For some of the best mule deer hunting in North America, forget the romantic images of giant muley bucks set against a sweeping Rocky Mountains panorama...
For a child of the prairie, I didn’t need for my guide to verbally confirm what the buzzing sound at shoelace level was. Patrick Montgomery provided visual confirmation with a breakneck sidestep that would put any question-dodging politician to shame. I followed suit with a speedy foot shuffle of my own.
As the irritated prairie rattler slid into a sun-baked crack along the dry creek bank, Montgomery and I turned out attention back to scanning the sage for a bedded mule deer—or parts thereof. We’d watched a pair of bucks bed in waist-high sage shortly after sunrise, and after eventually locating the amiable landowner, the stalk was on. But it would be tricky because I need to get close enough to make a killing shot with my open-sight muzzleloader.
We’d left my hunting partner, Chad Schearer, a half-mile away hunkered on a prairie knob to provide stalking direction to the muleys via hand-signals. A flailing of arms, a wave of his cowboy hat and straight-forward gestures meant out target lay dead ahead, and I readied my rifle.
Crawling up the steep bank of a creek-bed, we reached the edge and slowly rose over the sagebrush for a peek. Like submarine periscopes, Montgomery and I scrutinized the surrounding landscape for any signs of antlers in the shady recesses.
“Got him,” Montgomery whispered, clutching my sleeve and pointing to several large clumps of sage dead ahead. “He’s under that bush, and there’s a stag-horned buck to his right. Now all we have to do is make him stand for the shot.”
Getting a muley buck to stand sounds easy, but using the wrong tactic could easily lead to a no shot opportunity. We decided the best option would be to moo like a cow, because cattle were common in the surrounding pastures and this non-threatening tone might get the buck to stand for curiosity’s sake. After ranging the brush as 80 yards, I nodded for Montgomery to toss out his best bovine impression.
Sad to say, his best efforts did nothing more than prompt the bucks to chew their cuds fasters. But Schearer, hearing the moos and seeing negative results, had a light-bulb moment. From his distant perch he imitated the greeting howl of a lone coyote. It did the trick. Both bucks stood, looked around for the canine intruder and pivoted broadside. With my CVA 209 Kodiak Pro Magnum already propped on shooting sticks, I centered the open sights on the larger buck’s vitals and squeezed the trigger.
“You hit him!” Montgomery shouted. “He ran into the creek.” For a few tense minutes the outcome was questionable. Even though Montgomery felt good about the shot, I’d lost sight of the deer in the ensuing cloud of smoke. To make matters worse, muleys were busting out of beds all around us. A large buck squirted out of the creek 200 yards downstream. Was that my buck?
Schearer hustled down from his hilltop observatory and laid our fears to rest. “He’s down,” he assured me. “I saw him drop into the creek and he never came out. I think you’re going to be surprised by the size of this buck.!”
Creeping up to the edge of the creek with a re-loaded muzzleloader, I was treated to a close-up view of the buck that had taken us the better part of the day to stalk. The 295-grain PowerBelt bullet had performed flawlessly, catching the muley perfectly behind the shoulder and folding him within 60 yards of the shot. Grabbing onto the antlers, I let my fingers do the walking. It was almost like reading Braille, and the story held tales of mass, height and one stunning kicker point protruding from the buck’s left top fork. The muley easily surpassed and I’d shot in the past.
Mule deer inhabit a wide range of Western topography, living in at least 19 states and six Canadian provinces. But it’s on prairie real estate where many hunters fulfill their trophy mule deer quests. Open country, from the prairie provinces of Canada south to Texas, provides ideal mule deer habitat.
Agricultural crops such as winter wheat, sunflowers, millet, alfalfa and irrigated corn have provided a prairie bounty unlike any other to boost mule deer growth and potential. Unfortunately, the all-you-can-eat-buffet comes with a hidden cost. At least 99 percent of the tall grass prairie has been lost to the plow, and returning to its native state could cost more than $5000 per acre. Today’s checkerboard of grass and agriculture doesn’t bode well for many prairie species, but mule deer have held fast, providing hunters lucky enough to draw a tag an opportunity to shoot a truly hard-to-take trophy.
Like an Elvis sighting, trophy prairie mule deer can pop up anywhere, but three standouts include western Kansas, eastern Colorado and southwestern Saskatchewan. These areas shine because hunting pressure is somewhat alleviated by a limited number of licenses. Add to that easy access to high-energy food sources, and in 4-5 years a trophy muley is born. Of course, drought, winterkill and chronic wasting disease (CWD) culling can alter trophy potential annually in localized areas.
A second overriding factor in these and many other prairie regions is private management. Unlike the mountains to the west, most prairie property is privately owned. A few parcels of National Forest grasslands, Bureau of Land Management tracts and state-owned allotments dot the landscape, but for the most part the prairie is made up of private holdings.
