While I’ve hunted muleys during September and October, I’ve never taken a buck during those months. I’m not saying it can’t be done; it can. However, late-season mule deer bucks are far more susceptible to well-laid bowhunting plans.
On the prairies where I hunt muleys, mature bucks are extremely visible during November and December for two central reasons:
- The rut
The rut is arguably the best time to target old, mature bucks.
“In September and October, mule deer bucks are generally secretive and much warier of new smells, sounds and movements within their home ranges,” said Miles Moretti, president/CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation. “In November and December during the rut, they’re more focused on does and fighting other bucks. They’re less wary and actually very vulnerable to hunters. Bucks feed very little during the rut, but if you scout for doe/fawn groups, bucks will be nearby.”
Moretti acknowledges that some western states don’t have open hunting seasons during the rut, but others do.
“Mule deer bucks often become very unaware of their surroundings during the rut. They can be so smart and wary from August through October and frustrating to hunt, but so ‘dumb’ during the rut.”
Cold temperatures throughout December push deer to food sources, making them quite visible. During a late-December 2014 hunt, my wife and I often saw huge bucks feeding in wide-open fields during broad daylight. Bucks cycle out of the rut, taxed from eating little and chasing much, and their sole goal is to pound calories.
“Once the rut concludes, bucks must replenish lost fat reserves to survive winter,” Moretti said. “They feed all throughout the day. They once again become more aware of new smells, sounds and movements, though, so hunters must understand they need to use the terrain to hide their movements. You can set up overlooking a trail if you find a buck coming to an agricultural field to feed.
“They’ll come to alfalfa fields if there hasn’t been a deep freeze, but they’ll look for highly nutritional shrubs in broken country, too. A mild December with moderate snowfall will find deer more scattered versus an early cold spell, which concentrates them.”
Visibility alone makes a frigid December advantageous over early season. During my 2014 hunt, spotting bucks was never difficult, and I was even able to pattern them moving up through a canyon head to feed, which made an excellent ground-blind ambush. I nearly arrowed a broken-racked bruiser from that blind when the temperature was -10 degrees, but my chair squeaked in the snow as I shifted to shoot.
As Moretti said, a sit-and-wait approach can be ultra-effective when bucks are moving predictably.
Use Blizzard Conditions To Your Advantage
On day five, blizzard conditions didn’t hamper rutting activity, though few deer were feeding in the fields atop the ranch. High winds had pushed most into the canyons below. However, one giant buck was courting a doe along a field edge, so I used the gusting winds, blowing snow and inky lighting to steal closer. Twice I came close in the wide open – something I wouldn’t be able to do during early season – but another buck suddenly appeared and was trying to squeeze his way into the courting session. I almost took a crack at him at 45 yards, but the winds were too stiff.
The trio eventually dipped over the edge onto a timbered shelf above the canyon. I followed. Easing my way through scrub trees and a flurry of marshmallow-sized snowflakes, I suddenly spotted a deer approaching a shooting lane 15 yards away. It was the giant – or so I thought. When I shot, my arrow cracked a limb that had blended in with his grayish chest. The buck stiffened up at the noise, then simply strolled along the shelf just above me. I had another arrow nocked, but I could now see he was the younger buck – a definite 3 ½-year-old. I passed the wide-open, 13-yard shot opportunity at the tall 3×4.
Their route brought me amongst cattle, which proved beneficial as the snow had become a little squeaky to walk through. Their presence masked mine. As soon as I crossed through a barbed wire fence, a really nice buck walked slowly past me at 45 yards. Honestly, it wasn’t a great opportunity and I noticed the falling snowflakes were creating frozen water beads on my arrow and arrow rest. I kept cleaning them off every few minutes.
Once he moved off, I continued ahead and unexpectedly spotted the old 5×5 walking amidst junipers, courting several does and a bedded fawn. I walked right into bow range of the group and hunkered behind a juniper with the buck distracted. He grunted repeatedly as he caroused with the does. I drew back as he walked into the open 20 yards away quartered toward me. I settled my pin on the point of his shoulder and released. My arrow hit incredibly high in the neck. Perhaps the frozen beads had created issues with my arrow or my rest. I’ll never know for certain.
He bolted forward and stopped next to another buck, and I moved into shooting position as he snort-wheezed at the other buck. Both bucks immediately noticed me, so I shot without ranging. My 60-yard hold launched my arrow just over his back. He’d been only 56 yards. Darn it! He moved off with the rest of the herd. I was disgusted.
I continued after the herd and watched my buck actually run off another mature buck. He eventually bedded, and I began sneaking in. Inevitably, cattle suddenly rumbled past me right toward the buck. I assumed he relocated, and finding his empty bed confirmed my hunch.
The following day, I searched everywhere I thought he’d be but didn’t find him until one last spot popped into mind late in the afternoon. I decided to glass the wooded slope leading up toward the fields. I figured he might be bedded there, given its proximity to the fields and that he was probably slowly succumbing to the arrow. After only a few minutes of glassing, I spotted a dark body laying underneath a cedar tree. It was unmistakably him.
I circled way around, a move that took at least an hour. I began dropping down from above, keeping the wind favorable for my approach. Though I’d chosen a landmark, finding it proved difficult, as things always look different up close than they do through binoculars from half a mile away.
Suddenly, I heard what I thought was a cough. I inched forward and spotted him bedded straight away from me. The snow was again noisy to walk on, so it took quite a while to close within shooting range. At 30 yards, I was in the wide open with the buck still bedded and facing away. I had an arrow nocked and ready but wanted to get as close as possible. At 27 yards, I hooked up my release and waited for him to stand.
He suddenly stood, and I drew simultaneously. He turned, saw me and back-pedalled, so I readjusted and shot quickly before he bolted. My arrow hit back and low. I waited a few minutes and inspected the scene. Blood was sprayed onto the snow at the impact spot, and I followed it right to the buck 35 yards away. Another arrow sealed the deal.
As I reminisce on this hunt, I consider the pride and effort I invest into shooting practice before and during season to prepare for every possible shot scenario I may encounter. I would much rather have taken him with one clean arrow, but given the circumstances — snow freezing on my arrow and rest, etc. — I understand calamities can and do happen. On the positive side, I got to hunt him again, and I didn’t give up once the blood trail ceased and darkness fell. Finding him the following day in an area with tons of other deer, canyons, thickets and other places to hide was a game of very low odds that required commitment. I’m proud I finished what I started and didn’t give up.