October 12, 2022
The unmistakable, oversized track of an old buck amidst the edge of a bubbling desert spring was a welcome sight. Truth be told, we were two days into a five-day hunt without even a glimmer of a mature mule deer to pursue. Fed up with the amount of human traffic and complete lack of deer, we packed up camp and kicked up some dust. Our plan? Relocate to the most remote and least likely area to see deer in the entire unit and hope like hell the desolation of the country was a deterrent to the hordes of other hunters.
When I first laid eyes on the buck later that day, I knew it had to be the deer that left the big track at the spring. Its grizzled gray muzzle, combined with a body that dwarfed those of the deer’s two compadres, confirmed his maturity. The massive set of antlers that adorned its head was just a bonus.
Fast forward three grueling days of patiently waiting for the perfect stalk opportunity. I finally had the buck bedded, unaware of my presence, a mere 37 yards away. As the sun crept higher into the September sky, the buck’s shady retreat at the base of the serviceberry bush was rapidly diminishing. Like clockwork, as the sun stole the last shred of the buck’s shade, he stood, stretched, and walked to my left. With his head now buried in a bush chowing down a mid-afternoon snack, I re-ranged the buck. 51 yards. I deliberately crouched over to roll my slider sight to the new yardage when my rangefinder, which I had just set back into my bino pouch, fell to the ground, clanking on my bow limbs on the way down. That was all it took. The buck’s head jolted up. The deer gave one look my way and bounded out of my life forever.
This experience still stings, but remembering it does bring a smile to my face. Sometimes it is the failures that teach us the most, and this hunt for a mature, public-land muley on a highly pressured unit did exactly that. In fact, this past fall I implemented some of what I learned on a similar hunt, but this time, it ended with me hanging my tag on a hard earned, mature, public-land buck.
The harsh reality is, unless you have a substantial slush fund or access to private property, you are going to have to deal with the woes of pressured public lands. You can either complain about this conundrum or adapt your strategies. Below are a few tips to increase your likelihood of success next time you find yourself pursuing an elusive muley on the vast expanses of public land across the West.
Patience Kills Big Bucks
If you only get one thing out of this article, let this be it: Patience kills big bucks. Read that again and let it sink in. Patience kills big bucks. The ability to exude patience in every aspect of the hunt is what I believe to be the X-factor in mule deer hunting, the thing that separates the 1% who consistently kill trophy bucks from the rest of the competition. When hunting mule deer, patience can be peeled back like the layers of an onion. The first layer is your ability to spend countless hours behind your glass. A mature buck, especially on heavily pressured public land, is going to move very little during daylight hours. If you are not behind your glass throughout all hours of the day, chances are you will miss the small window where the buck slips up and exposes himself.
The next layer of patience applies to what you do after you locate a shooter. Consider all the outlying variables and resist the urge to rush a stalk, especially when bowhunting. Every scenario is different, but often I like to let the buck bed before beginning my approach. It is much easier to sneak on a stationary buck, than one up and moving. The biggest test of patience for a bowhunter comes once you are within striking distance of a bedded mule deer. Every situation is different, but usually, waiting for the buck to stand on his own accord will result in better shot opportunities. This often requires several hours of agonizing torture, but the pain is worth the reward. I have had success both waiting the deer out and forcing them to stand with a grunt or rock, but the latter usually ends with a less than desirable outcome.
Patience is a trait acquired through years of trial and error. It sounds simple, but if you can apply disciplined patience to every aspect of your hunt, it is only a matter of time before you hang your tag on a mature buck.
Expand Your Search
By nature, as we get older, the more difficult it is for us to break free of our old habits. That same logic applies to where and how we hunt. As pressure increases on public land, the habits and home ranges of mule deer evolve for survival. One of the tactics that I regularly preach is to look in unexpected areas. It is easy for hunters to get sucked into good-looking deer areas, and yes, chances are there are deer there. But that is also where most of the hunting pressure will be concentrated. When pressured, mature bucks will vacate these areas and seek seclusion in nontraditional habitat. Don’t be afraid to look in these areas. Chances are you won’t see as many, but it only takes one.
