As stated in Part 1, in my opinion what sets today’s successful trophy mule deer hunter apart from the rest of the crowd, is the following:
- They spend great amounts of time in the field
- They have proficient glassing skills and techniques
- They have behavioral knowledge of the animal they are hunting
- They have the ability to read mule deer country
- They have the proper equipment
- They are physically fit
- They have true grit
The premise of this eight-part series is to provide you with information that will help you improve yourself in each of these categories in order to give you an edge over other hunters. Part 1 was a short summary of these categories, while Parts 2-8 will delve into the details of each individual subject.
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The more time you spend out in the field, the more you can sway the odds in you favor. This one is relatively straight forward. Think about it, even if you rank poorly in all of the other categories listed above, your odds of taking a good buck are increased simply because you are in the field more often. When I say spend more time in the field, this doesn’t mean just spending more time hunting during the season, it also includes considering multiple weapon options, as well as scouting mule deer throughout the year.
There are many different forms of scouting. Scouting differs from hunting in that you can do it year-round. Spring, summer, fall or winter, it doesn’t matter, you can be scouting in one form or another. Since it is early May, we will focus our discussion on spring and summer scouting.
Spring Mule Deer Scouting
Spring is one of my favorite times to be in the field. Since most deer in the Rocky Mountains migrate between summer and winter ranges, watching the deer as they follow the snow line back up to their summer range, enables you to identify migration corridors deer use. Migration corridors are topographical features that restrict deer to a somewhat narrow passageway during migration. Mountains, canyons, creek drainages and habitat cover are some of the key factors in determining which routes the deer may utilize. This information becomes priceless if your hunting season runs into late October or early November because the deer will utilize the same corridors on the way to the winter range as they did in the spring on the way to their summer range.
During the spring migration, weather is the key factor that determines when mule deer begin their journey every spring towards their summer range. If the area has a harsh winter that carries late into spring, the deer will start their migration later in the year. When spring arrives early, this triggers the deer to begin much sooner. Generally speaking, bucks follow the snow line as it gradually creeps back up the mountains.
Most deer begin migrating in mid-March, but I would suggest waiting until early May before you start looking. By then, deer have reached the mountains and you will be able to identify the migration corridors. Spend your time glassing the south and west facing slopes that have relatively open cover. Hillsides covered with sagebrush openings and patches of aspens are great places to check out. The vegetation on these slopes has started to grow and provides excellent food with all the nutritional requirements that the deer need for antler growth this time of year. The north facing slopes are usually still covered with snow, which makes finding food very difficult.
Bucks seem to start migrating first, followed by the does and fawns. Bucks will typically be in small bachelor groups of between 3-10 bucks. They often look pretty rough this time of year because they normally have burned all of their fat reserves to aid in their survival of the winter. The shedding of their heavy, winter coat this time of year also makes them look rather mangy. Bucks will be up and feeding a large portion of the day and will be very visible on any southern exposures.
While scouting mule deer migration routes in the spring, be sure to identify transition zones. Transitional ranges are areas where the deer hold up for an extended period of time in between winter and summer ranges during their migration. Transition ranges are usually lower in elevation than summer ranges and must contain three important needs for the deer. These are food, cover and water. The length of time in which deer utilize theses ranges varies greatly from year to year and is solely based on the weather. Once you identify these transition zones during the spring migration, check them out during the latter part of the hunting season because deer will use the same transitional zones in the fall as they do in the spring. Many of my bucks have been harvested in transition zones.
Summer Mule Deer Scouting
Summer scouting is one of the most enjoyable aspects of trophy hunting. The weather is nice, you see lots of deer, and very rarely will you see other people.
This time of year, bucks will be found in bachelor groups from the first of June through the end of September, which makes them easier to glass. While they are in their red summer coats, they really stand out when the sun hits them during the early morning and late evening hours. It’s also a lot easier sizing up a buck when he has several buddies by his side. Most bachelor groups of bucks that I see during scouting contain four to five bucks, while I have seen groups as large as seventeen together.
I normally begin scouting the high country around the first part of July. By then, the bucks are pretty much settled into their summer routine and I can feel confident that the bucks I locate will remain in the area. Any earlier in the year and the bucks you locate will still be on the move to their summer range and may be tough to relocate later.
Nowadays, a premium rifle tag can take many years to draw. When it comes to hunting, be an opportunist. Rather than waiting years to draw a rifle tag, be sure to look at other archery and muzzleloader tags that can often be drawn every year. In some states such as Wyoming, you can even hunt with multiple weapons. It’s nice when you can hunt with a bow during archery season and then turn around and pick up your rifle during the rifle season if your archery hunt was unsuccessful.
Years ago, I applied for an easy to draw archery tag in Colorado because I was tired of not drawing a premium rifle tag. After nine days of hunting, hiking 64 miles, and climbing 26,000’ in total elevation, I had my first high country buck with a bow. The buck has a 190 4/8 typical frame and 10 1/8 inches of extras for a total score of 200 5/8 Pope & Young.
Since then, I have harvested several other bucks with my bow. Had I waited years to draw a rifle tag, I would have missed out on a lot of great hunting opportunities. There are some great options out there if you are willing to do a little research.
Do the Tag Justice
Regardless of what tag you have in your pocket, make the most of it. Spend as much time as you can hunting. Even if you are tired and sore near the end of your hunt, fight off the urge to pack up and leave early. You have an entire year to rest up so remain hunting until the last minute of hunting light is gone. There have been many big bucks taken during the last hour of a hunt.
Simply put, the more time you spend in the field - whether that is scouting mule deer or actually hunting - the better your odds of harvesting a great buck.If you want some of the best hunting gear in the market, stop by the SKRE shop today and set yourself up for success!
Check out all the posts in the series Modern Day Trophy Mule Deer Hunter:Part 1: Overview
Part 2: Time in the Field
Part 3: Glassing Skills and Techniques
Part 4: Mule Deer Behavioral Knowledge
Part 5: Read the Country
Part 6: Proper Equipment
Part 7: Physically Fit
Part 8: True Grit