Tag Archives: behavior

9 Surprising Facts About Mule Deer

With the Utah archery deer hunt only a week away, I’ve been thinking a lot about mule deer, particularly their behavior and ecology. In reflecting on past hunts, I’ve come to realize that the biggest factor contributing to hunting success is having an intimate knowledge of your prey, whatever animal it happens to be. By learning your prey, you can more accurately dissect the mountain and predict their locations and movements.

I really love mule deer. Not only are they exciting to hunt, but these brilliant survivors are endlessly fascinating to observe in the wild. I’ve read just about every book and article written on mule deer and have kept careful notes along the way. Today I’d like to share some of the most surprising facts I’ve learned about mule deer:

1. In 1900 there were only 10,000 deer living in Utah; today there are more than 350,000! The main factors contributing to herd growth is better resource management, relatively mild weather in recent times, and an increase in predator control efforts. Considering that only 30% of today’s hunters are successful in bagging a buck each year, it’s surprising how many deer there really are out there.

2. Before 1950 half the bucks harvested in Utah were mature (3.5 years and older). Today only 10% of bucks harvested are mature. This is obviously the result of “quantity over quality” management, coupled with high demand for tags and the resource manager’s desire to maximize permit sales. For the trophy hunter you’ll have to sift through lots of deer to find a true trophy. In Utah only about 1 in 56,000 bucks harvested will make Boone & Crockett.

3. Using their sensitive snouts, deer can detect water up to two feet below ground and then use their hooves to dig it up. During hunting season water isn’t a concern unless it’s really hot and dry, in which case the deer must drink once a day. Because it’s so dangerous to travel to water, the deer will often sniff it out. The deer’s nose is estimated to be 1000 times more sensitive than humans. They also use their incredible sense of smell to find best food sources, find mates, and of course to sniff out predators like ourselves.

4. Deer have a 310-degree field of view, as compared to humans who see less than a 180 degrees. Not only can the deer see 86% of it’s surroundings, but he has amazing night vision and motion detection. For all of these strengths, however, it sacrifices the ability to see colors in the red spectrum and fine details.

5. Most big bucks are “hiders,” as opposed to “runners,” when encountered in high-pressured areas. If you typically hunt in dense cover, chances are you’ve been seen by far more deer than you think. The bucks that run are either small or know they’ve been spotted.

6. Mule deer antler growth exceeds two inches per week during spring and summer, and then greatly declines the first week of August. Final antler size is largely determined by three factors: age, genetics, and available forage. A wet spring and/or early monsoon season is your best chance to harvest a trophy buck.

7. The unusual form of bounding (called stotting) where all four legs leave the ground simultaneously, is unique to mule deer and was adapted to escape cougars in mountainous terrain. No other big game species in North America uses this unusual mode of locomotion. Not only is stotting useful for navigating heavy cover, but is done quickly, covering 22 to 29 feet with each bound on level ground.

8. The average home range for a deer is only .6 square miles. Since deer don’t like to wander outside their home range, it might seem easy for us hunters to locate a buck. The problem is that deer are highly adaptable to human pressure and will quickly evacuate the mountain to predetermined safe zone, sometimes miles away from it’s home range.

9. Elk compete directly with mule deer, especially on winter ranges. Although elk are 3.5 times bigger than a deer, biologists estimate that one elk is the equivalent of 5-8 deer in terms of winter range degradation. In areas where both elk and deer populations are high, elk will gradually replace the mule deer. The greatest long-term threat to mule deer, however, is the natural reintroduction of the whitetail deer which will likely force the mule deer into extinction! Enjoy the great muley while you can.

Fascinating creatures, aren’t they?! I hope you enjoyed these facts.

The Majestic Muley Buck

In September of 2012, I hunted the Wasatch Extended Range with a friend. The bucks in this area are just as wily as anywhere in Northern Utah, if not more. We eventually split up to more thoroughly cover one particular steep and wooded slope; I took the upper section and he took the lower.

Not far into the route, a big, mature 4×4 buck came flying up the mountain, probably spooked by my hunting partner. The buck didn’t notice me as he blew by and then paused briefly on the hillside just out of bow range while scanning for danger below. I was instantly enraptured by the buck’s majesty. He held his neck high, donning a beautiful, square rack with heavy tines standing like swords above his noble face. His muscular body pulsed with deep breaths. His head jerked left, then right, simultaneously assessing the danger and planning his best escape route. I just stood there, mouth agape, bow a-dangle. What a creature! Seconds later he picked a line of trees and bounded away, his hooves barely poking the earth between great strides, seemingly floating over the treacherous terrain with awesome speed and agility.

Nothing to do now; no point following after. The buck would be valleys away by the time I caught up with him. I was gripped with a sense of helplessness. The sheer magnitude of this creature made me feel inept in my abilities. How could I ever outwit such a powerful and wary animal? It was humbling, and exactly what I needed.

The On/Off Switch: How Bucks Become Unhuntable

Opening morning and it’s on! But not really, because the deer are effectively off. With increased human presence this year, the deer have sensed danger and left the area. It takes 20 days of futile hunting before I really understand what has happened: All the mature bucks flipped the ON/OFF switch to OFF, and have become unhuntable!

