Outdoor Life Guns and Optics Test team member Mark Copenhaver took this 32½-inch smoker mule deer last week while hunting public land in Montana.
“I’ve been passionately hunting mule deer since I was 10 years old and this is one of the top three deer I’ve ever seen, much less had a chance to stalk and harvest,” he says.
Copenhaver is a hardcore do-it-yourself mule deer hunting addict and routinely dedicates a couple weeks each fall toward taking a quality buck. After hours of careful glassing, he spotted this bruiser about 1.5 miles away. After some extensive field judging and a stalk through the sage brush and cactus, he closed the distance to within 60 yards of the bedded buck.
“I eased around a clump of grease wood and saw the buck laying in his day bed, but he must have winded me because he leapt to his feet and was instantly at full speed. I jumped to my feet and shot the buck through both lungs at a distance of about 100 yards,” Copenhaver says.
Here are a few tips from Cope for a DIY mule deer hunt.
• Be in shape, and I don’t mean walking shape. Hunter’s reference being in “sheep shape.” Well in my mind, to harvest a quality mule deer on public land a hunter needs to be in the best shape of his life. He must possess physical fitness that will allow him to cover 10 or more miles of the nastiest terrain he can imagine every day.
• Dedicate time to the hunt.** It’s certainly possible but it’s pretty difficult to harvest a quality buck on public land unless you have a week or more. Try to plan for two weeks if you can. When making your plan, remember that nasty weather is your ally so hunt as late in the season as possible.
• Prepare to be outside overnight.** I know that it might not sound like much fun, but leave your truck each day ready to spend the night in the backcountry. Any required overnight stay doesn’t need to be pleasant, merely survivable. The overnight option is just another weapon in your arsenal that will allow you to hunt harder and into the remote country where reclusive bucks live.
• There is no substitute for good boot leather. Simply stated, a hunter goes where his feet and by extension his boots take him. Buy your boots early and try to break them in with about 100 miles of hiking. About half of that should be traveled with a load on your back.
• Know and love your rifle.** I purchased my Ruger M77 in 1975 when I was 10 years old at a local grocery store. I now have three gun safes full of firearms but when it comes time to pick one gun to take when the chips are down, I universally reach for my old Ruger. I know I can count on it when the buck of a lifetime appears.
• Optics Matter!** Find the best optics you can possibly afford, then buy something even better. I have a cabinet in my hunting room that is literally full of various optics that I thought would be “good enough” I was wrong. DIY hunting in the West is every bit as much about grinding out hours behind glass searching for a bedded buck as it is about hiking hard and covering ground.
• Don’t complicate the process.** I’ve found that hunting big mule deer in the expanses of my home state comes down to a singular essential element that my Dad taught me nearly 40 years ago: Hunt with the wind in your face.