Getting bow-close to a mature mule deer buck is a challenge any time, and it’s even tougher in the late season, after they’ve been hunted for a few months. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a try. First, spot-and-stalk muley hunting is a blast, whether you score or not. Second, now that the rut is over, bucks need to focus on food, and that can make them vulnerable. Third, with most other hunters either tagged out or given up by now, you can have even prime public places to yourself. The only bad news, for the 2021 season, is that your time is quickly running out. if you’re still holding a muley archery tag and are want to beat the season’s buzzer, here’s what you need to do.
First, Find the Food
By late December, the boys are pretty much done with the girls. They may not be far from them, but finding the does and hoping they draw in a nice buck is not a high-odds play right now. Bucks are worn down and looking to do three things: eat, drink, and sleep, with the first being the most important.
The quickest way for bucks to put the pounds back on is by hitting grain fields hard. Wintertime favorites include corn, sorghum, maize, barley, and oats. Corn is the undisputed king, but any grain field close to areas of the thick cover usually means that mule deer with be close by. Grain is rich in carbohydrates, which bucks need to get through the wintery months ahead. If there is a greenfield by chance—winter wheat, rye, or alfalfa—so much the better.
Of course, most ag fields are under private ownership. However, in many muley-rich locales across the country, state game and fish agencies have done a fantastic job of working with landowners to open up private agriculture areas for public hunting. Knowing how to operate a digital mapping app like HuntStand or onX is a critical part of every Western hunt adventure and can help put you on grain-eating bucks now. If you don’t have one of these apps on your phone, you’re doing yourself a significant disservice. More than once, I’ve found late-season bucks hitting a food source, pulled up the area on my digital mapping app, and discovered it to be a Walk-In Hunt Area.
Even if the ag doesn’t have public access, you’re still in the game if the sage, prairie, CRP, or whatever around the ag is public dirt. Muley bucks don’t spend all day in the field devouring grain. This time of year, bucks need to rest nearly as much as they need to feed, and they are going to do that in the best cover close to the grub.
Set Up a Feed-to-Bed Ambush for Late-Season Muleys
Mule deer bucks can get very predictable during the late season. If you spend time watching where bucks enter and exit a food source, you can set up an ambush. You can build a makeshift blind or put a tree stand in cottonwood, as I have many times. Hunting late-season mule deer from a tree is a different experience, and even if your target buck doesn’t walk by you, the vantage point usually helps you find a buck to go after.
If your goal is to spot and stalk a nice muley buck, watch the grain fields in the morning, and when your target buck leaves the field and goes to bed, take note of that exact location. Favorite sleeping grounds include old homesteads, a tumbleweed-lined fence, or a patch of heavy, isolated cover in a cattle pasture. Where mule deer bed depends on the landscape, of course. Your job is to put them to bed, plug their exact location into your mapping app, check the wind, and from a distance, plan your approach.
The key is to take your time and get it right. A late-season buck will spend most of the day napping, so you’re in no hurry. As you plan your route, remember that the buck you’re after has been pressured for months by other hunters, as well as predators like mountain lions and coyotes. The rut is over, he’s back to survival mode, and he will put up with nothing. As you plot your moves, you can’t be thinking, I can probably get away with this. For each and every move, you have to instead be thinking, There’s no way he’ll get me if I do this.
No Ag. Now What?
There are plenty of western mule deer locations where bucks don’t have access to agriculture. Can you still get one killed by focusing on food? Of course. First, find out all you can about the prairie grass species in the area you’re hunting. A simple internet search will do it, or you can reach out to a local BLM, National Grassland, or Forest Service office. Once you find out what grasses—big bluestem, little bluestem, and blue grama, for example—are available, you can key on those food sources. The key to finding late-winter bucks when ag isn’t an option is to spend lots and lots of time behind the glass. No, that’s not some big secret, but very few bowhunters devote the amount of time behind a good set of optics that they need to. Quick scans of an area won’t get the job done.
Gain some elevation and get where you can see vast amounts of mule deer ground. Next, set up the tripod and start dissecting it. While helping a friend on a late-season archery mule deer hunt in Colorado, I found one lone buck after three hours behind the glass. The buck was bedded in a small patch of sage at the head of a narrow draw. At the bottom of the draw, after later investigation, we found wild clover coming up around the native grass. That was his focus. We watched the buck a second day, and after getting the wind right, moved in. My buddy missed the 26-yard shot, but we’d done our job of finding a late-winter shooter.
Don’t Forget Water for Late-Season Mule Deer
You won’t read many wintertime muley articles where water is mentioned. I’m not sure why. Bucks still have to drink every single day. In many western mule deer areas, deer share the landscape with cattle. Ranchers that lease the ground to run their cattle come to break the ice at stock tanks every day. The deer know where these water holes are, and so should you. I’ve watched, through a spotting scope, ranchers drive by a tank, break the ice, and minutes later see a mature buck emerge from cover to drink. If you find deer tracks around a water source, stick up a ground blind, and if legal, a trail camera.