Whitetail tactics for western mule deer: don't be afraid to bring your bag of eastern whitetail tricks out west.
That's right, I said muley buck. As in mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus, the prized Western species made famous by spot-and-stalk TV hunters. And yes, when the conditions are right, spotting and stalking is a thrilling and effective method for taking trophy bucks. But many states offer a late-archery opportunity for muleys, and during that time, when the bucks are surrounded by does, stalking is nearly impossible.
The smart hunter must think outside the box to be consistently successful. I recently read a piece in a popular hunting magazine where the author flatly stated that whitetail tactics are useless on mule deer. The herd running toward me obviously missed that memo. When used properly, tools normally associated with whitetail hunting in the East, such as calling, rattling, decoying and treestands, can all bring mature muley bucks into bow range. It's the where, when, and how that makes the difference.
Whitetail calls come in many flavors, including grunts, snort-wheezes, bleats, and rattling antlers. My favorite calling tactic for muleys is rattling, especially during the week before and after the peak of the rut. I've tried synthetic antlers with limited results. The best success has come from using a pair of natural, 140-class antlers from my late father's first buck. I start by crashing them together hard, bashing and grinding for about a minute, and sometimes stomping and grunting. Then I drag the antlers apart and tickle the tips together. Often that's all it takes, but occasionally a reluctant buck will respond to just the light tickling of the antler tips after his attention has been caught. If the first sequence doesn't immediately bring a buck in, I will wait a couple of minutes and then repeat it. Sometimes a buck will respond from 400 yards away, poking along until he finally reaches me. Patience is critical here.
Those few minutes after sunrise seem to be the most effective, but any time will do. This past season, I rattled six different bucks into bow range one early November morning. They came from different directions, some on a string, others meandering along as if they were preoccupied with personal issues and just happened to wander by. If I hadn't been so busy taking photos, I would have killed a solid 180-inch buck that surprised me when he came out of the trees at 20 yards. By the time I dropped the camera and picked up my recurve, he was walking straight away from me. An hour later I rattled him back from a different direction, this time accompanied by a pal, but he never presented me with a shot.
Bleats & Grunts
Soft, plaintive doe bleats can be almost too effective, since the does will often respond before the buck comes into range. Can-type calls are good, but a better variety of sounds can be produced with either bite calls or blow calls. Those skilled hunters who can bleat with their voices would do well on muleys. Loud fawn-in-distress calls sometimes work well. However, where I hunt, coyote hunting and calling is popular, and does seem to be alarmed by that loud bawling. Soft bleats have proven more effective in my area and will bring lone bucks in as well as does with bucks following behind.
Some hunters have good luck with grunt calls. Mule deer do make soft, tending grunts when with a doe, but I've never heard one issue a challenge grunt like a whitetail. I've had muley bucks stop and look over toward the source of a grunt, but I have not yet drawn a buck in with a grunt. Other hunters report good success with it, so it's definitely worth trying if a bleat won't attract a cruising buck.
I played with whitetail decoys for muleys for years with limited success. Bucks mostly ignored them, and does would often lead bucks away. Then I read an article where a biologist mentioned the white rump of a muley as a visual trigger. Mule deer are more visually oriented than whitetails due to the open country they prefer to inhabit. Taking that cue, I doctored my 2-D Montana Decoy whitetail with spray paint, graying her up a little and adding a prominent white rump. That changed the game. From that point on, I was sucking bucks into close range on a regular basis. I've recently added two other lovely models to my little "herd," a feeding Montana Decoy doe and an Elk Mountain muley doe slip system I hide behind if cover is sparse.
Mule deer aren't as aggressive toward other bucks as whitetails during the pre-rut and rut, likely because their territory is measured in square miles rather than acres. I've tried a modified whitetail buck decoy, which drew mild interest from younger bucks, but the greatest success comes with doe imitations. When a muley buck responds, he often strolls over shyly, glancing furtively at the decoys as if he's afraid of eye contact with them. He'll typically circle downwind, following a pattern I call "J-hooking." I like to place my decoys about 35 yards upwind of my blind or stand. That puts the bottom of the "J" between me and the rear end of the forward-facing decoys, which creates a stickbow-range shot opportunity.
One note of caution: When the rut is peaking, a receptive doe will lead a courting buck away from other does. During that time, I wait until about 8:30 a.m. to set the decoys. That's about the time the bucks will leave a doe and go wandering off to check other bedding areas, and a decoy in a travel corridor can be very effective. I've had to belly-crawl out and knock down decoys when a doe was leading a buck, so I now wait until later in the morning when the bucks are out shopping.
