My Successful Mule Deer Stalk

mule deer stalk

The doe flared her nostrils, snorting into the wind. She knew I was close. Maybe she had heard the sharp noise of the twig snapping as I brushed by the desert shrubs. Maybe the swirling wind earlier in the stalk had brought her a whiff of my scent. As she again flared her nostrils, it was clear she was desperately trying to catch my scent to know whether and in which direction she should flee. But now the wind was blowing strongly in my favor. Sitting at seventy yards, hidden behind a shrub, for me things were going swimmingly. For the doe, not so much.

So far this season I have spent five weekends hunting mule deer with my bow. I have both a dual season either-sex archery tag, allowing me to hunt in two separate periods (the first in early fall and the second in late fall/early winter), and an archery buck tag that runs on a partially overlapping schedule. Robyn is hunting with her rifle on a buck tag. Together we have endured sweltering desert temperatures, dust storms, and gale-force-wind driven rainstorms. We’ve also had beautifully tranquil desert days where the sounds of song birds travel seemingly endlessly across the expansive terrain. And unlike last year, where we went months without even spotting a deer, we’ve seen multiple deer every trip out this year, though the vast majority of these have been does. We’ve definitively improved at spotting mule deer, thanks in large part to our spot-and-stalk technique coupled with our optics choices. Practice certainly hasn’t hurt either.

Seeing deer is far easier than killing deer, especially when limited to a bow and arrow. This lesson has been hammered into us repeatedly so far this season. For every ten deer that we spot, we are only able to spot one as it beds or in its bed. They’re typically on the move when we see them and most of the time they disappear into a fold in the terrain, never to be seen again. And a moving mule deer makes for almost certainly failed mule deer bow stalk (I’ve learned this the hard way). But sometimes we get lucky and see moving deer bed down or spot a deer already bedded. On these deer, I’ve so far managed to blow each opportunity. Mismanaging the wind, moving in too quickly, or simply losing sight of the deer on my stalk have all previously ruined my chances.

mule deer stalk

We’ve spent many nights out in the desert this season, some on calm nights, some on terribly blustery ones. This was a calm one.

But this time — this doe — was different.

I spotted her in her bed, just as we were creeping up to look over a hilltop, and quickly put my rangefinder on her: 378 yards. Seeing how close she was, I slowly crouched down behind a nearby bush, motioning to Robyn to do the same. I gave Robyn the doe’s location, and Robyn confirmed for me that it was indeed a doe and not merely a doe-looking shadow. Immediately, I donned my stalking knee pads (useful for crawling along the gravel strewn with cactus thorns) and turned on my handheld radio (useful for getting directions from Robyn as I conduct the stalk).

“Robyn, can you hear me?”

“Roger, Nick, I can hear you. Let’s do this.”

We both looked for other deer and couldn’t see any. However, the area surrounding the doe was full of dense brush. Other deer, maybe even a buck, could be hidden right near by. I’d have to tread lightly and carefully to not spook any other deer along my way. Noting relevant terrain features so that I could navigate by them once in the brush, I started off.

First I walked upright, slowly, weaving from large bush to large bush, keeping them always between me and the doe. My heart started to beat a little more quickly. After a hundred yards or so, the foliage began to thin out. In order to not be in sight of the doe, I’d have to half-hunch, half-crawl between bushes. This was slow but steady going, weaving in and out of cholla cactuses, trying concertedly not to embed a cholla ball in the palm of my hand.

mule deer stalk

The seed balls from these cholla cacti are immensely uncomfortable when embedded in the palm of your hand. Don’t try it at home kids, just take my word for it.

Every few minutes Robyn would radio me to tell me that the doe was still bedded in the same spot. It was still a go.

Slowly but surely I closed the distance between me and the doe. I ranged her at 250 yards, 200, 100, 75… 70. I managed to move stealthily enough over that distance that I didn’t perturb the doe too much. She was still in the same spot though aware that something was up, looking back in my direction. I was completely hidden behind a large bush at seventy yards and unsure of what my next move would be.

You see, for me seventy yards is too far away for an ethical bow shot. My effective range is under fifty yards. Fifty yards is the range that I can consistently put arrows into a five-inch grouping from multiple shot positions. Any longer than that and no arrow will fly from my bow. So, clearly, I wasn’t close enough.

But I had run out of cover. In order to get within my effective range, I’d have to traverse twenty or more yards of open desert, spotted only with a handful of knee-high cholla bushes. While my camouflage certainly makes me feel all ninja-like, no camo in the world could disguise a human form crawling across white desert gravel. I was stuck.

mule deer stalk

Stalking animals is quite tricky when cover is limited.

