Tag Archives: bucks

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.

Backyard Buck

Last night, just before dark, I got a visit from my favorite backyard mule deer buck. If you don’t remember him from last year, his name is Henry the Bigger than Average Two-point, and he ate most of our ripe tomatoes.

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Last year he should have been a three-point, but remained a two-point with tall antlers.

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This year he was supposed to be a small four-point, but instead he’s a two-by-three. That’s poor genetics for you, but he’s still a beautiful little buck.

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Henry has a tall rack with good mass and multiple little kicker points around his eyeguards. Definitely good potential if he ever sprouts a normal rack.

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Last year it was easy to get close to Henry, but now he’s getting a lot more cautious, like all big bucks. I learn a lot from observing my backyard deer.

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Bye-bye Henry!

Over- and Under-Estimating Big Bucks

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(Photo courtesy of Utah DWR)

This post is dedicated to the properly estimating your chances at big bucks:

Any seasoned hunter will tell you, “NEVER underestimate big deer!” I agree, but experience also tells me that ‘NEVER’ really means ‘SOMETIMES.’

I have spent up to 7 hours stalking big bucks, and other times, I’ve barreled right in on the animal, either because I was losing light or he was distracted by something.

I’ve also watched hunters (hold on, I’m trying not to laugh, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.. sorry…) walk directly at a deer or elk, in plain view, thinking he’s invisible because he’s wearing camouflage! I’m not joking! You should’ve seen the look on the animal’s face just before it jumped up and ran away.

What it boils down to is that every situation is different. You can’t judge the current situation on the last situation, whether it worked out or not. In bowhunting there are way too many variables.

Big bucks are extremely wary…most of the time. On very rare occasion you’ll catch a buck being lazy or carelessly feeding, allowing a hunter to run in on him. MOST of the time, you can’t get within 60 yards–which happens to be bow range–without extreme caution. This is sometimes referred to as the 60-yard bubble. Within this bubble, the buck’s senses are exceptionally acute. This is where critical decisions make or break your hunt.

Below, I’ve compiled a list of situations that either causes me to speed up my approach, or sloooooow way down:

When to speed up your stalk:

  1. It’s getting dark. Fortunately when it gets dark, it’s gonna get light again…in the morning. Unless the buck is on the move, or in a rare situation, you have the option of pulling out and trying again in the morning. If morning isn’t an option, you better roll the dice and make your move.
  2. The buck is about to unbed. A bedded buck is a Godsend. Assuming he just bedded down for the day, you know where he’ll be for several hours at least, and you have all day to plan your approach. However, if he’s about to un-bed, you better make a decision. Can you get close enough for a shot before he stands? Because when he stands, it will be far more difficult to get closer.
  3. The wind is about to change. If the wind is in your face, your odds of success go up. But everyone knows that wind shifts. Wind shifts a) when the weather changes (i.e. before and after a storm, and b) when the thermals change. In the evening and early morning, the wind blows downhill with the cooling air. In the late morning and afternoon, the wind blows uphill with the warming air. These are called thermals, and the conscientious hunter always plans his attack based on this. Wind is the most important factor when getting close to big game. Noise is a close second.
  4. There is cover noise. I’ve used every possible noise for cover including blowing wind, flying grasshoppers, squirrels barking, jets flying, buck fights, etc. Anything that makes noise–other than you–will help you get closer faster.
  5. The buck is feeding into thick timber. When a buck heads into the thick stuff, it can sometimes be easier to get closer, but if it’s too thick–like a stand of willows–you may never get close enough, not even five yards, without busting him out. Make your move before he gets swallowed up.
  6. The buck is distracted. Distractions range from bucks fights to squirrel chatter but include anything that gets the buck to look the other way. The best distraction is when they rake trees with their antlers. This is especially common with elk. They are nearly blind with their face buried in a fur tree.

When to sloooooow down your stalk:

  1. When the buck beds down for the day. Again, you have several hours to get close. Take your time!
  2. The wind is steady. If you’re lucky enough to be hunting during a stretch of steady weather, you can use predictable wind to keep your stalk slow and methodical.
  3. The ground is noisy. Try sneaking to twenty yards with a forest floor covered in dry pinecones, gravel, scree, or pine needles. Dry conditions are a nightmare, especially in thick cover. Sometimes, it is simply impossible to get close enough. Fortunately, there are a couple things that can help you. First, take your boots off and stalk-in-socks. Second, wait for cover noise. Dry, hot conditions often bring flying grasshoppers to life. Their loud, short-burst flying often provides valuable cover noise to get a step closer.
  4. The buck is facing you. If you’re trying to stalk close to a buck that’s facing you, you shouldn’t be moving at all! However, if the buck’s face is hidden from view, and you’re unable to circle around him (wind, terrain, etc.), then a super-slow-motion stalk is Don’t think so? Try it sometime. A couple years ago, I spent 3 hours stalking toward close to a cow elk bedded on a ledge in plain view. Unfortunately, it got dark and the elk unbedded at 30 yards, but I didn’t have a clear shot. If you understand anything about deer eyes, you know they have a hard time seeing fine detail and slow motion.  If you can move slow enough–and without blinking–you can literally walk right towards buck without him seeing you. The trick is moving extremely slow. When you finally get too close, say 30 yards, he will see you. Unless you have cover, I don’t recommend trying this.

