Tag Archives: mule deer

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!

Second Scouting Trip: June 2015

Okay, less words, more photos:

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Esther and I hit the top of Monte Cristo over the weekend. The snow subsided enough to get above 8000 feet. We spent the first day beating the mountain to death and exploring a promising new area completely devoid of deer. Driving back to camp we spotted these bucks on a hillside.

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It’s still early, but the monsoons of May have the bucks growing promising antlers. The two bucks on the left are likely two-year-olds, and the buck on the right is a mature buck with a potential outside spread of 22 inches or more.

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The bucks didn’t stick around long for pictures, but that’s okay. Just seeing bucks in the Cache unit made us hopeful.

Here’s the lessons we learned on this trip:

  1. The Cache-Monte unit still sucks.
  2. The biggest bucks are still on lower elevations. Although we found signs of large migrating bucks, most are still lower on the mountain and following green-up up. They won’t be high until the heat and mosquitoes push them up.
  3. Promising new areas weren’t as promising as we hoped, even far off the dirt road. You have to cover many miles of empty woods just to locate a few small patches that regularly hold deer.

Just one word of caution: The high elevation roads still have patches of snow and deep mud. We almost got stuck a couple times. Not far from camp we ran into this abandoned Hummer-in-a-bog, sunk up to both axles. The poor fellas were able to winch it out the next day, but it just goes to show you, no vehicle is safe from the muddy clutches of the mountain.

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More scouting to come!

First Scouting Trip: May 2015

The Big Game Draw results are in:  unsuccessful for Mountain Goat and limited entry Deer, but successful for general Buck Deer…in my 5th choice unit.

After arrowing the infamous Droptine buck in 2010, I vowed never to hunt the Cache unit (Monte Cristo/Unit #2) again. There are simply too few bucks and hardly any trophies. But with so many hunters in Utah now, I can no longer hunt where I want to, even with a bow. For a guaranteed tag, I always put Cache as my last choice. Since no one in their right mind actually wants to hunt the Cache unit, it’s a guaranteed draw.

Well, I’ll make the most of it. And when it’s all over, I know I will be standing over a huge Pope & Young buck, but man, it’s gonna take some work. In order to succeed, I’ve already begun scouting. I’ll continue scouting this bleak unit every chance I get until opening day in mid-August.

The Cache unit is relatively HUGE. What it lacks in quality deer, it makes up for in quantity area–miles and miles of pristine forest and mountains, mostly devoid of wildlife. It takes a lot of time and effort to thoroughly scout an area this big.

A couple weeks ago, when the higher elevations were still snowed in, Esther and I scouted some obscure lower elevations. I quickly learned that you had to get at least a mile away from the dirt road to find any deer. We finally found a pod of eight deer in a steep feeding swathe between aspens.  It was too early to see antlers, but it looked like a promising new area.

Pre-season scouting doesn’t require actually seeing deer. It’s more important to look for sign:  large tracks, tree rubbings, and especially good feeding areas. Remember the old adage:  Where you find the best feed, you’ll find the best bucks. Grab a topo map and locate potential feeding areas on the east and south-east facing slopes near steep, timbered bedding areas. Bucks love to bed near feed, especially early in the year when there’s little pressure.

Successful scouting means continually seeking out new potential areas. Hunting pressure quickly pushes bucks out of prime areas, so you’ll need multiple backup areas. Be sure to scout the secondary ridges. These are the lower or middle ridges where bucks feel safe. On Monte Cristo the main roads follow the top and bottom of the mountain. But in the deep, dark middle/interior, the bucks feel safe.

Although I wasn’t inspired to pull out my camera and document our first antlerless deer sighting, I considered this trip a good learning experience. The biggest lesson was how much more area I still needed to cover. A second scouting trip was quickly planned and executed (see tomorrows post with pictures!)

Good luck on your own scouting adventures.

Backyard Bucks: May 28, 2015

Have I mentioned that I love deer?  Have I mentioned that I love living out in the country?  Yes I have, and I’m doing it again. Check out these photos I caught just before dark last night:

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With all the recent rain, my garden is even growing bucks! I call this buck Henry. Last year he ate most of our ripe tomatoes. I told my wife, if he keeps eating our garden, I’m going to eat him!

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Here’s Henry laughing at me because he knows the hunt doesn’t start for another three months.

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Here’s a group of bucks in the adjacent lot, only 35 yards away. And yes, they are all bucks, mostly young ones. Their antlers are just starting to grow velvet nubs. Cool!

I hope you enjoyed viewing these pics as much as I enjoyed taking them.  Happy hunting this year!

One Giant Antler

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There is an image, not unlike the one above, that still haunts me today.

