Tactics for bowhunting rutting mule deer

Josh Kirchner firstlite

Photo credit: Jake Kirchner

Bowhunting as a whole is just plain difficult. It sounds crazy that we put so much effort into getting close only to be struck with “failure” 90% of the time. It would be much easier to pick up a rifle and end the game where the bowhunt essentially begins, but no. After all of that, what do we do? We just keep coming back for more, trying to take advantage of any little thing we can that can aid us in our pursuit. We are indeed gluttons for punishment. In the case of mule deer, one of those advantages that puts the odds a little more in our favor is the rut. The bucks are distracted, the does are being pestered, and there is no better or exciting a time to sneak up on a hard-antlered mule deer and sink an arrow into it. However, the rut doesn’t seal the deal for you. Here are some tactics to stow away in your toolbox the next time you are out there getting after it.

Sitting water

creek scenery

The rut is a hectic time for both bucks and does. The bucks are running themselves ragged and the does are forced to put up with all of it. Bucks will spend their days running ridges and heading from doe bedding area to bedding area looking for that next hot doe willing to give her his company. All of that running around can get tiring and a fella is bound to stop in for a drink of water now and then in between his efforts. Finding a dependable water source in the vicinity might be your golden ticket to the big show. Setting up a blind on that water and playing the waiting game is a proven tactic year after year to put arrows into bucks with love on the mind. This will be especially deadly on a dry year and will focus deer into a specific area making them less spread out. When doing this, I would highly suggest that you sit all day long because, during the rut, movement is constant.

Spot and stalk: a pattern within the chaos

sirui tripod glassing

This is my favorite and preferred way of hunting mule deer during the rut with a bow. Sitting up high with optics and scanning the surrounding hillsides, looking for lust-filled mule deer bucks bestowing their presence on the resident does of the area. Now, that is my idea of a good time! Sitting back like this and watching from a far lets you really see deer acting like deer. They are unaware of your whereabouts and are plainly going about their business. It is the perfect opportunity to come up with a plan of attack and close the distance into bow range.

phone scope mule deer

So, how do you go about doing this? Well, there are folks that like to bed the bucks down and that is a great tactic. However, during the rut, they will seldomly bed for long, as they are just too worked up. They can only stay still so long before needing to get up and mess with their does. What I like to do is move in on them while they are rutting. How I see it is like this: the deer are being aggressive, so hunt them aggressively. Within the chaos that is the rut, the deer are indeed moving in a certain direction. So, look at the situation as a whole and figure out what direction they are moving. This is where you can try and possibly head them off and have them essentially come to you. If they are just rutting their heads off in one area, you can more than likely just move in on said area, but not too close. You don’t want to blow the operation. Remember, you are dealing with, not only the eyes of the buck but all of the eyes of the does. Staying back at 80 yards or so and waiting for your shot opportunity—or even for them to rut right towards you—is optimal in my opinion. There is a fair bit of instinct involved in this as well.


When most folks talk about calling or decoying for deer, it is probably under the umbrella that is the whitetail world. Seeing some of those videos of big whitetail bucks coming into calls and charging decoys is enough to get any hunter fired up. I have heard more than a few folks say that calling/decoying mule deer bucks doesn’t work and that they are a spot and stalk animal. Believe it or not though, calling/decoying can also work for mule deer. Getting the attention of a rut-crazed mule deer buck with a doe decoy could be enough to take his attention off of you and let you slip in for a shot. I’ve seen the decoys that attach to your bow work time and time again. They might not come charging in, but they aren’t running away! In this case, you are presenting yourself as just another deer, not as a threat.

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As far as calling goes, I truly believe it is a game of numbers and being in the right situation at the right time with the right deer. Sneaking up on a herd and throwing out a bleat is a proven way to bring does your way. The thinking on this is that the bucks will inevitably follow the does. So, you aren’t calling to the bucks, but to the does. Another style of calling that might sound a bit forward and over the top is actually predator calling. Does will often come into a predator call (fawn in distress). They hear the whine of a nearby fawn and instinctually will come and investigate the matter. The same thinking goes here: bring in the doe and the buck will hopefully follow. I have also heard of folks rattling in mule deer bucks right here in my home state of Arizona.

Hunt the does

Josh Kirchner glassing firstlite

Everything aside, the number one thing that you need to be focused on is hunting the does during the rut. Even during pre-season scouting. I will head out to scout for deer and most people will ask me if I saw any good bucks. I’ll then respond with, “No, I’m glad I didn’t, actually.” Finding a few different herds of does before the rut and keeping tabs on them is way more beneficial than finding a big buck before the rut if you ask me. The fact of the matter is, when the rut starts, that big buck is going to be over where the does are, along with other bucks coming in to get their slice of pie. He’s not going to be where you saw him before the rut. Hunt the bucks where they are going to be, not where they were last month.

phone scope does

So, when you do find a group of does during the rut, stay on them! Time and time again I see or hear about folks leaving a herd of does prematurely and not letting things unfold. Just because you don’t see a buck right off of the bat doesn’t mean he isn’t around. I’ve watched does for hours before a buck showed himself. If you find a group of does during the rut, nine times out of ten, there is a buck around there somewhere. It might take five minutes; it might take a few hours, but that buck or a different buck is going to pop out eventually. If you aren’t there to see him do so because you may have gotten bored or antsy, you will miss him. It will be an opportunity lost.


mule deer down

If you are a bowhunter and have never spent any time out pursuing mule deer during the rut, I’ve got news for you. You are missing out! The rut is such an exciting time to be out in the field. Bucks that we had no idea about just come out of the woodwork to join the party and take what is theirs. The look of a big mule deer buck emerging from a thicket, straight-necked and lip curled is one that I crave every year. Between the bucks chasing does, shredding up trees and fighting, it is a recipe for a good time. Remember, however, this is bowhunting and it is no easy cake walk killing a big nasty mule deer buck with love on the brain. Being the glutton for punishment we are though as bowhunters, that’s even more reason to get out and exercise our hunting process on these magnificent animals that we call mule deer.

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