That’s pretty much the story in Northern Utah last year. After several years of mild winters, deer numbers steadily rose to the point that the DWR issued more tags. It’s a traditionally difficult unit to begin with, but with the slightest increase in human traffic the deer simply left the area and/or became completely nocturnal. I’ve never seen anything like it!

So I hunted from the top to the bottom, bottom to the top, and north to south. In some real nasty country I found tracks and beds, affirming there were still in fact deer around. But as the sun came up each day, they were nowhere to be seen. It felt like the Twilight Zone. In 2015 I counted 8 different 4×4-or-bigger bucks, including one 200” typical. In 2016 I counted ZERO!

I spent one frustrating day hiking farther and farther into a really remote canyon—almost too remote for even elk. Just as I was questioning my sanity for bothering, two mediocre 3-points blasted out below me. Being completely stealthy on approach, I couldn’t figure out how they’d sensed me…unless they were completely neurotic…and that’s when it hit me: Bucks have the ability to decide whether to be huntable or unhuntable. It’s as simple as flipping a switch. Here’s how:

Mature mule deer bucks are bigger, stronger, and faster than us. They also see just fine at night, maybe even better than they do during the day (according to biologists)! Deer are always nocturnal, so being totally nocturnal simply means they don’t get up and feed during the day. They also don’t drink water each day which helps them reduce daytime movement. And no matter what any “seasoned” hunter tells you, deer are smart (well…comparatively). They are highly adaptable and need to be in order to survive extreme climates, terrain, and predators that they encounter every day. When spooked by a hunter, a buck easily blasts through tangled brush, taking special care to keep trees between him and you, all while following a carefully planned escape route. The hunter hasn’t the slightest ability to chase after, or even to relocate the wizened old buck which is capable of covering vertical miles with ease and disappearing for days.

For a deer, flipping the switch to OFF is probably not a conscious decision, but an instinct, and such a simple whim that it just happens without the necessity of thought. The buck spends a few days feeding and sleeping in some impenetrable patch of choke cherries on some ungodly-steep slope while waiting out the hunting season. I know because I found one of these very spots (I spent every day peeking behind every tree, after all). Sure there was deer sign in there, but it was so thick that I was literally climbing through with both hands. Visibility was only inches and the unavoidable cacophony of my approach would spook any deer long before I ever saw it. All I could think was, “This is exactly where I would be if I were a deer.”

So, what’s the solution? How do you beat the unhuntable buck? You can’t. It’s game over. In my case I left the mountain and hunted out of state. Everyone knows that increased pressured makes hunting harder, but there’s a tipping point where the buck decides to go farther and deeper than humanly possible. After years in the woods, he’s learned where these places are and when to use them.

One question remains: If a deer can become unhuntable, why doesn’t he just remain in that state all the time? Well, he’s an animal; naturally lazy, hungry, lonely, and curious. He doesn’t enjoy holing up on a hill if he doesn’t have to. He also knows that hunts are short and hunters eventually leave the mountain.

In the end, it comes down to hunting pressure. If an area has little hunting pressure, the buck might not even know the season is on and just goes about his summer routine. Becoming unhuntable is simply a tool he uses in order to survive during dangerous times, the same way he occasionally uses his antlers for fighting, and then forgets about them.

If you think about it, being invisible to man isn’t that uncommon in the animal kingdom. Deer share the mountain with much more elusive animals like cougars, bears, bobcats, badgers, foxes, etc. Many of these animals are nocturnal, but more notably they’re born with the natural inclination to hide from people. Comparatively, hooved animals like elk and deer are certainly shy of people, but not overly wary. For whatever reason they must learn to associate people with danger. It’s likely because we’re the only predators capable of killing them at long ranges…which is new and unnatural.

On the topic of long-range weapons, I’ve also observed the deer in my unit are holding tighter to the dark timber than they did in the past, even very early and very late in the day. It’s my belief that the popularization of long-range rifle hunting just within in the last decade is causing bucks to hold tighter to the deep timber where long-range rifles are rendered pretty much useless. Think about it: A group of bachelor bucks are standing in the open, and one suddenly falls over dead long before the report of the rifle is heard. The far-off shot is difficult to pin-point, and therefore difficult to avoid. The remaining buck’s only option is to dive into the timber and not come out. How many times will this happen before the old bucks stop coming out all together, and then teach their apprentices to do the same?

What is the future of deer hunting? Are deer getting smarter? Are they adapting to human predators as fast as we’re developing more efficient ways to kill them? If deer are bigger/faster/stronger than us, will there come a time that they are no longer huntable? All of these valid questions, and definitely up for debate. During a recent hunting seminar, someone asked the speaker if he thought deer were getting smarter. He replied, “No, I think deer are the same as they’ve been for thousands of years.” I quietly but wholeheartedly disagreed, and then wondered how much time this guy really spends observing deer in the nature.

All I know for sure is that I’ve watched deer become unhuntable, and since unhuntable deer quickly spoils my season, I’ve opted to hunt elsewhere, which is really the only option. Sure, I know the caliber of bucks in my old unit, but I won’t waste my time there. No matter where you hunt, there will always be another area with less pressure and huntable bucks. Remember, bucks hate people pressure more than anything, so you must avoid people with as much fervor as you hunt for deer.

The Future of Hunting: Part 1

The next two articles address the future of hunting and the changes I predict will happen to both hunters and their prey through the natural processes of adaptation and evolution.

