Treestand Tactics for Mule Deer

Going airborne, as you would for whitetails, in the right locations and under the right circumstances can yield big results on mule deer.

Treestand Tactics for Mule Deer

A local from town had turned me onto this South Dakota Game Production Area, and after some speed scouting, I located a rare thicket edge where several deer trails converged. Best of all, a twisted but suitable tree was within easy bow range of the trails. I quickly hung my treestand with plans to return at dawn.

It was abnormally calm that November morning on the broken prairies as I settled into my treestand. Honestly, I bet you could’ve heard a pin drop. Just as shooting light arrived, I heard the telltale rustling of a deer approaching through the withered prairie grasses. The public property is home to both mule deer and whitetails, so it was like Christmas morning as I trained my eyes toward the noise.

Like a ghost, a bull-bodied 4x4 muley buck appeared walking broadside right toward my 30-yard shooting lane. I blinked to confirm I wasn’t fantasizing; when I opened my eyes, he was still there. Wow! In two more steps, I’d draw my bow and three more after that, I’d launch carbon. But he froze. And then a mysterious breeze tickled the back of my neck. Game over!

That initial treestand attempt and the close-call it produced in western South Dakota had lit a fire. It wouldn’t be my last treestand hunt for mule deer.

Being Resourceful

Few folks head West for a DIY mule deer hunt with treestands. By and large, muleys are considered spot-and-stalk game, especially on the virtually treeless prairies in states such as Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and eastern Colorado. Not only are trees scarce, but muley bucks can be difficult to pattern compared to whitetails. Still, those aren’t reasons enough to leave your portable treestands home.

I’m a resourceful and opportunistic mule deer hunter. In other words, I don’t limit myself to one specific tactic or approach. I easily adapt on a dime when I identify a high-percentage opportunity. Sure, it means leaving my comfort zone occasionally, but that’s often the price of success.

I’ve hunted from a treestand for mule deer on DIY hunts only 10 times, but I’ve had mature muley bucks within bow range four times. Those are pretty high odds, and that’s why I take treestands to muley country.

Recognizing Opportunities

I’ve hunted muleys from treestands so few times because opportunities to do so are limited. A tree in the middle of otherwise open ground doesn’t automatically constitute a hotspot. Unlike whitetails, muleys are okay with moving across wide-open terrain. However, there are instances when trees are located in areas muleys favor, and you can capitalize on those tendencies.   

While some folks argue that mule deer aren’t patternable, I don’t buy it entirely. I’ve watched muleys favor particular areas, and though specific bucks don’t always travel the exact same trails, some commonly travel through a 50-yard swatch of ground. If a tree happens to be in that area and the wind favorable, a treestand could provide the best view with more shooting options than a ground ambush. Plus, keeping your human odor and movement above their eye level is advantageous.

Timbered Draws

Perhaps the best opportunities to bowhunt muleys from treestands are in wooded draws that lead toward agriculture. Does commonly travel these, and during the rut, bucks looking for hot does will cruise them, too. My brother arrowed a large non-typical South Dakota muley during the rut where a wooded draw adjoins a large field. The buck wasn’t a regular in the area, but deer in general favor that draw, and there’s plenty of sign there to prove it. The stand produced an incredible buck that spot-and-stalk hunting likely wouldn’t have. 

I encountered a mature but broken-racked mule deer buck during midday from a pop-up blind placed in a similar location during a late-season hunt. I didn’t kill him, but I darn sure would’ve tried had he been wearing all of his original headgear. No, I wasn’t in a treestand, but I recognized that deer were filing through the head of the draw on their way to a cornfield daily. I knew it was a matter of time until a mature buck would do it, so I used a stationary whitetail-like ambush.

Saddles

Like whitetails, the largest muley bucks don’t always expose themselves on wide-open ridgetops, which makes a saddle between ridges a money spot. If you find a saddle deer appear to be using, I wouldn’t hesitate to hunt it all day, especially during the rut or post-rut.

A friend who was hunting with me during the rut hunt I referenced at the beginning of the article watched two mature muley bucks do it the same morning I had my close-call, and interestingly, that saddle was only a couple hundred yards from my treestand. I’ve also watched muleys do it while spotting and stalking. 

Food Sources

From the rut through the end of season, look for opportunities to hunt over large food sources. This usually means obtaining permission to hunt on private land. It sounds like a longshot when many ranchers are leasing their ground to outfitters who charge $3,000 to $5,000 for a deer hunt, but I’ve met several ranchers who want deer thinned out and happily granted me access.

On a late-season hunt in western Nebraska, a landowner jumped in the passenger seat of my pickup and was showing me around when a group of deer fled a standing cornfield and headed into a draw with a dozen or more pine trees. I instantly recognized a treestand opportunity in the making. In this case, there were no trees over the food source, so I picked those pines — the only trees for hundreds of yards in all directions — about 200 yards off the field.

I returned early the following afternoon and began trimming limbs and positioning my treestand. Once finished, I stuffed hand and body warmers in every nook and cranny to combat the howling winds and subzero temperatures.

An hour and a half later, a fawn passed right beneath my platform, and a mature mule deer buck was coming up right behind her. He veered left and circled in front of my stand in the wide open. Unfortunately, I shot just over his back because I’d been unable to use my rangefinder.

One September morning in Nebraska, I nearly had an opportunity at a bachelor group of muleys with three shooters in it, but as they left their standing-cornfield feeding frenzy and angled toward an adjacent draw where I knew they were bedding, they circled my treestand just enough to reach my downwind airstream. I had my Ozonics running full tilt, so they didn’t bust me, but they did change direction and I didn’t get a high-percentage shot.

