As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, we hunt for mule deer out in the desert. It’s very open country. Being still-novice hunters, we probably couldn’t have picked a much more difficult first big game quarry. Mule deer are often called ‘grey ghosts’ for their elusive qualities, and attempting to hunt them in terrain that often has no more than knee-high brush — most often with a bow — makes getting one all the more challenging. You might even think, at first blush, that we’re trying to make it as hard as possible to get deer. That’s certainly not our intention, as we would really like to have the meat to eat. But given that we live in the desert Southwest, and given the seasons available to us, we’re left with a rather trying introduction to deer hunting. Fortunately, however, we aren’t starting from scratch. Last season I happened across a timeless and excellent introduction to hunting mule deer in the open expanses of the American West. Dwight Schuh’s Hunting Open-Country Mule Deer, written almost twenty years ago, contains nearly all the pointers a budding mule deer hunter could want.
Previously, I’ve reviewed Tovar Cerulli’s book The Mindful Carnivore. Cerulli has a knack for writing that is absent in much of the hunting literature. I wouldn’t say that Schuh has quite the same talent, but Hunting Open-Country Mule Deer is still well written. Expect an enjoyably readable ‘how-to’ with a few stories tossed in from Schuh’s own life. If this is the sort of book you’re looking for you’ll be more than satisfied. Your hunting strategy will almost certainly improve. Of the many books I’ve read on ‘how-to hunt’ Schuh’s was the most useful by far.
So, what does Schuh highlight as key to hunting open country mule deer?
The first is the most basic task: planning the hunt. Robyn goes a bit into this topic with her post. If you want to hunt game, you need to know where to find it. That includes types of land designations (public vs. private, federal vs. state, etc.) as well as the topography of the terrain. Schuh breaks down how he went about it twenty years ago. Since then, hunting resources have changed, but the general idea remains the same. Use the tools available to you to find where you’d like to hunt, and then consult other resources to learn about the game in that area.
His next seven chapters focus on the ‘spot and stalk’ strategy for hunting. When I first read this book, this topic was revolutionary for me. Previously, I had always just conceived of my hunting strategy much along the lines of Elmer Fudd’s technique for stalking rabbits: walk slowly and be vewwy vewwy quiet. Using it, I was about as successful as Fudd was. As seems obvious to me looking back on it, walking around ‘quietly’ in open country can work, but it’s very difficult to get an edge up on animals with much more acute hearing than my own. I also am not the most stealthy of individuals — yet — and after a few nights in the backcountry tend to develop a nice hearty musk. Neither of these attributes helped me stumble on game by walking around quietly and slowly through open country. In fact, I spent much of last archery season knowing that I was right on top of deer, as fresh tracks and scat was everywhere, but without seeing a single one. My tactic, counter-intuitively called ‘still hunting’, wasn’t working.
Schuh proposes a better strategy. Get to a high point in the terrain, plop down in one spot, get a good set of optics and let your eyes do the walking for you. Once I read the heart of his book and changed my hunting strategy I started seeing much more game. The other advantage of this strategy is that when I spotted the game, I was often almost half a mile away, much too far for the deer to really notice me. When you can see the deer, and especially when you can see them bed down, you have time on your side. Planning a successful stalk also requires some strategic thinking and planning. What is the wind doing? What is the terrain like? Can you get to a spot without the deer seeing you? How far will you have to crawl on your knees? Schuh addresses these points adroitly.
In his third chapter, Schuh focuses on the tools for spotting the deer: optics. I won’t go into much more detail on these, as I’ve covered the topic extensively in another post, but suffice it to say Schuh’s advice still rings pretty true. Like Schuh, I like binoculars better than the spotting scope. Binoculars help me find more game more comfortably than just looking through one eye. Moreover, spotting scope magnification much beyond twenty becomes a bit useless during much of the day out West, as heatwaves significantly distort the view. Technology has improved massively since 1985 when Schuh was writing, but his main takeaways still hold.
Next, Schuh breaks down the spotting strategy. He covers where to sit, where and when to look, and what to look for. Once you’ve found something, the next task is in planning how to stalk up to it. Schuh’s fifth and sixth chapters go in-depth into what he has found works and doesn’t work in his many stalking successes and failures. Making a physical map of terrain features between you and the quarry is what I’ve found to be one of the most important pointers he gives in these chapters. The land looks a lot different when you’re right in it than it did a mile away. I’ve found this disorienting on more than one occasion.
Chapter seven details the stalk. It’s still one of the best short bits of how-to-hunt I’ve ever read. If you follow Schuh’s advice, you should be able to get close to the deer. If you’re covering terrain that doesn’t have horrendously annoying cholla cacti, a thick pair of wool socks might be your best friend. Next Schuh focuses on the shot — the make it or break it moment. We’ll go into much more detail on choice of hunting weapons — bows versus rifles, how to set your weapon up to fit you, how to gain comfort and accuracy with it, etc. — in future posts.
Finally, Schuh closes out his book with a few chapters on the topics of game care, a brief discussion of other hunting methods (including the still hunt technique), some talk about gear, and a mention of the physical conditioning necessary to hunt rugged country out West. While these chapters are useful, the real gem that this book provides is the material in its second through eighth chapters: how to perform a successful spot and stalk hunt.
If you hunt in wide open country, or if you plan to do so in the future, seriously consider picking up a copy of Schuh’s book. Hunting Open Country Mule Deer gives a lot of meat without much fluff. Schuh’s clear communication style and appreciation for the fine details of a spot and stalk hunt helped me come away from the book with a clear picture of what I needed to change in my hunting strategy. I highly recommend it.
All the reviews that I post, whether for gear or books, are on items paid for by me unless otherwise noted.