Tactics for scouting mule deer in their summer range

Mule deer eating bitter brush
This 200-inch buck is eating bitter brush. It is the darkest of the green vegetation and has the best moisture and protein content of the brush in that surrounding area. Photo credit: Steve Alderman

Are you in need of a few tips to help you locate mule deer during the summer months? There are few things to consider before heading out the door to find the buck of your dreams.

Find the food and water — find the bucks

First and foremost is feed and water. Obviously, deer need both to survive. What you might not know is deer get a lot of their water intake from the plants they eat, which means they don't need to go to water every day. They do need fresh water, but on many occasions they can go a couple of days without hitting the water hole. This is even true in the more arid regions of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Texas and New Mexico. Deer in these regions have cacti, which have water on the inside. Don't overlook water, but don't spend all of your time looking for it or watching it. In all honesty, it is different in all regions. Take the Arizona Strip, for example: if it wasn't for water holes and tanks, most of the deer you see come out of that region wouldn't get shot. I spend most my time hunting Rocky Mountain mule deer, so we will focus on that species in this article. Here are few ideas that will get you pointed in the right direction.

Google Earth scouting

When I'm looking into a new area to hunt, I always go to Google Earth and get familiar with the region, even sometimes printing aerial shots of the area to take with me. Now there are programs where you can overlay Google Maps over the topo on your GPS. You can check out this INSIDER article on ways to scout with Google Earth. What this does is give me a starting point, away from roads but close to water, whether it be a stream, seep, pond, river or lake. Once I visit the area in person, I'm looking for green vegetation. The greener an area is the higher water content in those plants. Not only is there higher water content in those plants, but there is often higher protein content as well.

Google Earth Scouting
Photo source: Google Earth

Habitat clues that will lead you to deer

Younger, healthier, greener plants are higher in protein than older, drier vegetation, which is why deer move so often from June through the end of July. They are going to where the food holds more protein and moisture. Some of the best vegetation for mule deer during the summer are bitter brush and snow brush. 

Large nontypical mule deer buck in velvet
Focus your attention to shrubs as the grasses and forbes dry up in early summer. Bitter brush and snow brush are a major part of a mule deer's diet in July and August. Photo credit: Steve Alderman

As the food sources dry up, mule deer are easier to find due to the lack of green vegetation holding them in specific areas. I usually start scouting at the end of June when all the hills are green. The down side to this is the deer are harder to find this time of year due to the palatable food being so abundant. Come the end of July and August, vegetation starts to dry up and the deer are more predictable as to where they are going to be and what they are going to do.

Continued below.

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When to start scouting

The best time to start scouting, in my opinion, is the end of July. The smaller water seeps have dried up and much of the vegetation in the mountains has turned dry and brown and has became less palatable to the deer. This concentrates the mule deer into smaller home areas. Focusing this time of year on the green areas with water within a half a mile will be your most productive time spent in the field prior to the opening of your season. A lot of the time deer will feed in the mornings and hit the water on the way to their beds.

A good 90% of my time in the field is spent looking for vegetation that mule deer need in their diet with the highest in protein and water content. In the remaining time I have, I look around the water. Once I have found deer or tracks around a water source, I set up trail cameras and let them do the work for me. I will spend my time focusing on the feeding and bedding areas. I know I didn't touch on bedding areas, but this is by far the hardest spot to find deer. It takes lots of patience and lots of practice to find a deer in his bed. Lots of hours behind good glass, so your eyes don't fatigue. One thing I will tell you, and it's pretty obvious, is deer need to be have shade all day long. Most of the time it is on the north-facing slopes or a cool draw. Don't get me wrong when I say north-facing slopes, it could be on the south side of the mountain, but it will be a cut or draw with a north, northeast or northwest face to it.

215 inch mule deer
This 215-class buck would frequent this green patch four to five times a week. He would travel a mile from feed to bed almost every day. Photo credit: Steve Alderman

You can increase your odds of finding your dream buck during the summer if you concentrate on the green vegetation with water nearby. Scouting early in the season is not always the best as they are harder to find and keep track while they are still moving around looking for the most palatable food they can put down. The later you find them in the summer, the more predictable they are going to be. Their feeding sources will have dried up making their home range smaller. More times than not when you find a deer in August, he will be there through the first part of October. Now, go find him and get him.

Note: This article was originally published in July of 2014 on goHUNT.


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