Bowhunting Trophy Prairie Mule Deer: Hard-won Lessons

The best angle for a stalk. The best setup distance. Smart gear. Years of hunting trophy-class prairie mule deer have provided the answers.

by Brad Fenson


The best angle for a stalk. The best setup distance. Smart gear. Years of hunting trophy-class prairie mule deer have provided the answers.

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With our well-tuned bows in the back of the truck we were headed to a local reservoir situated in wide-open prairie country, where we’d seen plenty of wide-racked mule deer in the past. Minutes later we were glassing the shoreline and the edges of surrounding willow patches, and once satisfied we’d seen everything we moved farther down to inspect the next stretch of cover. We’d just stopped when I spotted antlers sticking up out of the grass on the far bank. When the buck stood and started to feed, it took just seconds to know I’d be more than happy to put my tag on him if I could somehow make it happen.

MuleDeerNine 900And then came another surprise. As I continued glassing I picked up another antler tip in the sea of tawny prairie grass. I couldn’t tell the quality of the second buck’s headgear, but sitting patiently gave us a better look when the deer finally stood. The young buck was a funky non-typical with a big drop tine and weird configuration up top. At this sight my attention again turned to the first buck, with its deep forks and sticker points off both antlers looking far more appealing. We sat back and watched the duo slowly feed their way up the reservoir edge.

MuleDeer12 900One thing I’ve learned about hunting deer in open country is to wait for them to bed before starting a stalk. The bucks worked far enough away that we had to reposition to continue our surveillance. Eventually, the pair moved into a brushy hedge left behind by an old farmstead, and bedded. I have too many stories of getting busted by prairie mule deer on spot-and-stalk hunts due to changing wind and weather conditions. But thankfully, I’ve learned. I now depend on modern technologies, such as the feature-packed HuntStand app, to help increase my success on prairie mule deer bowhunts. These days I pay careful attention to the accurate wind and weather forecasts in the HuntStand app, which allows me to plan careful stalks, even several hours in advance, taking into consideration upcoming wind and weather changes that will help keep me undetected. MuleDeer11 900Opening the app, I checked the wind direction for the next four hours and was satisfied I could get in place without being detected. In seconds we were headed to the point I had guessed would be the best locale to begin my stalk on foot, a full six miles by truck to circle the water and start directly downwind of the bucks.

MuleDeer13 900As we worked down the edge of the reservoir on foot, keeping out of sight by staying low along the shoreline, the wind completely hid any noise we made. After covering about 900 yards, we began to slow down and watch every step. Soon we had slipped to within 50 yards of where the buck had bedded, and started to search for antlers with our binoculars. Joe found them first, moving back and forth at the base of a large brushline. Knowing exactly where the buck was bedded allowed me to cut the distance to under 40 yards. I set up in a comfortable position, nocked an arrow and attached my release to my D-loop. It was time to sit quietly and simply wait for the buck to stand.

MuleDeerFive 900I used my Bushnell Fusion binoculars with a built-in laser rangefinder to pick apart the cover in front of me. If the buck stood up, I would have a 10-inch window to thread an arrow through shrubby limbs at exactly 35 yards. