Don’t watch the girls! And 11 more of the most common muley hunting blunders we make.
By Gary Lewis
We are poor predators at best. Mule deer are far better at survival than we are at turning them into steaks and burger.
Sometimes it is good to remember what NOT to do. Over the years, I have made many mistakes on big bucks.
Perhaps you, like me, are prone to learn things the hard way. Try to learn from the mistakes of others. Here are some of the classic blunders from mule deer country.
Mistake No. 12: Park in your regular spot. Creatures of habit, that’s what we are. Every time we hunt, we park in the same places and we hunt the same spots the same way the last guy did.
Once I was driving in good habitat and stopped the Jeep to make an evening hunt. A light rain had begun and I moved up the hill through the timber. After a few minutes, I found a deer bed. All around it the ground was wet, but the bed still showed a dry oval spot. I stood in the deer bed and then crouched down to get a look at what the deer could see. There it was. My Jeep! As soon as I parked the vehicle, the buck had stood up, stretched, then walked over the ridge and out of sight. Lesson learned.
Mistake No. 11: Hunt one animal. Perhaps you saw him last year. Maybe it was a buck whose shed you found last spring. Maybe you have a picture taken on a trail cam. Maybe someone told you about Mr. Big.
He might still be in the area and he might not. There are times when it pays to focus on just one buck, but in most cases, the hunter is better off to look for a buck that meets pre-established criteria. Remember the old guide’s admonition, “Never pass on the first day what you would be happy with on the last.”
Mistake No. 10: Come in out of the rain. Bad weather can ruin a hunt or be the catalyst that brings bucks out in the open. Be prepared for anything the weather can throw at a hunter then stay out there, even if it means a quick run back to camp for a change of clothes.
A snowstorm in October, or a gully-washing shower can get deer up and moving. And when they move, they feed and when they feed, they are easy to see.
Mistake No. 9: Talk out loud. A buck that has lived through five hunting seasons has a pretty good idea what it means when headlights stab through the dark. And you can bet he knows what it means when the car door slams.
Voices carry. Once I was cleaning a trophy buck I shot in heavy cover and heard two hunters walk by, talking about their girlfriends. I learned way too much, but what really impressed me was they walked by some of the best big buck habitat without knowing it. The deer knew they were there and that hunters would not go into heavy cover.
Mistake No. 8: Wimp out on range time. A lot of hunters don’t practice before the season. Many practice wrong. Tune up by dry-firing (it won’t damage a centerfire rifle) and under field conditions, offhand, kneeling, sitting and prone. With regular practice, range estimation, breath control, trigger squeeze and follow-through become a part of the routine that builds the confidence to make the shot when it counts.
Mistake No. 7: Hunt without map and compass. If you are looking for adventure, you can find it without a map and compass. Leave your navigation tools in the truck and you may not find your way out till the next day, or the next. It makes a great story, but other people enjoy telling it more than you do.
It is easy to get lost in familiar territory. Believe me, I know. Once, I boasted I had been hunting this wilderness ridge enough I wouldn’t get lost. In less than two hours, I was turned around and befuddled and spent the next six hours hiking out the wrong way to a road.
Mistake No. 6: Hunt too hard. Opening day is hardest. We want to see it all, to look into every canyon. The deer see us more than we see them. Instead, hunt S-L-O-W or watch from a stand and let other hunters – fresh from the city and the hustle of the workaday world – push the deer to you.
Mistake No. 5: Give it a quick once-over. Once a friend of mine called me everyday during the season to ask where we were seeing bucks. Each day I sent him to a new spot. When the season was over, he complained I was holding back. “Did you bring a spotting scope with you?” I asked. “Yes, I had it packed in the truck in case I needed it,” was his reply.
I had seen a buck at every place I sent him and when he got there he gave the landscape a quick scan with binos and didn’t see what he was looking for. “Just a few does.” Every buck I told him about I had seen through the spotting scope.
Hunters blow it when they put their optics in their packs. A better way is to wear a shoulder harness that holds the binoculars to the chest, ready to put into action. Carry the spotting scope in a pack. Sit down on a knob and glass cross-canyon and plan to stay there all day until the deer show.
Mistake No. 4: Walk the skyline. Mule deer have an acute awareness of their surroundings. When something moves in their domain, they know it. To cross a ridge, use a tree or a terrain feature to break up your outline.
On a muzzleloader hunt, a friend of mine watched his brother skyline himself on a ridge while just below, a monster mule deer went into crisis management mode. “The buck got down onto his belly,” he told me later, “and crawled out of sight like a snake.”
A deer’s eye is trained to catch movement. Just as bad as it is to walk the skyline, is to cross a meadow. Use a ditch or a fold in the ground to hide movement. Even better, keep to the tree line and use cover for concealment.
Mistake No. 3: Watch the girls. Big bucks often use young bucks and does as decoys. Spook the herd and they split. The big buck goes one way, while the rest of the deer go another. It is easy to watch the does pogo-stick through the sage or manzanita, but you miss the buck, hiding his antlers in a patch of juniper or low-crawling on his belly through the bitterbrush.
Big bucks hook smaller bucks with the tips of their antlers to get them to go first through narrow canyons, over fences and out into the open to draw a hunter’s attention. Often the small buck goes home in a hunter’s truck while the big buck sneaks away with its head down or, just as often, stays in one place and waits for danger to pass.
Mistake No. 2: Ignore the wind. A buck may not bolt at the sound of a car door or a human voice. It may not startle at a branch broken beneath a boot. It may not process the sound of a round being chambered, but it never second-guesses its nose. A mule deer’s nose is at least a thousand times more powerful than ours.
Wind blows like currents in a river and when gusts are contradictory, tendrils of breeze swirl. These vagaries of vapor are best divined by multiple puffs from a bottle of unscented wind-checking powder or soap bubbles. One fellow used half a bottle of scented Johnson’s Baby Powder. Every time he checked the wind, I thought someone was changing a diaper.
Mistake No. 1: Rush the stalk. The ideal is to spot a feeding buck and watch it bed as the sun comes up. When the deer is down and chewing its cud, that’s the time to make the move. But there’s no need to hurry. Chances are, that buck will be bedded in one place till the sun is high overhead in which case, it will stand up, feed a little bit and lay down in another patch of shade.
A lot of hunters blow it when they move too fast and spook non-target animals. Once the animal is bedded, glass the surroundings and make sure there aren’t any other deer that might blow the stalk. Pick your path, the approach and a landmark from which a shot might be made. Check the wind and go slow. Don’t take a break to check on the deer, just keep going, landmark to landmark. Get set up within your effective range, rest the gun and settle in behind the scope. When the buck stands, that’s your moment.
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