Mule deer have an innate ability to exploit a variety of landscapes to fit their specific needs.
Although found in many landscapes they are generally near or around shrublands of some sorts such as mountain brush, sagebrush, savannah and desert scrub. The variety of places you can hunt mule deer is part of the allure of hunting them. Hunting mule deer in their southernmost range in the southwest is a unique experience and a bucket list item for many mule deer enthusiasts. The desert is different, vast, broken and deceivingly beautiful in its ordinary way.
Although mule deer can be found in starkly different landscapes, some tactics for hunting them never change. Universally, you need to know mule deer habits, put in scouting effort and have patience when glassing and stalking. Proficiency of these universal tactics will positively aid in your hunting endeavors no matter where or what you are pursuing. However, we as hunters need to adapt to the landscape just like the mule deer we are hunting have. Some tactics may be more important than others given the environment. In the desert, this is especially true.
Understanding these five desert mule deer tactics will lead to a more successful hunt for first time desert hunters and more experienced desert hunters alike.
1. Water Means Life or Death
Back to the basics, a deer needs food, shelter and water. With any amount of cover and feed, a deer can survive most places, but water is the true lifeline of all desert animals. With so few water sources, keying in on water and the surrounding areas will rapidly narrow down your search for areas to hunt. Once you have located water, your best bet will be to throw a trail camera up (within legal limits) and see what is using that particular source. When you locate a mature buck on a water source, you have several options. If you have the patience, set up a ground blind and wait for your target to come to water. On the other hand, you can hunt from a distance and know that your target should be somewhere close.
If you have located the only water within miles, you should be golden. However, wary desert bucks are more likely to have a larger core area than a high country buck. If another water source is within a mile or two, it's not uncommon for a buck to bounce back and forth between two or three water sources. If you are only getting trail camera pictures of your target buck every third or fourth day, get back to the drawing board and figure out where his other water sources are. Although they may roam more, they too will generally adhere to a strict pattern – you just have to figure out what that pattern is.
2. Trackers Mentality
The ability of a hunter to read a track has led to the demise of many big deer over the years, especially in the desert. Tracking is not specific to hunting in the desert, but you will see it used far more often in the desert than any other landscape. Due to the low deer density in the desert, a fresh buck track can bring a heightened level of anticipation.
The ability to track is no doubt something that will take a lot of time and effort to master. Practice by following a track backwards to see where a deer has come from. This leads to the discovering of hidden water sources and bedding areas. You will also learn to think more like a deer by following in their footsteps. When following a mature buck track, you will discover they rarely leave the safety of cover. When they do break out in the open, they hug cover as closely as possible. The more you practice tracking, the better understanding you will gain of your quarry and the better desert hunter you will become.
3. Shaded Beds
Learning a buck's bedding area is one piece of the puzzle that will consistently lead to success. Bucks will regularly use the same beds day-to-day. Not exactly every day, but sometimes several times a week. Having bedding information can set you up for a successful ambush or help in being able to locate your target buck on a regular basis. Bedding areas in the desert can be tricky though. Look for shade, often at the base of a rock or cliff, or in the bottom of a gully tucked underneath a big piece of brush. These areas are regularly littered with deer beds. The beds deer are using are ones they know well and have used for years and years.
The following Muley Freak film shows just how effective glassing shady spots can be: watch here
4. Chill Pill
When hunting mule deer, the importance of being patient cannot be stressed enough. The desert will break even the best deer hunters if they do not have the ability to exercise extreme patience. Take the proverbial “chill pill" and be willing to sit at the same glassing point for several hours, or days, at a time. If you sit in the right area long enough, or for enough days, you’re bound to see a buck. Patience kills big bucks more often than not.
5. Boot Leather
All of these tactics come back to having one thing in common – pre-season scouting. If you do your leg work ahead of time, you will know water sources, feeding areas, and bedding areas. You will understand the interconnectedness of these areas in your specific area. This information is invaluable and will most certainly increase your odds of punching your tag.
Reaping Your Efforts
The desert in all its beauty is not for the faint of heart. Just like everything else in this life, we get out what we put into it. Hunting mule deer in the desert is no different. Those willing to do their homework, brave the elements, stick it out, and adapt their tactics are greatly rewarded.
Watch the Muley Freak crew put the below tactics to work in the desert: here
Here’s yet another Muley Freak desert archery film with an insane kill shot! -> watch here