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Rest assured hunting will change in the future, just as it has been changing rapidly over the last 10 or 20 years. The three primary factors driving these changes: a) an exploding human population, b) the development of super high-tech hunting equipment, and c) the hyper-adaptation of prey-animals which is necessary for their survival, especially with elk and deer.

What’s been occurring, and will continue to occur is a split–or chasm–developing between hunters and super-hunters. Hunters will either do what it takes to get a buck, or they will fail most of the time. Most hunters can be divided into two camps depending on their priorities. These two camps are: a) Super-hunters dedicated to the sport and willing to spend tremendous resources for trophy-class animals, or b) Fair-weather hunters who spend little time afield, hunt mostly for fun rather than food, hunt mostly on weekends, and are happy with any animal whether a spike or a 4-point.

A similar split is occurring between regular deer (and elk) and super-deer. This means that there will be isolated groups of younger, less experienced, and less pressured animals that react much like their ancestors did and get shot. The rest will adapt quickly to modern hunters, develop much more specialized bodies, and evade the average hunter for life.

In this article we’re going to focus on the changes that I predict will occur, or are occurring, in today’s deer and elk:

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Changes in Deer:

– Deer will become completely nocturnal. The reason you see more deer at evening and morning is because they’re most active at night. But if left undisturbed, deer will occasionally rise and feed during the day. In the future, not so much. Deer’s eyes are already adapted to see well at night, but in the future I predict that their eyesight will become further specialized to low-light conditions. The trade-off is that their eyes will become highly light-sensitive, causing them to bed even farther into super-deep/dark timber and never emerge until it’s completely dark. So much for seeing deer early and late.

– Deer will grow narrower racks. This is already the case in places like Oregon and Washington where the bucks live in dense timber most of the time. But if all western deer adopt a nocturnal lifestyle, they will be forced to move more frequently through dense timber and thus grow narrow racks.

– Deer will grow longer legs, similar to elk. Deer naturally have a difficult time moving through deep snow; basically anything over 30 inches. Because of this, deer–unlike elk–are forced to winter on lower elevations. The detrimental problem is that humans have developed almost all winter range elevations, especially here in Utah. And any deer forced to winter in low elevations is highly susceptible to death via highways, dogs, poachers, destruction of native forage, and overall human-induced winter-time stress which forces deer to burn up all their fat reserves before spring green-up. As this is a fairly recent phenomenon, today’s deer haven’t had time to develop bigger bodies and longer limbs which would allow them to winter much higher up…but they will!

– Deer will grow bigger hooves. Until recently, deer haven’t lived in very cliffy or rocky terrain. But they are starting to. Today’s animals, with their dwindling habitat, the threat of long-range rifles, and increased hunter pressure, are forced into some very unnatural and rugged terrain. My brother-in-law Josh actually found bucks living in and around caves in the unit where he hunts. Have you ever noticed how small a deer’s hooves are compared to cliff-dwelling species such as sheep or goats? As a taxidermist I have the unique opportunity of comparing characteristics between different species. Sheep and goats have approximately the same body mass as deer, but their feet are nearly twice as large. Other than size, another interesting difference between deer and goat hooves is the foot pad. The footpad of any hooved animal is made of a softer, cartilage-like material. But the goat’s hoof is much softer than the deer’s which allows goats to grip onto rocks easier. I predict that deer will develop not only bigger hooves, but softer ones too.

– Deer will grow bigger brains. Any trophy hunter already knows how incredibly smart today’s bucks are, but they will become smarter yet! This is a simple law of nature: survival of the fittest/smartest. As humans develop smarter and smarter hunting technology, the deer will be forced to adapt. In an article from last year I wrote about all the different–seemingly ingenious ways–that deer have adapted to hunters just in my lifetime. Big bucks are using multiple levels of thinking to evade hunters. Some examples include using does as security buffers between open feed and treeline, moving into non-deer habitat such as caves, and using complex sentinel-based security systems.

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Now let’s look at future changes in elk:

– Elk will be silent, like deer! After just a few decades of calling to them, big bulls are becoming silent. This was the basis of the relatively recent invention of the “silent calling” technique, wherein modern bulls often approach without calling back to the hunter. Thirty years ago it was easy to bugle a bull in. As this became increasingly ineffective, we began cow calling to them. But even this technique is becoming increasingly ineffective. Bulls are beginning to mistrust any calls, and instead relying more on wind direction and scent to verify a threat. Also, as archery equipment becomes more innovative and effective, bulls are hanging up farther and farther back. Since both cow calls and bugles are the elk’s greatest weakness, I predict a time when elk are completely silent and use scent and wind direction to rut around–just as deer do.

– Elk will grow narrower and smaller racks. Just like deer, elk will move deeper and deeper into the timber and will therefore grow narrower racks for easier travel through dense timber.

– Elk will grow bigger ears. Relative to their bodies, elk ears are fairly small, albeit efficient. But as with mule deer, there’s always room for bigger ears. Since elk will become more timber-dwelling, and since sound doesn’t travel nearly as far in thick forests, elk will need bigger ears to funnel available sound waves.

