By Matt Sturtevant
Hunting has been a passion of mine my entire life. I was raised on Maine Whitetails. My success rate was pretty standard for a flat lander, harvesting one doe over the course of 11 years. I was used to the cold, being patient, and little chance of even spotting deer. By the time I was 27, I was ready for a change. Lucky for me, my job took me to Montana where the game was far more plentiful. Hunting took on new meaning, when it meant there was a good chance of getting a shot at one of my favorite ungulates. I was not only ready to chase Mule Deer out west, but do it with stick and string. Keep in mind, that when you start chasing a new species, there’s always a learning curve. This hunt was no exception. Being my first real mule deer hunt, I learned a lot in very little time. The hunt got started days before it was planned. I was carrying my binos while doing some scouting for antelope with my wife’s uncle. We’d come across a section of BLM with a large ridge, along the north side of the road we were on. As the sun set to the west, while driving past this patch of land, I glanced up and noticed the outline of a couple deer grazing at the top. After a little more glassing, we realized the deer were a group of mule deer bucks, one of which was a shooter.
Figure 1 “Photo” Mule Deer Disappointment
At this point it was on! We spent a little more time analyzing the layout of the land. We found an excellent line of approach further down the road, up a drainage that led to the top of an adjacent hill. Not having the time to scout more and with the sun setting, that drainage would have to do. The only issue was finding the time to get back there. I’ve learned a few things in the last few months about hunting deer. They may or may not stick around a particular area for any length of time. On some occasions they may live in an area for years, yet other times may frequent an area for only a few weeks or even days. This meant I needed to be back on that hill within about 2 days at the most. After that, they may move on or worse, another bow hunter may get on them and either harvest the one I wanted or at the very least push them out of the area.
With the wife’s consent of course, I was out there two days later on a beautiful sunny day. The mountains were in the background covered in a fresh layer of snow, but at my location it was almost 50 degrees. Unfortunately, it was already 8 AM when I left the truck and started heading up the hill. I went elk hunting the week before and was still worn out, so I started out a little later than I wanted. With deer, the action is either at sunrise or late in the afternoon and the sun had already been up for a while. This meant the first six or seven hours of my hunt was to be spent scouting the area, although I was hoping for better.
Going up the drainage, due north, to the top of the first hill gave me a lot of time to learn the terrain. Once at the top I had a much better idea of what I was dealing with. The area I was in was below a section of national forest and primarily ranch land which meant no trees and thus good cover was scarce. Almost everything was grassland with rolling hills and several drainages. I could now see the back side of the ridge where I first spotted the deer days earlier, running north east. Of course today there wasn’t a single deer in the area. I covered a lot of terrain heading north, then northwest, crossing the majority of drainages on this particular section of state land. For a few hours all I did was cover a v-shaped patch of trees. The only patch I might add, that covered two of the larger drainages. Heading down one, going northeast, to the intersection of the two and then back up the other heading southwest took several more hours.
Glancing at the top for the hundredth time, I was running out of land to cover and still hadn’t seen any deer. The drainage I was in was easily the largest. I took my time getting to the top thinking I’d see something along the creek at the bottom, or on the other side, but nothing appeared. After a quick nap in the noon time sun, I decided that rather than wait for the end of the day and maybe get a shot at a deer, I’d try something different somewhere else. I put a call in to my wife’s uncle to see if he had any ideas and in fact he did. At the top of the drainage was a large grassy bowl, that I watched coming up the drainage. After getting off the phone, I stood up put my pack on. I was just about ready to head out when I took one last glance at that big bowl. To my amazement not one, two or three, but four mule deer bucks were grazing directly in the center of the gigantic grassy opening, where there hadn’t been anything just ten minutes ago.