It was the muzzleloader hunt of 2001. I was still getting used to my new hunting area near Fairview, Utah. I knew the hunting pressure would keep the big bucks in the thick timber, so that’s where I spent my days. I’d never gotten a real trophy-size buck before, and up until then, I’d only seen a few true trophies in all my years of hunting. But I’d seen enough in this unit to know it was possible. These were the bucks I daydreamed about.

On opening morning our camp dispersed across the land. I dropped into the deep and steep pine forest below camp. The deadfall was so thick I had to hop from log to log, not touching the ground for a hundred yards or so. Eventually it opened up with aspens and narrow feeding swathes. Judging by the sign—and I was no expert back then—there were plenty of deer around, but where they went during the day, no one knew.

I’d grown accustom to blowing stalks on large deer, and as you’ll see, my confidence was way down. I knew there were big deer in this unit, attested to by an occasional flash of antler, a loud snort, and the sound of heavy hooves smashing away through the dense woods. I pressed on, but really, I’d already given up.

Judging by the high sun, it must have been close to noon.  I knew the deer wouldn’t be up on their feet at midday, but I wouldn’t allow myself to return to camp and make excuses for my failure; blaming the lack of deer on the area and then bedding down for the day myself. That would be submission. No, I would continue my quest, beating the pine-needled forest floor to death with my stinky old boots.

I was still-hunting along on a steep and rocky slope. The timber was less dense at the edge of the pines where interspersed aspens and deer brush heedlessly  begged for a more sun. My predator eyes suddenly and haphazardly caught the slightest bit movement a hundred yards below me in some tall brush. My cheap, murky binos came up and locked on. ANTLERS! Little bits of tines bounced and bobbed through the tall brush. What they were attached to I could not tell in the thick brush; no fur nor face nor hide nor hair, just bits of antlers appearing and disappearing. How big was he, I wondered? A two-point? A four-point? No way to tell and no shot; I needed to get closer.

Here’s where my lack of confidence shines brightest. Based on previous buck encounters, I told myself this would never work out. I didn’t really believe I could get close enough for a shot, but I had to try—I desperately had to try!

It’s different these days, here in the future. Today, I would just sit tight. The wind was most likely rising from late-morning thermals. I would sit and wait for the buck to feed into the open, even if it took all day. 100 yards is an easy shot with a gun. Woulda-coulda-shoulda. But this is how we learn…

I dropped to my butt and began my slow-motion descent. The pine needles were dry and loud, and the terrain was terribly steep. I used the wind and forest sounds to cover my approach. For twenty minutes I slid, scooted, and crab-crawled down the hill, drawing closer and closer to the sighting. Minutes felt like hours.

The buck eventually moved out of sight, swallowed up by the forest. Unable to keep tabs on him, I became increasingly skeptical.  Did he bed down? Did he sense me and move off? Gotta get closer! I crept closer and closer until I was within a few yards of where I first saw him. All was quiet. Now what?

He’s gone! I must have busted him out. I knew this would happen. Oh well… I would’ve been a little upset if I ever truly believed I had a chance at this buck.

I stood up, slung the gun on my shoulder, and dug my GPS unit out of my pocket. I stared blankly at the screen as it tracked and tracked and tracked for satellites. There’s nothing more tedious than waiting for the GPS to track in thick timber. My eyes lifted and floated around the forest. What direction did he go, I wondered.

As my gaze drifted to the right, my lethargic eyelids suddenly flashed wide-open; my heart stopped. Fifteen yards away, a massive, tall, sweeping, 4-point antler stuck directly out from behind a large tree trunk. On the other side, the long gray line of a deer’s back extended outward.

No thoughts, just action.

In one motion my left hand opened and the GPS went into free-fall. My hand flashed to the butt of my gun. The GPS was halfway to the ground as my gun twirled like a baton in front of me. My right hand caught the gunstock and lifted it to my shoulder. The GPS bounced inaudibly as the gun’s muzzle swung towards the buck.

Too late. Heavy hooves dug into the ground with a loud thud and every trace of that monster buck instantly vanished into the woods. Frantically I aimed at the crashing and snorting of my invisible foe, but he was gone.

And that was that. Nothing left but a haunting technicolor image of a huge antler sticking straight out of a tree trunk, burned forever in the forefront of my long-term memory. For the duration of the hunt I beat myself up for my failure.

I am tempted to leave the story right there, but habit forces me find the good in the bad. I knew then, as I know now, that my biggest mistake was over-estimating the buck, and under-estimating myself. I failed because I accepted failure from the start. I had him in my hands, if only I’d been patient. If only I had believed this one burning truth: that he was “just a deer” and not an impossible phantom.

The End.

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.

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)