– Elk will develop better vision. Elk and deer eyes are practically the same: good night vision, wide field of vision, and sensitive to movement. But deer species’ eyes have two major weaknesses: a) they can’t see the color red, and b) they can’t see fine detail. This is why an elk can’t see you standing five feet away, unless you move. Of course they use their noses to make up for it, but their eyesight is still relatively weak compared to our own. So, in the future I predict the elk and deer will either develop the ability to see red, and/or their eyes will evolve to see better detail.

– Elk will have smaller bodies. During the last ice age, animals had much bigger bodies. This allowed them to survive low temps, move through deep snow, and evade larger predators such as saber-tooth tigers. After the ice age animals got smaller. Today’s elk are relatively giant compared to other western big game animals. This is advantageous during winter, but for the rest of the year it hinders them in two primary ways: a) they need water more frequently, and b) they need to eat more, and more often. As any predator knows, it’s much easier to ambush an animal that’s feeding and watering. Unlike deer, this makes hunting elk over water a viable option. Also, because elk are grazing animals–rather than foraging animals–it’s easier to predict food sources and travel routes. In the future, smaller elk won’t need to water as often, and will likely adapt their palate to browse-type foods such as forbs/shrubs/etc. As a result, they will bed earlier, rise later, and probably become completely nocturnal as well.

– Elk will grow smarter. I suppose they’re already kinda smart, but they’re getting much smarter. Last year, while hunting with my wife, we called up a herd bull using estrus calls. The bull came stomping in, and then, just before showing himself, pushed two cows right through us. When the cows passed the shooter they picked up her scent and bolted taking the bull with them. This well-thought-out security measure worked perfectly. Very admirable, but very disappointing. In the future I predict much more complicated hunter-evasion techniques by these highly adaptive animals.

Conclusion:

For all of evolution, both predator and prey were forced to adapt to each other in order to survive. In today’s world, finding and harvesting a trophy animal is getting harder by the year. Today’s deer are ingenious survivors capable of adapting to us and evading us no matter what we throw at them. There are many factors at play, but it just proves that technology is not the answer. On the flip side, we should be thankful that our beloved deer are such brilliant survivors. Otherwise there would be nothing left to hunt, here in the future.

Stay tuned for the next article where we’ll analyze the future of hunting and the inevitable division between hunting camps. I think you’re gonna like it.

Deer are NOT Where You Find Them

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Mule deer buck. Photo courtesy of Utah DWR.

Has anyone ever told you, “Deer are where you find them?”

Maybe it’s a Utah thing, but I’ve heard that:

  • Deer are where you find them…
  • Gold is where you find it…
  • Fish are where you find them…

    While scouting last weekend I found a group of big, blocky buck tracks in an unassuming area. Why were the buck here?, I asked myself. Were they moving from bed to feed, or vice-versa? Were they just migrating through? Was there low spot on the mountain that funneled them through here? I’m not sure, but I got my theories. If I can figure out why, then maybe I can intercept them during the hunt.

    What does this have to do with hunting? Because where a deer is, he is there for a good reason. Deer don’t take vacations, they don’t explore randomly, and they never wander aimlessly. If a deer is moving, he’s moving for a good reason. Maybe he’s coming from feed or bed, maybe he’s trolling for a doe, maybe he’s been spooked and is following an escape route, or God-forbid, maybe he’s making random tracks just to throw you off! There are many reasons for a buck to move, and it’s your job as a bowhunting detective to figure out why.

    Big buck tracks are not just pretty, but can hold some valuable clues. For instance, if the tracks are meandering around vegetation, then it’s probably a feeding area. If the tracks are dug in, far apart, or appear to be running, then maybe it’s an escape route.

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    If the tracks are deep or appear to be dragging, then it’s probably a big, heavy, old buck. Maybe the tracks are old with debris accumulated in them, or new with sharp edges. You can pretty easily guess the age with a little practice. Also, what direction are the tracks pointing? Kinda important to know whether the buck is coming from or going to a certain area.

    If I learned anything about deer over the years, it’s that they take things very serious–which makes them very un-human by the way. Everything a deer does, it does deliberately and purposefully. We can use this to our advantage. The important thing is that you get in the habit of asking questions, making logical theories, deductions, postulations, or just plain guesses. It’s better to wonder why a buck is somewhere than to wonder why he’s not. At least you have a starting point for opening day.

    Nowadays when I hear someone say that things are where you find them, I cringe. It’s the ultimate cop-out. What I really hear is, “My brain is where I left it.” It means they’ve given up. They rely on sheer luck; no more thinking, no deducing, no more trying. Maybe they’ll stumble upon a big buck, but if not, oh well. It’s out of their hands anyway.

    No one knows what really goes on in a buck’s head, but we can make some pretty good guesses which will lead to more success and more venison in the freezer. Feed, bed, water, migration, escape routes–all of these things should be running through your head.  The next time you run into some real big buck tracks, do yourself a favor and start asking questions. Lots of questions.

Big Buck’s Highest Priority

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What is a big buck’s highest priority, Food or Safety?

The answer is SAFETY!

In the first edition of my book, Zen Hunting, there’s a slight discrepancy. In one chapter I talk about the buck’s highest priority being food. In another chapter, it’s safety (or survival). The 2nd edition attempts to separate the two, but it’s really impossible.

The problem came about from real-life observation and experience.