Taking a quick look through my glass revealed that at the center of that bowl was a clump of three foot high brush roughly 20 yards across. This brush was their cover for long sunny days like this one. Of the four bucks, one of them was a nice 3 x 3 and the older buck in the group. Ranging them indicated they were 480 yards away. The only problem now was that the only cover between myself and that bachelor group of bucks was a small coulee where the creek started for the drainage I was in. I was stuck high up on the south side of this large grassy drainage that led south west to this grass filled bowl, trying to figure out how to get into range of these beautiful animals. All I could do was to creep along ever so slowly and try to get down to the coulee without spooking them. Another issue was that they were grazing towards me and every time I moved I swear they noticed me. This meant that after I moved too much, all their heads would pop up and wouldn’t go down for another two or three minutes.
I did this for a while until I realized I might actually run out of daylight. I wasn’t getting anywhere so I decided to be bold. Once all four of them had their heads down, I jumped up and sprinted to the next bump or bush or rock to hide behind. None of the cover was over 12″ tall, so I had to almost lie completely flat along the ground. I started to make some progress. Before I knew it, I was safe in the coulee just below the bucks, maybe 150 yards. Shedding a few layers, I prepped for the final stalk. As I popped over the edge of the coulee near the bucks, there was tall grass hiding me from the bucks. I realized they might catch my scent as I was downwind of them. I was on my hands and knees crossing the field with an arrow knocked and ready. I kept picking up my bow and moving it forward as I crawled to it and repeated the process over again. Even crawling, I had too large a profile in that grass or I just stunk. I got a little closer, within 100 yards and sure enough the lead buck spooked and they were gone. I stood up to watch and noticed the bucks running east across the huge drainage, looking back at me. They were about 300 yards away when they turned around to take one least peek and then ran off.
My first stalk had failed, but I wasn’t discouraged. As I got to the top of the bowl, I was hoping to creep up on them from above as they hung out on the other side. I wasn’t so lucky. Getting to the top, I realized they had vanished. I had walked all the way to the top of the ridge, below was the dirt road I was on a few days earlier. Had I scouted this area rather than pushed the hunt, I would have known the deer bedded on the other side of the ridge in the bowl, about a mile from the road.
Figure 2 “Photo” Mule Deer Disappointment
Searching everywhere I thought for sure the hunt was over. I looked across the ridge to the east on a section of land that jutted out over the very steep hill side. There on this precipice which was mostly grass, but had a few boulders and several trees, was my group of bucks grazing. I wasn’t going to give up and I wanted that buck bad. Again I formulated a plan that involved side hilling down the ridge. I planned to sneak up on the bucks from below that piece of land that was sticking out over the hill side. It seemed pretty simple and most of the way over, they wouldn’t be able to see me. It was perfect, until I finally crept up over the precipice to close the gap, the bucks were gone again. Regardless of the stalk taking only an hour, I was getting very discouraged. How could they know I’d be there? Could they hear or smell me? I doubt it, given the terrain and the fact that I was so quiet. I looked for them everywhere and found them about 60 yards away with five does. They had met up with five random does. How was this even possible?
I was glad it wasn’t my fault, but pretty much knew how the hunt was going to end. They disappeared AGAIN over the north side of the ridge and I decided to put one last stalk on. I followed the south side of the ridge with the idea that I would surprise them further down as I crept over the side from above. No need for it. I hiked about 100 yards further down the ridge when I noticed them crossing about 150 yards ahead of me. They were just jogging until one of them stopped and spotted me again. Being as surprised as they were with zero cover, I watched as they took off one last time and disappeared.
It was over. Three failed stalks, a long day with nothing to show for it and an arrow that had to go back in the quiver bloodless. All that and I loved every second of it. I had never been on a hunt solely dedicated to mule deer and I’d done it solo. I made a TON of mistakes, but learned a lot from it.
Some of the biggest lessons learned include;
– Never approach from below especially in the afternoon when the thermals are coming up the mountain/drainage.
– Patience, patience, patience.
– Scout first rather than hunt an area immediately. Hunt the next day, but spend time thinking about where the deer are and how to get at them. You’ll be glad you slowed down enough to gather all the information necessary for a successful hunt.
– If crawling is going to be necessary, figure out where you’ll leave your gear and how you’ll carry your bow.
– Be ready for anything.