Six tips for harvesting big mule deer bucks

Mule deer harvest
 
Photo credit: Brady Miller

Mule deer hunting is challenging, especially if you are trying to find and harvest a mature buck consistently. After all, they live in some of the highest and steepest terrains, they blend into the surroundings perfectly and they can become nocturnal and be virtually impossible to find in the open. Yet, some hunters consistently harvest good bucks every year. What are they doing differently than the average hunter that allows them to get good bucks nearly every season? Now, I cannot speak for every successful mule deer hunter, but there are some tips that I have learned over time that increase my success at harvesting big bucks year after year.

Glass, glass, glass

The first tip to mule deer hunting successfully year after year has to do with optics, patience and patience. Yes, I said patience twice. Mule deer blend in nearly perfectly and, under typical situations, they can be quite challenging to find, especially once they are bedded for the day. This is why a successful mule deer hunter knows that you need to get to a good vantage point and systematically pick apart the terrain with good optics. This takes a lot of patience and determination, but all it takes is one mature buck to make it all worth it.

Find optimal habitat

Mule deer tend to find a place with food, water and cover far from the hustle and bustle of human activity and stay there. So, to find a place that mature bucks might live, you need to think about areas within your hunting unit that are hard to get to and have good food, water and cover. In the West, food and cover are pretty standard, but water is often the limiting factor. To find basins with water without being there, pick apart aerial imagery for ponds, creeks and areas with different colored grasses. A light green grass in a satellite photo usually will indicate some sort of water source in the near vicinity. I have also seen many good bucks use stock tanks in areas with limited water sources, so do not be afraid to mark them during your e-scouting. 

Concentrate on shade and broken terrain

Once you are glassing optimal mule deer territory after sunrise, concentrate your glassing on shaded areas and broken terrain. Mule deer love to live in areas that have rock outcroppings, cliffs, steep sidehills and high vegetation. They find security in these areas since they can quickly escape downhill or into the next divot and out of sight. Mule deer will often bed in the open, especially during the early seasons. Though they might bed in the open, they do not like that hot early fall sun hitting them. During these seasons, concentrate on anywhere a tree casts a shadow. 

Arrive early and stay late

It might go without saying, but mule deer are nocturnal animals. Even though many of them are out and about during the early morning and late afternoon, mature bucks are typically not. The best time to find a mature buck on his feet is at the crack of dawn or during the last light of the day—the rest of the day, they might be bedded or in thicker timber. If you want to have a chance at a mature buck, increase your chances by arriving early and staying until it’s dark. You never know what might pop out just in time. 

Mark the buck’s location

Since mule deer live in such undulating terrain, it is imperative that you mark a buck’s location on the GPS prior to leaving your glassing point. In prior years, before the aerial maps on today’s GPS units and before you could use goHUNT maps on your phone, I didn’t have a good way to mark a buck’s location before a stalk. I could see the topo lines and make a good guess, but it was a shot in the dark. Nowadays, you can zoom in on your phone or aerial map and find the tree the buck is bedded against prior to your stalk. Taking a few extra minutes to pinpoint precisely where that deer is could make the difference of harvesting it or not.

Play the wind correctly

If you are stalking a mule deer and the wind shifts and blows towards the buck, it is game over. This is why the wind is the most critical factor in a stalk. Always err on the side of caution and move around until both the thermals and the prevailing wind are in your favor. If you feel the wind starting to shift, make an adjustment or back out until it stabilizes. If your wind is good, but a buck hears or sees you, stop in your tracks, remain as still as possible and wait for him to calm down. I have seen good bucks look right at me for 20 or 30 minutes, then bed back down. If they didn’t smell you, then you still have a chance.

Hunting mature mule deer in the West can be tough; however, it can be done if you put in the time to pick a good unit, scout, glass and make intelligent decisions on your hunt. It doesn’t matter if you are archery hunting or rifle hunting; it will be tough to harvest a mature buck consistently. If you want to be one of these hunters, plan on putting in a lot of time and plan on doing everything right. Learn from your mistakes and, in time, you can become a mule deer hunter that consistently harvests mature deer.

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Jake Horton

Jake Horton

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