Busted! The doe was staring straight up at me from less than 10 yards. If she bolted the buck behind her would go with her. I held my breath and shifted my eyes to the buck behind. What a relief! He stared lustfully at the doe. After a minute, the doe took a few steps and the buck walked into the shooting lane as I simultaneously drew my bow. I released the arrow and the buck rocketed away in stumbling futility while the doe tried to sort through the confusion of losing her date.
Does this sound like the great ending to a classic whitetail treestand hunt? It would be, but the buck I tagged was a brawny, mature muley. Ambush opportunities for muleys have potential anywhere in mule deer country. Native Americans proved this. Manmade blinds and crumbled hides of stick and rock have been documented across the West.
These days the best chance for success occurs where mule deer visit regularly. In the arid West and Southwest you can put this practice to use around waterholes that attract mule deer. Arizona, Utah and Nevada have the right ingredients.
Despite my love affair for desert sunsets, I prefer to put my ambush plans into play in locales with more green. Mule deer inhabit country along a line from central North Dakota south straight into Texas. Destinations along this line and slightly west have the ingredients that allow you to pattern and target muleys with a whitetail hunter’s approach. North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, eastern Montana and eastern Wyoming all have terrain and seasons to capitalize on this strategy; plus, all of these states, except North Dakota, allow you to tag a whitetail if one suddenly appears—in many places this is not out of the question.
Agriculture is the main ingredient that attracts muleys. As farming practices nudge west more and more mule deer hunters have begun targeting mule deer from treestands. The best crop to target for mule deer is alfalfa but keep an eye on winter wheat, sunflowers, millet, irrigated corn, rye and other pockets of grain. Manicured hayfields, especially those that have been cut and received a shot of rain, grab the attention of nearby muleys as well.
Like whitetails, muleys visit these fields on a daily basis if undisturbed, but like spooky whitetails, they’ll change their habits faster than a politician trying to please a wealthy special-interest group if they smell you. Unlike some brushy whitetail areas, most of these areas have great vantage points to scan from afar. It’s important to begin watching the fields in early fall when you can survey bachelor groups and note travel preferences for future ambushes. You can easily target bachelor groups on fields in September and October, and if seasons allow, you can set up on large densities of does to take advantage of rutting bucks as I did.
It makes sense to look for trails or terrain features on the field edge for stand locations. Mule deer will habitually come from the same direction and will depart similarly; however, only plan on them following the same trail one out of every three days at best. They’ll still come to the field, but wind, whim or paranoia will cause them to arrive on a slightly different route before they repeat. Even if they arrive on a different trail you may still get a shot from the edge as they move around while feeding.
Outfitter Doug Gardener from Gardener Ranch Outfitters near Broadus, Mont., showed me long ago that the best ambush sites are often away from the field. Mule deer routinely travel a mile or more from bedding cover to reach preferred food sources. Gardner often scouts up to a half mile away from the field to find a pinch point muleys pass though more consistently than the field-entrance points. Knobs, steep rock canyons, ledges, saddles and fence gaps all can funnel mule deer that are on the way to a field.
Once you believe you have a good stand location, your precise hiding spot is the next consideration. Mule deer are as aware of their environment as whitetails, but even so, treestands seem to put more favor in your corner. Higher elevation keeps scent dispersed above game and it also allows you to spot oncoming game well before it reaches bow range in most situations.
Brushy pines and cedars line many hills overlooking agricultural basins. Cottonwoods provide some of my favorite perches for field-edge ambushes and to watch rutting corridors later in the fall.
Ground blinds, however, shouldn’t be overlooked. I’ve lost count of how many pit blinds I’ve dug while guiding hunters for Gardener, but I remember several payoffs including one bowhunter beaming when I picked him up at a pit blind. I was excited to see his muley knowing a bruiser passed the site nearly every day. To my surprise he was beaming over a record-book pronghorn that showed up first.
I recommend staking blinds a week or so in advance to allow animals to grow accustomed to them. Regardless of your choice of hide, wait for a consistent deer pattern and the perfect wind. No matter the species, the first time at an ambush site is the best.
Waiting for a mule deer may not have the romanticism of a spot-and-stalk hunt, but when a buck enters the trap, the odds are clearly in your favor.