As daylight broke in the high-country of southwest Colorado, the breathtaking setting of my mule deer hunt was not lost on this eastern hunter, not by a long shot. The autumn aspens were a shock of gold against the stark rocks and browning grass of the chute below. The aspens were literally quaking against the slight dawn breeze. It was a moment a hunter never forgets, whether or not that 5x5 mule deer buck appeared. Oh, he appeared, and when he did, a lifelong mule deer hunter was made.
I’m far from the only mule deer aficionado. Longtime friend and professional hunter, Chad Schearer of Belt, Montana, was a guide and an outfitter for almost two decades. Today, Schearer produces and stars with his family in the Shoot Straight TV show. His passion was and still is hunting trophy mule deer bucks.
Schearer’s No. 1 tip for bagging a mule deer buck is simple.
“Be where the mule deer are,” said Schearer. “Hunt land that historically has produced and is managed to produce trophy mule deer bucks. Look for an area without much hunting pressure.”
Do your research. Modern hunters have the distinct advantage and power of the Internet. What used to take years of boots on the ground and full gas tanks can now be accomplished during an evening of tactical Internet research. If you’re going with a guide, make sure to request references and search the outfitter’s name for posts from past clients on hunting forums. If you’re hunting public land, you can find the area you want to hunt through research, but you’ll still have to put in the work on the ground.
“To take trophy mule deer buck, you must put in time scouting to learn where they’re living,” Schearer said. “You need to get as far away as possible from public roads, don’t disturb the deer or drive in close to them and scout from a distance. Do all you can to prevent the deer from feeling pressured.”
When possible, let your eyes do the walking.
“I generally glass and scout for deer from a distance of one to two miles away,” said Schearer. “I never invade the mule deer’s bedding area, so they don’t see or smell me. Instead, attempt to take bucks either as they leave from or go to the bedding region. Scout from a vehicle to cover more ground, and realize bucks are accustomed to seeing a rancher’s vehicle. My spotting scope is very important to me because once I find a buck with my binoculars, I can then determine whether or not that buck is big enough to hunt. I like a clear 80mm spotting scope that gathers a lot of light and has a 20X-60X zoom capability. Typically, I don’t zoom the spotting scope out past 40X, because on warm days, zooming out past 40X will allow heat waves to distort your image.”
Determine before choosing an outfitter or public-land hunt what exactly you’re hoping for with your mule deer hunt. Is the experience of a high-country camp accessed by horseback more important than a trophy mount? Would you be satisfied with a better chance of success as a trade-out for less of a chance at a big mule deer buck?
“I look for and hunt only quality muleys, which may only be a 26-inch wide rack.” Said Schearer. “For me, what’s more important than width is the length of the antlers and the depths in the forks of the muley’s antlers, which will quickly add up to a good score. And the deer’s mass – that’s something I like.”
Quite often, a mule deer hunt will be physically challenging.
“Be in good physical condition,” Schearer said. “Although I prefer to glass from vehicles when hunting, once I discover a good buck, I go after him on foot. You must get your breathing under control to take an accurate shot. One of the best ways to get in shape for mule deer hunting and use the right muscles is to climb stadium steps at a football field.
“Wear quality clothing and boots,” Schearer added. “Often mule deer live in country with cactus. So, rubber boots don’t work well there. You need boots with a quality sole. I like heavy leather boots, preferably with 12-inch uppers, with 400 to 600 grains of Thinsulate insulation, and perhaps a heavier boot with more insulation to be prepared for snow. You need warm, quiet clothing since those big ears on mule deer may hear you. I like to wear a layered system of camouflage clothing in materials that will keep me warm and dry as well as some wool.”
Whether hunting with an outfitter or on public land, a mistake too many hunters make during an extended trip is passing up a shot early in the hunt. Often, your best chance at a quality buck is going to be during your first hunt in his territory.
“Don’t pass up a buck on the first day of your hunt that you’ll have been happy to have taken on the last day of the hunt,” Schearer said. "Often you’ll go into a new area with high expectations, see a really nice buck and pass him up, holding out for a better buck. This practice is usually a mistake, because generally that nice buck may be the best buck you’ll see on the hunt. Before you go on a hunt, know the size and the kind of buck you can hope to take. Let your guide pick the buck for you to take on your hunt. A guide has a better idea on the types of bucks produced in an area.”
Stalk only the mule deer you intend to take.
“When I run into a deer that’s in a bad place to get a shot at, then I won’t make a stalk on that deer,” Schearer said. “Remember, if a muley doesn’t know you’re hunting him, you have a much greater chance of taking him than if the deer realizes you’re hunting him.”