First, a buck can’t survive without daily food intake. That’s obvious. I cited David Long’s observation that bucks can’t even stay bedded for the entire day without occasionally getting up to feed. However, while hunting the Utah-Cache unit for three years in a row, I clearly observed that big bucks were hardly ever up and feeding during daylight hours. As an example, the four times I busted the infamous Droptine buck, he was bedded. Never was he on his feet during daylight hours.

What it comes down to is hunting pressure. As soon as hunters file into the woods, the bucks become completely nocturnal. You’ll find plenty of tracks and sign, proving they are indeed feeding at night, but nowhere is a buck found feeding during daylight. The bucks simply adapt to a nocturnal lifestyle that negates daytime feeding.

This makes perfect sense. The bucks on Monte Cristo are the smartest bucks I’ve ever seen. If it comes down to eating or starving to death, the bucks will gladly starve to death. But really they don’t have to because they feed at night, and only at night. Therefore, safety far outweighs eating.

The hunting pressure on Monte is ridiculous and has been for decades, yet there are still occasional trophies haunting the woods (and my nightmares). As I put it in my book, “These are the neurotic decedents of lone survivors.” It’s simple adaptation; survival of the fittest. The bucks that feed during the day get shot!

I’m sure there are areas in the state where big bucks wander around, stuffing their faces with vegetation during the day. I’ve seen it in Central Utah, but not Northern Utah.

Now that I’m forced to hunt Monte again, I must figure out how to approach deer differently to beat the odds. Well, I’ve done it before and here’s how I’ll do it again:

  1. Hunt the opener. In my book I have a whole sub-section entitled, Never Hunt the Opener! My thinking has changed a little since then. It’s true that on opening day most bucks have already noticed the increased traffic/ATV noise and bailed onto secondary ridges or deep, dark, holes. But I realize now that there are always a brave/stupid few that will wait until they actually see a camo-clad dude before bailing out. These bucks are still in their summer routine and therefore huntable. I will hunt them on the opener.
  2. Hunt mid-week and late in the season. After opening day, my plans change. Since I work weekends anyway, I can schedule my hunts between Tuesday and Friday. I’ve found that the best day to hunt is Thursday. After the weekenders terrorize the deer, it takes half a week for them to calm down. By Thursday they feel more secure and let their guard down. So your odds go up on Thursday and into Friday until the weekend warriors come smashing back into the hills. Also, the hunting pressure falls off dramatically during the last couple weeks of the bowhunt, making September the best time to be out.
  3. Hunt the Beds. The most difficult thing in the world is hunting big bucks in their beds. First, you have to find their beds, preferable while pre-season scouting. Big bucks use multiple beds throughout the year, so you’re not just looking for one bed. Second, these beds are generally found in deep and steep cover and perfectly situated to detect predators from a distance using wind and terrain. It’s possible to hunt deer in their beds using ambush techniques or a super-stealthy approach, it’s just not probable.
  4. Hunt the Secondary Ridges:  After opening day I will bail off the top and start hunting secondary ridges and deep, steep areas. By then I’ll have multiple backup areas that I’ve cataloged during my diligent scouting trips. It’s hot and it sucks to drag a deer up miles of vertical slope, but it might be my chance.

The methods you use to hunt big bucks is relative to the amount of hunting pressure the area gets. Once again, you must understand the nuances of your prey and adapt yourself as a predator. In high-pressure areas remember these two words:  Safety First! The big bucks only care about surviving.

That’s all there is to hunting high-pressure trophy mule deer. Well, that and a ton of luck.

Good luck!

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors Part 1 of 4

***The following is a multi-part article about modern mule deer behavior, adaptation, and the future of hunting.***

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Modern Mule Deer and Brilliant Survivors

BRILLIANT! This word echoed in my head throughout the entire deer hunt this year while observing mature bucks and their ingenious evasive tactics. For the most part, I knew where the big bucks lived, but getting close seemed almost impossible. In recent years, these highly pressured, public land bucks (and even does) have developed fascinating tactics to avoid modern hunters. Here are some examples:

While hunting in this unit last year, I stumbled across an ancient flint arrowhead. As I held the little piece of history in my hand, I thought of two things. First, how serendipitous it was to find such a rare bowhunting treasure left by ancient bowhunters. And second, part of the reason why the deer in were so dang smart was because ancient folk have been chasing these critters for centuries before us moderns came along. Unlike a lot of other units, the deer here have been mastering the art of human evasion for centuries. Thanks a lot, Native Americans! Other than people-predators, mule deer are stalked year-round by cougars, coyotes, bears, and now wolves. In order to survive, they must be on constant high alert. Now throw in ancient hunters, modern bowhunters, muzzleloader hunters, rifle hunters, and poachers, and pretty soon the few remaining deer are either super-survivalists or non-existent.

Early one morning on this year’s bowhunt I watched a group of bucks feeding along a steep and open mountainside. One of the bucks was a solid 4-point and worth a closer look. Unfortunately there was no way to approach them without being spotted. So, I waited until the sun came up and for the bucks to meander over a finger ridge to bed. They weren’t in a hurry and I figured they’d bed a short distance from where they disappeared. This was NOT the case. I found their tracks alright and followed them for quite some distance. They meandered through some dense scrub-aspens, then dropped down the canyon for another couple hundred yards, then turned left and continued along a steep and rocky slope. Eventually they took a sharp turn and went straight back up the mountain. What the heck were they doing! It seemed random and chaotic. At that point I realized it was futile to continue pursuing these travelling bucks through such thick and noisy terrain. As I stood there trying to figure out what to do next, I suddenly heard the deer above me jump up and bound away. They had bedded in such a way that anyone crazy enough to follow them would eventually get winded by the rising thermals. Pretty obvious, but BRILLIANT on their part!

Last season while hunting the same unit, I watched three very nice 4-points feed atop an open hillside. As the sun got higher, the bucks disappeared over the ridge. I climbed after them, being careful to keep the wind in my face. The whole area was above timberline so I knew that if I could get to their elevation I would see where they bedded. Well, when I got there they were gone. I followed in the direction they had headed and found some sparse timber that I was sure they’d bedded in. But there was no trace of them. I spent the entire day exploring every piece of cover in the area, but they were gone. I was perplexed that they could simply disappear in the wide open. BRILLIANT! I returned to the same spot this year, and sure enough the bucks were there again. It was early so I watched them feed for a while. This time I was perched across the valley but on their same elevation. I was certain I could watch where they bedded this time. Well, the bucks dropped into a small draw and disappeared momentarily, but never reappeared. Sure of where they bedded, I made a stalk. But when I got there, the bucks were gone. Again, I wasted half the day circling around the mountain trying to figure out where they went, but never did.

On the last day of this year’s bowhunt, I went back to the same hillside and observed a lone four-point buck feeding in the open brush above timberline. There was plenty of time for a stalk, so I waited patiently to see which direction he was feeding before entering the thick timber that separated us. Interestingly, there was a small group of does feeding just below him. As the does moved along, so did he. Apparently he was using the does as a security fence between the pine-line and the open feeding area. From the tree line, a hunter would have to get through the doe group to get close enough for a shot. BRILLIANT! With the clock ticking, I decided to make the stalk. Well, I didn’t get too far. Before I even got to the timber that separated us, an unseen doe busted me, snorted once, and trotted off. The buck stood staring in my direction for fifteen minutes before wandering off, never to be seen again.

While all this was going on, my wife Esther had set up an ambush in some thick timber adjacent to a feeding zone. She was similarly impressed by the deer in her area. At one point, two doe fed along. One doe had apparently been relegated to security and wasn’t allowed to feed. When she finally did put her head down to eat something, the other doe ran over and began swatting her with its hooves, driving the security-only doe back to standing watch. BRILLIANT!

Just about every deer group I’ve seen has a security system. While feeding is high on the deer’s priority list, sheer survival supersedes everything. In most cases, a herd will have a lead doe (or for elk, a lead cow). The lead doe is generally the oldest, wisest, and strongest doe. She rarely feeds while the other deer are feeding, but stands guard instead. She only feeds when she feels secure or while other does in the group are bedded. During the 2012 archery extended hunt, I watched a very large doe walking a head of a small group of deer including a very large buck. She emerged from some thick oak-brush just twenty yards below me. She couldn’t see or smell me, but somehow suspected danger. She continually buried her head in the brush, and then whipped it up looking one way, then the other, in attempt to catch a predator’s movement. I watched her mock-feed like this for about twenty minutes while the other deer fed around her with nary a concern. In all that time, the lead doe never ate a single thing. BRILLIANT!

These evasive tactics are not only used by deer, but elk too. While deer hunting in Southern Utah, I was sitting out a thunderstorm beneath a large pine tree at the edge of a large, steep meadow. It was mid-afternoon and out of the timber emerged a whole herd of elk, approximately 50 head, including a giant 6×6 herd bull. The herd fed into the meadow, and eventually two large cows split off and headed down to a small stream. At the stream, neither cow watered but instead stood facing in opposite directions. I was a little perplexed by this strange behavior, but not a minute later the 6×6 herd bull began making his way down to the stream. When he got there, he stomped into the water, drank for a couple minutes, and then wandered back to the herd. The two sentinel cows never drank, but just stood watch and then followed the bull back up. It then occurred to me that the cows were strictly providing sentinel duty for the bull, putting security before water. BRILLIANT!

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors (Part 2 of 4)

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors Part 2 of 4

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Mule Deer Adaptation & Evolution

Deer use the other forest creatures as sentinels as well. As you travel through the woods you’ll notice that squirrels, chipmunks, and all kinds of birds will call out to announce your presence. They do this unwittingly to announce danger to their own species, but in effect, also announce danger to the deer. I’ve observed these creatures doing the same thing to deer and elk, which can sometimes be useful to a hunter. But when the creatures bark at you, the deer always take notice. Next time you’re watching a deer, notice how it perks up its ears at every squirrel bark and bird chirp.

These are just some of my recent observations. In truth, mule deer have been changing continually—even dramatically—over the course of the last few decades. Anyone who spends a little time observing mule deer in the wild will witness all manner of well-thought-out security measures developed to avoid predators of all kinds; particularly the human kind.

Avoiding bowhunters is easy enough for any deer, but with today’s long-range guns shooting well over 1000 unethical yards, deer must adapt quicker than ever before. One way bucks have avoided rifle hunters for decades is to keep trees and brush between the hunter and himself. Older bucks are fully aware of the capabilities of long range weapons. Generally, if you bust a buck at close distance, he won’t run directly away from you but rather heads to the nearest tree, and then bee-lines away, careful to keep as many trees between you and him. If there are multiple trees or bushes, the buck will even zigzag from one tree to the next so the hunter never gets a shot.