These are just a few examples of when to speed up or slow down. What it really boils down to is common sense and experience. Most importantly, spend time observing and studying your prey. What are their strengths and weaknesses? The more you understand your prey, the better you’ll understand yourself as a predator.

Mule Deer Age Progression

This is pretty neat. I got a bunch of younger deer in for taxidermy this year (as well as my own) ranging from 1.5 to 5.5 years old. So, I lined them up in order of age and shot this photo.  (Click to see larger version).

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The reason they are aged in half-year increments is because all mule deer are born in spring and then harvested in fall, making the youngest legal buck 1.5 years old. Before that, they are fawns without antlers.

The buck on the far right is my late grandfather’s largest buck.  It’s a beautiful, symmetric 4×4. Without seeing the buck’s teeth, I can only guess the age at 5.5, although it could be as old as 6 or 7. It can be difficult to age large bucks by just their antlers because after they become fully mature (4.5 years), genetics plays a big part in determining antler size.

Also, very old bucks (10-12 years old) tend to regress in size because their teeth become too worn down to eat enough. At that point, they slowly starve and/or freeze to death during winter. Mother Nature can be a beast! And you thought hunters were cruel…

One thing that would enhance this photo is a true giant in his prime, aged 9 – 11 years. A ‘superbuck’ or ‘megabuck’ scoring into the mid-200s would dwarf them all.

My 40-Inch Dream

(Published in Eastman’s Bowhunting Journal, Issue 81, January/February 2014)

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Twenty yards in front of me, a small 3-point buck with scraggly antlers ran back and forth snorting up a storm. I knew him; he was a sentinel. I knew him because I knew his mentor. Ignoring the flailing 3-point, I peered deep into the dark timber beyond. Sure enough, sixty yards downhill and partially obscured by trees, stood a familiar, square-racked, giant four-point mule deer. He hadn’t seen me but was alerted by his sentinel’s crazy warning system. Before I could even pull an arrow, he suddenly blasted away taking the squirrely 3-point with him…again. This was my third and last encounter with that big 4-point during the 2011 archery season.

I slowly rose from my knees and dropped my bow to my side. I stared blankly at the woods with a sickening sense of déjà vu. Like most mature bucks in Northern Utah, I knew this buck was essentially unhuntable, just like the infamous 33” double-droptine buck that I somehow managed to harvest in 2010. I spent three long years hunting that droptine buck and I knew for a long time that he too was unhuntable. Yet forces beyond my comprehension put me directly in the droptine’s path that last day of the 2010 season. But hunting the same buck for so long was just agonizing, and I wasn’t about to do it again. I needed a new area. I needed new blood.

I didn’t harvest a deer in 2011, but I did come out of the woods with a valuable new insight: If an area can grow one giant deer—especially in this day and age—it can grow another. I learned this after finding that big 4×4 living in all the same places that the droptine buck lived. Apparently, one giant buck replaces another.

Fast forward one year.

While hunting elk in 2012, I had the misfortune of blowing two tires while driving out of the rough mountains in Southern Utah. As I was being towed back to town, I struggled to start up a conversation with the quiet and sullen after-hours tow truck driver. I asked him if he knew of any good elk areas, and he gave me a couple vague tips. But when I brought up deer hunting (my true passion), his eyes lit up.

As it turned out, KC (the tow truck driver/shop worker) had a passion for deer equal to mine. Soon, we were in a long, rambunctious conversation about big bucks and past triumphs. When I told him about my infamous droptine buck, he responded, “I remember that deer! That was you!?” We talked about big bucks for the next three hours and before I left with four new tires, he informed me of a giant buck he’s seen a couple years ago—it was the biggest buck he’d ever seen, estimated forty inches wide. Since KC didn’t hunt that particular unit, he was happy to tell me where to go look for it. I took careful notes and then went on my way. I knew the odds of relocating the mythical 40-incher were slim, especially since I’d never set foot in that part of the unit. But still, if an area could grow one giant buck…

And thus began my 40-inch dream. Fast forward one more year.

