When it comes to killing big, old mule deer, the common denominator for success on the mountain is time. To me it’s broken into two categories: time spent scouting and extensive time spent hunting. Mature, crusty old bucks have learned to use their environment to their advantage, and if you’re planning to put the odds in your favor as much as possible, it’s key to spend more time where big bucks live.
Now, many of us can’t spend two straight weeks hunting deer, so investing time before the season often allows serious hunters to locate and learn more about bucks they’d be pumped to put a tag on come fall. Summer tends to put many mountain deer at high elevations where they can avoid bugs and keep their growing velvet antlers away from the thick cover. This means they are more visible than other times of year, and it's one of the reasons I like to scout. They can obviously move locations depending on what time of year you get to hunt, but laying eyes on a mature buck is the hard data you need to start putting the puzzle together. I spent four days in late July scouting the high country and had a handful of takeaways I’ve learned over the years that I think will help you on your next trip to the mountains.
HAVE A PLAN AND STICK TO IT
Scouting before the season is your chance to essentially hunt and test out your theories before opening day. We all know it can be easy to be indecisive when it comes to making a plan, especially in new country. There can be a lot of options and sometimes it seems like any of them could produce the caliber of deer we all dream about. So to keep you on the mountain and in the right areas, I think it’s key to come up with a plan and stick to it. The whole goal of scouting is to learn more, and by creating a plan and sticking to it you will definitely learn a lot regardless of whether you see what you were hoping to.
For example, I picked a few locations prior to my trip that I found by utilizing OnX and Google Earth. The first night into both areas didn’t turn up a lot for deer. I felt like I possibly picked a poor area and part of me wanted to pull out and immediately go somewhere else. Over the years though, I’ve learned that finding the older deer usually takes some scratching around and definitely takes time. Both evenings, I let my initial findings dictate some of my plan of action for the next 36 hours. By seeing the country in person and seeing where deer were living, I was able to then move into either of the areas the deer were living or into similar areas that I felt confident would hold bucks. By doing so in both areas, I was able to find deer I would be happy to put my tag on. If I had easily given up on them, I would have been simply wasting energy and time by moving to a new area. Once you’re up and in deer country, often the best use of time and energy is to just stay up there and see what will turn up. Those big deer don’t show themselves every day, even in the middle of summer.
PLAN YOUR GLASSING LOCATIONS
When it comes to high-country scouting, maximizing the amount of quality areas you can see will help you find big bucks. Google Earth is an amazing resource for helping you find glassing vantages and knowing where you want to try to get to before setting up shop and breaking out the big glass. Just keep in mind that Google Earth doesn’t always give you the exact perspective, and if you plan on glassing the bottom half of some of these basins, you need to highly scrutinize what Google Earth is telling you. At the end of the day, only being on the mountain will tell you where the best spots to glass from are. There are two things that can help you before you get to the mountain: trying to understand the best route to get to your glassing knob, and also examining where the sun will be throughout the day.
Being efficient in the mountains will help you retain more energy and help you stay glued to the glass longer. Putting in the time studying maps and routes will help you stay on track and move to the right locations when you finally do get into the field. Again, the reality on the ground is always different than what you see on maps and satellite imagery. Mountain landscapes tend to be more severe with more cliffs and steep terrain once you're there, and the amount and size of brush can be significantly thicker and taller than what you might think. Crazy steep and dangerous terrain as well as insanely tall, thick brush will both deter you from making it to your glassing areas. This will also delay your timeline in getting to the right areas. Keep these in mind before you get to the mountain. It will drastically help you execute on your plan and get to the glassing knob at the right times when big bucks are up on their feet.
Another key when making a game plan is remembering how the sun will effect your ability to glass certain parts of the mountain. Glassing west in the mornings and east in the evenings will be your general rule of thumb. Glassing north/south can be done during both parts of the day with similar results. So if you have a basin you absolutely want to comb over, be sure to find a glassing vantage that will benefit you when you're behind the glass.
SIZE UP THE COUNTRY
The first priority of almost any high-country scouting trip is to lay eyes on the big deer you hope live in the area you’ll be scouting. We all know that doesn't always happen, so while you’re on the mountain you can focus some energy on sizing up country in ways that will help you down the line. I’m always sizing up the country anytime I’m out scouting. I like to be very observant of where water sources are located and where they might be located. Deer need water to live, and knowing where they get their water will help you find them with more regularity. We humans also need water, and we often want to put ourselves up on high locations to maximize glassing coverage. That means water is typically below us. Having to drop thousands of feet to grab water is always a pain. By knowing all the water locations and being smart about where and when we grab water, we can stay hydrated and on the mountain longer. Those notes will also undoubtedly come in handy on the hunt.