Years ago, I noticed that deer were often looking in my direction when I would crest an open ridge to glass. Then it hit me--everything out there in mule deer country has long ears except humans. I asked my wife to make a set of removable ears for glassing purposes, and instead she built an anatomically perfect doe hat out of craft foam. I took it to camp and my hunting partner laughed, saying it was the stupidest thing he'd ever seen. An hour later he watched as I glassed over a tumbleweed row, drawing three excellent bucks into bow range from several hundred yards away. The next weekend, he had one too. Since then, the doe hat has become an indispensible tool for me when I'm glassing and decoying. The danger is in showing it at the wrong time, as it will often bring curious does ahead of the buck.
Last season, I was pinned down behind a bank by several does while a giant buck marched back and forth at 35 yards. I'd made the mistake of allowing the does to see me when I showed the hat and bleated softly toward the buck, and they rushed over to investigate. I hid below the undercut creek bank for a half-hour, briefly dozing off at one point. When I rose to peek over the bank, the lead doe was still watching. They finally fed away and took the buck with them, and out of my range. It's critical to know when to be a human decoy, and when to keep the hat clipped to the pack and out of sight.
Pop-up style ground blinds tend to be ignored by muleys, except when they suddenly appear in a travel corridor in the core area of a group of resident does. Those local gals know every twig, and are wary of anything new for several days. However, when placed subtly on the edge of a staging area, feeding field or near a waterhole, especially when brushed-in with tumbleweeds, sagebrush or other debris, a pop-up blind can be a good tool. Roaming bucks wandering in search of does don't know if that strange blob was there for years or just appeared, and pay no attention to it. I like natural blinds crafted from fallen logs, sticks and branches, but that's a personal preference borne from decades of hunting on the ground before the advent of commercial blinds.
Not much to say about treestands except they work well if you have a good tree in the right place. But trees can be sparse in the West, and may not be where you need them. In the early season, muleys seem to be slightly more predictable in their travels to and from favored feeding areas, and bucks will faithfully follow doe groups during the rut. Stands can be deadly in a funnel, such as a saddle or a fence crossing, where a suitable tree is handy. I've also rattled and bleated bucks in when sitting in a treestand. Stands over water can work very well too, especially where water is scarce. Unfortunately, many waterholes are in the open, far from workable trees.
Scents seem to be hit or miss for muleys. I've tried many different types over several decades, both natural and synthetic, with mixed results. I used to do scent drags, but only once has a buck followed one to my blind, and even then I'm not so sure he wasn't just coming down the trail on his own. Hanging a scent wick off of the rear end of the decoys sometimes piques the curiosity of bucks when they circle downwind, but as with any tool, nothing works all of the time. I've had bucks ease in and sniff it closely, have watched does smell the scent and run away, and nervous bucks sometimes calm down when they get a whiff. Last season a gorgeous 175-class buck was J-hooking the decoys, and my season was about to end. Then he got a sniff of the scent--the same bottle I'd used all season with good results--put his nose in the air, and blazed off into the next county. The next time I saw him he was five miles away.
Some purist mule deer hunters eschew such tactics-as gimmicks and tricks, preferring to only spot and stalk their prey. I admire them for sticking to their principles, but they're missing an exciting aspect of the game. Fooling a mature animal on his own turf, drawing him to you and crafting a bow shot, requires a different skill set. When it all comes together, there is nothing quite like it in any sort of big game hunting. Three seasons ago, I watched a great buck following a hot doe through a staging area. They were drifting away, so I offered a couple soft, plaintive bleats from a bite call. They turned, stared for a moment, and then started coming. The doe paused at about 70 yards, but the buck had already seen my doctored silhouette decoy and was hooked. I drilled him as he walked past at 18 yards, locked onto the decoy, and he toppled over a few seconds later.
Unlike sneaking up on a buck snoozing peacefully in the shade, the moment when a buck commits to your trap is just the beginning of a charismatic episode. When that happens, you are hunting mule deer honestly, not stumbling upon one that stands confused, looking around for the source of the disturbance, waiting to be shot. Rather, you have crafted an illusion that fooled the instincts of a creature whose primary job is to recognize danger and avoid it. Not every trick is foolproof. If it were, everyone would have a full freezer every year and a wall crowded with trophy mounts. But when they do succeed, it's a breathtaking experience that produces golden memories, and often golden results.
Creating illusions isn't only for whitetail hunting. On your next trip west, don't be afraid to bring your bag of tricks from back home. Your guide might give you a sideways look, but the reward may be the mule deer buck of your dreams.
PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR
The author and his wife live in Fort Collins, Colorado.
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|Date:||Sep 1, 2014|
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