One of today’s greatest mule deer hunting experts is author and speaker, Jim Collyer. In his book, Blood in the Tracks: A Mule Deer Manifesto (highly recommended reading by the way), he writes about an interesting encounter with very wise buck:

 …I was working my way up a remote ridge and spied a good buck looking down at me from his bed on the ledge above. I could see only his head and the top of his back. I rested the rifle in the crotch of a tree and waited for him to stand up. Instead of standing, the wise old buck lowered his head and crawled on his belly (much the same way a dog does) until he reached cover. Then he uncoiled like a spring and bounced over the ridge, keeping as much brush between us as possible. While uncommon, I have seen bucks belly crawling twice and have talked with several other hunters who have witnessed the same phenomenon. Now, that’s smart! (Collyer 2013)

For as long as we have hunted deer, deer have developed ways to avoid us. It’s well known that deer are crepuscular animals (being most active at morning and evening). But in high pressured areas, I’ve seen deer become completely nocturnal; never rising during daylight hours. For the bowhunter, setting the alarm for 5 a.m. is almost useless because the deer have already fed, watered, and traveled to hidden bedding areas by starlight. Now, there are many degrees of nocturnal-ness. All deer feed at night, but if left undisturbed they also feed during the day. But as hunting pressure increases, deer become less and less daytime active—maybe rising out of bed for only a minute or two to eat and use the restroom before bedding back down again. Traditionally, mule deer experts have agreed that all deer must rise out of their beds to feed occasionally throughout the day in order to maintain adequate energy levels and fat stores. However, it’s been my observation that bucks living on high-pressured public lands have simply adapted to a nocturnal lifestyle which provides plenty enough food ingestion at nighttime to negate daytime feeding. It’s like saying humans have to eat occasionally during the night to survive. It’s just not necessary.

The following is a quote from mule deer expert and writer, Walt Prothero, concerning the ways mule deer have adapted to increased hunting pressure:

But mule deer are quick learners and highly adaptable…The bucks that didn’t pause to watch their backtrail survived to do most of the breeding and pass on genes that made them more secretive. Buck’s have essentially become nocturnal, at least during hunting seasons. They don’t pause in the open during daylight hours, and they won’t even come out in the open unless it’s dark. Most won’t move unless they’re certain they’ve been located. (Prothero, 2002)

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors (Part 3 of 4)

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors Part 3 of 4

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Big Buck Classification

I have categorized mature mule deer bucks into three categories: trophy bucks, superbucks, and megabucks.

Trophy bucks are mature, solid 4-point or better bucks, four years or older, and sporting a rack above 160 inches. Trophy bucks are still common these days, but dwindling in numbers each year.

Superbucks are older and bigger bucks in their prime, aged around 6-10 years. They have very large and wide antlers scoring 200 inches or more. These bucks are extremely rare, often referred to as ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ bucks. Many hunters will never see a superbuck in the wild.

Megabucks are very old bucks scoring close to 300 inches, have mass like a baseball bat and towering racks that resemble elk. When I was younger I referred to these as ‘elk-deer’ because at first glance, your mind can’t classify it as a deer. The key ingredient to Megabucks is age. Megabucks are more common in warmer climates where they live longer (12-13 years instead of 10). I’ve been hunting a long time—25 years to be exact—and I’ve only seen three bucks that you might call megadeer. All three megabucks were in the Central Utah Manti-Lasal Range. I spotted the first one in 1996, the second in 2001, and the last megadeer I ever saw was in 2002. After 2002 I spent more days afield, but never saw another megadeer.

Superbucks are the hunter’s last hope. With a finite amount of wild lands and ever-increasing human population encroaching on winter range and over-development of every square inch of land, bucks can no longer live long enough to reach mega proportions. Fortunately, we still have a few superbucks around—I see one or two every year. The problem is not with ‘trophy hunters’ shooting all the big ones, but with non-trophy-hunters, or meat-hunters, blowing away all the spikes and forked-horns every year. One and two years old bucks don’t have enough experience in the wild to reach maturity, which is why they’re such easy targets. But the few babies that do slip through the cracks have the potential of reaching magnificent proportions. These are the only bucks that I—and other trophy hunters–hunt anymore: the elusive surviving few.

According to biologists, if a mule deer buck survives to be 5 years old, it has an 80% chance of dying of old age or other natural causes. Every year that a buck survives, it gets exponentially smarter. The problem is that 80% of yearling bucks never make it to five years old. One thing that trophy-seekers should keep in mind is that Superbucks don’t just father more super-bucks, but super-does as well. These superdoes pass along and teach their offspring the super-instincts that allowed Grandfather Superbuck to survive for so long. Over time, this results in an ever-wizening herd. Breeding is only done by the biggest and smartest bucks. So each successive generation of deer— doe or buck—is the spawn of super-intelligent bucks. Often times, when you observe a doe in the wild it seems kinda dumb (compared to the bucks). But this is only because no one is hunting her. If the doe were hunted, it would wizen up fast, I guarantee it!

