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Mule deer malady: finding the cure for an early season longing.

I had to get out West Eight months of heavy work schedules had left me as fried as something the Colonel might serve up on a Styrofoam plate.

Worse, I'd learned that once again I'd failed to draw an elk tag. I was depressed, but I had to suck it up and get into scout mode if I was going to black out some days in a blank September calendar. Antelope? Too late in the month, if I wanted to hunt the prairie goat rut. Maybe a leftover elk landowner tag, I told myself, or an early mule deer hunt.

Desperate, I called Jason Carter at Carter's Hunting Services in Utah?

"Got a call from an outfitter with a mule deer cancellation this morning," Jason said. "He's in Alberta in a good area."

I was game, calling Billy Franklin minutes later. We worked out a deal for the leftover tag that would have me male deer hunting the first month of the season, and I could already feel my anxiety level start to subside. In my mind's eye. I could already see the rolling prairies of eastern Alberta. Aaaahhhhh.

The Appeal

I love mule deer hunting, you might call it a malady. a sick ness really, because I get afflicted at the same time every year in late July, just before the western seasons open. I'm guessing I picked up the ailment while in college in Missoula, Montana, where I had the privilege of hunting mulies with my bow before and after classes, up the canyons just outside of town.

The habitat mulies live in has a lot to do with this affliction: the prairies and mountains where you find the big-eared deer: I guess it's the spot-and-stalk hunting, seeing game at distance and then trying to close that keeps sucking me in; something so different form the whitetail hunting I grew up with.

In addition to those college days of chasing around Missoula's Rattlesnake Canyon and up Grant Creek, I've also hunted mulies in southern Montana, in and around the black timber near Yellowstone, as well as up in breaks and rocky outcrops of the Great Plains country of eastern Montana. In southeastern Arizona, I've chased them in mesquite brush on their way to and from the chile fields, and in Nevada, I've shadowed them over talus slopes at elevations well above 10,000 feet. In Colorado, I've picked my way through the dusty, dry gulches of the eastern plains and also followed them through the yellow aspens of the national forests on the front range.


Mule deer hunting has changed over the past decade. Not long ago, in most areas, a decent three- or four-point (western count) 140-ish buck was quite a mark for an archery hunter, and unless you were way back in, that's about the best you might see. Today, mule deer trophy quality has improved substantially in a number of states and seeing "book" deer isn't unusual at all. Notice, I said, "see" them. Because killing them with a bow is a different matter.


Many people ask, "Aren't mule deer kind of stupid?" Actually, I think a mule deer buck is wilier than a whitetail buck, though I'm sure I'd get some argument there. Mule deer live in country that is more open than whitetails, so at a glance, they may seem to behave less secretively. But try to locate a mule deer buck that wants to disappear, and I guarantee you'll quickly develop a new respect for these animals.

Mule deer also have some habits that make them look easier than they are, including their propensity to roam in daylight, but don't let this fool you.

My understanding of mule deer bucks is that they have a basic timetable. Like whitetails, they are crepuscular animals, meaning they favor the dawn and dusk periods in places where they are not disturbed. But whereas whitetail bucks will retire to thick cover once daylight is burning, mulies simply seem to move a bit, then bed down to take a rest. Then, about midmorning, mule deer bucks engage in a second movement, traveling and feeding toward their secure daytime beds.

For the spot-and-stalk hunter, this second movement is a key mule deer weakness, much like a whitetail buck's tendency to poke around his core area before bedding for the day. Many a whitetail buck has retired from a feeding field during gray dawn, only to be arrowed by a hunter back in the thick stuff as he checked beds, rubbed trees or analyzed the comings and goings of other deer while making his morning rounds.

Mule deer bucks are best spotted on their last morning move, about 10 a.m. or so, the best time to intercept them on the hoof, or watch them bed and plan a stalk. It's not normally easy. Their "safe" spots are usually well-fortified, unapproachable slopes or hidey holes, well shaded from the mid-day sun.

A key trait that makes mule deer more difficult to hunt than whitetails is their unwillingness to follow the same geographical patterns day to day. Whereas a whitetail buck travels the same general route on a daily basis (heck, we all heard tales of whitetails killed near the place where their picture was taken by trail cameras), a mule deer buck is more likely to randomly appear in a location, and may be miles away on the following day. For example, on the hunt I'm going to describe to you, we spotted a beautiful 6x5 non-typical the day before the season opened and never saw him in that area again.

Return To Alberta

So there I was, in the days before the season opened, on my way to chase mule deer on the wide prairie grasslands of southeastern Alberta. I'd come to know this same country as good pronghorn ground, where I'd actually shot a 16-inch prairie "goat" from behind a decoy several years earlier. At that time, I certainly wouldn't have described this as good mule deer country, because, though we'd spent almost a week pronghorn hunting in the vast and rolling grasslands, we had seen only a few mule deer. Certainly I'd missed something, which turned out to be the vast breaks and badlands that surround the Red Deer River-picturesque mule deer habitat.