Boots-on-the-ground scouting also helps you determine access to areas. Is that trail on the map actually there? Is it being used by dirt bikes? By horses? Is it a pain to get into that remote hanging basin that has no trails? If deer live in an area and you have to get above them to make a stalk, what will be the best way to get there? If you have to access an area to make a move on a deer, what does the prevailing wind typically do at different times of the day? By studying existing access as well as non-traditional access routes, you can be ahead of the curve come opening day.
Another aspect of scouting that often gets overlooked is trying to make an educated guess on where a big deer might go if he is bumped. Public land deer can and do get bumped by other hunters, but they typically don’t move too far. If you see a big buck in a high basin, where would you think he will go if he got pressure? Trying to look at those areas, especially for past sign, can help give you the leg up if you return to an area during hunting season and you don’t find your target buck.
OBSERVE HARD DATA
Another strategy that's often overlooked by newer hunters is observing hard data. The easiest hard data is obviously to see an actual deer. Like we mentioned, that won’t always be something you have at your disposal. To maximize your time, you should be on the lookout for other ways to know whether deer use the area and possibly what size animals us the area. The first and best way to know if an old deer is using the area is to look for tracks. A good track can tell you a lot. Older, big deer usually leave a large track that has a more rounded front to the track (see image below). Younger deer typically leave a smaller and more pointy track.
By beginning to pay attention to deer tracks, you can begin to determine what type of deer are in the area simply by paying attention to the ground as you move around. I’ll often photograph tracks especially from deer that I’ve killed to have a hard reference point. Each area is different, but paying attention to tracks can pay big dividends down the road. Tracks and the overall number of them will also tell you how many deer are using an area or how often a few deer are using an area.
Trails are another piece of hard data that can reveal a lot. All of us hunters find game trails when we're on the mountain. By paying attention to them in more detail though, we can determine how animals use and move around their home area. This will give us another advantage we can leverage to try and take a mature buck. Trails can tell me two important things: 1) how often or how many animals consistently use an area. 2) what areas animals are using to move and what direction they tend to be moving. Animals typically take the path of least resistance. Knowing where deer have trails can help you increase your encounters and possibly ambush a nice buck moving from one area to another.
The final hard data you can study and use to your advantage is food sources. When I move through areas that I know deer are using, I try to observe which plants they have been feeding on. This helps me identify food sources that I know the deer like, and it will help me narrow down other parts of the mountain that may also hold deer. Deer eat a wide variety of plants on the mountain, but beginning to know what ones they prefer will help you find more deer. Similar to many things in hunting, the biggest and oldest animals often inhabit the best habitat. Below is an image of some plants that a 170-class buck had been feeding on. I unfortunately spooked him trying to set up my spotter, so rather than just hiking off, I went up the mountain to see what he was munching on. I'm not sure the exact plant species, but it closely resembles Hallers Sermountain. These little data points all go into an equation that hopefully ends with a big buck on the ground.
INVEST IN GOOD GEAR
To chase mountain muleys, especially in the Rocky Mountain West, often means covering lots of ground and gaining and losing a lot of elevation. In many places, to effectively hunt without horses will mean carrying everything with you on your back for many days. Quality gear designed for such endeavors will help you cover more country and do it more efficiently. Here is some gear I’ve been using that has helped me:
Light and fast is the name of the game for most summer scouting. Weighing in at 1lb 6.6oz, the Chilkoot 32º Quilt is the perfect fit for early season missions. Packing down to about the size of two Nalgenes makes this piece a perfect blend of warmth, weight, and packability.
Sometimes when you’re scouting, you never know where you might end up at the end of the day. The SkyAir’s small footprint means you’ll be able to find a home base just about anywhere on the mountain. A quick setup makes life easy after a long day, and adding the mesh insert keeps the pesky mosquitoes at bay so you can get a full night's rest.
To stay behind the glass for hours and hours, you need to be comfortable. Padding your backside will help immensely in allowing you to stay put behind the glass and continue to break down the mountainside. There are a lot of ways to go about this, from cutting a foam pad down to a small size, buying a dedicated butt pad, or making something DIY at your house. Ultralight packable chairs are also a great option.
Water: you need it to live, so finding ways to get it and keep it is important. The Sawyer Squeeze weights just 2.5 oz and comes with ultralight bags for filtering and also storing water. The system is simple, and by carrying an extra bag or two you can grab water on the fly and filter it later. This comes in handy when you forget your main bladder and need some extra places to store water as you pack it up above treeline.
If you're planning a scouting mission in the near future, I hope some of these tips will help you put the odds in your favor on finding and killing more mature deer.
-Zack Boughton (@zackboughton)