1. Get in hunting shape
If you plan on braving the backcountry after mule deer this year know that the biggest and baddest bucks are likely going to be in the most difficult portion of country you plan on hunting. Plan accordingly. Simply hiking into the backcountry to set up your basecamp can be a grueling task in itself. Then, imagine you've been hunting hard for 3 days and your legs feel like jello, and you spot the buck of your dreams two ridges away. In this scenario you have to be in shape enough to sprint into shooting position before the buck disappears or the sun sets over the horizon. Then lets say you kill the said buck. A pack with meat and gear can easily weigh up to 100 lbs. You have to be ready and willing to either make multiple meat packing trips or one really heavy one to get your buck back to camp.
A few key elements to physically preparing for the backcountry are nutrition, exercise, and practice. Start eating healthy. Be aware of how much food and what kind of food you put in your body. This will help you drop weight, start feeling healthy, and ultimately help you get in backcountry shape. The 1st Phorm app is a great tool to help you track your food intake and start building healthy habits.
You need a healthy heart, healthy lungs, strong legs, a strong back, and a strong core to endure the rigors of the backcountry. From hiking all day, to sprinting after a buck, to breaking down a deer, and ultimately packing that buck back home - you have to be physically ready. Running, hiking, biking, and a myriad of leg, core, and back workouts can help you prepare. Google workouts to strengthen these muscles or use the 1st Phorm app - it will tailor workouts to help you strengthen the said areas as well.
The last key element to physically preparing for the backcountry is practice. Being in the remote backcountry can be extremely physically and mentally uncomfortable, so taking a couple of practice trips before hunting season can help you prepare. Not only will it be great exercise but you can scout areas to grab water, find a flat spot for camp, find potential glassing knobs, and locate areas that you think might hold animals.
2. Understand mule deer behavior
Understanding mule deer behavior can help you determine how and where to look for bucks during the season your tag is good for.
Early-season hunting: If you draw a tag where you can hunt in August or early September, you need to know that bucks will move early in the morning, right before dark, and in the middle of the day when they are moving beds or grabbing water. So locating water, buck beds, and getting behind the glass during times when the deer are moving will be crucial. Pre-season scouting is important to knowing and understanding this information.
Mid-season hunting: If your tag is good from the middle of September through October know that finding bucks on their feet can be difficult, but not impossible. Weather is very sporadic during this period of time in the backcountry making knowing what bucks will do difficult. If snow hits early, bucks could slowly be traveling to their winter/breeding grounds. If it's still hot during this time, bucks will likely still be where they lived during the summer time. Once bucks shed their velvet they live up to their nickname, the "Grey Ghost". They like to stay hidden in the dark timber as much as possible and don't feed out in the open like they did during the summer months. Glassing the outer edges of thick timber pockets, staying on your glass all day, and being flexible to how the weather is playing out is your best chance to finding mid-season bucks.
Late-season hunting: The later in October you get and heading into November, a great practice to finding some bucks is to locate does, or female mule deer. The mule deer breeding season starts to hit in late October depending on weather and the area, and goes through the frigid days of November. As does start to come into season, bucks become interested and start trailing hot does. The trick during this time of year is sifting through young juvenile bucks in hopes that a big buck makes a mistake. Another good practice during this time is locating flat spots within the backcountry where deer are more likely to breed. Lastly, if snow is piling up in the high country, know that the deer will be pushing down to lower country.
Watch Muley Freak's very own, Tyler Okamura, brave the backcountry on a frigid November mule deer hunt:
3. Get the right gear
I will preface this section by giving some generic thoughts and then providing a general backcountry mule deer hunt gear check list. Just remember, when hunting the backcountry you must be prepared for emergencies. Getting lost, breaking a bone, dehydration, rattlesnake bites, and cutting yourself are all real realities in the backcountry. And remember, if something happens, and you have the right gear to contact someone, help can be hours away. So be prepared. You will also often be carrying gear for 4-7 days, so the lighter the gear, the better.
Here is a general backcountry mule deer hunt gear checklist to keep in mind:
- Tent lights
- Headlamp with extra batteries
- Sleeping bag/quilt
- Sleeping pad
- Water filter with extra water bags
- Nalgene bottle
- Trekking poles
- Fire starter
- JetBoil stove
- Knife sharpener
- Extra blades
- Rubber gloves
- Game bags
- Electric tape
- Game Changer Bino Harness
- Spotting scope
- Power bank
- Charging cords
- InReach or some other satellite device
- Download maps before hand on your phone on HuntStand, BaseMap, or onX
- Advil PM
- Wet wipes
- Mini Toothbrush
- Extra contacts
- Israeli bandage
- KT tape
- Blister tape
- Bleed stopper powder
- Extra socks
- Extra underwear
- Merino base layers
- Mid Layers
- Rain gear
Rifle Hunting Gear:
- Rifle with scope
- Muley Freak rifle cover
- Rifle sling
Bow Hunting Gear:
- Bow with full quiver
- Bow cover
- Extra broad heads
- Allen wrench
4. Patience, persistence, and perseverance
Hunting mule deer is not an easy task. They are not an 800 lbs animal that bugles telling you exactly where they are at. They are not a black 1,200 lbs animal like a Shiras Moose that are easy to spot from 3 miles away. They truly are "grey ghosts", and take patience, persistence, and perseverance to locate and kill. Put in the work during the summer looking for bucks and getting into mountain shape. When hunting, skip out on your midday nap and stay behind the glass. Don't give up and go home when you haven't seen a deer in a day and a half. If anything, move canyons, get eyes on new country, and continue to grind. It's often that success comes after you've put in all the effort you can muster.
The best advice I can give to a new backcountry mule deer hunter would be to enjoy the journey. Don't focus so much on the end goal of shooting an animal that you don't learn, grow, and enjoy the whole process. As you come to enjoy the journey of learning about these amazing animals and the country they inhabit, you will find that you start to get a knack for what mule deer do, where they live, and the best way to fill your tag.
Good luck on your next hunt and let us know how it goes!
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