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Big mulies the easy way: waylaying mulies from trees keeps pressure down and odds up.

I spent opening day sitting in the guide's house, drinking coffee and finishing the work I didn't have time to do at home. It was raining and I had to get this stuff done at some point, so I took a rain day. Three of my friends were in camp with me and they weathered the ugly conditions. Scott Prucha saw a nice buck that he would have shot had it been 20 yards closer, but Kurt Schroeder and Joe Democko saw nothing.

It was October 1, and this was my tenth trip to eastern Colorado in the last nine years in search of world-class mule deer. My guide and outfitter was Dan Ardrey, owner of Kiowa Creek Outfitters. I had hunted with Dan several times in the past and we have accounted for some big bucks. The track record speaks for itself. In the previous nine trips. I had taken four bucks with an average gross score of more than 190 inches, and that includes one whitetail! My luck has certainly been better than average on giant bucks.

We were hunting a ranch with two miles of creek bottom lined on both sides by alfalfa fields. It had been a wet summer by Colorado standards and the alfalfa was tall and lush. The mulies on the ranch bedded in the tall grass of the cottonwood and willow choked creek bottom all day. Then they waded belly deep into the fields each evening. Dan had been watching and filming them all summer and when we got into camp, he showed us the videos of entire herds of bucks--some well over 200 inches.

When hunting creek bottoms, you have two clear choices in strategy: ground blinds or tree stands. We opted for tree stands on this trip, though I had hunted the same ranch from ground blinds a few days during the 2002 season when I chased a buck that would have scored over 210 inches.

The cover in the creek bottom ranges from 40 yards to over 200 yards at the widest point. Dan had located most of the tree stands along trails he had seen bucks using as they went to the fields, and had placed a few near bedding areas. One in particular was set in a bottleneck that deer moving up and down the creek at random would be sure to pass. When I was able to get started on the second morning I went to that stand, where I saw only a doe and fawn working their way up the bottom.

I liked the looks of the spot and decided to hunt the stand as often as possible. I knew the potential of the ranch and also that eventually every deer in that creek bottom would walk through that bottleneck. So, I was back in the tree early that afternoon. I dropped off Joe and Scott on my side of the creek and Dan went in to drop off Kurt on the other side. I hadn't been on stand for more than 30 minutes when I looked up and saw a pair of good bucks walking and browsing slowly toward me. I was cooling down on that hot afternoon and didn't even have my facemask on yet.

One was a weird-horned mature buck with a massive four-point antler on one side and a big club with points going in every direction on the other. If he had been the only deer coming my way, I would have shot him and been proud of it. However, his running mate was a 5X5 that was almost perfectly symmetrical. In the quick second I had, I chose to try for the symmetrical buck.

The pair continued moving at a steady walk along a trail that led from the direction where Kurt was hunting toward the ranch boundary. They stopped several times to nip at grass along the trail.

I quickly ranged the first buck at 45 yards. He was the funky-horned one. The second buck was following in his tracks. Hitting full draw, I took a deep breath and waited. I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to do next. Mule deer are very prone to jump the string once they are alert, so I didn't want to stop him for the shot. Yet, at this distance, I didn't want to take a walking shot either.


The realization hit me that I didn't have a plan even before I hit full draw, but I didn't have to deliberate long before the buck gave me an easy solution. Three seconds after I settled in at full draw, he paused for just a moment to nip at some grass. The gap between my third and fourth pins quickly steadied on his chest and the arrow took off as if it had a mind of its own.


The hit was good and the buck ran only 50 yards before wilting into the willow trees along the creek. The action had been so unexpected and my hunt over so fast that the moment took my breath away. I had to sit down to regain my composure. It was just the first half-hour of the first afternoon of my hunt and I already had a dandy buck.

I hate to say it was easy, because big mule deer are never supposed to be easy, but I guess in the course of hunting them for 10 years you are going to get a few tap-ins. This buck grossed 182 inches.

Of the five deer I have shot in the eastern plains of Colorado, I have shot four of them from tree stands. I took two of those during the early season, one during the rut and one during the late season. I have chased some whoppers during the five unsuccessful hunts, mostly on the ground in wide-open country. That's a tough task.

Why Stands Are Easier

Spot and stalk hunting for mule deer with a bow is exciting, but it is also notoriously difficult. I've killed just one big mulie after a stalk, but I have messed up many others. I have concluded that for the average bowhunter, tree stand hunting is much easier--and it is definitely easier for the average whitetail hunter who doesn't spend much time honing the necessary stalking skills.

