September Fuzz: These Mule Deer Fanatics Share Their Secrets On How To Take Giant Early-Season Bucks

Posted on May 22, 2014

BAH - MULE I can count on one hand the times a particular buck literally sucked the wind right out of me, and this was definitely one of them. I had never seen a mule deer buck on the hoof quite like him, and from my perch nearly a half mile away, it was easy to see that he had it all. His tank of a body dwarfed the two 160-inch bucks that were with him—his gray-colored coat showed maturity—but it was his headgear that set him apart. His 5×4 frame carried impressive deep forks, and his fire hose-sized beams swept out and up from his head like a fountain. Topping off his massive set of soft-velvet bone was an inside spread that was every bit of 30 inches, if not a few inches wider; and as I watched him from across the basin, I was star-struck. I had never seen a 200-inch mule deer buck before, but he had to be close, and I wanted him.     

            I’ve never considered myself much of a trophy hunter, but when I saw him that first afternoon lazily feeding in the lush alpine basin, that quickly changed. Normally, it’s not in my nature to seek a particular buck. Most of the time that means an un-punched tag when the last day of the season rolls around, and my pride doesn’t like the taste of tag soup. However, this might be one of only a few occasions that I might have at a chance to get close to such an animal.    

            For the next four days I planted myself on the high ridge above camp and watched his every move. As the eastern horizon poured golden light into the basin, I would find him nibbling on the green shoots with a couple of his buddies at the highest point in the basin. Like clockwork, they would work their way to a clump of spruce in the middle of the basin and bed for the day. I kept tabs on him as he re-positioned himself several times throughout the day, and when mid-afternoon rolled around, he headed back to the top of the basin. He was in a tough spot. The lack of cover would make it impossible to stalk him in his bed, and the capricious mountain breeze always gave him a superior advantage.

            The morning of day five dawned much the same, but when it came time for him to bed, he and his buddies walked right past that clump of spruce and disappeared into the timber on the north side of the bowl. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for. I knew nothing had spooked them and felt fairly confident that they would return to the openness of the bowl as the sun dipped to the west, so I moved in as close as I dared waiting on him to return. 

            Seeing him at 100 yards a few hours later really put him into perspective. He truly was a remarkable buck! I’d like to tell you that I was able to sneak in close enough to for a shot, but when he re-appeared, instead of just having two companions, nine others came bobbing out with him. My bowhunting instincts told me to wait. With Colorado’s nearly month-long bow season, another opportunity would present itself, but in my undisciplined haste, I tried anyway. I had almost crept into shooting distance when the black eyes of a young fork-horn burned holes through me as I moved behind the cover of a spruce, and it didn’t take long before I became the center of attention.       

            I won’t lie to you; it hurt to see him run over the north rim of the basin. I had him at 60 yards, which was a makable shot, but I never had a clear opportunity. I found him a couple days later, but it was not to be. Once again, he caught movement, and I left that Colorado mountain top with only memories.

Making Tough Possible

It’s been said that 20 percent of elk bowhunters kill 80 percent of the bulls, and it only takes a few seasons chasing these monarchs to understand how accurate that statement is. But in my experience, even a tougher western challenge might be killing an early season mule deer buck. Day-in and day-out, consistently targeting, stalking and killing a mature, early season mulie buck on the high alpine slopes of the west has to be one of western bowhunting’s greatest challenges. Just the shear location makes the effort a daunting task. And when you throw in the other elements of the adventure, the odds seem as high as the mountain you are hunting. Similar to my experience, most guys walk away with yet just another set of memories to file away with seasons past.

            However, there are some bowhunters who seem to consistently tag an early season set of mule deer bone. These tough, public land, do-it-yourselfers put it all on the line and usually head back to their trucks with a pack full of meat that is topped off with yet another trophy for the wall. These September fuzzoholics eat, sleep and breathe early season mule deer and spend the whole year planning their next trip to the alpine tundra. 

Lots of Scouting Is Key

Kip Fowler has been carrying a bow in the woods since he was 12. To his credit, he has killed around 30 bucks with his bow over the years with nearly half of them being Pope & Young candidates. Four have netted over 180 inches, with his largest being a giant non-typical that he killed in 2007, which grossed over 225 inches and a 214-inch stud that he hammered this past season.

