Bowhunting early season mule deer is one of my favorite hunts. I look forward to it every year.
Why? In part, because the weather is mild, and it can be as social as you want to make it.
Normally, you spend hours glassing with your hunting partner before finding a deer you want to pursue. Once located, the stalk then becomes a game of one-on-one; hunter versus deer; and a true test of one’s ability to ease into bow range undetected to make an accurate shot.
In a situation where there is often limited cover to conceal movement, it’s up to the bowhunter to fool the deer’s acute eyesight and nose. More often than not, the deer wins—leaving you miles from your truck, thirsty and empty-handed, replaying the scenario over and over in your head and wondering what went wrong.
Allow me to recount one of my most memorable spot- and-stalk archery hunts.
ALBERTA RIVER SITE
Waking to my alarm, it was still dark, and there was a chill in the air. Home base was a local campground nes- tled into a picturesque cottonwood bluff along Alberta’s famous Red Deer River.
Turning on a small solar light, Kev and I emerged from our warm sleeping bags. We quickly dressed, lay- ering for the cool morning but still mindful of the warm day ahead. On my belt was my rangefinder and knife.
I strapped on my bino buddy with my trusty Swarovski ELs; items critical for our prairie bow hunt.
While it was still pitch dark we climbed into our truck and made our way to a ranch about 20 minutes away.
Two-day-old muffins and a banana sufficed for our early morning breakfast. Arriving at our parking spot, there was a faint suggestion of daylight on the eastern horizon.
DROPPING INTO A COULEE
Grabbing our backpacks, bows and a couple of bottles of water, we silently descended into a nearby coulee en route to our best vantage point for glassing the morning movement.
Experience has taught us that the deer feed in a pivot field along the river, then migrate up into the coulees to bed down for the day. By carefully working the high ground and glassing each draw, our goal was to intercept deer moving toward us.
As the sun broke the horizon, illuminating the vibrant colors, we slowly made our way along the upper edge of the coulee, careful not to skyline ourselves. Arriving at our chosen spot we meticulously glassed the shadows and structures emerging from the still-low light. Soon, we picked up movement at the base of the coulee.
Bucks! They were walking up the finger toward us. The bottom of the draw was laced with a wide strip of sage and buck brush. It was perfect for concealing a number of mule deer and they were headed right for it. Meandering into the middle of the low-lying cover and giving one last look around, the biggest in the group bed- ded with two others. Had we arrived any later, we would never have known they were there.
Kev had taken a nice buck the previous year, so I was up to bat first. To say I was excited would be an under- statement. Landmarking the three bucks as best I could, I dropped my pack and removed a few layers and items that weren’t needed for the stalk. I could now feel the warmth of the sun on my face.
MAKING A PLAN
Time being of the essence, we quickly discussed a plan of approach using the topography and rising sun to my advantage. The sun would be at my back, forcing the deer to look into it and hopefully buy me a few seconds to draw and release an arrow when the time was right. The location where the bucks were bedded, compound- ed by the lack of wind to cover any sound, it was clear that my approach would need to be perfect.
“Good luck,” Kev whispered as he reminded me to “go slow”—something that’s hard to do when an impressive mule deer awaits.
Adrenaline pumping through my veins, I retraced our steps and began making a wide circle back and around 200 yards to a point directly above where the bucks were bedded. A gradual slope with a couple of knobs kept me out of sight of the three bedded deer.
Just as I began my descent, two smaller bucks crest- ed a hill off to my right. I froze. Caught red-handed, the bucks stopped, stared, and then bounced back up over the hill again. Fortunately, they didn’t blow. If they had, it would have alerted every deer in the area!
With that near-disaster averted, I refocused on the task at hand. At this point, I was 130 yards and closing, so I continued. With each step, I could hear an audible crunch of stiff prairie grass under my feet as well as an ever-so-slight swish of my pants. Knowing anything I could hear was that much more amplified to a deer was worrisome to me. No wind meant no natural sound to cover my movement.
It was clear the noise had to go! Sitting down, I slowly untied my boots, then removed my pants, leaving me in only my long underwear and wool socks. Taking the rangefinder off my belt, I shoved it in the pouch of my shirt. Now, without my Hanwag hiking boots, I was pain- fully reminded why hard-soled footwear is needed as I navigated my way through a minefield of cacti.
NOCKING AN ARROW
Fifty yards into my descent, the opposite side of the coulee floor became visible. I was getting close! Up the finger to my left, I could see several does mulling around. Quickly and quietly, I dropped to my knees and crawled slowly until the far edge of the buckbrush came into view.