I met Billy Franklin at his tire shop in the town of Brooks, and started to get a bit leery of the whole gig when it appeared these guys were tire brokers first, hunting guides second. This view was reinforced by Billy's announcement that he wouldn't be my guide (I was wrong of course) and that a rancher named Carl would be picking me up shortly. I had no way to know at that moment that Carl owned some of the best mule deer ground in the region on his 20,000-acre ranch.


When Carl arrived I felt like I was meeting a character from Steinbeck's book, "The Grapes of Wrath," an Okie-looking fellow, tall and thin, with a face almost as worn as his sweat-stained cowboy hat, he appeared to have just walked out of the dust bowl. Carl said about two words and we were off down the backroads, me following his dirty pickup truck with my shiny rental car, trying to keep pace on the loose gravel with my too-small rental-car-tires.

When we pulled into Carl's ranch it felt like we'd reached the end of the world, flat in all directions with just a few shade trees growing tight to the modest buildings. If this was mule deer paradise, you could have fooled me. But I knew I had to be missing something based on Jason Carter's faith in Billy and Billy's faith in Carl. "Listen to what Carl tells you," Billy had forewarned me. He knows these deer better than anybody in these parts." So I did.

Carl and I held off on supper and went straight to scouting; well, that is, after I'd had a chance to shoot a few arrows through my bow. Carl had an old mule deer target and, though he didn't say so, seemed quite interested in watching me shoot. He asked if I felt comfortable at 40 yards, and I showed him I was, then took it back to 50 yards, dropped in a couple of well-placed arrows and watched him walk back to his house. I figured he was satisfied, though he didn't say so.

The mule deer bow season opened at dawn the next day, so we had a few hours of daylight left to look over some ground. This part of Alberta was just coming out of a five year drought, recovering now after substantial summer rains that had filled all the low spots where ducks and geese were quacking, honking and trading about. Things had gotten so bad that Carl had purchased a ranch in Manitoba, just to find grass for his cattle. Things looked good now, but the mosquitoes were relentless. Small, bity, little buggers in swarms that had no aversion to sunlight. They bit almost before landing, settling beak-first on face and hands and neck. "This is a new twist to western hunting," I thought.

I grabbed my binos and hopped into Carl's pickup and we drove toward an irrigation pivot I'd missed on the way in. Apparently the pivot's green alfalfa was a draw for some of the local deer. Carl explained that we might see mulies coming up from the river a mile away, and perhaps later, a whitetail.

He wasn't wrong. Within an hour we'd seen a number of mule deer bucks, though no first-day shooters, until we came over a small rise and Carl spotted five bucks bedded together. "Look at that one," Carl suggested. "That's the kind of buck you want." My glasses first settled on a buck that had risen to study us, and I wasn't impressed. When Carl started describing the rack through his glasses, I realized I wasn't looking at the right animal. Panning to the right I saw heavy beams, and settled on what was likely a 190-inch muley. "Oh yeah, that's the kind of buck I want."

We left the group where they were and backed out, hoping for a rematch the following day.

Bug City

Carl dropped me at a ground blind in the morning, and though I saw deer, nothing followed script. It was enough to keep me interested, though frustrated at not seeing the big boy we'd seen the previous day. Then again, these were mule deer. They seldom follow script.

We followed up by heading to a remote area of breaks and canyons hoping to find a spot-and-stalk candidate, and though we saw several decent bucks comfortably bedded in the shade of different cuts and cliffs, none appeared to be worth the time of a concerted stalk. So we kept looking. All day long we fought off mosquitoes, and though I hate the stench of bug dope, I'd broken down and applied some. The little mosquitoes were fierce, and neither wind nor mid-day sun deterred them. Carl said the presence of the skeeters was an abnormal event, based on a heavy summer rainfall. He wanted me back in an evening ground blind he thought might be productive, so I followed his lead and by late afternoon I was holed up on a muley travel route.

As I parked myself in the ground blind that afternoon, I soon realized I'd forgotten the repellant. I was being mauled, and there was nothing I could do about it.

About the time my forehead began to burn from the number of bug bites, I noticed some movement in a bit of tall grass about 75 yards away. It was the back of a deer I hadn't noticed before and I had no idea how he got there. The deer seemed to have a substantial body, and when he finally raised his head, I realized I was looking at a big, heavy-horned, non-typical mule deer with a cool extra tine that ran parallel to the right G-3, topping out at about 12 or 14 inches. I needed to stay still, but the bugs were killing me.

The buck went back to grazing, keeping his head down for long periods of time, and a small buck came in and out of view closer to my hide, forcing me to stay still and endure the bites that were now bites upon bites. I couldn't rub my face or ears for fear of alerting the deer I could see, or God forbid, another that might be unseen. The mosquitoes were now biting the skin of my eyes and even my lips. I contorted my face to try to encourage them to leave, but the swarm around me had grown to massive proportions. I thought of leaving the blind to put a stalk on the big buck with his head in the weeds, but I now had two smaller bucks working their way through the area and was totally pinned down. I'd simply have to endure.

