Pat­tern big-coun­try mule deer by key­ing on their sea­sonal el­e­va­tions

ONCE YOU UN­DER­STAND how mule deer be­have at var­i­ous el­e­va­tions, you can scout them based largely on to­pog­ra­phy.


The daily pat­terns and sea­sonal be­hav­iors that we use to scout white­tails so ef­fec­tively have lim­ited value when it comes to mule deer. Across most of their range, pub­lic-land mule deer do not live out their lives in 3 or 4 square miles. Nor do they fol­low eas­ily pre­dictable pat­terns. Mule deer are, for the most part, wilder­ness an­i­mals roam­ing where they wish from day to day, sel­dom leav­ing a hoof­print in the same piece of ground from one week to an­other. How­ever, one con­stant in­forms where you’re likely to find mule deer from month to month: el­e­va­tion. Ver­ti­cal to­pog­ra­phy dic­tates where deer travel to feed, wa­ter, and rest. El­e­va­tion pref­er­ences change based on a num­ber of fac­tors, pri­mar­ily sea­sonal weather but also hunt­ing pres­sure, pre­da­tion, and non-hunt­ing hu­man dis­tur­bance. Once you un­der­stand where mule deer will be in each of three dif­fer­ent habi­tat types, you’ll take an im­por­tant first step to­ward pat­tern­ing them.


▶ For those who in­tend to hunt high tim­ber and alpine habi­tat, con­cen­trate on a sin­gle area be­fore the sea­son, learn­ing how deer use this top­most habi­tat of the West. The big­gest bucks spend their sum­mers in high basins and greensward pock­ets, feed­ing in avalanche chutes and wild­flower mead­ows. Hun­ters who scout out a num­ber of small basins strung to­gether will of­ten find more deer than a hunter who fo­cuses on one large alpine cirque.

Set up on a look­out at first light, us­ing a spot­ting scope to as­sess promis­ing ar­eas. Once you find ma­ture bucks, your next move is to be there at the very ear­li­est ri­fle sea­son the area al­lows, be­cause the bucks won’t stay high long.

• Hunt­ing Tac­tic I hunt the top of the world in one of two ways. First, I want to be above the deer and the lit­tle basins in which they feed and wa­ter be­fore dawn. You must have the pa­tience and con­fi­dence to stay put un­til the sun lights up the peaks. If you’ve done your home­work on lo­ca­tion and el­e­va­tion, the pay­off can be a shot at a buck be­low you. If noth­ing shows, your hunt is not over. You still have an­other op­tion.

You’ve worked hard to gain el­e­va­tion and don’t want to give it up. Af­ter feed­ing, bucks head for bed­ding ar­eas in nar­row stringers of alpine tim­ber or brushy benches and ter­races just be­low the peaks. Glass these ar­eas from afar, and if you see a bed­ded deer, make a plan to ap­proach to within ri­fle range. But if you don’t see any deer, that doesn’t mean they’re not there. Ease slowly and qui­etly through the thin cover, keep­ing your eyes open and look­ing ahead for a tip of an antler in shade or a flick­ing ear. Keep the sun at your back and the breeze in your face, and ex­pect to have fast shoot­ing at close-range, flush­ing bucks.

The best part of this alpine strat­egy is that if you are suc­cess­ful, the pack-out will al­most in­vari­ably be down­hill.


▲ Mule deer that in­habit bro­ken cliffs, table­top mesas, and canyon rims might be vis­i­ble from a dis­tance, but older bucks melt into a car­pet of low ju­niper and cedar shrubs when they sense dan­ger. A shot, when you get one, of­ten needs to hap­pen fast.

Scout­ing for bucks here can be done in two ways. The first is dur­ing the last hour of sun­light, when bucks come out of cover to be­gin feed­ing, mov­ing down from bed­ding ar­eas into se­cluded flats and canyon bot­toms where they seek suc­cu­lent plants. By mov­ing ei­ther on foot or on an ATV, you can glass sev­eral spots from a dis­tance. Bucks that feel safe and have food tend to stay in one or two fa­vorite canyons in the early part of the ri­fle sea­son.

In the lat­ter half of the sea­son, use the sec­ond ap­proach: am­bush­ing them from above at sunup as they move back to their higher-el­e­va­tion beds. There is noth­ing more ex­hil­a­rat­ing than watch­ing a big set of antlers slowly climb­ing to­ward you, clos­ing the dis­tance with each step. The bucks at­tached to them are headed to­ward higher canyons, lit­tle benches, and side­hill ter­races in which to bed down for the day.

• Hunt­ing Tac­tic Move into po­si­tion be­fore le­gal shoot­ing light in spots where you have good vis­i­bil­ity down avalanche chutes, lava dikes, and mid-el­e­va­tion parks. Am­bush bucks where two or three canyons come to­gether or where game trails con­verge. If one spot doesn’t pro­duce, move to an­other the next morn­ing.


▲ Mule deer in the south­west­ern United States and even far­ther south into Mex­ico—where tro­phy-minded hun­ters have trav­eled for years—live their lives in the plains, mak­ing no sea­sonal mi­gra­tions. Cover here is cacti, mesquite, sage­brush, and madrone. The few scat­tered rocky hills may be only a few hun­dred feet above the sur­round­ing ter­rain.

There are cer­tain places in this sun­baked land­scape that deer will al­ways seek out. The first is a wa­ter source: small seeps, springs, cat­tle tanks, and even rain­wa­ter pot­holes. Look for fresh tracks around these fea­tures, and then find bed­ded bucks nearby.

Desert bucks are out in early morn­ings, nib­bling leaves and shrubs for dew. Cov­er­ing ground, on foot, for that first hour or two is a solid tac­tic for track­ing down bucks. By mid­morn­ing, those lit­tle hills, where deer bed on shade-side slopes and have a good view of dan­ger, are the spots.

• Hunt­ing Tac­tic If you are alone, qui­etly climb the sunny side of the hill. As you near the top, ease your way around into the shade, watch­ing for bed­ded bucks.

If hunt­ing with a part­ner, one of you should po­si­tion your­self right where sun and shade meet on the top third of the hillock. Your buddy should walk around the shady side of the hill, forc­ing a buck to flush from his bed and run from trou­ble. If the buck runs to­ward the sun, the up­per hunter has the shot. If the buck runs down­hill and onto the flat, the lower hunter goes into ac­tion.

Use ter­rain fea­tures to in­ter­cept muleys, like this Mon­tana buck, as they move up and down in el­e­va­tion.

Tim­ber­coun­try bucks will hang on the edge of cover at first and last light.

A deep-forked Utah mule deer watches its back­trail. A cen­tral Mon­tana mule deer picks his way along a ridge­line to a bed­ding area.

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