The sun’s morning rays gleamed off Notch’s high alpine summer coat. Our 10-day game of cat and mouse leaned heavily in his favor. Each time I made a stalk on him his entourage sensed danger and led him away. However, he finally made the mistake that I needed, putting himself in a harvestable spot and giving me my one chance to capitalize on this public-land monarch.
Anyone that spends two minutes talking with me knows that I’m a mule deer fanatic. Their majestic beauty and the varying terrains which they inhabit – the high-country basins of the Rocky Mountains, the eastern plains of Kansas, the Dakotas, even south into Mexico – thrill and captivate me to my core. The more hunters I talk to, the more I find I’m not alone in my mule deer love affair. But even those who love them seem to struggle when it comes to putting a public-land mule deer hunt into action.
Hitting The Book
Define your benchmark. The Holy Grail of mulies – the 200-inch buck – may not be the best place to start. Set a goal that is right for you, a goal that your research deems attainable for the area or areas you’re hunting. How do you set a “trophy” goal? Start by going to “The Book.” The Pope & Young Record Book is one of the greatest research and goal-setting tools I possess. Even if you aren’t looking to harvest a “trophy” buck, this book has a great deal of information that will help put you in an area where you can find success.
Personally, I’m always looking to harvest a buck that will score 170 inches or better. I will, however, also wrap my tag around any mature buck that I believe to be 5 ½ years old or older.
I start by looking at the state in which I will be chasing these wide-racked giants. First, I write down the score and county of harvest for both typical and non-typical entries that meet my 170-inch minimum. After I have put pen to paper and collected all of my data, I start plotting my entries.
Note: You don’t have to strive for a 170-inch minimum. No one can or should tell you what your mule deer harvest goals should be. Only you can decide. Shoot what will make you happy and what will make your DIY public-land adventure memorable. As your buck count grows, adjust your goals accordingly. It’s also important to be realistic. Don’t set a 170-inch minimum if the unit you’re hunting hasn’t produced a P&Y entry in the last few years. Pay attention to detail and set attainable goals.
Next, lay out your state map, preferably one that shows the state GMU (Game Management Units) boundaries and counties. Utilizing the state’s specific game and fish website, look at the draw statistics, hunter success rates and buck-to-doe ratios within your main unit clusters. Many of the counties will encompass multiple units. Focusing on the draw statistics will provide valuable information as to the frequency with which you can hunt the given units. At this point your research will start to take shape and make you start believing that there is a mule deer out there – though he doesn’t know it yet – that will be wearing your tag come bow season.
I often get asked this question: How much time did you spend scouting to find the bucks you’ve killed? The truth: I’ve never scouted any of my mule deer units, and I’ve never had the same unit tag in my pocket. Though this isn’t my recommendation, I mention it to let those new to archery mule deer hunting know that it is possible.
There are tons of resources for you to take advantage of before you spend any money to put boots on the ground. I don’t even want to think about the amount of time I have spent on Google Earth looking at terrain, photos, how a basin is angled and the overall lay of the land around the unit. Plotting possible camp locations, water and glassing points, as well as feeding and bedding areas, is how I spend most evenings in the off-season.
Next comes my favorite part: making phone calls. Many bowhunters are hesitant to engage in this process, but honestly, who doesn’t love talking hunting? The best information you can gather comes from the people who live and work in the area that you will be hunting. Contacting taxidermists, forest service rangers, area biologists, outfitters and even area ranchers for information on the area can pay big dividends when it comes to narrowing down those mulie haunts in your area.
A few years ago I couldn’t produce a mature buck in any of the basins that I had selected to hunt, and I elected to move to my last resort spot. On the way to the trailhead I passed a forest service office and pulled in for a talk. Information gathered in an hour sent me in a different direction. A drive up toward an old mine above town followed by a 2-mile hike produced a Pope & Young high-country velvet trophy.
If you’re like me and haven’t allowed for any pre-season scouting, try to arrive a day or two early. Spending a day in a local town will give your body a little time to adjust while allowing you to visit the local bow or taxidermy shop to gather some last-minute information. Arriving early will also allow you the opportunity to get a day of scouting in to locate your buck of a lifetime and gain some insight into his daily habits.
As for me, I spent 10 days watching Notch’s every move: his morning feeding, afternoon bed and evening movement rituals. For 10 days he hadn’t strayed from his pattern once: feeding away from my glassing location, bedding under the alpine timber’s shade and, in the evening, feeding down through the valley toward the aspen cover. His entourage surrounded his every move. They formed an impenetrable wall of eyes that I hadn’t been able to best. My most successful stalk had put him at 61 yards bedded away with the wind in my face. As I prepared for him to stand and make his mid-day stretch, a younger crab-clawed buck stood and walked over the ridge. Without a pause or hesitation, all five bucks rose from their beds and followed the younger buck down the ridge and out of sight.
But on day 11, Notch strayed from his routine. Feeding from the dark timber and heading east into an open flat below a grassy cut, he left his now two-buck entourage behind in the shade and bedded alone in the open. Closing the distance I prepared for him to stand and stretch. As he rose and began to feed in front of me I drew, took aim and released my Ramcat-tipped Easton arrow with more focus and desire than ever before.
I watched his reaction to my arrow passing through and collapsed on the side of the mountain saying a prayer and breathing a sigh of relief. My research, meticulous gear selection, and physical and mental endurance had allowed me to make the most of my high-country public-land season.