Gambling on the information I received from KC, I drew my 2013 general archery tag for Southern Utah. In May I tried scouting the “40-inch area,” but the mountains proved too wet and inaccessible that early in the year. I planned a second trip in July, but life just got in the way. I didn’t return to Southern Utah until the archery opener, and since I still wasn’t familiar with the 40-inch area I spent the first week hunting a different area.

I don’t like hunting the season opener. I especially don’t like the heat or all the competition, or bucks in velvet for that matter. But there I was, hunting the opener with my friend Scott. As expected, there were quite a few bucks around; we would see close to twenty per day. The problem was that they were all small bucks. For five days we saw dozens of 2- and 3-points, but no shooters. I’d seen this before and there’s a name for it: Nursery. Nursery areas are bad for trophy hunters because, although there are lots of deer around, they are all small. By the time a nursery buck matures, he becomes territorial and runs off to find his own mountain to live on.

So, on the last day of the hunt we drove to the purported 40-inch area. This time we found a better route up the mountain. I could tell right away that it wasn’t a nursery because, a) there were hardly any deer, and b) the terrain was treacherous to say the least.

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The next morning Scott and I scaled some cliffs and entered what appeared to be the right area. We split up and by late afternoon I finally located a bachelor herd of bucks bedded in some open grass. The biggest buck was a tall, 25-inch four-point with deep forks. The next biggest was a trashy 5-point. Since these were the biggest bucks I’d seen all week, I decided to make a stalk. My first attempt was foiled when it started raining. The bucks quickly unbedded and wandered into the trees. I made a second stalk and was almost within bow range when a moo-cow wandered right into the deer and scared them off. I followed their tracks and on my third stalk it got dark before I could get close. My hunt ended right then and there, and the next morning I made the long drive back home.

As bleak as the opener was, it wasn’t a complete failure. The highlight of the whole week was an arrowhead I found on opening morning while exploring a remote area. When I stopped to glass the opposite hillside, I laid my bow on the ground and noticed a shiny, black arrowhead lying there. I got goose bumps. I always suspected I was following the same instincts and same paths as ancient hunters, but on this day there was proof lying right next to my bow. It was a magical, serendipitous moment.

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Two weeks later I returned to the 40-inch area with my lovely wife Esther. On Sunday night we hiked into the area with a week’s worth of supplies on our backs. By the time we found a flat spot to pitch our tent, we were pouring sweat and exhausted. We spent the evening bathing in a creek rather than hunting.

The next morning we woke before light and headed out. I gave Esther my GPS and sent her to the last known location of the bucks from my previous trip. My plan was to skirt the entire area in hopes of finding even bigger deer…like maybe a 40-incher…

Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, I found no bucks whatsoever. The mountain was just too big and too new and my hopes of finding a respectable buck were dwindling. That was okay though; I figured if there weren’t any deer, I’d enjoy whatever else nature had to offer. With elk bugling around me, I pulled out my camcorder and spent the long, hot part of the day stalking and videotaping multiple bugling bulls.

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While enjoying the elk show, I remembered a conversation I had with Scott towards the end of our last trip. We were both frustrated, and in a sarcastic way I said, “Ya know, there’s only one thing I love more than big bucks.”

“What’s that?” he asked, somewhat disinterested.

“Nature!” I exclaimed. “When I’m in the woods I just love seeing grand vistas, the clear blue skies, and the bright stars at night. I love the clean, crisp air and the ice cold spring water. I enjoy picking up interesting rocks and eating wild berries off the vine. I enjoy reading the deer sign, examining tree rubs, and listening to elk bugling. And in the end, after spending all that time simply enjoying nature, a buck seems to just come along. The bucks are secondary to the process. That’s usually how it happens for me, anyway.”

I don’t think Scott responded.

And so that’s what I did. There were no deer, but the mountains kept me entertained and happy. I didn’t get back to camp until way after dark. The funny thing was, the closer I got to camp the more fresh deer sign I noticed. In fact, the most concentrated tracks and droppings were located within a few hundred yards of our camp! Could it be that we haphazardly pitched our tent right in the deer’s bedroom? Later that night, while eating rehydrated meals, I told Esther about my deery discovery. We decided to wake up early the next morning and hunt close to camp.

We woke early to a heavy rain and promptly went back to bed.

