Mule Deer Behavior and Patterns
Mule deer hunters typically face three very different hunting periods in the fall, with each offering its own unique pros and cons. Generally the first period runs from mid August to mid September. The second runs from mid September to the end of October, with the third running the month of November. You may be hunting the same deer, but bucks seem to have different personalities to match these three unique time periods.
Weather is the biggest game changer as it affects feed, cover, hunter access, deer movement, and a myriad of other factors that will affect hunter success. Deer behavior, especially that of mature bucks changes drastically with each of the three time periods. Even non migratory deer will change their habits and behaviors throughout the fall. Understanding each period and adapting your hunting to match the season will help you harvest more mature bucks.
Summer love & the mule deer bromance season
For most hunters, the early season of mid August to mid September conjures up images of velvet antlered bachelor groups in the high country. This time of year is generally thought of as archery season with a few muzzleloader and early rifle hunts sprinkled in here and there. Lucky is the hunter with a rifle tag in his pocket during the last days of summer, as bucks are typically easy to find and easy to reach with today’s long-range hunting systems.
Throughout the summer bucks form bachelor groups-no girls allowed. Numbers may vary from just a handful, to the eye popping bachelor herds of Utah’s Henry Mountains or Nevada’s Ruby Mountains where a bachelor group may consist of 50 bucks or more.
Typically, bachelor groups will be made up of 6 or so bucks. These groups are generally easy to find, especially from a distance with good optics. They can be found in the same areas each summer-whether it’s in a high basin in Wyoming’s Salt River Range, or around a sage flat and water tank on the Arizona Strip-making the bucks easy to pattern year after year.
There is safety in numbers, but their red coats make them highly visible, especially in the morning light coupled with the amount of time they spend out in the open feeding.
Deer during the bromance season are concerned with putting on fat for the upcoming winter and rut, and not so concerned with humans watching them from a distance. Summer bucks will gather together in prime areas that offer plenty of food, water, and cover. They don’t tend to travel great distances this time of year. Preferring to stick with what worked last summer and the summer before that….
The days are long during the early season, and they can often be hot during mid day-even at high elevations. Mornings typically offer the best glassing and hunting. Try to position yourself where you can glass with the rising sun at your back. The angle of the morning light striking the reddish orange summer coats of mature bucks makes glassing them up fairly easy. It’s best to glass areas that offer food and cover literally within yards of each other. One common exception to this rule may be areas with agricultural fields nearby, but it’s pretty easy to determine where bucks are bedding during the day if you can watch them exit the food source before the sun drives them to the shadows.
After the prime time of morning glassing is over focus on glassing shadows. Become a shadow-glasser. Summer and early fall bucks will always be bedded in the shadows during the heat of the day. Even if the only object casting a shadow is on a barren hillside glass it. Mature bucks know their summer range like you know your own home. They know where to bed and at what time of day to adjust beds to stay out of the sun.
Think and act like a buck during the early hunts. Pace yourself and use your glass to do the work. Long days and warm temps will beat a guy down that spends a lot of time hiking and exerting energy. You’re better off glassing prime areas at prime times and finding a shady spot of your own during the heat of the day.
Bucks in velvet are generally pretty docile when compared to how high strung they become in just a few weeks after losing their velvet. Hunters can use this to their advantage by being patient and waiting for the right opportunity to place a stalk.
A productive method of hunting early in the season is to let the bucks get settled into their day time beds. Wait for the winds to become consistent and then put your sneak on them to get into range. A lot of mature bucks are killed mid day after being glassed up early and put to bed. Hunting water sources can be productive during the early season especially during the evening hunt. Utilize trail cameras when you can, and pattern the consistent activity of bucks during the early season.
Broken Heart Bucks
Around the middle of September almost all bucks will have shed their summer velvet and have changed into different deer. A few BFF bucks will continue to hang together, but generally bachelor groups begin to become smaller and smaller as the velvet comes off. Some of the larger mature bucks will go completely solitary once the velvet comes off-leaving the companionship of other bucks until they meet again on the winter range or a face off for the attention of a doe during the rut.
This period of mid September to later October can be the hardest of the three seasons to locate and kill a mature buck. This is why most rifle seasons are run during this time frame. States can allow a large number of rifle hunters the opportunity to hunt knowing that success rates wont harm the overall buck population.
Without winter weather and an early rut, mature bucks can become harder and harder to find with each passing day once the velvet comes off. This is due largely in part due to the fact that many go solitary. But, not only do they go alone, big bucks have the knack of going almost completely nocturnal during October.
The middle season is when bucks really hunker down-generally in the thickest nastiest cover they can find. Glassing deer out in the open is often limited to the first few minutes of morning light and right at dusk. With thick winter coats filling in and fat reserves stocked up from a summer of feasting, these deer have little reason to stand out on a sunny hillside. These deer aren’t just looking for shadows, but they often wander back into the dark pines, pinions, and quakies to avoid human encounters.
Snow is the high-country middle season hunters best friend. Not only will snow and cold temps force the deer to feed longer, but it makes it possible to glass more country effectively. Especially when it gives you contrast through a sea of leafless quakie patches.
While patience is always a worthy virtue, hunters during this time of year also need to be willing and able to strike fast, hard, and far.
More often than not, you’re going to be sharing the mountain with other hunters that might be watching the same buck you’re looking at-even if you don’t know it. Bucks do not tend to hang in the open long this time of year. When given the opportunity to move in on a shooter buck or take the shot now is not the time to drag your feet. Time is definitely not the middle season hunters friend. Many a hunter has watched a buck get shot out “from under him” while messing around with shooting sticks, cell phones, and spotting scopes. Many a hunter has told himself I’ll come back in the morning and get closer never to see the buck again. Be smart but aggressive this time of year. Success rates show that this is typically the hardest time of year to harvest the buck of your dreams.
Around the first week of November the JV team of bucks will start to hang out with the does. Typically by the second week of November the bigger bucks will be with the does or not far away, and by the third week it’s almost always game on for your best chance at a monster buck.
Find the does and you’ll find the bucks this time of year. Patience really comes back into play this time of year. Perhaps more than patience, now is the time of year to be selective. Give your buddy your bullets. Don’t shoot the first buck you see and do some shopping.
Rifle tags are generally hard to come by for the rutting season, and for good reason. Success rates for mule deer generally skyrocket during the rut. November is a good month to cover as much country as you can. Periodically check out the same groups of does as this is what the mature bucks are doing. Some bucks may stay to a fairly small area, but many bucks wander miles during this time of year in search of a doe in estrus. Many hunting seasons are relatively short this time of year. So there is some urgency. The days are short and can be cold and miserable, but this is the time of year to be out all day every day. You never know what might show up or where during the rut, especially when the conditions are right.
Rut hunts are generally great opportunities to recruit a few buddies along to split up and cover as much country as possible. Who doesn’t love looking at rutting bucks. Having the right gear for late season hunting can also be the difference between just a buck and a monster buck. Be prepared so you can spend as much time in the field as you safely can.
Most people only think of the seasons as spring, summer, winter, and fall. While successful mule deer hunters recognize the seasons within the season.