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors (Part 4 of 4)

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors Part 4 of 4

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The Future of Hunting

Hopefully by now you’ve gained some appreciation—or maybe even admiration—for these brilliant survivors. Some biologists have predicted that the mule deer will eventually go extinct. They argue that the mule deer—which split off from the whitetail deer after the last ice age and evolved to fit the rigors of the West—will eventually be dwindled down to minimal numbers due to human encroachment. After that, mule deer will gradually be bred out of existence by the natural reintroduction of the whitetail deer which more readily adapts to human pressure and is already making its way back into the West. After pursuing great mule deer for so long, I personally don’t see the mule deer going out without a fight. If they can survive to this point, they’ll be around for a lot longer…but a little help from the humans wouldn’t hurt!

All existing animals—predators and prey—have learned to survive and adapt to environmental pressures for thousands, or even millions, of years. If a predator doesn’t adapt to its smarter prey, then he starves. If the prey doesn’t adapt to a more efficient predator, it goes extinct. The biggest problem I foresee is humankind. The difference between man and other predators is that he adapts exponentially. In a few short decades, the hunting industry has exploded with new weaponry and products designed to gain an acute advantage over deer. Fifty years ago bowhunters used strictly traditional gear—recurves and longbows—with a maximum effective range of about thirty yards. Gun hunters had opens sights and relatively short-range rifles. But only a few decades ago, the compound bow was invented, and re-invented to the point that it can shoot effectively out to 100 yards or more. Scoped rifles have expanded their range to well over 1000 yards. With this kind of unnatural firepower, it’s amazing we have any deer left at all! Certainly we have a lot less.

What the hunting industry unwittingly and greedily ignores is the trade-off: less animals and/or smarter animals. And now, here we are with both! In twenty-five years I’ve seen giant bucks go from standing in the open at daybreak to becoming completely nocturnal, and nearly non-existent. What the hunting industry ignores is that the few surviving bucks—the neurotic, brilliant few—will be the only one’s living long enough to do all the breeding. And so what you’ll have in the future is an entirely new sub-species of mule deer. It looks the same—assuming you ever see one—but it doesn’t act the same…at all. The problem that overly-efficient weaponry creates is two-fold. First, there will be fewer deer in the future, which means fewer tags, which means fewer hunters. And second, the existing deer will be completely nocturnal and almost unhuntable. Ironically, this expediting of evolution will create brilliant, impossible ghosts that will inevitably put the hunting industry out of business! From what I’ve seen, most young, newbie-hunters lose interest after a just couple disappointing seasons, abandoning the woods for more entertaining and/or productive hobbies. The result of losing our deer will finally result in losing our hunting heritage.

So what does the next generation do? There can be only one solution: Learn how to really hunt—how to read sign and stalk close—but more importantly, they must first become deer conservationists (i.e. protect habitat, put restrictions on yearling shooting, discourage technology-driven hunting tactics, etc.) To succeed in the future, hunters will have to continually adapt to this new breed of wily mule deer. This can be especially difficult for the veteran hunter who continually makes the mistake of approaching today’s deer with yesterday’s tactics. Occasionally he might get lucky—after several failed seasons. And thus begins the downward spiral. He gets lucky and suddenly thinks he’s got the neo-buck figured out—maybe it was a new area, a new rifle, a new attitude, or more boot miles. But the next year, the deer have seemingly vanished, gone again, year after year, and he’s back to eating tag soup.

It seems like the only hunters who are dragging anything out of the woods these days are either very lucky, or very young. Someone old once said, “Youth is wasted on the young.”  This is mostly true, but occasionally you’ll meet a young gun who knows how to hunt! He didn’t grow up with herds of big ol’ 4x4s standing in the open. He grew up with incredibly smart bucks eluding him in the nastiest terrain every season since he began hunting. He’s only seen one or two real mature bucks—ever—but keeps after ‘em. Unlike his A.D.D. buddies who gave up hunting long ago, he sees the potential of the woods. Every day he dreams about success and understands the great, final reward of outsmarting a giant, majestic mule deer buck with wide-sweeping antlers. Voraciously he studies deer behavior, physical needs, and learns from their evasive tactics. He’s learning how to read sign and follow tracks quietly through tangled timber. He’s willing to hike many miles from the nearest road. He hunts in cliffs and sub-zero temperatures. He knows that the greatest enemy of success is comfort. He knows that these wily old bucks will continue to change from year to year, and so he too must change how he approaches them. This is the only way to have consistent success—or any success—in this modern hunting age.

Conclusion

As predators, we must adapt to our prey or be left behind. Our deer have changed, adapted, and evolved at a shocking rate. Our deer are brilliant survivors, and thank God for it! Many a trophy hunter has sought big mule deer as a way to be admired; but the true trophy hunter hunts for a trophy out of admiration for it. Conservation is key, folks. Humankind has hunted since the dawn of time, and if we are careful stewards of our forest denizens, then maybe we can pass along this invaluable tradition of hunting to another couple generations.

In reviewing my hunting notes for this article, I wondered if I was just making excuses for my failure this year. But further contemplation suggests that these ingenious evasion tactics are more a reason for failure than an excuse for it…and not just for me but for the majority of hunters out there. As failed hunters, all we can do is study these animals, admire them—maybe even obsess over them—because the more you understand your quarry, the more you’ll understand yourself and your role as a predator.

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors (Part 1 of 4)

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors (Part 2 of 4)

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors (Part 3 of 4)