Placing the Final Piece of the Puzzle

During another late-season Nebraska hunt last December, I was on a cattle ranch I’d obtained permission to hunt. Major snowfall earlier in the month followed by above-freezing temperatures yielded crusty snow that made it virtually impossible to attempt stalking. So, I drove around the property trying to identify treestand and ground-blind ambush locations.

That’s when I spotted it: A lone cottonwood tree in the middle of a winter-wheat field (photo below). I drove my Chevy — deer are accustomed to vehicles and farm equipment in ranch country — out to inspect the area around it for deer sign. I was floored! Snow had melted away on the tree’s south-facing side, exposing green shoots of winter wheat. Clearly, deer had been wearing it out. Trails from multiple directions converged there, and though hanging a stand in the large cottonwood would be difficult, I knew I had to make it happen.

The author selected this location for a treestand based on two factors: Crunchy snow that made stalking impossible, and multiple trails converging in a common location.
The author selected this location for a treestand based on two factors: Crunchy snow that made stalking impossible, and multiple trails converging in a common location.

Following some monkey-like antics and extensive sawing, my Lone Wolf treestand was hung and leveled and all obstructing tree limbs were trimmed. I drove my Chevy off the field. Soon, I was changed into my Sitka Gear camo, and a quick 20-yard insurance shot at my Rinehart Pyramid target confirmed my bow and I were ready. I hiked back to the lone cottonwood and settled in.

Mule deer were liable to approach from any direction, so I positioned my Ozonics HR-300 toward my downwind airstream. Then, I enjoyed the balmy temperatures as I periodically scanned my surroundings.

Several deer were feeding in a cornfield on an adjacent property, but with all the sign around me, I remained optimistic. That’s when two dots appeared on the horizon several hundred yards away. I peered through my binocular and confirmed that two muley bucks — one was pretty darn nice — were heading my way. I sent my wife, who was nearly 900 miles away, a text to inform what was happening.

Within a matter of 10 minutes, the two bucks had cut some distance. They were directly downwind and still coming. I asked God to let the Ozonics keep me undetected. And it did. The smaller of the bucks filed by at 40 yards and began feeding intently in an open patch of winter wheat. The other buck, lagging behind by 100-and-some yards, eventually followed suit.

I drew back when he passed by at 40 yards, and he didn’t stop until he’d angled away. He began feeding in an open wheat patch I’d earlier ranged at 44 yards. I bracketed my 40- and 50-yard pins on his ribcage and gently touched the trigger. My arrow lobbed up and fell right into both lungs. After a short 40-yard run, he was out. I expressed my gratitude to God, and then with shaky fingers, I texted my wife the news. She was thrilled I’d be coming home sooner than planned.

Final Reflections

After the shakes subsided, I carefully climbed down from my well-placed treestand and walked out to my downed prize. As I admired the handsome mule deer buck and paid my dues of thanks for his life and meat, I realized I’d accomplished what I set out to. Sure, I’d had close calls before, but I finally bow-killed a mule deer buck using whitetail tactics. It felt great!

The author nailed this beautiful late-season muley as it passed by his stand hung in the cottonwood tree visible in the background. (See the sidebar below for a detailed gear list used on his bowhunt.)
The author nailed this beautiful late-season muley as it passed by his stand hung in the cottonwood tree visible in the background. (See the sidebar below for a detailed gear list used on his bowhunt.)

Sidebar: Muley Gear

  • Bow: A maneuverable, flat-shooting bow is a welcomed partner for treestand hunts. My bow of choice for my successful muley hunt was Hoyt’s HyperForce, but I’ve since updated to the REDWRX Carbon RX-3 Ultra. Contact: www.hoyt.com
  • Bowsight: I prefer a fixed-pin sight with a slide option. Spot Hogg’s Fast Eddie XL is my go-to. Like all Spot Hogg sights, it redefines durability. Contact: www.spot-hogg.com
  • Arrow rest: I outfit my Hoyt with a Trophy Taker X-Treme Pro Click fall-away rest, which provides micro-adjustable windage and elevation with rock-solid locking mechanisms. Contact: www.trophytaker.com
  • Arrow: Victory Archery’s VAP TKO Elite delivers premier tolerances. The TKO Elite boasts a +/- .0001-inch straightness and is 100 percent carbon MaxxKe construction. Contact: www.victoryarchery.com
  • Broadhead: I prefer a large mechanical broadhead for most of my hunting, and Rage’s 100-grain Hypodermic Trypan delivers. Contact: www.feradyne.com/rage-broadheads
  • Camo: Mule deer country can be downright hot in September, but frigid later in the fall. Sitka Gear offers complete systems for every application. I’ve used the Early Season Whitetail Shirt and Pant, but for the late-season hunts I go to the Fanatic Series, which was just redesigned for 2019. Contact: www.sitkagear.com
  • Odor elimination: The Ozonics HR-300 has changed the way I hunt. While using it, I’ve had elk, mule deer and whitetails downwind without getting busted. Contact: www.ozonicshunting.com
  • Optics: I’ve enjoyed the simplicity of combining my binocular and rangefinder into one unit with Nikon’s LaserForce 10x42mm rangefinder binocular. It’s accurate to 1,900 yards on reflective targets, 1,400 yards on trees, and 1,100 yards on game. Contact: www.nikonsportoptics.com
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