Article written by Muley Freak contributor Colton Heward
The pursuit of mature bucks in the thin air of the high country out west is considered by many to be the pinnacle of mule deer hunting. With every passing year, more hunters yearning for extreme adventure, and dreaming of big muley bucks, flood to the rugged high country basins of the Rocky Mountains.
For many hunters, an early season high country mule deer hunt marks the beginning of a fresh season. With one or two exceptions early season mule deer hunts are typically archery hunts beginning mid-August and running thru September.
It is no secret that proper preparation before a hunt will increase your odds of being successful. This cannot be stressed enough when hunting early season muleys. Mule deer during this time are extremely patternable and much more visible than later in the fall after they strip velvet and temperatures drop.
Here are expert tips and tactics to up the odds of punching your next early season tag on the high country buck of your dreams!
We live in an incredible age where scouting landscapes can happen from home. Pre-season scouting can begin early in the year by scouring your unit on Google Earth, BaseMaps, or other mapping software. When doing this, look for basins or canyons that offer deer the essentials they need to survive – food, water, and shelter. Chances are, if you find a basin with these three elements, you find deer. Also, look for areas off the beaten path that others may overlook or not be willing to put forth the effort to get to. Mature bucks seek solitude in these rugged hidden basins.
Pre-Season Boots on the Ground
Once you have pin pointed an area that looks promising for holding deer, it is time to put boots on the ground. At the very least, plan one or two trips into your unit before the season opens. This will either confirm or foil your e-scouting efforts. It will also give you an understanding of topography and what to expect physically going into the hunt.
Once you locate an area with bucks in it, do your best to scout from a distance. If left undisturbed, the bucks you find in mid to late July will be in the same area come late August thru early September. Take time to find a centrally located camping spot, and locate the best glassing points for the area you will be hunting.
If unable to physically scout your unit during the summer months, plan to arrive a few days before your hunt opens. Use this time wisely and cover as much country as possible to locate bucks. Once bucks are located, patiently watch them throughout the entire day. Pay close attention to when and where they feed, where they bed, and where they go to water.
The importance of pre-season scouting, especially when hunting early season mule deer, cannot be stressed enough! The knowledge you will gain will be invaluable come opening morning.
Glassing and More Glassing
Patience while glassing is key no matter what time of year you are hunting mule deer. Chances are, it will be warm during early season hunts. Warm temps often mean smaller windows in the morning and evening to find deer on their feet. Take full advantage of these short windows of movement to locate bucks. Avoid the urge to move during these times, and force yourself to sit and thoroughly glass the country in front of you. You will see far more deer patiently glassing than tromping thru feeding and bedding areas hoping to stumble upon a mature buck.
When deer bed down for the day, change where you are looking, and glass for bedded deer. Focus your glassing efforts on the shady side of cover and draws. This is where mature bucks will spend their time during the heat of the day.
Patience Kills Big Bucks
Once a shooter buck is located, live by the motto “patience kills big bucks”.
Unless the buck is making his way towards water, or a bedding area you are confident you can ambush him from, be patient and wait for him to bed before making your move. Due to the heat experienced on early season hunts, deer tend to stay bedded longer this time of year. Once the buck beds, do not rush into a stalk. Intently study the bucks body language, and wait for him to relax. A relaxed buck will often place his head on the ground or close his eyes while bedded. This is when you make your move.
Understanding thermals in the high country, and using them to your advantage, can make or break your hunt. Thermals draft down with the cool morning and evening temps, and rise with the warming sun. Be patient, and wait until mid-morning to begin your stalk. Doing so allows the thermals time to stabilize and decreases the likelihood of a swirling wind destroying your stalk.
With the buck bedded in a comfortable position, and the thermals stabilized for the day, it’s time to close the distance. During your stalk, remember “patience kills big bucks”. Be slow and deliberate with your movements and keep some sort of cover between you and the buck at all times. When archery hunting, kick your boots off the last hundred yards or so of your approach. Doing so will drastically reduce the amount of noise you make when closing those last few critical yards to get within striking distance.
High versus Low Percentage Opportunity
When formulating a stalk, always assess the likelihood of having an opportunity to harvest the buck you are stalking. If your target buck is bedded and relaxed, the thermals have stabilized, and it appears you will have enough cover to keep yourself hidden during your approach, get going, this is a high percentage stalk opportunity. If the buck is comfortable in his bed, but the winds are swirly, and the cover above him is sparse, be patient and resist the urge to force this low percentage stalk.
There are other variables to consider before attempting a stalk. How many other deer are with my target buck? What direction is the bedded buck facing? When the buck stands up, will he be in a position to offer you a shot? Before beginning your stalk, take a few extra minutes to sit down and sift thru as many variables as you can think of. There are so many variables that are completely out of our control during a stalk, that we must do everything that we can to master the variables that are within our control.
Being patient, and waiting for a high percentage stalk opportunity is critical to early season success. Every once in a while a low percentage stalk will work out. But, more often than not, you will be left in a muddled state of frustration.
When given time, your target buck will make a mistake, and put himself in a killable position. Remember, “patience kills big bucks”.
The Grind = Success
Hunting high country mule deer is not an endeavor to be taken lightly. It requires hours upon hours of preparation, excruciating physical and mental strength, extreme patience, and still, a little bit of luck. Those willing to put their nose to the grindstone will find success chasing the big mature muley bucks that call high country home.
Although there is no one perfect formula to success when hunting mule deer, implementing a few of these tips and tactics this fall just may tip the odds of hanging your tag on a high country monarch!