The rain finally quit around 8:30, and by 9:00 we were hiking directly uphill from camp. Sure enough, we found some big, blocky tracks in the fresh mud. Not much farther we heard a commotion in the trees. It sounded like squirrels harvesting pinecones…but there was something else. I turned to Esther and said, “There’s more going on than just squirrels!” As we inched forward, I caught sight of a small pine tree waving back and forth thirty yards ahead. I quickly nocked an arrow and tip-toed closer. The tree stopped waiving and I drew. When the buck passed through a clearing, I let down my draw. It was an average three-point; nothing special. Although I had no interest in shooting a “small” buck, Esther was much less complacent. When the buck moved out of sight, Esther nocked an arrow and we crept stealthfully in its direction. We hadn’t made it very far, however, when we were suddenly blind-sided by a big four-point buck that wandered leisurely out of the trees to our right. He took one look at us and spun around, taking the three-point and one other buck with him. Luckily, they weren’t too spooked and slowed to a walk as they moved up the hillside. I could only make out bits and pieces through the dense trees, but two of the bucks seemed to be carrying heavy headgear.

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The thermals were beginning to rise so we decided to split up. I would circle above the bucks while she stayed below in case I busted them back down the mountain. For the next hour I circled high above the last sighting of the deer, carefully scanning the trees as I went. I was certain I’d either find them bedded or at least cross their tracks. But they were nowhere to be found. Eventually I began working back downhill towards the last place we saw them. Worst case, I could always track them from there. Another hour passed as I carefully inched forward. The bucks were sure to be bedded, and in my experience there’s nothing harder than stalking deer in their beds. Finally, my GPS told me I was within 250 feet of where we left them.

It happened fast. I was skirting around a steep, tree-tangled slope when a deer suddenly stood up behind a large pine tree twenty yards away. I pulled and nocked an arrow in record time which was good because the buck was nervous and started moving downhill quickly. I drew my bow and scanned ahead for a shooting lane. The buck that appeared in the opening was a giant! Instinctively, I let out a n’yoo sound. He paused and whipped his head in my direction. I settled the pin and touched the trigger. My arrow jumped from the string and zipped right through him. Never before had a hunt transpired so quickly!

The huge buck blasted away, but then  paused for a couple seconds to let his four-point buddy catch up. He dropped his head for a second and I could tell he was hit hard. Then, the two bucks bounded down the mountain together.

I think the rain began the very second my arrow left my bow. I looked up and cursed the skies. Experience tells me that rain is bad news for a blood trail. I started tracking early and with some definite urgency. Fortunately, the heavy blood trail, accompanied by large, dug-in tracks, made my job easy. About 200 yards from the shot location, I could see where the buck had paused. There was a deep elk track completely filled with fresh blood. I plunged my finger to the bottom of it, painting my finger red to my second knuckle. I knew the buck wouldn’t be far. Still, he’d covered way more ground than I hoped; tough buck! Not wanting to bump him, I carefully scanned ahead, hoping to see him piled up. The last thing I wanted was a long tracking job in the rain.

Scanning even farther ahead, my heart suddenly leapt at the sight of a large, grey body lying on the opposite hillside 100 yards away. He still had his head up, but I could tell he was fading. He was even bigger than I thought. From behind, his tall and sprawling rack looked like a caribou, with trash and stickers going everywhere. The buck had made it across a ravine but collapsed while climbing the steep, opposite slope. Just then, the other buck—his four-point companion—came prancing down the hill towards him. In disbelief, the big bruiser buck rose up on wobbly legs. Again, I started to worry, but only for a second because instead of prancing up the mountain, he took three steps and began running sideways, then flipped over upside-down. When he lay motionless, I sighed with relief and thanked God for such a beautiful gift.

I pulled out my walkie-talkie and hailed Esther. “I just shot a giant buck,” I whispered. “Come help me…”

Half an hour later, we cautiously approached the fallen monarch. I’ve walked up on a few impressive animals before, but this one was out of control: extra mass, extra points, extra eye-guards…extra everything! This was no ordinary buck. This was the next level. This was Superbuck! What caught my attention right away was his mass which he carried all the way to the points. I could barely fit my hands around his bases.

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Superbuck may not be the mythical 40-incher that brought me to the mountain, but he’s the buck of my dreams. How could you ask for anything more? Emerson once wrote, “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.” I have no doubt that this mountain could actually grow a 40-inch deer, but I won’t be greedy. I have achieved more with my bow than I ever dreamed of. Superbuck is a buck of a lifetime…again…and I can’t wait to see the buck that replaces him. For the record, Superbuck was entered into the books with a net score of 193 2/8 and a gross score of 205 5/8”.

From this relatively short hunt, I am reminded of all the same lessons I’ve learned from a relatively long life: Dream big, set lofty goals, and take risks. Do whatever it takes to get close, then let Nature unfold on its own terms.

Thanks KC; your tip was right on. Thanks almighty God for allowing me two blown tires; from lemons come lemonade, blessings in disguise. Most of all, thanks Esther for being there during all my greatest hunts. I almost always hunt alone, but when I hunt with you, miracles happen.

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