You won't get as many opportunities or see as much action when hunting from a tree, but the shots are generally closer and much more controlled. In the end, the success rate improves. You can set the shots up the way you want them and as the deer approaches, you can ready yourself and control the timing. Those are important elements of any successful encounter. The action during a stalk is always spontaneous and unpredictable. The shots are often difficult since you can't control angle, brush or range nearly as well. Sure, spontaneous action is exciting and breathtaking, but it is also nice to fill tags. So when given an option between stalking and ambushing, I'll take the ambush.

In addition, tree stand hunting is a low impact way to hunt. You aren't nearly as likely to run a big buck out of a creek bottom where he is feeding in nearby fields when hunting from a stand. For example, I mentioned a buck I hunted in 2002. I spent nine days trying to shoot that buck. I stuck with tree stands to keep from boogering him, and I was into him every day.

I had several agonizingly close calls during those nine days that could have easily gone my way, but they didn't. That buck never knew I was hunting him, up to the very end. He was still there when I had to leave, visible from the upper level of an old barn we used when glassing to determine his patterns and set up our traps. There is no way I could have kept a big mature buck that relaxed for nine days of solid hunting pressure if I had gone after him on foot each day. After one or two foiled attempts, he would have been over the fence on the next ranch-for good.

Mule Deer Behavior

Of course, to be a successful tree stand hunter you need to know as much as you can about the animal you are trying to ambush. Mule deer aren't exactly like whitetails, but they have enough in common when you hunt them near their feeding areas that you can use the same basic approach. The biggest difference is a mulie's tendency to roam more. For example, even during the early season, well before the rut, a big mule deer is not as inclined to live his life between specific feeding areas and specific bedding areas. He may hang around a certain field for a week and then just up and leave and not show up again for two more weeks.

Mule deer are also more prone to use widely separate bedding areas and seemingly random trails every day when accessing a feeding area. It is nothing for a mule deer to bed a mile up the creek one day and a mile down the creek the next day and feed in the same field both evenings. Worse yet, they may feed a mile up the creek one day and two miles down it the next. This level of unpredictability makes it tough to pin them down, but they are more visible during the day than whitetails, which keeps you in the game.

You can watch where a mule deer beds in the morning and then set an ambush based on that information for the afternoon hunt. In the open country of creek bottom feeding areas, you can find them nearly every day if the bucks are on the property.

Rut Hunts From Stands

Dan Ardrey also does most of his rut hunting from tree stands or ground blinds. He uses the blinds in sage flats and the stands in creek bottoms and pine foothills. I shot a nice 4X4 from a stand during the rut of late November in 1997. That buck was out cruising. My guide, Bobby Benison, and I spotted the buck from the vehicle. Bobby had a stand in the direction the buck was going and dropped me off. The stand overlooked the lower end of a ditch that cut deeply into the hill. Rather than cross the ditch, the buck detoured around the bottom and came past for a 40-yard shot. That hunt only lasted 20 minutes total.

Mule deer are much like whitetails during the rut; they cruise around constantly looking for does. That creates a great opportunity to ambush them in areas where the terrain or cover creates a bottleneck. There are also areas that pull the does during November. During other parts of the season, there may not be any mature bucks within miles, but during the rut, these doe concentration areas (usually the same places year after year) are where the bucks go for action. These are great places to place your tree stand or ground blind.

Late Season Stands

I've never had much success stand hunting during the late season, so I have little to offer in the way of wisdom. I did shoot a big whitetail from a tree stand in the eastern plains of Colorado in late December, 2000, but despite three or four trips during this period, I have yet to shoot a mule deer. They are not moving much in late December and generally are out of the creek bottoms and onto the flats staging for winter. Often, this means they are spending time in the wide-open sage areas and bedding in gullies and ditches. Those are tough stand hunting and tough stalking conditions. I'll have to try ground blinds in that situation more on future December hunts.



I love stalking in the open plains. But, when trying to arrow big mule deer in areas where there are trees, you will find me in a tree every time. An ambush (ground blinds included) produces the higher odds. If you like to fill tags the easy way, don't overlook tree stand hunting for mule deer.

Editor's Note: All deer hunting in eastern Colorado is determined by drawing with a deadline in early April each year. For more information, contact: Kiowa Creek Outfitters, Dept. PB, P.O. Box 298, Elbert, CO 80106; (303) 648-3273.
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Author:Winke, Bill
Publication:Petersen's Bowhunting
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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