Spot-and-stalk tactics rule for mule deer success in the West, especially with the early-season archery crowd. But Gobi-dry environments and continuing drought has opened up another option: Wait by the water.
Mule deer, like most large mammals, need water almost daily. Over the course of a 24-hour period, they gulp approximately 4 quarts–more during oppressive autumn heat. In the Southwest, the opportunity for water-hole encounters increases given the scarcity of water. Of course, a sudden downpour can change a water-hole strategy overnight, but it does offer options when other tactics fail.
Farther north, water ambushes are hit-or-miss. As technology increases, so does the expansion of water development. Increasing numbers of water sources mean more options to scout and scrutinize for a high-success ambush location. Livestock tanks, runoff reservoirs, springs, solar wells, guzzlers, and other water-containment systems have given mule deer more options for hydration than ever. Two other factors that come into play at the perfect water ambush site are food and refuge.
A Drink While Dining
Water sources in and around nutritious feeding areas attract deer before and after eating. In the Southwest, muleys rely on browse more than agriculture, so locate foods such as sagebrush, local forbs, and shrubs that have seasonal attraction. Water sources directly adjacent to these spots or along a connecting trail from bedding cover rate high for ambush success.
Other Western locales are defined by agriculture, including native hay, irrigated alfalfa, wheat, and other favored grains. Mule deer target these reservation-only dining areas with exuberance, and with a belly full of greens, they require water for digestion. Any nearby reservoir, seep, or livestock tank could be a hotspot, especially along a well-used trail.
Water on the Night Stand**
Like whitetails and elk, some mule deer exhibit nocturnal feeding tendencies. If you encounter such a buck, you may have to back away from the food source and look for water near a remote bedding site. They may use water sources near dense bedding cover for a refresher at dawn, dusk, or even midday if they feel secure under a timbered canopy.
These water sources require intense scouting and may not appear on maps or satellite imagery. For inside information, look to local ranchers, sheepherders, and natural-resource-agency personnel with boots on the ground. Keep in mind, though, that once it snows, it’s game over, as most big-game animals use the white stuff for hydration once it’s on the ground.
If there are trees near the water source, consider using a treestand. Most Western game species rarely look up. Mule deer aren’t as vertically blind as elk and pronghorns, but they still can be duped via an elevated hide.
Study prevailing winds and look for a downwind location to place your stand or blind. If you decide to use a ground blind, it’s best to stake it out at least a week–a month is even better–before hunting, so the animals become accustomed to its presence. Do the same if you build a blind, as muleys are adept at noticing anything out of place, especially near water, where predators pounce.
If legal, use trail cameras to note when mule deer visit the site the most, and plan your hunt accordingly.