I am blessed to know many of the finest mule deer hunters in the country. Some of them you have heard of, like Brian Barney and Guy Eastman. Then there are some that you haven’t and probably never will because trophy mule deer hunters are often a secretive group who don’t want their names drawing attention. Which brings me to what I consider the best perk of my job, it is learning about how these consistent killers have grown over the years and regularly put big bucks on the ground. This article is all about the tactics that I or some of the best I have ever met employed to kill mature, grey faced, strong scoring mule deer almost every single season.
Tactic 1- Live With The Deer!
Every good mule deer hunter does their best to live with the deer. They scout in the summer, they hunt them in the fall and they go to winter range to find out which grey faced brutes lived through the deadly game of high country hide and seek. Finally, they spend the spring watching the transitional ranges to learn their travel routes to help find bucks when the snow gets deep and it’s time to leave the high basins.
When time is limited or geographic distance makes regular observation impossible, summer scouting needs to take priority. Two of my biggest high country mule deer were scouted ahead of time. I knew those bucks were living in the basins I killed them in and they were not killed by accident. In 2018 I spent more time scouting than I did hunting because I killed my buck the second day of the season.
Regularly spending time observing and learning the patterns and behaviors of big mule deer will lead to more trophies taken. This tactic is what separates the average hunter from the guys who take the upper echelon of mule deer regularly.
Tactic 2 – Practical Access
In my mid twenties I thought that backpacking in was the best and most efficient way to hunt mule deer. In my mid-thirties I now see that I was terribly wrong and that the best way to access the remote country that big mule deer live in is to use the means that is the most efficient for you personally.
For the past two years I have had the pleasure of using llamas during mule deer season and they have made it possible for me to easily take along a more comfortable camp: bigger shelter with a packable wood stove, extra food, things that would never make an ounce-counting backpacker’s list. They also make it easier to relocate camp if needed. In one of our most recent episodes of Beyond The Grid TV Ike Eastman and I documented what it was like to have these beasts of burden. If you are planning a backcountry mule deer hunt I highly recommend you consider renting llamas. But…they aren’t the only backcountry option.
While it was far from my first time, 2018 was also a reminder of how nice having horses can be in the backcountry. In the right locations horses can make accessing remote mule deer country much more pleasant. Horses need significantly more water than a llama and that can impact camp locations. However, when it comes to moving fast it is hard to beat the advantage that having a horse or two provides. With the size of deer it also makes the idea of solo hunting with horses attractive, one for riding and one for packing. A shrewd mule deer hunter who employs horses will figure out great camp locations close to water that allow him to access the best mule deer country all with even more creature comforts and the lowest possible burden on the back and feet.
The one downside to any form of stock is the possibility of a blow up. Animals have a mind of their own and it isn’t a matter of if, but a matter of when a rodeo will happen.
Tactic 3 – Stick It Out For The Whole Season
One of my favorite days of the year is September 15th but it also happens to be a date that is notorious in western Wyoming for producing terrible storms. I can think of two opening days in the last eight when I didn’t get rained or snowed on. One stormy opener in particular kept me pinned down but I was able to find two very big bucks and eventually take one of them. Those moments of boredom were tough but they paid off in the long game.
I tell this story because sticking it out in the backcountry in miserable conditions for as long as it is safe is a key for setting up the long game that will make you a better mule deer hunter. I can’t count the number of times I have arrived at a trailhead on opening weekend and was discouraged by the number of vehicles parked there. Then the weather hit and the competition was nowhere to be found. A mule deer hunter’s ability to ride out rain, sleet and wind will often be what dictates whether or not a big deer goes home with him.
Which brings me to tactic 3A, buy the best gear you can afford. Good gear flat performs which helps you stay comfortable for as long as possible and in turn helps you to be successful. Sure, that old plaid shirt may have worked for your Dad but I can say that my Sitka mid layers are light years ahead of those plaid shirts and as such make me much more comfortable. High quality glass keeps your eyes comfortable and the dreaded high country headache won’t happen. Bottom line, feel good = hunt good.
Sidebar image: This buck was living less than 300 yards from one of the two solid bucks that I managed to locate in 2017. In 2018 Ike and I located good bucks in some of the same chutes that I had found the other shooter buck from the fall before.
Tactic 4 – Play The Game
If you have the mule deer bug then playing the points game across multiple states is the only cure. As a Wyoming native I have the opportunity to hunt great mule deer areas all while building points in other states. As long as Wyoming offers a quality over the counter hunt I will be there and with a bit of planning I will be able to hunt another state at least every other year. Have a solid plan in place that keeps you hunting deer every year in states like Colorado, Montana, or Idaho and every few years in places like Wyoming all while building points for those dream states like Arizona and Utah.
This is where it is so important to have solid research tools with years of experience in the hunting world. The Member’s Research Section has been my go to hunt planning resource and now with the option of Eatmans’ TagHub for accessing all of the data from the MRS in one digital location my strategies will get even better. Trophy mule deer are rarely killed by accident and research and hunt planning make it possible to do it consistently.
Tactic 5 – Patience Kills The Buck
In my early years I never found big deer, heck I never found big game animals. Because I thought hunting meant hiking my tail off every morning, walking through the country hoping that God would magically throw a big buck or bull my way. I now know that the most efficient way to cover country is to plant your butt firmly on the ground and glass from a high vantage point.
At first this is not fun and resisting the temptation to “move over there” is difficult. It takes discipline to sit and glass, waiting for things unfold so you can make your move. On my best buck I sat for eight hours waiting and patiently watching for him to come within range. The best part though, is the more you plant yourself and glass the better you get at it. For even more on this tactic make sure you have subscribed to our YouTube channel, we have multiple videos covering a variety of glassing techniques that will make long sits more efficient.
Spend time on the mountain, be patient and play the game if you want to kill big mule deer! I hope these five tactics have brought some things to light for you. Now is the time to start creating your big buck game plan for next season. See you in the field and I hope you are part of the successful crew next fall sending us trophy shots.