Robyn informed me of the doe’s activity: “Nick, come in, can you hear me? The doe is still in the same spot, but she is looking in your direction, over.”

At that point there were really only two options. The first, just give up, call it quits. The thought crossed my mind but I quickly jettisoned it in favor of the second — more daring — option: wait for the doe to look away and just go for it, crawling through the open. So I waited, and waited. But the doe didn’t look in the other direction at all. Her gaze was homed in on my general location. Even worse, it seemed she was getting a little antsy, as if she might decide she’d had enough and bound away at any moment.

So I did the unthinkable. I, ever so slowly, inched out from behind the bush into the open, crouching forward, putting one step in front of the other. One foot down, then the other. Then onto a knee, then the other knee. Move the right hand there, and the left over there. Slowly. Carefully. My muscles strained at the pace, a pace more taxing in many ways than sprinting.

Cold molasses surely moves faster than I did.

As I moved, the doe fixed her eyes intensely on me. I expected her to bolt at any second. But a strange thing happened… she didn’t. She just stood there, staring at me. Occasionally as I moved forward, one of her ears would twitch a little. She sniffed the air a few times, but the wind was still in my favor.

Eventually I decided that I had gone far enough to be within my range. I slowly pulled my rangefinder up to my eye and pressed the button. Yup, the doe was now at 47 yards. She was still staring at me. And she still hadn’t bolted. Could I knock an arrow in front of her? Yup. Could I stand up in front of her? Yup. Could I draw back my bow under her constant gaze? Yup. The doe appeared to be more curious about my camouflaged form than fearful; what was I? Was I friend or foe?

So there I sat, 47 yards away from this doe, bow drawn, in a staring contest that the doe would have paid her life for participation in.

Would have.

Instead of releasing the lethal shot, I let down my draw and whirled around, walking casually away from her. As soon as I turned my back, the doe stotted quickly away, as if the curious hypnotic spell had been broken and she was free to behave like a normal mule deer should.

It was a successful mule deer stalk. But I couldn’t turn it into a successful kill.

You see, this was Friday afternoon. The second part of my bow season wouldn’t open for another sixteen hours on Saturday morning. That doe was as safe as could be on that day. If it had been just a day later, I’d be preparing venison tenderloin for dinner tonight.

But alas, it wasn’t. And as much as I thought about releasing that arrow (I had never been that close to success before) I knew I never would. All that stood between me and a full freezer would have been the pull of a trigger. Being so close to my goal was tantalizing, but being a good hunter includes knowing when to hold back and when to walk away. It means not only respecting the animal and the food it provides for me but also respecting the game laws, management practices, and conservation efforts put in place to protect those very same animals. Adherence to regulations, as disappointing as it may be at times, is a pillar of hunting ethics that I am unwilling to sacrifice. This doe would live to see another day.

As I walked away from the bounding doe and the adrenaline from the stalk waned, my sense of accomplishment waxed. I felt a mounting pride. I had finally done it, I had finally put a successful stalk on a deer with my bow.

You may be asking ‘Why did he go on a stalk on a doe that he knew he couldn’t legally harvest?’ I had two reasons, with the first being the most important and the second being an ancillary benefit. First, we couldn’t be sure that the doe was alone. A few weeks earlier we had seen a buck with does, and while I couldn’t legally yet harvest the doe, I could harvest a buck if I came across one due to the difference in tag season dates. For all I knew, he might have been hiding just out of sight to the west of the doe.

The second reason was that every attempt at stalking an animal, even if just for a picture or for practice, will give me helpful experience and teach me a few lessons. Aside from the lesson, learned many times over, that sometimes mule deer do the exact opposite of what one would expect from them, I learned a few useful gems this time around.

First, knee pads are very helpful for bow stalking. I was comfortably able to drop to a knee on gravel when I needed to. Without them, my patellas would be bruised and battered.

Second, having walkie-talkies is quite useful, especially in open country. If you have a partner that will help you on the stalk, they are an invaluable tool.

Third, and vitally, I learned that it is possible for me to get close enough to a mule deer for a shot. Having had a bad experience with a hyper-vigilant doe earlier in the season (she spotted me slinking through the bush at over 200 yards!), I was feeling disheartened about my prospects. My confidence has been slightly restored.

Now all that is left is to repeat my stalking success when I can legally harvest the animal. Stay tuned.

3 Comments

  1. What kind of knee pads are you guys using?

  2. Nice piece! Well written and thoughtful. Desert hunting is very different indeed.

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