            When it comes to finding success on his home tuff of Utah, one of his key principles is preseason scouting. Once the calendar flips to July, he begins his scouting regiment and will typically head up the mountain two to three times a week. Living only an hour or so away from his hunting area affords him this opportunity, and he takes full advantage of it. His day typically begins around 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., giving him plenty of time to make the long hike to predetermined basins that are typically located three-plus miles from the trailhead. Arriving at first light gives him the best opportunity to glass the area while the bucks are still on their feet.

            Kip is an unabashed trophy seeker and will spend weeks at times scouting various basins trying to find the right buck. His goal each season is to locate a 180-inch buck or better that he feels will offer him the best opportunity to pack him out. First, Kip says the buck has to be in the right place regardless of how big it is. If it’s too close to a trailhead where other hunters can easily find him, he’ll pass him by and start looking for more remote locations. Finding the right basin is also key, Kip expressed. If it doesn’t offer ample cover for stalking or opportunities to position himself for an ambush, he’ll move to the next basin, regardless of how much the buck might gross.

Choosing the Right Buck    

Not only does it have to be the right basin, but it also has to be the right buck. Kip likes to locate bucks that are easy to pattern. He will spend countless hours behind the glass watching his every move—where he eats, sleeps and waters and how he travels through the basin. Stalking and killing a bedded buck is often times the toughest aspect of the hunt, Kip explains, so ideally he prefers to ambush the buck when he is moving through the basin and knowing his pattern allows you to do this.

            Once a buck is patterned, Kip will sometimes sneak in when the buck is not around and create ground blinds in predetermined ambush locations. This has worked for him on a number of occasions, to include the 214-inch buck he affectionally named “Big D” last season. The small basin Big D was living in was ideal, and his movements were easily patternable. A couple weeks before the season, Kip slipped in to make a couple of make-shift ground blinds and sent an arrow through his chest on opening morning.

            Lastly, Kip insists that scent management is critical to his success. First, Kip hikes in with different clothes than he hunts in and always puts his hike-in cloths in a sealed bag to keep the scent contained. He then uses scent eliminating wipes or washes in a stream when possible. Body gels and other scent reducers are used to manage scent throughout the day, as well as using scent free clothes when hunting. Although it can be tough to accomplish when hiking into remote areas, human scent can be greatly reduced and could mean the difference in getting close to a bedded buck.

It’s All About Patience

California resident Ed Fanchin has been chasing wild things with a stick and string for nearly 40 years and loves the challenge of an early season alpine hunt. Over the years he has killed over 30 mule deer and blacktail deer with his bow, several of which being Pope & Young candidates. Last season, he anchored a Nevada brute that stretched the tape nearly 170 inches, making it his largest mule deer buck to date.

            If there is one thing Ed has learned when it comes to successfully chasing early season mulie bucks, it’s patience, and lots of it! Ed feels patience is the foundation to virtually any successful early season mule deer hunt, and is the key ingredient to consistent success. Sometimes countless hours, even days at times, are spent waiting on the right opportunity to stalk a buck, and for the bowhunter waiting on the right opportunity is your best bet. Patience requires that everything is perfect—the wind, the terrain, the buck and the shot. If something falls short in the process, it is better to back out and wait.

            Recently, while Ed was stalking a 30-plus-inch-wide bedded buck, a small storm began to roll in, causing the wind to become unsteady. He knew he should stop and back out, but his desire got the best of him. At 20 yards the swirling winds got the best of Ed, and the giant buck headed to parts unknown.   

            Ed also insists that having a good partner to help you navigate the final approach will definitely swing the odds in your favor. Most stalking situations take time, and you will lose sight of the buck in the process. During the stalk bucks will often reposition and bed in a different location, other bucks can move in, or the buck could leave all together. Having a good partner who stays back to watch for changes and effectively passes that information to you will greatly increase your success. That being said, having predetermined hand signals that are easy to see and understand from a distance is very important. Using something visible like a white cloth can aid in the signaling process. 

            Colorado resident Evan Williams is also a mule deer addict. Although he has only bowhunted a short time when compared to Kip and Ed, his mule deer credentials are thick. Evan has killed several Pope & Young mule deer candidates with his bow, his top bucks being a 190-inch non-typically and 180-inch typical. Without question, Evan says chasing mule deer on elevated peaks during the early season is his favorite way to bowhunt.

