Mule deer inhabit various terrain across the West and can be a blast to hunt. They have large bodies, large racks and tasty meat. Often, the most challenging part of mule deer hunting involves actually finding them. Or, at least, finding good bucks. I seem to easily locate does and young fork-antlered bucks galore, but have to truly put in the time to find and harvest a quality mule deer buck. The biggest thing that goes into locating mature bucks is finding a good area and spending a lot of time behind glass. Mule deer are famously hard to find; however, some glassing tips and techniques can help.
Find a Vantage Point
Glassing for mule deer starts with your glassing location. Ideally, you have found a good unit, drawn a tag and have used GOHUNT maps to scout out spots that look like they could hold bucks. Areas that hold mature bucks will primarily have food, cover and water and be far from a road or trailhead. The trick is to be at a good glassing point for dusk and dawn — if not all day. What makes a good glassing point, though? A good glassing point is one that allows you to see a lot of huntable country with the wind and sun in your favor. Try to find a glassing point that has wind hitting you in the face or, at least, not going in the direction of mule deer habitat. Though you may be hundreds of yards from your intended quarry, a lousy wind can ruin your hunt before it even begins. The sun can also help or hurt your success. I always like to try to set up in a way that has the sun at my back for two reasons. First, nothing can give you a headache quicker than squinting and staring into the sunrise or sunset for hours on end as you try to find a buck’s antler, tail flick or ear twitch. The second reason I like the sun at my back is that it really allows me to see the hillsides I am glassing well as I scan the basin. Mule deer are hard enough to spot in low-light situations, so I love to take advantage of the early light or last light shining on a hillside that I am looking at. A good vantage point is crucial to success when glassing for mule deer or any animal.
Use good glass and a tripod
Mule deer are difficult animals to spot because they are designed not to stand out and to blend in with most western vegetation. This is why a good pair of optics is crucial if you want to give yourself an advantage when glassing. I always like to use binoculars with high quality glass — 10x or more — and a good size objective lens. The glass is important because the glass quality combined with the objective lens size determines how much light is absorbed and transferred to our eyes. Essentially, quality glass and a large objective lens size means that we can see more at lower light, which means we can find more deer earlier. The zoom is crucial if we want to take a closer look. A lot of mule deer hunters use spotting scopes to look for bucks. These often have adjustable zooms that allow hunters to really get a good look at a buck and decide if he is mature enough to go after. No matter if you are using binoculars or a spotting scope, a successful mule deer glasser almost always uses tripods. The movement you are looking for is often a tiny flick or twitch, which means the steadier you are, the better chance you have to see this happen.
When it comes to glassing for mule deer, a couple of things can help you find bucks, especially if you are paying attention to your surroundings. First, I always concentrate on where you might think to see mule deer. This means looking at shady spots, areas with some cover and areas that are hard to access. On sunny days, bucks will almost always prefer shade over the sun; on rainy days, they will almost always choose to bed under cover and mature bucks almost always love being in a hard-to-access portion of a basin. Once I find these areas of concentration, I am methodical in my glassing technique. To do this, I develop glassing boundaries or search areas. Once I know my search area, I start working my way across it from left to right, then right to the left, moving up or down once I have confirmed there were no deer in my sweep. Once my search area has been proven void of animal life, I set up a new search grid bounded by different landmarks and follow the same process. This is the best way to find deer that you might otherwise assume are not there. Searching like this also gives you the confidence that there are no deer there and that it’s okay to move on to a new spot.
Patience and perseverance
If you have a good spot, some good optics, a steady setup and are searching methodically, there is only one more thing that can increase your success. This is patience and perseverance! Mature bucks turn nocturnal very quickly once they feel some pressure. This means that they are in their beds or almost in their beds by the time the sun comes up and stay bedded down until the sun is down. For this reason, if you want to have the best chance at finding a mature buck, it is essential that you stay at your vantage point until you can’t see through your glass. If you do this, then you might just find a good buck standing up or moving through that you would have missed while you were at the truck. It only takes one second to change a hunt, so spend as much time behind the glass as you can to try to find that buck making a mistake for one second.
Glassing for mule deer is the best way to find and harvest mature bucks. They often spend their time in hard-to-reach areas at high elevations or far from roads. If you are going to spend the time hiking back in there, consider doing your glassing right. To do this, find a good vantage point where you can see a lot of habitats, keeping in mind the wind direction and the sunrise or sunset directions. Then, use good glass with a good steady base to methodically scan sections of the habitat until you would bet money there is nothing there or find a buck. Be patient and push through the mundanity of glassing because it just takes one flick, twitch or antler glare and you are in the game. Once you find a good buck, your next job is to plan a successful stalk to get you within bow or rifle range and make the opportunity count.