Removing an arrow from my quiver, I nocked it, and then meticulously detached the quiver from my bow. Then I crawled forward a few more feet. That was it. I was as close as I could possibly get. Now it was up to me to wait them out and capitalize on when they stood.
Rangefinder in hand, I methodically dissected my sur- roundings, ranging every rock and feature I could. With any spot-and-stalk mule deer hunt there comes a time when the deer stand, stretch and walk around. It’s then up to the bow hunter to be ready.
Rising to my knees I could see the tips of antlers in the scrub and ranged them at 48 yards. Positioning myself sideways on the hill with one knee up and one down, shoulder width apart for stability, I continued to wait. Vulnerable to the many eyes in the bottom of the coulee, I knew there would be no room for mistakes.
KNEELING PRACTICE VALUE
At that point, I was very thankful for the time I’d committed to practicing from a kneeling position. Previous hunts had taught me that this could be a necessary skill because shooting from this position feels unnatural.
Over the next 30 minutes I must have ranged those ant- lers 20 times. Estimating distances in wide open spaces with limited reference points can play tricks on your mind and even cause the most experienced bowhunters to be deceived.
Part of what makes spot-and-stalk bow hunting of mule deer so challenging is keeping track of all the moving pieces. Bigger bucks will often bed near smaller bucks, particularly in the early season. Mature bucks will use younger deer as early warning signs. This allows them to relax a bit more, cover all the angles, and may- be catch a few winks of sleep knowing that the smaller bucks will inevitably warn them of impending danger.
NEXT: AMAZING MOMENT
What happened next was nothing short of amazing.
One of the meandering bucks sounded the alarm by stomping his feet and looking in my direction. I can only imagine a slight downdraft must have betrayed me, pushing scent his way.
Did he see me move? Or did something else alert him? I couldn’t tell. A couple of smaller bucks nearby walked slowly and then bounced further up the coulee. In turn, one of the bedded bucks stood and stared in my direction.
I again ranged him at 48 yards. Things were heating up. Clearly agitated, he moved to the near side of the buckbrush alerting my target buck, causing him to stand. The sun was directly behind me now, making it difficult for them to see, but my buck was becoming leery. He slowly turned and began walking to the far side of the brush.
This was it. It was then or never. I immediately went to full draw and settled my pin on his chest. Calculating distance in my mind, with each step I waited for the proper angle. The buck stepped out of the chest-high brush, stopping at a slight quartering away angle.
Now at 52 yards, it took every ounce of concentration I could muster not to peek once the arrow was gone. I didn’t move a muscle until I heard my arrow hit, then saw the deer bolt with his head down. With blood spray- ing from his chest, I knew the shot was good.
Normally, shooting at a deer over 30 yards away when they’re looking at you can be risky. Too often, they can jump the string and duck the arrow. But I think making him look directly into the sun behind me had worked. On a full-out run, the buck made it 40 yards then fell down a hill and rolled out of sight.
My heart racing, I turned and looked back up the cou- lee to where Kev had been patiently watching everything unfold. He was ecstatic! I knew because he had his arms in the air celebrating with me.
In short order, Kev was headed my way. With no boots or pants, I just sat and replayed the morning’s events in my mind. So many things could have gone sideways and changed the outcome, but they didn’t. I took a moment and thanked God for the opportunity, the success and the fact that I was able to share the experience with my soulmate. Experiences like this will be forever cherished.
Once Kev arrived, I redressed and we made our way down to the point of impact and followed his track.
One thing I’ve learned is that the prairie soaks up a blood trail quickly, leaving little to no trace. Walking his track, we recovered the arrow in a clump of sage but the end of the shaft and the broadhead were missing. Cresting the small hill where the deer was last seen, I was elated to find him laying at the bottom of the rise! Moments like these, you just have to stop and savor.
We took some pictures, then skinned and quartered the deer. We loaded our packs because the ranch was foot-access only, to help preserve the prairie grassland.
Spot-and-stalk mule deer hunting truly is an adven- ture. Crawling across the prairie landscape with my bow over the years has allowed me to develop patience, knowledge, confidence and a deeper understanding of deer behavior, along with what they “will” and “won’t” tolerate.
Prairie grasslands and coulees offer an amazing en- vironment where trial and error is the best teacher and these places are a must for any aspiring or experienced bowhunter. I can’t wait to do it again!