Tag Archives: modern hunting

Hunt Smarter NOT Harder: Part 2

Hunt Smarter Not Harder Part 2

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What the heck is this a picture of???

This is Mount Ben Lomond with a grid overlay. Maybe I just have too much time on my hands, or maybe I’m actually hunting smarter these days.

Last October, my brother Brent had a once-in-a-lifetime mountain goat tag for Ben Lomond. Once you’re on top of the mountain, it’s almost impossible to see down the steep sides. Therefore, the best way to hunt is to have a spotter (me) park at the base of the mountain looking up, while the hunter (Brent) is on top receiving directions to the goats via cell phone.

Although effective, this method requires a lot of explaining and guesswork in communicating directions. So, one day while sitting below Ben Lomond, it occurred to me that if we both had a picture of the mountain overlaid with a grid, then it would be much easier to communicate where the goats were. Being a somewhat photo-tech-savvy-individual, I did a multi-photo pan of the mountain, from north to south. Then, in Photoshop I overlaid a grid and put numbers and letters along the sides.

So basically all I have to do is spot a goat, call Brent, and say, “G-13.”

It’s like goat battleship!

Although very effective in theory, we never had a chance to use this grid-method. Brent ended up shooting his goat on a day I couldn’t be there. Fortunately for me and my brother-in-law Josh, we are looking to draw the same goat tag either this year or next, and I have the feeling this map will come in handy.

Incidentally, Brent shot his goat in section I-11.

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P.S.  If you would like a digital copy of the Ben Lomond Grid Map, let me know and I’ll send it to you.

Hunt Smarter NOT Harder: Part 1

Hunt Smarter NOT Harder: Part 1

Hunt smarter, NOT harder!

I keep these four words in mind all year long. When I’m applying for a tag, for instance, I might be tempted to apply for an area that had good hunting in years past, but is waning now. I might be tempted to hunt an area close to home and practically kill myself looking for a good buck, when I know I could have gone to a farther-away unit and been almost guaranteed a bigger buck. Sometimes it’s the third day of a slow hunt and I’m tempted to sleep in and recuperate, and then hunt the rest of the day. But I know more than anything that my best odds of intercepting a deer is very early in the morning.

You get the idea.

All of this was born out of the hunt for the infamous Drop-tine buck in 2010. For a while, I wondered how this magnificent, one-in-a-million, double-droptine buck managed to elude hunters for eight years while living less than half a mile from the busiest dirt road. By the third year of hunting the Drop-tine Buck, I realized that 90% of the hunters either didn’t get off their ATV weren’t willing to hike very far from it.

More importantly, I learned that amazing bucks sometimes live a short distance off the side of the road. You just need to know where to look for them. This requires you to learn a little about deer behavior and diet. It also requires that you hunt smarter, but not necessarily harder. While some hunters are repelling up a cliff in search of the ever-elusive big-buck, I might be wandering within shouting distance of the highway and stirring up even bigger bucks!

With ever-increasing obligations these days, time is in short supply for most of us. We need to learn how to become more efficient predators, and not with new gear but new information. I often warn people about the pitfall of gear. The gear won’t save you. Focus on the improving your skills first! Spend more time scouting and less time buying stuff.

Right now, we’re sitting in the middle of the off-season. What a perfect time to invest in our priceless, upcoming hunts by learning, studying, and scouting. More than any other time in history, there’s a wealth of information being published about modern game animals and hunting techniques. Below, I’ve listed the absolute best books that have helped me maximize my time in the field. Remember, information is power.

Blood in the Tracks, by Jim Collyer

Mule Deer Quest, by Walt Prothero

Public Land Mulies, by David Long

Mule Deer: A Handbook for Utah Hunters and Landowners, by Dennis D. Austin

…and don’t forget my eBook (shameless plug), Zen Hunting.

