hunters nearby and the mature mule deer will typically not be there for long. After marking all of these spots on an aerial or topographic map, next I look at spots that are not as desirable for elk hunts. These spots may be an empty sage basin with a watering hole or a small patch of cedars not big enough to hunt a couple of elk. These spots may look like a cliff edge or a rock outcropping where an elk hunter would have no business going near or a small high elevation patch of pines that mule deer can back up to and feel safe. Once I have these spots discovered and marked, I am ready for my mule deer hunt and will find those good bucks that are not being pushed around by elk hunters.

In conclusion

Jake Horton glassing for mule deer

Both strategies have to do with the avoidance of people. The first strategy is to simply avoid the crowds by hunting an area that allows fewer hunters. The second strategy involves using other hunters to your advantage. You do this by allowing basic hunting knowledge to guide you to places that will have less foot traffic and, hopefully, lead to a chance to harvest a more mature deer. Both strategies are effective, but not the only ones out there. No matter what you choose to do, a day in the high country is a good and successful day.

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