Turning up a mature mule deer buck on public land may be one of the toughest hunts out there. We sat down with expert mule deer hunting veterans, AJ Kissell and Randy Ulmer, as well as our in-house team of hunters for some mule deer hunting tips. Continue reading to see what it takes to be successful when hunting the elusive muley.
As the old saying goes, “If you have five minutes to chop down a tree, spend the first three sharpening your axe.” As an out-of-state mule deer hunter, AJ Kissel (WI) prepares his hunts with a topo map of the unit and Google Earth. He uses these resources to pick his top-12 spots to check out before ever stepping foot on the unit.
Determining a list of locations to scout beforehand allows you more time; more time to scout, more time to hike and glass upon arrival, and more time to stay mentally focused instead of sitting in your truck, throwing shots in the dark trying to figure out what to do or where to go next.
Preparation is crucial. Along with knowing your location, learning the habits of the deer you’ll be hunting is priceless. The deer you can find during the summer months are typically in the same area during the hunt. Mule deer might not run the same program every day, but they are habitual in the drainages, basins, and areas they hang out in. If you see a deer do the same thing twice, you’ll get him the 3rd time.
“Anytime I’m going to be hunting a new unit, I pick up an actual hard-copy topo map of the unit. First, I’ll lay it out and draw in every hiking trail, road, and access point; get everything positioned out where I can visually analyze and look at it… From there, I’ll pick apart each of those areas and look for what I call voids. These voids typically have limited access, or secluded areas that are often overlooked by other hunters. A lot of times I’m not in the middle of the unit or the furthest in, most times it’s a transition area that doesn’t have a trailhead or has some sort of uninviting topography such as a steep ridge that drops into the headwaters of a basin.” commented Kissel.
Determining a list of locations to scout beforehand allows you more time to scout, more time to hike, and more time to stay mentally focused.
For the best place to find mule deer, pick a good vantage point and look to the shade. Mulies typically favor the shade, but don’t let that keep you from glassing into every possible location.
As you plan out when and where to glass, consider where the mule deer spends most of their time living. The mule deer habitat will indicate around what time it will bed and wake. The Mule deer who primarily live on east-facing slopes tend to bed down for the day earlier than deer living on west-facing slopes. On the contrary, deer primarily living on the east-facing slopes are out of their beds earlier in the evening than deer living on west-facing slopes.
Don’t get in the habit of looking for red-colored deer in their summer coats. If you’ve trained yourself to look for deer in their summer coat, you’re going to glass over trophy mule deer that are usually the first to “grey out” into their winter coats.
Get into your glassing position early. If you’re perched in a vantage point before the sun crests, you’ll have gotten there without being seen, it will give you time to catch your breath and you’ll be ready to focus on spotting a monster mule deer.
Be ready to glass all day. A lot of hunters only hunt or glass in the early mornings and evenings. Deer move throughout the day, typically to change beds as the shade transitions. And in the evening, glass until it’s too dark to see, you’ll understand and appreciate the term “coming out of the woodwork”.
(Rifle hunters read this too). Even if you’re hunting with a rifle or muzzleloader, read on—there’s nothing more deadly than a hunter with a rifle in hand employing some bowhunting tactics.
Once you’ve spotted the buck you’re after, getting within 200 yards isn’t extremely difficult, which is fantastic if you’re rifle hunting. But for archery hunting mule deer, closing the gap within bow range is where it gets tricky.
If there’s one person to learn from, it’s Randy Ulmer (AZ). He’s a man of solid consistency on taking mature bucks with a bow. Once he has found his target buck, he waits until the animal moves into a position that offers a high-percentage stalk.
Find unmistakable landmarks before your stalk begins. Memorize the terrain your animal is located. Often it will look different when you’re on the same ridge as the deer compared to how it looked from where you glassed him. Consider taking a photo with your camera of the landscape you’re stalking into. Use the image as a reference in case you lose your bearings.
As always, be on the lookout for other deer and other game, even livestock. Nothing can foil a stock like an unassuming feeding mule deer doe. Moreover, bucks are rarely alone.
Keep another set of eyes on the opposite hillside. “If I have a buddy helping me or if I’m helping a friend, the hunter will stalk in and the helper will stay back to guide the hunter using hand signals. This kind of help is most valuable when the animal is moving or when it’s bedded in a nondescript setting where everything looks the same. It’s also a good way to know if a buck gets up and moves while you’re in mid-stalk and not able to see the deer.” Ulmer added.
“I’ve watched a buck as long as three days before stalking him. That type of patience is difficult to manage—especially when there are other hunters around. But one of the most difficult aspects of shooting a big buck is finding him in the first place. Don’t rush headlong into a low-percentage stalk just because you’re excited. Once you bump a big buck it may be days before he resurfaces, and he’ll be even warier the second time around.", commented Ulmer.
