Written by Muley Freak contributor Colton Heward
One of the many fascinations with mule deer is their ability to adapt and thrive in a wide variety of landscapes and ecosystems. This ability to live in remote timber canyons, serene high country basins, mid elevation brush lands, and hot deserts of the south and southwest is nearly unmatched in the animal kingdom. For many mule deer hunters, the desert is the pinnacle of hunting mule deer in a unique setting. The challenges are different, hunting pressure is different, and it is vast and beautiful in ways other landscapes are not.
No matter where you hunt mule deer, there are universal tricks and tactics that will lead to success. These include understanding a bucks habits, scouting efforts, and patience when glassing and stalking to name a few. Proficiency of these universal tactics will positively aid in your hunting endeavors no matter where or what you are pursuing. However, there is undoubtedly tactics we must be willing to adapt depending on the landscape we are hunting.
Often times, you’re not going to see near as many deer in the desert as you would in the high country. Understanding these five desert mule deer tactics will lead to a more successful hunt for first time desert hunters and more experienced desert hunters alike.
Five Desert Mule Deer Tactics
1) Water is Life
Going back to the basics, a deer needs food, shelter, and water. With any amount of cover and feed, a deer can survive most places, but water is the true lifeline of all desert animals. With so few water sources, keying in on water and the surrounding areas will rapidly narrow down your search for areas to hunt. Once you have located water, your best bet will be to throw a trail camera up and see what is using that particular source. When you locate a mature buck on a water source, you will have several options. If you have the patience, you can set up a ground blind and wait for your target to come to water. On the other hand, you can hunt from a distance and know that your target should be somewhere close.
If you have located the only water within miles, you should be golden. However, wary desert bucks are more likely to have a larger core area than a high country buck. If another water source is within a mile or two it will not be uncommon for a buck to bounce back and forth between two or three water sources. If you are only getting trail camera pictures of your target buck every third or fourth day get back to the drawing board and figure out where his other water sources are. Although they may roam more, they too will generally adhere to a strict pattern – you just have to figure out what that pattern is.
2) Reading Tracks
The ability of a hunter to read a track has led to the demise of many big deer over the years, especially in the desert. Tracking is not specific to hunting in the desert, but you will see it used far more often in the desert than any other landscape. Due to the low deer density in the desert, a fresh buck track can bring a heightened level of anticipation.
The ability to track is no doubt something that will take a lot of time and effort to master. Practice by following a track backwards and see where a deer has come from. This often leads to discovering of hidden water sources and bedding areas. You will also learn to think more like a deer by following in their footsteps. When following a mature buck track you will discover that they rarely leave the safety of cover. When they do break out in the open they will be hugging cover as closely as possible. The more you practice tracking, the better understanding you will gain of your quarry and the better desert hunter you will become.
Learning a bucks bedding area is one piece of the puzzle that will consistently lead to success. Bucks will regularly use the same beds day-to-day. Not exactly every day, but sometimes several times a week. Having bedding information can set you up for a successful ambush or just help in being able to locate your target buck on a regular basis. Bedding areas in the desert can be tricky though. Look for shade, often at the base of a rock or cliff, or in the bottom of a gully tucked underneath a big piece of brush. These areas are regularly littered with deer beds. The beds deer are using are ones they know well and have used for years and years.
When hunting mule deer the importance of being patient cannot be stressed enough. The desert will break even the best deer hunters if they do not have the ability to exercise extreme patience. Be willing to sit at the same glassing point for several hours at a time. If you sit in the right area long enough, or for enough days, you’re bound to see a buck. Patience kills big bucks more often than not.
5) Basic Boots on the Ground
All of these tactics come back to having one thing in common – pre-season scouting. If you do your homework ahead of time you will know where they are watering, where they are feeding, and where they are bedding. You will understand their travel paths and what deer are in a specific area. This information is invaluable and will most certainly increase your odds of punching your tag.
Reap and Sow
The desert in all its beauty is not for the faint of heart. Just like everything else in this life, we get out what we put into it. Hunting mule deer in the desert is no different. Those willing to do their homework, brave the elements, and adapt their tactics are greatly rewarded.