All right, I’ll admit it: I’m a born, raised and addicted whitetail hunter, so when I go West for mule deer I think about stand placement. Not that I have anything against stalking, mind you. I know that people typically hunt mule deer with binoculars and stout legs. But I also know that if I wait in the right spot long enough I’ll get a buck to walk into a shooting lane, while stalks with a bow mostly end in fast, long and difficult shots.
However you add it up, a tree-stand ambush typically produces easier shots at animals that are completely unalarmed. A stand-hunter might get only one or two decent opportunities in a week of hunting from a stand, while the spot-and-stalk hunter will probably get several. But the stand-hunter has a much higher chance of shooting a deer that he sees.
Minimizing your impact is another reason to hunt mule deer from trees. On the plains, where cover is limited, you may have only a mile or two of tree-lined creek bottom to work with. How many times do you think you can still-hunt that section of creek before the deer all move out? You’ll be lucky to get away with it more than once. After a week of careful stand-hunting, however, the deer in the same area might not even have figured out that they are being hunted.
My first successful tree-stand hunt for mule deer took place during the rut of 1997. I flew into Colorado Springs the day after Thanksgiving with a nasty winter storm nipping at my heels and woke up the next morning to a foot of fresh snow on the ground. The storm slowed us down to the point that it was already breaking daylight by the time my guide, Bobby Benison, pulled his truck over to direct me to my stand. As I sat in the truck listening to Bobby explain how to find the stand, I looked up the slope and spotted a nice buck cruising through the pine trees.
Bobby glanced at the buck, jammed the shift lever into reverse and said, “If he stays above the road I know right where he’s headed.” Then he cranked the truck around, drove a mile down the snow-covered lane, dropped me off with directions to a stand at the lower edge of a ditch and sped out of sight.
I literally ran to the stand and had barely gotten my bow pulled up when antlers appeared. At a distance of 40 yards the buck stopped to rub a pine sapling and he picked up a whiff of my scent on the swirling winds. I didn’t wait to see what he would do next but took the open shot. Five minutes into my hunt I had a buck that gross-scored 170 inches! I had spent less time hunting than I had spent waiting for my luggage at the airport.
Mine wasn’t the only big buck that was taken on the ranch that week. Three days later Wendell Penton, from Mississippi, took a buck that netted just less than 190 inches. That buck was also taken from a stand.
Those bucks offer a classic example of how to hunt rutting mule deer from a tree stand. Both were cruising through natural funnels when they were arrowed. Rutting mule deer don’t rub or scrape as aggressively as whitetails do, so you can’t go by buck sign when deciding on a stand site. Instead, you have to look to the terrain for natural funnels such as washouts, ditch crossings, bluff edges and saddles. These locations represent bottlenecks that traveling bucks will pass through as they search for does. There will usually be light trails to help you choose the best locations.
Mule deer in general (and bucks in particular) are much more nomadic and less predictable than whitetails. An entire herd can relocate several miles from one day to the next, which makes it nearly impossible to predict feeding and bedding areas. But you needn’t worry about patterns during the rut, because the bedding areas are so spread out and randomly used that bucks have to walk far and wide to find does. As long as you are hunting an area with good deer numbers, simply focus on funnels separating largee areas of habitat and let the nonstop search bring bucks to you.
My second tree-stand trophy came in early October shortly after the 1999 season opened. Again, the hunt took place on Colorado’s eastern plains. This time the bucks were still in bachelor groups and were feeding in agricultural fields. Though it would be a stretch to say they were on a pattern (even during the early season they are fairly nomadic), they were at least showing up around a particular alfalfa field with some regularity.
I put a stand up after watching three large bucks head out into a field by way of a well-used trail. During each of the next three evenings the bucks came out to feed but in different parts of the field. On my last afternoon they used a trail only 70 yards away from my location. That would have spelled the end of my hunt, but the outfitter, Gary Jordan, was watching from the distance and walked out into the field to nudge them my way. A 40-yard shot connected with vitals as the bucks eased past in a single-file line.
The only productive time to try patterning mule deer is either early or late in the season, because this is when feeding dominates their daily routines. During this time, observation near a feeding area (alfalfa fields, pasture grass or winter wheat) is by far the best way to choose a stand location. As when hunting whitetails during these same portions of the season, you need to see the buck first so you can figure out what he’s doing.
With a whitetail you should watch for more than one evening so you can get a fix on which trail he’s using. Such predictability is less likely with mule deer. The buck isn’t as likely to stick around for weeks at a time like a whitetail, so it makes sense to set up after the first sighting and hope he hangs around for a few days.
What it all comes down to is that hunting mule deer from tree stands may not offer as much raw excitement as hunting them on foot, but for those who have the patience, there is no surer way to take a big buck.