Maps & Out-of-The-Way Spots      

Having a full-time job that works him 60 hours a week, a one-year-old daughter, and a spouse leaves little time for Evan to do much pre-season scouting. Although he feels scouting is an important aspect of success, sometimes there are just not enough hours in the week and cash in the bank. Effectively scouting these remote alpine areas takes days or even weeks to really have a good idea of the bucks in the area and the terrain they are living in. Therefore, Evan heavily utilizes and relies upon maps and Google Earth to locate specific areas he wants to target come fall. Although he readily admits that this will not allow you to target specific bucks prior to the opener, when used right both are excellent tools.

            When using maps, Evan looks for out-of-the-way basins and bowls in the high elevation areas where early season mule deer like to spend time. Once he finds these key areas, he uses satellite imagery of Google Earth to dig deeper into these areas, looking for cover, food and water bucks need. Ideally, he wants locations that hold willows, mountain mahogany, small patches of spruce and a natural spring. These features are typically magnets for bucks and provide everything they want during the summer and early fall months. He studies the different shaded areas to determine the type of cover located there, and eliminates areas that don’t look promising. He also uses Google Earth’s 3D enhancement to gain a better view of the terrain and to identify features that are promising to the bowhunter, and eliminates areas that aren’t. 

            From a tactical standpoint, Evan also uses a mule deer Heads Up Decoy. Although this may seem a little unconventional on an early season mulie hunt, Evan has found that they calm a spooked deer, attract bucks, as well as cause a buck that is about to bolt to pause a few extra seconds giving you the shot opportunity needed.

Last season, as he was pulling a sneak on a 150-inch 3×3, he spooked an unseen bedded doe, but she quickly calmed down and fed a mere 15 yards from Evan while he was in the open with the Heads Up Decoy attached to his bow. The big 3×3 saw the Heads Up Decoy and the doe several hundred yards away and promptly came to within 30 yards, giving Evan the opportunity he needed. 

            Without question, chasing early season mule deer does have its ups and downs. But when mistakes are limited and attention to detail is adhered to, success is often found. 

Stalking & Setting Up for Success

Kip Fowler uses a two-man approach when possible to ambush deer, but not in the conventional stalker/spotter method. Instead, Kip’s method allows both hunters the opportunity to kill the buck, with one being the stalker and the other set up a few hundred yards away in a likely escape route. This requires the hunter to study the bedded buck’s location and determine the likeliest escape route if the stalk is blown, which is often the case. Typically, bucks will try to escape away from the direction of danger, but Kip admits because there are usually multiple escape routes, determining the right one can be tough. When it works, it makes for a sweet experience! —B.S.  

“His 5×4 frame carried impressive deep forks, and his fire hose-sized beams swept out and up from his head like a fountain.”

“Once the calendar flips to July, he begins his scouting regiment and will typically head up the mountain two to three times a week.”

“Sometimes countless hours, even days at times, are spent waiting on the right opportunity to stalk a buck…”

BAH - MULE
Early-season mule deer fanatic, Kip Fowler, arrowed this phenomenal buck last season in his home state of Utah. Relentless scouting led him to the 214-inch monarch.

BAH - MULE
High-alpine, public-land terrain is often expansive and daunting to strategically hunt. However, hunters willing to scout hard, execute a good plan, and rely heavily on patience can achieve a successful outcome, as these mule deer pros often do. 

BAH - MULE
Many bowhunters will falsely assume that physical stamina is the key to taking mountain bucks, but longtime bowhunter Ed Fanchin believes patience is the overwhelming key. He shot this great 170-inch-class Nevada buck this past fall. 

BAH - MULE

 BAH - MULE
In order to balance his busy family and work life with his desire to hunt trophy deer in the high country, Evan Williams of Colorado seems to have less and less time for actual foot scouting. This is why he relies heavily on satellite imagery provided by Google Earth. Using this software, he can hone in on what he thinks are productive hunting basins, looking closely for the details that define solid big-buck country. His ability to use this tactic, and to hunt hard, speaks for itself.     

Text and Photos by Brian Strickland

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