Being from Minnesota, I'm used to mosquitoes. I don't wear bug dope and I've always said that if you ignore them, they're less a problem, but I'd never met mosquitoes as aggressive as these. If I dared move my head to rub my face with my shoulder, I'd wipe out 20 or 30 bugs at a time, but it didn't matter, because they were being replaced by fresh, hungry biters in seconds. There simply wasn't enough room on my skin for all the mosquitoes that wanted to bite me. I watched the sun hit the horizon; I watched the big buck actually bed down in the grass; I watched a big whitetail buck emerge and head across a field on his way to somewhere. I was meat.

Kill Or Be Killed

Carl loved this ground blind stuff, and he said he had a blind ready for the next morning. I was mosquito bait. My neck, head and hands were on fire by the time I got back to my quarters that night. I took comfort in the fact that the mornings were cool enough to stifle the mosquitoes, but I promised myself something: I was going to kill the first decent mule deer buck that came within range and end this hunt. I couldn't act as a blood bank one more day for those buzzing mini-vampires, and I didn't believe wearing stinking bug dope was going to help my hunting chances, especially in a blind where deer could approach from any direction.

Luck was on my side. As daylight came on, the mosquitoes were almost nil, and I saw several deer in the distance, including a nice buck that threaded his way across the countryside about 600 yards away. I saw the big non-typical again, and as I was craning my neck to get a look at him, I noticed somebody else looking at me from 30 yards away: a forky mule deer buck had spotted the movement. I froze, and as I was trying to calm the youngster, I saw a deer come into view out of the corner of my eye--first one, then four!


Seeing the other deer approaching me, the forky lost interest and went back to his travels. Now I was out of position in my blind, turned the wrong way with bucks approaching fast. I began my slow slide around, squaring off to the side the bucks were approaching, when I saw one of them go on alert to something behind me. The big non-typical? I had to sneak a peak. Nothing there.

Wrong move. By the time I got my head back facing the four bucks, one of them was 25 yards away staring right through me. All of the bucks stopped, but only the lead buck had my location. I squinted my eyes, almost closing them and prayed. The last buck in the group was a shooter, but all hell looked like it could break loose at any minute. The clock stopped, time became frozen and I still didn't have my bow up. I thought for a second about the words Randy Ulmer had told me years ago. "Never pass on an animal on the first day that you would be happy with on the last day." He was right. If I got a chance I was going to take the biggest of these four bucks. The heck with the disappearing non-typical.

The staring buck didn't trust what he saw. He started off at a brisk walk and all the bucks followed. When they'd cleared me, I turned, drew my bow and mentally calculated the range--30 yards (too bunched up), 35 yards (there's the one I want). I let fly.

The shot was severely quartering away. The arrow entered far back on the left side, the buck kicked, broke into a run, and the entire group disappeared over a low knoll. I waited for Carl to return.

Carl and I took the long way around to a high spot on the prairie, spotted the three bucks a mile away making their way to the river, and determined my buck wasn't with them. We waited a good while, then took up my blood trail. My first Alberta muley lay just 200 yards from where I'd hidden. The arrow had entered the forward portion of the buck's back ham, and exited just behind the right front shoulder. He was a beauty.

RELATED ARTICLE: Hunting With Silver Sage

Billy Franklin of Silver Sage Outfitters has been guiding big game hunters in southeastern Alberta for the past 12 years. He specializes in trophy antelope, mule deer and some whitetail in a rare area that combines quality representatives of all three species in one place. The area is highly accessible to non-resident hunters because outfitters hold tag allocations, requiring no draw. When you book here, your tag is guaranteed.

Hunts can be fairly vigorous in the valley of the Red Deer River, like a mini sheep hunt, and shots tend to be longer. Be prepared to make at least a 40-yard shot.

Best times for mule deer and whitetail are in September when the deer are still in their summer patterns. The best antelope hunting tends to be later in September. In October, what is lost in predictability of deer is gained in sightings of new animals moving about.

Mule deer spot-and-stalk hunters have 100-percent shot opportunity. The outfitter knows the ground and archers will get multiple shots in the course of a week. Mule deer are also hunted from ground blinds in some locations. Whitetail hunting, though available, is less a focus and hunters use tree stands. Pronghorn opportunities come by decoy hunting, spot-and-stalk and over water.

Silver Sage Outfitters offers six-day hunts and hunters can drive to Brooks, Alberta or arrange for pickup at Calgary International Airport. Contact: Silver Sage Outfitters, Dept. PB, 28 Upland Drive, Brooks, Alberta, Canada T1R 0P8; (403) 362-4842; (403) 362-3254;
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Title Annotation:2006 SPECIAL BIG GAME ISSUE
Author:Strangis, Jay
Publication:Petersen's Bowhunting
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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