Mesa Mulies
Trekking into new mulie country brings back memories and
instills a lesson in effective hunting tactics.
By Eddie Claypool

http://www.bowandarrowhunting.com/

 I’ll never forget my first bowhunting excursion out West—back in late August of 1980.  A friend of mine and I loaded up my old truck and headed for the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.  Not knowing straight up from sideways about what we were getting into, yet fueled by being young and naive, we loaded up our backpacks and headed into the roughest, most remote sections of the  Weminuche Wilderness Area.

 To say that the next few days were a cram course of learning experiences would be an understatement.  Both of us had tags for elk and mule deer ($450 for all four tags), thus we were basically looking for anything with four hooves and hair—and hopefully, antlers.  Secretly, my personal fantasy consisted of me smiling or “hero” photos while gripping the massive beams of a giant, velvet-antlered mule deer buck.
 
 On the fourth morning of our excellent adventure, while glassing a timberline basin, I spotted just such an animal.  Though half a mile away, through the clear alpine air my cheap department-store binocular nevertheless revealed a giant halo over the brute’s head.  Grabbing gear and hustling that direction, I was soon within slow-down-and-take-it-easy range.

 

With the passing of another half-hour—with some serious crawling behind me—I peered through the stunted, alpine brush at a fuzzy antlered monarch such as I’ve never seen before.  Judging the yardage to be “about 30,” I knocked an arrow, drew my bow and slowly raised up from the brush.  Quivering like an aspen leaf in a breeze, I settled (yeah, sure!) my third pin on his ribcage and let ‘er fly—right over his back.  My arrow—and my “buck of a lifetime”—headed for the timber in the bottom of the drainage 1,000 feet below.

 

As I sat there that morning, the bittersweet emotions that flooded over me would determine the course of my bowhunting life for many years to come. I knew that somehow, some way, some day I had to bow-kill a giant mule deer buck.  Little did I know that many miles, many years and many bucks later, I would still be searching for a buck as large as that first one.

 Today, 21 years after that fateful encounter, I can honestly say that I’ve veen blessed with a few good ones—and been close to a few other whoppers.  Yet my goal has remained elusive.  The one thing that I’ve came to realize is that locating a 190-inch-plus buck—and then bow-killing it—certainly has to be one of the West’s greatest bowhunting challenges.  When you throw in the added obstacles of do-it-yourself, open-access, public-land hunting you’re striving for success that few will ever taste.  Nevertheless, it’s a noble undertaking whose intangible rewards—a lung-full of pure mountain air; and eye-full of crimson desert sunset—are actually worth more than the original goal.

 Recent Memories
 My pursuit of mulies led me from cactus flats to alpine basins, to the plains and prairies where I have experienced my coyote-like stalks.  Last August, however, I spent a couple of weeks in some new and intriguing country in southeastern Utah.  The canyon land mesa country of the San Juan Elk Ridge unit provided me with its own unique type of challenge.
 Having spent most of my mule-deer hunting time in fairly open country, the thickly vegetated topography of this area threw me for a loop.  Long-distance glassing opportunities were almost non-existent, thus dictating an approach to success that revolved around waterhole hunting and-or still-hunting.

 

After a couple of days spent in my truck becoming familiar with the area, I settled on a spot that appealed to me.  Oak brush, juniper and pine-covered mesas—intermingled with occasional openings—dropped off into deep, brushy, rocky canyons averaging 1,000 to 2,000 feet deep.  As I began to still-hunt through the different types of habitat in my location, it became clear that the larger bucks were bedding on the sides of the canyons.  Most of the does and small-to-medium sized bucks preferred the tops of the mesas. 
 

 For more than a week, I spent my mornings and evenings trying to slip along the brushy canyon sides.  I was seeing a few large bucks, yet due to the impossibility of stealthy movement, they always seemed to spot me first.  I was getting fairly frustrated with my constant still-hunting failures and my inability to come up with a better plan of attack.  Maybe I should take a day of from the rough canyon country and try my luck in the more still-hunter friendly country on the mesa tops?

 Day 10 of my outing found me relocated to the cooler, higher oak brush and pine country of my unit.  Certainly, the physical and mental outlook aspect of the hunt would be much more pleasant up here.  I could see farther, stalk quieter and sweat less.  Now the question was, “Were there any big boys around?”