During your scouting efforts or outfitter research, “think big,” as in vast acres of land. The biggest muleys come from the largest holdings of land with limited hunting pressure. Even though prairie muleys often live within a 1,000-acre area, especially in the spring and summer, a mature buck will easily rut through that amount of country in a few hours. Landowners able to corral 10,000 or more acres in one contiguous chunk have far better opportunities to grow truly magnum prairie muleys.
Last season, I bowhunted an awesome muley and came close to dropping the string on him several times. During the firearm season, I stopped by several times to make sure he stayed safely tucked in the small pasture he called home, hoping to track him down again during the late bow season. In December, I again targeted him with my bow, but he came up missing from the 2,500-acre pasture. Did he migrate to avoid the snow or did some lucky rifle hunter catch him on an adjoining property? I think it was the latter, because I hunted coyotes in the surrounding pastures and never caught a glimpse of him from December through March. Like many males, he likely strayed too far while seeking the opposite sex and probably ended up as wall art.
GEARING UP FOR MULEYS
High-quality optics are vital to successfully hunting open-country muleys. Several years ago, I flew to a mule deer hunt. To save baggage weight I left my Nikon sporting scope behind because the guide said he had one. At sunrise on the first morning of the hunt, I spied some bucks traveling to a distant wash to bed and asked for the scope to assess their trophy potential. The guide handed me a spotting scope I swore he found in a box of kid’s breakfast cereal. A Coke bottle stuck up to my eye would have been as clear. After a few struggling minutes and sensing an escalating headache, I gave up and relied on my 10X binoculars instead.
High-quality water- and fog-proof 8X or 10X binoculars will handle most glassing chores in open country. If you want the most light-gathering potential for your dollar, shop for models with at least 40mm objective lenses. But don’t get trapped in the “bigger is always better” American mentality. If you go any larger than 10X, you’ll struggles to keep the binoculars steady due to the increased magnification. Leave that chore to a spotting scope on a tripod.
Spotting scopes also come in an array of models and sizes. Again, keep it simple. Look for a midrange variable such as a 15-30 model with a 60mm objective. Any more power and you’ll find heat wave distortion and be plagued with fuzzy images. Attach your spotting scope to a lightweight tripod with extendable legs and you’re ready for open-country glassing.
A few more daypack items will make your hunt more comfortable and help you hunt more efficiently. First, open-country hunting means stalking like a baby—and that means crawling. For crawling comfort, wear leather gloves, elbow pads and knee pads. You can pick these items up at a local handyman store for less than $30.
If you’re hunting with a bow or muzzleloader, you should purchase a pair of fleece booties like Safari Sneakers made by Crooked Horn Outfitters for getting in close undetected. These pullovers go right over your boots and muffle the crackle of dry, breaking grass or a grinding stone beneath a boot’s sole. I suppose you could also use them to slip out of your house to avoid honey-do chores, but that’s another article. I carry mine in a daypack until I see a stalking opportunity, then stop and quickly pull them on.
Gun hunters should never embark on an open-country hunt without shooting sticks of bipods attached to their firearm. Expect average shots of 200 yards, with longer shots probably for centerfire hunters who don’t want to crawl closer. Shooting aids will ensure a stable sight picture with an open-sight muzzleloader or a scoped centerfire rifle.
A rangefinder is also standard equipment for a bow or firearms hunt. Models with 600-yard or more capability and incredible accuracy, like Nikon’s Monarch 800, will guarantee your aim point. The rest is up to you.
Finally, forget woodland camouflage patterns and think light colors. Advantage Camouflage’s Max-1 pattern mixes sagebrush and grasses into a pale blend that melts into prairie and open-country backdrops. Bowhunters particularly need to address the camouflage issue to avoid looking like a charred, moving stump.
There’s more than one way to skin a prairie muley, or at least to get to that point of the hunt—you can either wait in ambush or stalk them. Early in the fall, muleys live, travel and intermingle in bachelor groups. I’ve seen as few as two in a group, but I’ve also seen some groups numbering more than 20. These troops stick to a fairly regular pattern, visiting high-quality feed and bedding areas in the same general neighborhood daily. If you have the luxury of observing and noting a bachelor buck’s routine, plan an ambush around it.
If you want to challenge yourself even more, stalking is the game. Actually, the challenge begins with spotting, then stalking. Get up high, glass likely mule deer hangouts and watch them, all the while putting together a plan to get in close for a shot. A popular method involves watching bucks at sunrise and keeping tabs on them until they bed and give you an opportunity to sneak in close.
Mule deer thrive in open-country habitat, and more and more savvy hunters are forsaking the rugged Rockies and pursuing trophy mule deer across North America’s sprawling prairie regions. What are you waiting for?
Central Montana Outfitters
Nikon Sport Optics
Crooked Horn Outfitters Safari Stalkers
Hunter’s Specialties Shooting Sticks
Max-1 Advantage Camouflage