A friend of mine, an accomplished elk hunter, once told me he didn’t bother to hunt mule deer because they just didn’t offer him enough of a challenge.
“Hell, I had a huge 5-point buck stand and stare at me this summer from 50 yards away,” he said, as if that proved his point.
“How many big mule deer like that have you killed?” I asked.
“Well, uh, none. Like I said, I prefer elk.”
Truth is, the big muley buck you stumble onto during your pack-in, high-country fishing trip in the summer is a different critter when the shooting starts in the fall. There may have been a time in the West when hunting pressure was so low and mule deer so numerous that the old stereotype-the big buck trotting out in the open and pausing long enough to let you shoot him-actually had some validity. Not anymore.
The modern mature muley isn’t stupid. If he was, he wouldn’t be mature-meaning a 41/2-year-old or older buck with a 25-inch or better outside spread and 4 or 5 main points on each side. And if he reaches 51/2 to 61/2 years of age and those antlers spread to 30 inches-trophy-class in anybody’s book-he is either living in a very remote place or is very sneaky. Most of the time he’s both.
So the big muley buck is like his whitetail cousin: He’d rather hide than run. It isn’t easy for some hunters to imagine a muley buck spotting a hunter and lying down smack-dab in his tracks, lowering his head like a shy dog. But it’s more common than they might think. A big buck would rather watch you push on by him than try to bound away.
For this reason, the big-buck hunter must tailor his strategy quite differently than he would if he were satisfied with a forked-horn yearling. Nothing at all wrong with a tender young buck, but if you’re after bigger game, locating a group of does and young bucks and putting a stalk on them will net you little more than exercise. The bigger bucks won’t be with the does unless they are into the rut, and most of the hunting seasons in the West take place before the peak of the rut.
Hunting with a Hook
That big buck is out there in the oakbrush or the mountain mahogany or the pinyon-juniper forest or the rimrock niches or one of the deeper draws. He’s either by himself or palling around with another mature buck or two. How do you find him?
The answer, unless you are fortunate enough to spot him moving in the open at dawn or dusk, is a slow-moving still hunt through the cover. But a straight-ahead still hunt may not produce sight of the buck. So you put a little twist on the proceedings-you use a fishhook.
For example, suppose you are working downhill or uphill alongside and near the bottom of a draw, coulee, or gulch. There is cover on your side-brush or scattered trees with brush and grass-and the opposite slope of the draw is relatively open. If you get lucky, a nervous buck may cave in to the pressure and emerge out of the cover onto the open side, affording you a shot.
But if that buck lies down, knowing he is hidden from view, it’s a different game. He has seen you coming, but he expects you to keep plodding along until finally you go past him. Then he can sidle off and make his exit. He has done it many times, and it has never failed him.
You don’t see him-not yet-but you have your game plan in place: You have carefully hunted a slight zigzag pattern for perhaps 200 yards, stopping frequently to glass with binoculars, looking for that odd shape or color that doesn’t fit in the surroundings. You work past the unseen buck.
In a few minutes, you stop again and sit down, well hidden, for as long as five minutes. Maybe you take a drink from your water bottle. Then you walk carefully off to the side of your original line of travel for 50 yards or so. You stop one more time to glass, and seeing nothing, you begin to work up or downhill in the exact opposite direction fromm your original course.
The wind now may or may not be in your favor, but the buck has already seen you once and won’t be surprised if your scent is still hanging in the air. Thinking you have gone on your way, he has confidently and slowly moved out, heading for another area, crossing the draw or emerging in a clearing in the cover, giving you that shot you have visualized in your daydreams for months. The buck has, you might say, swallowed the hook.
The best analogy that I can draw to this deer-hunting scenario is something that happens commonly on a pheasant hunt. Remember all those wily old roosters that got up way behind you after you trudged on past them?
The fishhook once netted me a big, wide-spread buck with only 3 main points on each side. He was no Methuselah, just an unusual middle-aged buck. But middle-aged and older bucks were as scarce as flying pigs that season, because it followed a killer winter in Colorado that wiped out up to 50 percent of the deer in many areas. Typically, a harsh winter takes the oldest, youngest, and weakest deer, and the next season requires intense still-hunting to ferret out the survivors. I had just reversed my course on an oakbrush slope when I caught him quietly crossing a small opening in the bottom of a draw, just 70 yards away.
An organized drive by three hunters may be the best alternative to the fishhook tactic if you don’t hunt alone. The middle man tackles the dense heart of the cover, and the other two spread out abreast of him and slightly behind, one on each side. If there’s a fourth hunter up ahead, watching the end of the cover, so much the better. The middle man may not get a shot, but the others have a chance at that sneaky buck trying to avoid him.
What if you are hunting alone and the cover-dense pinyon-juniper forest, say, or large oakbrush thickets-is so thick it’s impossible to conduct a useful still hunt? The sensible tactic is to take a stand on a high point overlooking the cover and constantly glass whatever small openings there are.
On any still hunt, pace is critical. Slow, slow, and slower is the rule. If you come back to camp having covered miles of ground and are dog tired, you were going too fast. Stop frequently and glass often. And when the time is ripe, set the hook.