Bowhunting mule deer is never really easy, but as bowhunters we’re lucky to have the odds tipped slightly in our favor in states with liberal hunting seasons open during the annual mule deer rut. The following rut hunting tactics have worked well for the AVID crew over the last few years on our annual Arizona mule deer hunts, but can and will work for you any place you can bow hunt muleys during the most magical time of year.
Specialized Mule Deer Rut Tactics
While spot and stalk hunting is far from specialized, getting within bow range of muleys is. Even though their attention is on the ladies, they’ll still be able to use their well refined senses to detect your advances and take off without looking back. Granted, most often the does are going to bust you before the buck even knows you’re there. Let’s run through a typical scenario we’ve encountered time and again while bowhunting mule deer in the rut.
Let’s imagine it’s first light and you and your hunting buddy are glassing one of your “go to” spots. Before long, you will utter “I got deer” and help your buddy get his bearings to see them too. After getting him keyed in on the deer, you can clearly see a buck chasing a doe, but are unable to determine how big he is in the grey light. They’re far enough out that you decide to get closer for a better look and use a ridge line as cover most of the way.
As the two of you crest the ridge, you respect the awesome eyesight of mule deer, and stay low without sky lining yourselves. You know they can see movement on a ridge from quite a ways and don’t want the group bounding off through the desert without at least giving you a chance. The deer are about 500 yards away, a relatively easy shot with any modern western hunting rifle, so you sit down in a spot of shade and set up the binos and your tripod.
He’s still following that doe, but much slower now. It took you almost an hour to cross the canyon and he’s probably been harassing her all night. Not much longer and he’s going to need some rest. He’s a mature buck, not a giant, but you decide to go for it. If he beds down in a good place to stalk him, you will.
Finally…The hot doe bedded with three other does, and the buck found a spot in a cedar above her. It’s warm for this time of year, and the deer are visibly ragged from the incessant chasing, they’re going to be there a while…It’s go time!
Your buddy stays back to watch and direct you into position. Where radios are legal to use, get set up with your earpiece and do a sound check. If radios are not legal where you’re hunting, go over some hand signals with your buddy before you take off.
Before leaving on your stalk, you took a few photos of the bedded muley and the rockpile above him. You know it’s going to look vastly different when you get over there, and some reference photos help out big time when you’re getting your bearings during a stalk. You load up, and your buddy gives you a nod of confidence as you back out slow and low over the ridge you crossed on the way in.
Luckily, the buck is bedded highest in relation to the other deer. This is huge! When thermals are blowing uphill, approach from above as long as you can remain quiet and generally out of sight. Your plan is to circle way around the entire canyon while staying behind the closest ridge as cover. When you cross the canyon, you will be about a half mile north of the deer before climbing up, and circling above where they are bedded.
Before you left on the stalk, you ranged the buck at 503 yards, the rockpile at 554 yards, and the top of the other side of the canyon at 704 yards. A little quick math tells you that you’ll be at about 150 yards from the buck from the top of the canyon, and only 51 yards from him when you reach your destination. This is the spot you will likely wait for a while as the situation unfolds.
You’ve finally made it to the top of their side of the canyon and ready yourself for the 150 yard decent to the rockpile destination. Adrenaline is starting to build as you look back at your buddy through your binoculars and he gives you a thumbs up. There’s no doubt his adrenaline is starting to flow too…If everything goes according to plan, you guys will be posing for hero pics before dark.
Attention to detail is the name of the game when you’re closing in on bedded mule deer. You puff the smoke bottle, cool, wind is good. Grab a quick snack, pound some water, and take a piss. You don’t want to anything to get in your way of success…Not thirst, hunger, or the urge to go to the bathroom. Once you’re in range, laser focus. You’ve quietly and slowly removed your backpack and taken out your Carltons Cats Paws, Sneek Boots (or other product that muffles foot sound) and installed them on your feet. Slow and steady now.
You’ve worked so hard to get into position, this isn’t the time to give in to the elements, or to your mind, which might be currently playing tricks on you. You’ve done everything logically to be right where you’re at, get as comfortable as you can, and wait. Constantly scan the area for movement. Even though you’re close, use your binoculars or rangefinder to peer through the vegetation, looking for that tell tale sign. Any little piece of a deer will do at this point, as long as you get your eyes on him.
Seeing the buck at this point might not be an option so stay vigilant. Look for any deer that can help clue in his location, and relax…Let the situation unfold. If you’re using radios, your buddy will likely be giving you updates. While scanning with your binoculars for deer and you’re not using radios, look back at your buddy once in a while for the pre-determined hand signals. While waiting for something to happen, range everything in sight, like a million times in effort to memorize the distance.
A Recent Scenario
This reminds me of a stalk in central Arizona on a really cool muley a couple years ago. I ended up only 29 yards from the buck and his three does and my friend who was watching the action unfold alerted to me that the deer were up. I couldn’t see them, but had been ranging everything in sight for over two hours. The Arizona sun was warm for January as I waited for something to happen.
Eventually the hot doe got up to feed, and soon after the buck started chasing her. He bird-dogged her away from me and I lost sight of them. As I frantically scanned the area hoping he would push her back my direction, it finally happened. I saw them emerge from the left in front of a saguaro I had ranged at 39 yards. Since they were between the saguaro and I by about a yard,I aimed for 38 yards and smoked him. He went about 60 yards and crashed to the bottom of that Sonoran Desert canyon.
Had I become impatient, or had I not been ranging things around me, I would not have been ready for a quick shot on a good archery buck.
Bowhunting the mule deer rut is hard work, and the deer don’t always do what you want them to do. If you take a proactive approach and use a little common sense, you just might be following more late season mule deer blood trails.
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