Next post,

Hunt Smarter NOT Harder: Part 2

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: Brilliant Survivors Part 1

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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Modern Mule Deer Part 2:  Adaptation and 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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Modern Mule Deer: 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

Zen Hunting Now Available on Amazon Kindle

Zen Hunting eBook Now Available on Amazon

In valiant effort to get with the times, an eBook version of my book,

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is now available on Amazon for only $4.99!

This is a spectacular value for this limited edition, 200-page, 70-photo literary work. Order and read Zen Hunting now by clicking the link below:

Zen Hunting: A Bowhunter’s Path to Purpose and Enlightenment

(A signed paperback or hardcover copy is still available by request).

Mule Deer Adaptation

Mule Deer Adaptation

My biggest frustration is empty woods. In places like Monte Cristo and the Manti-Lasal range, a hunter can travel past supreme habitat all day long without catching sight of a single deer. Thirty years ago, these places were crawling with deer, even giving up dozens of record-book bucks along the way. Today, not much about these woods has changed except there are almost no deer. And the few deer that still exist are the neurotic descendants of lone survivors.

During the seventies and eighties, while hundreds of trigger-happy hunters clambered around the mountainsides shooting wildly at any buck that dared step into the open, those few crazy-bucks held up in the thickest trees. They sprung from cover at the slightest human sight or scent and barreled along thick tree lines and out of sight without glancing back. Even something as benign as a squirrel’s bark would send these wide-eyed crazies flying into the next valley, never stopping to question the validity of the threat as they retreated into some dark hole on some private property or high mountain cliff. Today, the descendants of these neurotic deer are all that’s left—no longer Odocoileus hemionus, but Odocoileus neuroticus.

My friend Scott and I often travel together down a long and dusty road leading to an area on Monte Cristo where we both hunt. Every time we drive past a certain clearing in the trees above the road, Scott points out the exact location where his brother-in-law once shot a little two-point buck long ago. This appears to be the highlight of his family’s gun hunting tradition in recent years. Now, each time I drive down that road and look at that hillside clearing, I can’t help but wonder if that little buck was indeed the last of a generation of careless mule deer—yesterday’s deer.

What the modern mule deer lacks in numbers it makes up for in elusiveness. As an example, there are a few spots where I hunt that are always covered in deer sign—tracks, rubs, and droppings everywhere. But in a hundred days of hunting you’ll never actually see a single animal—at least not during daylight. It’s well known that deer are crepuscular animals (being most active in the morning and evening). But on heavily pressured public areas where I hunt, I’ve observed that today’s deer are mostly, if not completely, nocturnal. 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. That “great” area you chose to sit and watch before first light, remains quiet and empty as the sun comes up. It doesn’t matter how early you arrive because you’ve already missed the action. Utah wildlife biologist and author, Walt Prothero, wrote extensively on the mule deer’s keen ability to adapt to modern dangers. In his book Mule Deer Quest he wrote the following:

“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. Bucks 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).”

Traditionally, mule deer experts have agreed that mule deer must rise out of their beds to feed occasionally throughout the day in order to maintain adequate energy and fat stores. However, in most of the high-pressured public areas where I hunt, I have observed that this is no longer the case. These modern mulies 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 get up to eat occasionally during the night to survive. It’s just not necessary.

Another example of the mule deer’s ability to adapt to adverse conditions took place following the particularly harsh winter of 1983-1984. Every single deer in the mountains of Northern Utah was forced down to the lowest possible elevations in order to survive the extremely high snowpack. This forced many of the herds into our cities and even farther into the farmlands west of Ogden. By springtime, many deer had simply adapted to the city lifestyle and never did return to the mountains. Even today, small herds of mule deer are living year-round in the suburbs of Logan, Brigham City, North Ogden, West Weber, Hooper, Farmington, Bountiful, and many other small cities.

This amazing ability to adapt to innumerable adverse conditions—primarily man-made conditions—is all that’s kept the wily mule deer from becoming an endangered species.