Written by Muley Freak contributor Colton Heward
Hunting mule deer in the high country between mid-September and the end of October will test anyone’s resolve as a deer hunter. After shedding their velvet, mature bucks exercise the uncanny ability to slip through the cracks past hordes of hunters pursuing them each fall. It is during this time the vast majority of deer seasons take place across the west.
Many of the tactics used to find success during the early season will carry over to hunting during this time. However, understanding mule deer and being able to adapt your hunting tactics with the changing of the seasons will undoubtedly increase your odds of success.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind next time you find yourself pursuing the gray ghosts of the high country during this tough time frame.
As the leaves change each September, so do the patterns of mature muley bucks. Generally speaking, bucks will stay in bachelor groups through mid to late October in the same approximate areas they spent their summer. However, after shedding their delicate velvet, buck sightings seem to become fewer and far between. Barring no substantial change in the weather, stick with the areas you know bucks to be, and patiently wait for them to make a mistake.
Weather is a Factor
Weather can and will play a substantial role in the tactics you use to find success during this time period. Use cold snaps to your advantage. Cold temps will keep deer on their feet during the day feeding and preparing for the looming winter. The later in October, the more likely we are to experience heavy snow. Due to dietary necessity, deer will vacate the high country and head for staging areas before heading for the winter range.
Mule deer are creatures of habit. They will use the same migration corridors year after year as they transition from the high country to their winter range. Obtaining this information is invaluable to have as a deer hunter.
Without local knowledge of the area, this can be difficult information to acquire. Often times this knowledge will take years to gather and understand, but here are a few ideas to help you fast-track pinpointing these travel corridors.
First, follow the snow line and don’t be afraid to cover the country. As the deer begin to move, they often congregate in specific areas, often referred to as staging areas. If you can locate these areas, you can almost backtrack their trail from the high country along ridgelines or through the bottom of canyons. Also, use the snow to your advantage. Often times the snow will give away the massive beat down trails that the deer have used to vacate the high country.
Once you have pinpointed a travel corridor, you will see new deer each day as they begin their trek from the high country basins to the scattered sagebrush flats of the winter range. This is one of the most exciting times to be in the deer woods with a rifle slung over your shoulder as you never know what could stroll thru next!
Look in the Unexpected
With most deer seasons taking place across the west during this time period, it goes without saying that there will be pressure from other hunters. In some cases, hunters will see far more fellow hunters than deer during their hunt.
Pressure from people surely alters a bucks daily routine. Often times, forcing these cagey old bucks to become almost completely nocturnal or seek cover in the deepest darkest canyons and pockets that they can find. Do not be afraid to expand your search to what you would not normally consider “deer country”. These less appealing areas are often exactly the places that big mature bucks seek refuge during this small window of hunting season each fall.
As late October approaches, it will not be uncommon to see some pre-rut activity. Use this to your advantage. Bucks will begin to break off and cruise all day long checking for the first sign of a doe coming into heat. Use your time wisely during the middle of the day to cover country and look at as many groups of does as you can find. Many a big buck has met his demise during this time by letting his guard down in pursuit of a hot doe.
Tips in Action
This past fall found me in an unfamiliar area, and a deer tag in my pocket. My scouting began early, mainly familiarizing myself with the area, since the season did not open until October 10th. Opening weekend found us several miles from the trailhead deep in the backcountry. We found deer each day and I missed an opportunity at a mature buck.
Due to my schedule, I was unable to return until the last 5 days of the season, which happened to be the last 5 days of October. A massive cold front had just rolled thru and left a couple of feet in the high country. We again made the trek in to see if there were still any deer up high, only to find basin after basin void of any recent deer activity. It was time to go back to the drawing boards.
We begin covering as much country as possible. We had no problem finding deer, but mature bucks seemed almost non-existent. The amount of hunting pressure from other deer and elk hunters in the area was also not helping the situation. After 3 days of hard hunting, we decided to up and move to a completely different portion of the unit. This was very non-traditional type deer country, but we instantly begin to see deer and even a few groups of does with small bucks acting “rutty”. We knew where we would be sun-up the following morning.
After 3 days of defeat, something felt different the next morning as we hiked into the area that we had located the day prior. Shortly after sunrise, we begin to see deer but nothing that perked our interest. We pressed on a little further and sat down to glass for a while and catch our breath. It didn’t take long before I layed eyes on “the one”. The type of buck that we had all but given up hope of finding on this hunt was 1500 yards up canyon from us on a thick mahogany choked face rutting a group of 8-10 does. As we formulated a game plan to close the distance, the buck bedded down. It was time to make our move.
We quickly and quietly cut the distance between us and the unsuspecting buck, setting up directly across the canyon from him. An hour or so later the buck stood up for a mid-day stretch and I was ready. The crack of the rifle broke the tense silence as we watched the bullet find its mark – dropping the buck in his tracks. I stayed sprawled out on the frigid ground soaking in the events that had just transpired. I had just taken the biggest mule deer of my life and to say I was excited just might be the understatement of the year!
Had we not been willing to adapt our strategy with the changing of the seasons I would have never had the opportunity to hang my tag on this incredible buck. Becoming a better hunter is a constant work in process. Part of this process is learning to adapt your hunting strategies to the time of year and location that you are hunting. As we work to fine-tune and hone our craft, we will reap the benefits of our labors and taste of the success that we seek so diligently each year.