Big-Buck Secrets Mule Deer Hunters Won’t Share

Big-Buck Secrets Mule Deer Hunters Won't Share

The mule deer hunter who sits in one place is likely to see more bucks than the person who covers 10 miles a day in good country.(Shutterstock image)

Mule deer, blacktails and western whitetails are at least as good at patterning us as we are at figuring them out.

That is why a hunter learns to think in opposites. What is the other guy doing? What has the other guy always done? Where do deer go when pressured?

And what is the opposite of that? If we always do the other thing, we are more likely to spot deer other people miss.


Out on a dusty road in sagebrush country, we stopped to talk to an old cowboy, window to window, in a wide spot in the middle of a two-track. He didn’t have a deer tag that year, he said, but he was scouting for next season. And, I guess, because he could not help himself, he let something slip.

He named a mountain (I found it later on a map) and said that was the spot where many of the area’s bucks drifted into in the spring, and where they stayed till mid-October.

“In a lot of years, those bucks don’t move down until we get a heavy rain and a cold snap. And that doesn’t usually happen till after the season,” he said. “In September, it’s not unusual to see 10 or more bucks together.”

Now it was a cinch that not all the area’s bucks summered there. But the theory could have explained why we saw so many bucks in November that just were not there the month before.

That afternoon in camp, my hunting partner and I bent over a map of the game management unit and found the spot. It was the highest peak in the immediate area, fissured with canyons, valleys and pockets.

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On all sides the bottom land heaped up toward this one remote mountain and its many finger ridges, with clear migration corridors that began to reveal themselves in light of this new information.

It was public land, but there were no good access roads. An old wagon path marked possible ingress, but it was easier to leave the truck and go in afoot, carrying camp on our backs. In the process of scouting the way in, we filled both our tags with mule deer bucks.

Author Gary Lewis successfully scouts with a UTV when motorized vehicles are allowed. But sometimes he’s found the biggest bucks a few hundred yards from camp. Technology is great, but there’s no substitute for word-of-mouth, also called cowboy college. (Gary Lewis photo)


Over 15 years hunting the same mule deer unit off and on, we learned what patches of mountain mahogany to hunt and which ones were so riddled with exit trails they were not worth the effort. But the single-best download of local wisdom came from a real estate agent who had hunted that country for three decades.

We sat at his desk with an old ratty map. He would point at a spring or a mesa or a rimrock and tell me where he had killed bucks or watched them looking for a bigger one. He did not waste time telling stories but showed me the best places he knew. I marked Xs and made tiny scribbles to decipher later.

It was cattle country and there would be beef grazing. He convinced me the cows were there for the same reasons the deer were.

An old cowboy had done the same thing for him, he said.

Local knowledge can come from unlikely sources, but the best founts of information are the people least likely to talk. The real estate agent-desert hunter who helped me was one example, but there have been many over the years — cowboys, ranchers,bird hunters, auto mechanics. The common denominator is the substantial amount of gray in their beards.

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Once I sat in camp with a dozen other guys on the night before opening day. The oldest guy in the room seldom said a word. I knew he didn’t have a tag that year. I asked him what he thought would be the best strategy for taking a big deer. He said I should leave the camp before the rest of the guys but only go 200 yards and sit down and watch the timber.

On moonlit nights, he said, the deer came up from the canyon to feed in the oaks and on the edges of the meadows. If they stayed out after daylight, one might offer a shot.

Everyone else ate a big deer-camp breakfast while I slipped out before daybreak. Less than 200 yards from the farmhouse was a big blacktail with a few does. I shot him at very close range. It was well worth missing breakfast.


With our ability to scout from the kitchen table like never before, with the wealth of information available for the asking, with unbelievably affordable premium optics and 60X magnification, it is crazy how easy it is to miss deer.

Our fellow hunters are just too impatient. The hunter who sits in one place is likely to see more bucks than the person who covers 10 miles a day in good country. And the person who drives around in the truck will see fewest deer of all.

Glass for the feed — look for browse that shows up red or purple in an otherwise field of silver-green — and begin to sort out the adjacent bedding areas. In most cases, the beds are no more than half a mile from a water source but, in dry country, a deer may travel farther than that each day. Look for water, especially water that doesn’t show up on other people’s maps.

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From a good vantage point, get behind a tripod and scope and stay in the glass for the first three hours of the day. Glass the feeding areas and then bedding areas.

Look for parts of deer: a throat patch, the flick of an ear, the tips of antlers, the horizontal line of a back, the crook of a back leg and the shine of a nose. Peer into the shade of junipers, into the shade at the base of a boulder, look for a deer bedded in the lee of tall sagebrush.

Wherever the ground rises and falls away, a hunter can find exposed rocks with boulders scattered down the slopes below. Deer, especially solitary bucks, seek out the shade to tuck in and wait for the shadows to lengthen when they go out to feed again.

And here is one last trick that can help you spot a deer before your buddy.

Several eyewear companies manufacture a dark bronze lens sometimes referred to as Belgian bronze. Mike Bechtel, owner of SSP Eyewear and a mule deer hunter, was one of the first to bring this to my attention.

“It blocks the blue light in the light spectrum. You get a good contrast between the animal and its background,” Bechtel said.

The dark bronze lens helps with depth perception and that can make a difference when trying to pick a deer out of its background.

Gary Lewis is the author/publisher of Fishing Central Oregon, Fishing Mount Hood Country and other titles. Contact Lewis at

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>