Hunting Mule Deer in the Timber

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

A dull glow filled the somber sky and filtered down through the tops of the big pine trees. I began to move. A driving rain had been falling since 4:00 a.m. and the treetops were saturated, leaving precious few places where a hunter could find dry shelter.

Slipping from tree to tree, pausing to peer ahead through the rain, I watched for a gleam of eye or antler, or the flicker of an ear. The hill leveled out in front of me and something moved under a large fir tree.

I saw their ears first and the horizontal line of mouse-gray backs above the manzanita. They had seen me too and they moved away, stiff-legged and watchful. I put the binoculars to my eyes, could make out no antlers and so watched them go, one by one, fading into the trees and the fog.

Angling off the plateau, I aimed for the shelf below and the creek canyon. There were other hunters in the woods. They would see the deer I had moved. Hopefully, I would see a deer they pushed in front of me.

I moved through a stand of jack pines, where in another year, I'd jumped a deer from its bed, and stood half-concealed by the branches to watch the shelf below me. The forest floor was carpeted with the fallen needles from the pines and the white fir that towered above. Protected from the high winds, there was little blowdown. Without much sunlight making it through the old-growth timber, the underbrush was sparse. Standing on the sidehill, I watched the line of trees to my left.

He stepped out of the timber and stopped to look for danger at the edge of a tiny meadow, he spotted me at the same time I saw him, the shine of his antlers plain at 75 yards. I snugged the gun up against my shoulder and put the stock against my cheek, letting the crosshair drift across his body to stop behind the muscle and bone of his foreleg. Slipping the safety to fire, I squeezed the trigger.

I followed his tracks for 70 yards to the place he had come to rest beside a rotten log on a bed of pine needles. The rain pounded down, soaking me to the skin, but I was oblivious.

These days, the prevailing mule deer hunting method, at least according to what you read in most magazines, is spot and stalk. Find a vantage point where you can wait. Watch the bucks bed down then put the sneak on them. Great tactics for open country. But in Oregon, most mule deer are found in forest environs where visibility is often limited to 100 yards or less. There's little use for a spotting scope in the timberlands.

Hunters that find themselves carrying Hood, White River, Metolius, Upper Deschutes and Fort Rock tags know this all too well. From the Pacific Crest Trail east to the dry country, there is a lot of good deer hunting land populated by pines, firs and oaks.

Farther east, the Silver Lake, Sprague, Keno, Warner, Desolation, Silvies, Heppner, Ukiah, Minam and Sumpter units are also heavily timbered. A hunter may find himself or herself over on the dry side of the Cascades, but the tactics put into play are reminiscent of blacktail hunting.

When they feel the pressure, mule deer don't leave the country as many hunters suppose. Instead, they pull into their core areas and emerge to feed at last light and early in the morning. On full moon nights, they may feed while hunters sleep.

A deer needs food, water, shelter cover and escape habitat. The best areas to find a buck are where bedding cover and feed are in close proximity. A deer can go for water after dark. A good example of this kind of habitat is on a mountainside where slides or lightning-strike fires have opened the over-story to let the twiggy browse gain a toehold.

A hunter in the foothills or the flatlands doesn't have the luxury of elevation changes that open up windows in the trees. But a climbing tree stand can help you gain some altitude in good deer habitat.

Stands in the Treetops

One of the axioms I've lived by in blacktail country is that I need to get above the brush to look down into feeding and bedding areas. A hunter can do the same thing over on the dry side.

Take a scouting trip before the season to find first the water, then the feed, then the bedding ground. A deer will not make its living more than a half-mile from its water source.

Site a stand to take advantage of the view into well-used trails that lead from bedding areas to feeding areas. Or set up on the approach from bedding cover to water.

On a scouting trip you can find water that doesn't show up on other people's maps. Start with a topo map and look for the springs. Most hunters still don't use topos, so you already have an advantage. Next, walk dry creek beds and look for pools or small springs. Sometimes you can find a creek that runs above ground then goes back beneath the rocks. These places are often far from any road and are found by very few hunters.

Take care to position the stand downwind from the trail and if the wind changes direction, find a different place to hunt until conditions improve.

This is also a good time to employ cover or attractant scents. I'd lean toward a mule deer doe urine lure. Bring a deer call, rattling antlers and a good book to pass the time.

Funnel Stands

A funnel stand operates under the principle that other hunters will move deer from one drainage to the next. And the most important thing to remember is you have to invest your confidence in one place and stay there. It takes patience, but it's the kind of patience that can pay off in the good hard work of packing a buck out of the woods.

Take a topo map and mark possible entry points that other hunters might use. Consider the parking spots, the camp sites and trails that provide access to your patch of timber. Then set up on a saddle or along a river trail or anywhere else that a deer might use to sneak away from the approaching orange-clad.

At first, it may seem hard to spot funnels in the forest. They are there in the form of house-size boulders, rock gardens, canyons and any other barrier that might form a pinch-point.

Another spot that seems to funnel deer into a corridor is the point where deer cross well-traveled roads. Does may cross anywhere, but bucks seem to gravitate to crossing points at curves. Look for spots where tracks lead down banks and cross ditches. Follow the trails and you're likely to find rubs where the bucks have peeled their velvet on small trees. Now you know you're in a good spot to place a ground blind.

Still-Hunt the Sticker Patch

More people blow it while they're still-hunting than with any other method. The problem is that we move too fast. It's called still-hunting because most of the time the hunter should remain still, processing every sound, every movement, every smell.

Take a step and look and listen. Wait 30 seconds, 60 seconds or five minutes before taking the next step. Don't make a sound. Remember, you're in country you scouted. You know the deer are here. The success of the hunt hinges on the confidence you've placed in this piece of real estate.

Hunt into the wind. If the wind shifts, change with it, keeping the breeze in your face. Move too fast and deer will see you before you spot them. Slow down. Slow way down. Every time you take a step, a new window opens in the habitat. Look for the horizontal line of a back, the black of a nose, the flick of a tail, the crook of a leg, or sunlight glinting from nut-brown antler. Carry binoculars on a harness around the shoulders, not on the belt or in a daypack. And use them more than your boots.

In heavy cover, crouch down to look beneath the bushes. Sometimes that affords a better view through the stalks and the trunks. Maybe you'll spot a deer standing to make sense of the sound you made when last you took a step. Sometimes you'll spot a deer looking back at you.

Of all the techniques used to bag mule deer bucks in timberlands, still-hunting may be the most exciting and the most difficult. Every step is a risk, every step a possibility.

Whatever technique you put into play, the more time you spend in the woods, the better your chances of tying a tag on a timberlands buck. Carry your lunch with you. Instead of heading back to the truck, stay in the woods. Watch a trail leading into a bedding area and let other hunters push the deer your way.

Deer hunting isn't about luck, it's about fundamentals. The principles are simple. Scout to find the best habitat. Invest your confidence there and manage your scent to keep from warning the deer of your presence. Locate the prime feeding areas and find windows in the forest where you can look down into bedding areas. Use the binoculars more than your boots. And be ready to go into action when mule deer materialize out of the timber.

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