After several discouraging days of hunting, my good friend and I ventured into a new area in hopes of escaping some pressure. We still ran into two other trucks of hunters, but that was a breath of fresh air compared to the dozens of fluorescent-orange-filled pick-ups on top of the mountain. The morning was slow, with little to show for our hours spent behind the glass. As we were getting ready to move, through the mirage and heat waves of the late morning, I caught a glimpse of a mature buck over a mile away. The deer was in the last place I expected, but was one of only a handful we saw that morning and warranted a closer look.
Three hours later, the buck stood from its bed for a midday snack. The only difference between when the deer bedded and this moment? I was now tucked in a sagebrush 225 yards away, rifle at the ready. Settling my crosshairs on the point of the shoulder, I squeezed the trigger, he crumpled in his tracks. My excitement grew as we approached the downed buck and experienced the opposite of ground shrinkage. What I thought was a very respectable, public land buck turned out to be one of the better muleys I have been fortunate enough to hang my tag on.
Read the Fine Print
True woodsmanship skills are becoming somewhat of a lost art, replaced by trailcams, high-end optics, and a menagerie of other high-tech gadgets designed to aid in our ability to find more game. Good, bad, or indifferent, the tools we have available to us today have made us the most effective hunters to ever hit the woods. But these fancy new tools cannot replace the necessity for “old-school” skills such as tracking, reading sign, and other hunting tactics that our granddads employed.
Had we not stopped to check that random spring in the middle of the Idaho desert and discovered that buck track, we wouldn’t have spent the time there to find that deer. Although the ending didn’t go as planned, finding that one track concentrated our efforts to that random area, which resulted in a great encounter. It’s okay to use the modern tools we have at our disposal, but it’s also important to take the time to read Mother Nature’s fine print. You never know what she might tell you.
Go Where Others Won't
Every year people are willing to go further and hunt harder to taste success. But, if you are willing to lace up your boots and wear out some leather, you can get away from most pressure and have a better hunting experience. When going into a new area, the very first thing I look for when e-scouting is designated wilderness or roadless areas and focus my efforts there. I also keep my eyes peeled for basins or pockets that are not visible from any roads. Sometimes these areas require only a few hundred yards to see into, but you can bet mature bucks know these areas and frequent them often.
My one and only buck that broke the mythical 30-inch-wide mark was killed in a secluded cedar- and sage-littered basin that was impossible to see from any roads. I didn’t have to go far, maybe three-hundred yards to see into it, but that old buck knew the area well. If I had to guess, he had used that basin to elude hunters for years.
Set Realistic Expectations
Setting unrealistic expectations is one of the most common mistakes I see hunters make. If you have a general-season tag in your pocket and are hunting public land—despite what social media might tell you—a mature four-year-old buck, regardless of antler size, is a trophy.
If you were to check the harvest statistics of most general-season deer hunts, I bet the average success rate hovers around 30%, and less than that on archery hunts. Of the 30% that are successful, I would guess around 25% of the bucks killed are at least four years of age or older. That means that less than 10% of mule deer hunters are hanging their tags on mature bucks. That mature buck might be a giant two point, or he might be a 200-incher, but when hunting heavily pressured public land, both are trophies to be proud of.
I also want to throw out the caveat that the trophy is truly in the eye of the beholder. So much pressure today is put on killing the biggest and best and that drowns out the hunting experience. If a buck gets you excited, tip him over and be tickled pink with the outcome. The pursuit of big mule deer across the vast expanses of public land is an unquenchable obsession that requires a specific skill set learned through years of trial and error. Employing a few of these tactics this fall can streamline your learning curve, but even then, a mature buck is far from a guarantee and involves a certain degree of luck. I suppose that is what fuels the fire for us die-hard mule deer junkies. When the stars align and you bag a mature muley of your own, it will surely be one of your most cherished trophies and leave you yearning for their sacred haunts each fall.