 

With the passing of a few more days, it became apparent that the big bucks were almost non-existent on the tops.  Now, with only three days remaining until I was to leave for a New Mexico elk hunt, I needed to decide whether to go back to the canyons and hope for a miracle, or stay on top and try to simply harvest a nice buck.  Choosing the latter, I set forth with new goals.

 

Noon on the last day of the hunt found me deer-less.  Packing camp, I toyed with the idea of skipping the last evening of hunting.  Having always been more persistent than talented, I opted to stay.  Memories of last-minute bucks and bulls from trips past solidified my reserve.

 Setting out for my last evening afield, I was in a reflective mood.  Slipping quietly along for short distances, then setting for awhile, I soon spotted the unmistakable reddish-brown color of deer ahead.  My 10×40 binocular revealed respectable antler on one of the five bucks.  Slipping my shoes off and donning a pair of thick socks, I began to sneak forward.  Using tree trunks for separation, I closed the distance in short order.  A last look through my binos confirmed the fact that the largest buck would do just fine.  Ranging the buck at 41 yards, knocking an arrow and coming to full-draw, I eased our from behind my tree.

 When the bow went off, I knew the shot was perfect.  The buck expired whithin sight, allowing me the luxury of simply settling to the ground and giving thanks.  A short time later I held his fuzzy antlers in my hand, once again realizing the importance of staying the course to the end.  I’ll take luck any day.

 Mule Deer Basics
 Access: Without a doubt, the best odds for quick, easy bowhunting success on big-antlered mulies occurs on expansive, outfitted, private-land hunts.  If you have more money than time, then this type of outing is for you.  Start saving your greenbacks, consult the outfitters guide in the back of this magazine and then begin researching possibilities.

 On the other hand, if the accruement of experience and the satisfaction that accompanies it are priorities of your hunt, consider hunting on your own.  Take the basics of woods savvy, camping gear and physical conditioning, throw in a couple of weeks vacation, add a liberal dose of mental toughness and determination and you’ve got the makings of a successful outing.  For best odds at a public-land trophy, consider applying for drawing hunts in areas that are managed to produce good percentages of mature bucks.  Most western game departments offer such opportunities.  The drawing odds can be long for these hunts, yet when a tag is drawn, you can expect to have access to a resource that can rival the quality of some of the best private ranch hunts.

 There is plenty of open-access public land out there for the do-it-yourselfers of the bowhunting world, with realistic possibilities at record-class deer.  Often, some of the biggest bucks available can be found near urban and/or agricultural areas.  Many times these bucks spend their nights feeding in crop fields on private land, then traveling to patchwork public ground nearby to bed.

 One of my best bucks was killed on a small piece of BLM ground almost within the city limits of a small town.  The buck was traveling from his bedding area on the public ground to a small farm field on private ground to feed at night.  With a small amount of research I was able to locate access onto the public ground.  Building a ground blind in the buck’s travel route—which I carefully reconnoitered from a distance for a few days— I was able to harvest the 170-class buck as he headed to the farmer’s field to stuff himself on protein-rich alfalfa.

 At the opposite end of the spectrum are the bucks that live in extremely rugged, remote locations.  Over the years, I’ve encountered many monster mulies while backpacking in alpine wilderness areas.  Bowhuting at the timberline requires a special breed of individual that is willing to endure the extreme mental and physical obstacles involved in tackling this harsh climate and terrain.  There are few deer that reside in the vast, imposing county and finding them can be like looking for the proverbial “needle in a haystack.”  Conversely, there cannot be a more satisfied bowhunter than the one who finds, stalks and kills a big timberline mulie buck—it’s the epitome of a genuine Rocky Mountain high!

 Tactics: Early-seasoned bucks are usually found in loosely knit bachelor groups, thus making locating them a “feast or famine” situation.  You should cover a lot of ground when initially tackling a new area.  When possible, velvet antlered bucks prefer to reside in fairly open country because they are very conscious of their “crown” at this time of year.  Bucks often bed on open slopes that provide random shade and are exposed to prevailing breezes.  Glass open areas from prominent points in early-morning and late-evening times.  Foot-scout for water sources and concentration of fresh sign during midday periods.

 Once hotspots are found, monitor activity for as long as necessary to determine proper tactics.  It is common fare when bowhunting for early-season mulies to spend much more time glassing than hunting, so don’t handicap yourself by going afield with optics that are less than top quality.  Here is where the old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” certainly applies.