Mule Deer Dreams

News & Tips: Mule Deer Dreams
The author bagged a mule deer with a new-model Winchester Model 70 rifle. The shot was made at very close range thanks to scouting and successful stalking.

For many hunters, pursuing and killing a wide-antlered mule deer is about as thrilling as hunting gets in the Wild West. Classic prints of mule deer stopping and staring back at surprised hunters have captured the imagination, attention and interest of hunters through the decades and have made mule deer a much sought-after species. But before you pack up and head west, you'll need to understand that things are changing, and you'll need to change also if you want to fill your deer tag. A successful mule deer hunt is the dream of many hunters.  


To be successful, you'll need to observe the basic "dos and don'ts" of mule deer hunting. The deer are there, and when you have a tag in your pocket, it's time to hunt.  Pursue your dreams, now.  


Some Important Dos  

To increase your odds for filling a coveted muley tag, do hunt from sun up until sundown. When you've traveled many miles and invested many dollars, you'll need to work to secure a return on your investment. And mule deer are not like whitetails. They often move at hours other than sunrise and sunset. You'll need to be afield and hunting — and searching for deer -- during all possible hours. Forget that midday nap at camp until you've notched your deer tag.


And if you're not spotting bucks and groups of does milling about, do go on a hike across ridges and down coulees and see what you bump into. Just be ready for the sudden appearance of a big buck that's equally as surprised to see you.


And while you're out, do search into the shadows for hidden deer. Among sage brush and under small trees are the places that mule deer seek refuge from the heat of the sun — and safety from predators. I saw deer in Wyoming that dug small pits or beds under brush and dove into those to hide from mountain lions and hunters. Those deer held tight until a hunter was spotted below, and then they bolted before anyone came within rifle range. Other Colorado bucks I recently spotted on a hunting trip hunkered into the shadows of sage brush and held tight until our party of hunters moved very near. You'll need quality optics to defuse the harsh contrast between bright sunlight and dark shadows. And do look for odd bare twigs among green, vibrant sage brush limb tips. It could be the tines of a bedded buck.  


Next, do know your rifle, the rounds you're shooting, and the performance of the combination at various ranges. Dick Dodds, owner of the popular Elkhorn Outfitters near Craig, Colorado, relayed that most hunters miss because they are shooting at distances far beyond those encountered at the standard 100-yard rifle range. And he indicated that new loads, bullets and the design dynamics have made popular hunting calibers like the .30-06 fly much flatter than they used to. And in most cases hunters held high and shot over the deer that they were attempting to down. For example, according to Winchester Ammunition, a 180-grain Supreme Fail Safe bullet fired from a rifle that's zeroed for 200 yards only drops about 8 inches at 300 yards. If you're holding a foot over a deer's back that's around 300 yards away and you shoot a rifle that's zeroed for 200 yards with that round, chances are your bullet will fly high and over and the unharmed deer will flee. Do know the ballistics, and do study and understand them. Most boxes of Winchester Ammunition now have the data printed on the end of the box, including the new lead free E-tip ammo that uses a Nosler bullet. Nosler's E-Tip bullet also features a precisely formed boat-tail that serves to reduce drag and provides a more efficient flight profile for long range use. And this bullet can be used in areas that ban lead bullets.


Rely on bi-pods and shooting sticks, and practice with them before your hunt begins.

And before you tug the trigger, do get ready and steady to make the shot. There are few trees in much of mule deer land, and fence posts are often not nearby when you need one. Remember that minor shooting mistakes, including slightly moving the rifle, are greatly expanded as the distance to the target grows. So do rely on bi-pods and shooting sticks, and practice with them before your hunt begins. In most cases you'll have plenty of time to extend the legs and settle onto any shooting aid before a mule deer flees. It's accurate and well-placed shots that eliminate difficult tracking chores, or worse.  


And should you spot a mule deer buck of interest that's too far away, do move closer for a better look and possible shot opportunity. While open sage brush country often looks flat to many hunters, it's a land with rolling hills and washed out gullies. Smart hunters use the terrain to their advantage to move in close. And before you take that first step after a deer, do study the vegetation for wind direction indications along your planned route and near the place where you finally intend to be before shooting or glassing. By using terrain and studying the wind, I recently stalked within 62 and 69 yards on some great western Colorado bucks after moving from more than a mile away. I discovered the bucks bedded among the sage brush. In the end I decided to pass on both bucks in favor of at least a 5x5 that I later bagged with a Winchester Model 70 rifle.


Some Important Don'ts  

While there are many things you can do to help ensure success and place venison in your freezer, there are a few "don'ts" to avoid too. These are the indicators that mule deer key on and let them know you have visions of them lying in a frying pan racing through your mind.  The first and most important is do not silhouette yourself on the skyline. It seems that nearly every critter in the West watches the horizon.  And much like the scene in a great classic western movie revealed, someone coming over the crest of a ridge and silhouetted against the sun or sky was often up to no good. That could have been a lesson directly from a mule deer play book.


Rangefinders are must have for successfully hunting the open terrain of the West.

Next, do not walk toward or attempt to chase a mule deer. Most animals know something moving directly at them indicates danger, and fleeing animals that look behind to see you sprinting after them run faster and further. Use the terrain to move around and ahead. And if you quickly duck out of sight, most animals will pause and wonder where you went.


As a dull brown beast, mule deer are masters at hiding. Don't short your ability to find or spot these deer by buying cheap optics. You'll spend hours glassing and studying deer, and more hours looking for them. Next to dehydration, eye strain is the reason hunters get headaches and quit hunting. Buy a binocular that permits tripod mounting and use this for glassing. You can see much better with both eyes open than you can when squinting and looking through a spotting scope.  


And do not guess distances. Even surveyors normally come up short on estimating western terrain. The wide open spaces and taller mountains are harder to judge. Buy and use a rangefinder. Have it around your neck and stuffed into the top of your shirt or coat at all times. And when you spot a deer, determine the range first. If you need to move to shoot, also determine the range to the site where you'll move, and then subtract to find the distance to the deer after you move. Then you're ready to settle down and shoot instead of ranging again when you reach that point.  


And never think that mule deer are whitetails. Mule deer are masters at hiding and surviving in wide open spaces. Their more compact body makes them harder to find, and more difficult to down and tag. But the allure of mule deer is what keeps many hunters dreaming of future hunts. Don't delay, and do pursue your mule deer hunting dreams.