He’s a man of solid consistency on taking mature bucks with a bow.
If you can go undetected by not triggering a mule deer’s eyes, ears, or nose—that will lead to getting a shot. It’s more difficult than it sounds, though hunters pull it off every season.
You must remain unseen. Camouflage patterns like KUIU Vias and Verde are designed to fool ungulate eyes—having the right pattern helps, but more importantly, keeping out of sight in the first place is the best practice. If sneaking past other deer to get close to your target buck is unavoidable, don’t move when their heads are up if they see any movement, it’s over.
Use whatever terrain you have to your advantage. Whether it be a ridge, bluff, gully or tree line—drop out of view from your target buck—by going out-and-around, you can cover a lot of ground fast without the fear of being seen, heard or smelled. Or, have the discipline and patience to back-out to take another route or wait for a better opportunity.
You must be dead-silent. Removing your boots and stalking in socks or moccasins is one way to keep the noise down. Along with footwear, make sure your pants are made of dead-quiet materials, like KUIU’s Tiburon and Attack Pants, a hunter’s top picks for stalking.
The wind must be perfect. You will never fool a deer’s nose.
Remaining unseen, being quiet and learning how to play the wind effectively takes practice. Test your skills by stalking smaller bucks and does when an opportunity presents itself, only if it won’t mess up a chance on a target buck. When you get close, practice drawing back on them—it will either expose your flaws or give you the confidence to pull it off when it counts.
“A mature mule deer buck beds with a great deal of care and forethought. Most often I see them bed in the shade, looking downslope on the lee side of some structure such as rimrock, a clump of trees, or a ridge. The wind will often swirl when flowing around this structure—like an eddy that forms behind a boulder in a stream. Consequently, while they are looking forward, they can smell everything behind them, leaving no quadrant unguarded. The good news is that once a buck has bedded for the day and has committed to a general bedding area, he will rarely move far until evening. Be patient and wait for the wind to shift or for the thermals to start moving uphill before attempting your stalk.”, commented Ulmer.
Nothing will draw deer out into the open to feed like a cool, overcast, light rain kind-of-day. If you’re noticing seasonal afternoon thundershowers in the forecast, grab your Rain Gear and get out there. After a rainstorm, deer will gravitate into more open areas to feed on water-soaked vegetation while the sun is behind clouds. When cool overcast weather presents itself, plan on hunting all day.
Pay attention to the moon phases. There are numerous online resources and phone apps that highlight the ideal days to be in the field, but don’t let a less-than-ideal day stop you from hunting. Animals indeed change their patterns according to the moon but it’s not like they disappear entirely, they’re still there. During a full moon, you’ll often find deer that fed under the moonlight the night before out of their beds feeding in the middle of the day.
In areas with free-range livestock, keep an eye on what they’re doing, as it may give a nod to what the deer are doing. If all the cows are bedded up in the shade, you can assume the deer will be too.
For years, western hunters have found success using whitetail deer tactics, especially during the rut. Like their eastern counterparts, the time of year a mule deer ruts depends on their location. Mule deer aren’t known to be as aggressive as a whitetail, but they are indeed curious. Using a mule deer call or rattling antlers under the right circumstances during the right time of year may draw in an interested buck.
If spot-and-stalk hunting isn’t for you and you’d rather play the sit-and-wait game, treestand or ground blinds may be set up on a food or water source, or in a pinch-point where the deer are naturally funneling through.
One of the best ways to become a mule deer expert is to spend as much time in the field with them as possible. Some of the best states for mule deer have hunting seasons that only last a few weeks, which even after a lifetime of hunting isn’t nearly enough time to become an expert. Extend your deer season by scouting before and after the hunt. The more time you spend glassing and watching deer, the more familiar you’ll become with their habits and tendencies.
Trail cams or game cameras are an excellent hobby and tool to observe mule deer habits. If trail cameras are legal in the state you’re hunting, is a great way to extend your season.
If you’re a real mule deer fanatic, you’ll likely get as fired-up over shed hunting season as you will for the actual hunt. Shed hunting will not only challenge your physical ability it will sharpen your glassing and tracking skills.
Moreover, educate yourself on the deer living in the hunting unit or zone you’re targeting. Whether they live in the mountains, desert, plains or farmland—all deer need to survive is food, water, and shelter. Apply the best tips-and-tricks specific to the area you’re hunting, and you’ll increase your odds.
Turning up a mature mule deer buck on public land may be one of the toughest hunts out there. This is AJ's early-season high-country mule deer gear list.
AJ Kissel from Oostburg, WI gives his perspective on archery hunting mule deer and how he's been pulling off some phenomenal success as a hunter that's not living in a mule deer state.
It's argued there's nothing tougher to hunt than a mature mule deer buck - especially on public land. It takes being in the right place, at the right time, with the right gear.