Scouting Sweet Spots for Mule Deer
By Gary Lewis
Don't go scouting for mule deer this year if scouting, to you, means walking all the trails, and sky-lining yourself on every hilltop to watch for deer. Better to stay home and mow the lawn, wash the car, or take the kids to the lake. Because when you go scouting, you're more likely to educate the deer than if you stay home. Better to stay away until opening day, unless you have the discipline to scout the country from afar.
There are times when you must go afield before the season. You may be looking for a really big buck, or just want to confirm deer live where you plan to hunt this season. If you are careful, you can educate yourself and keep the deer in blissful ignorance by following five simple rules of low-impact scouting.
1. Do your homework before you head for the hills.
Scouting for mule deer is a process that begins when you draw your tag. Talk to someone who has hunted your unit. Spend an hour or two with them, if possible. Bring a map and a pencil. Eastern Oregon has a high percentage of public land, but many of the valleys and some of the hilltops are controlled by private landowners. For this reason, make sure that you use a BLM (Bureau of Land Management) map to help you understand the boundaries. Make notes on the margins.
2. Narrow your possible hunting areas down to five sweet spots.
Make sure you know the water sources and bedding areas. Study topo maps until you get a sense of mule deer travel patterns based on feed, water, bedding areas, escape routes, and contours of the land. To take your scouting a step further, buy aerial photos of your primary choices and study them for more clues.
3. Call the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist for your hunt area.
Find out if any significant changes have impacted the deer herd. Try to learn if your chosen spots are hunted hard. Are logging operations underway or have forest fires destroyed the timber and feed? Ask your questions, then shut up and listen.
Tighten your focus until you have identified a small piece of ground you can cover on foot in a day's hunt. Only after you have studied each area carefully should you go afield.
4. Schedule your trip a month or two before the season opener.
In Oregon's Cascade Units (Metolius, Upper Deschutes, White River, Fort Rock and Keno), and in the Northeast corner of the state, deer herds are migratory, traveling many miles between summer and winter range. August is your best bet for finding deer in the places where you would expect to see them during the season.
5. Use your optics, not your boots.
It's a lot of fun to walk the trails where you'll be hunting on opening day, looking for tracks, watching for shed antlers, and sky-lining yourself on a ridge to glass the valley. The trouble is that while you are looking for deer, they're keeping an eye out for you too.
If a buck sees you near his chosen bedding area, chances are he'll leave and pick his bed with more care in the future. Yes, you were able to get a look at him, and he'll still be around on opening day, but he'll also be wiser. He may not let you see him when you show up with a bow or rifle.
Do your field scouting from a distance. Bring a spotting scope and set it up from the road. Deer are used to seeing people on roadways. Set up your tripod and glass openings in the early morning while deer are still feeding.
It may take some time before you see the deer. Keep watching as the sun rises higher in the sky. Shifting shadows will alternately conceal and reveal feeding animals.
If you spot a good buck, watch where he beds down in late morning. If he goes out of sight, grab your map and determine his likely route.
With your binoculars and spotting scope, now is the time to plan your approach for the coming hunt. If you are hunting in the wide-open of Malheur or Harney counties, or anywhere else the terrain permits, you can use spot-and-stalk tactics. If there will be enough people in your party, you might employ a drive, or sit on a saddle to intercept deer moving from one drainage to another.
Your chosen hunting spot may be in a wilderness like the Wallowas, or the Three Creeks Wilderness, far from any road. Think low-impact.
Approach your target from out of sight. Don't cross openings. Move from cover to cover, as if you were carrying a rifle instead of glasses. Set up your spotting scope in the shade of a tree where you have good visibility, then wait and watch. Again, resist the urge to start walking trails, unless you want to lower your odds of success.
You may hunt in the Desolation, Sumpter, Ukiah, or Starkey Unit, where it might make sense to hunt from a perch in a tree. If your plan calls for the use of a tree stand, you have no choice but to walk the trails to find a place to hang it. Pre-trip planning with maps and aerial photos is even more important, so you can minimize your impact.
The scouting trip is also the time to pick your campsite. Pick several alternates in case someone beats you to your first choice. Don't camp where the deer will hear you pounding tent stakes, or smell last year's venison on the grill. They've been through this before. The more warning you give, the better the chance they'll keep you from notching your tag this year.
Keep alternate plans. You need a fall-back position in case other hunters beat you to your spot, or camp where you planned to hunt.
It was my back-up plan that saved our hunt two years ago. We scouted the sweet spot too hard, spotting a four-by-five, several three-points, a fork, a spike, and several does. On opening day, I took the same route to the top as I had the month before and blundered into the herd before daylight. Later in the day, I saw one buck about 300 yards away. I passed up the shot.
On the third day, we relocated and found ourselves not far from the spot where I had taken a nice four-point the year before. A two-man drive through the bedding area paid off with another big four-point. On the fourth day, we hunted the sweet spot again. One day of rest had allowed the deer a chance to settle back in. We set up the spotting scope before daylight and found the herd. My partner set up for a shot. His bullet kicked up a spray of dirt and put the deer on the move.
We'll hunt there again, and maybe the buck he missed will be bigger this year. Maybe we'll get a crack at the four-by-five this time. We'll camp a few miles away. We'll go in quiet with the music off and close the doors without slamming them. We'll use the cover of a low hill and set up beneath a juniper, taking care not to alarm non-target wildlife that might warn the herd.
As the sun comes up, we'll look for ears and tails and nut-brown antlers in the sagebrush. If no one else scouts our sweet spot, we may have an opportunity on opening morning. If there are pickups parked on our ground, we'll back off and hunt one of several alternate locations, picked from hours spent poring over our maps, scouting from the kitchen table.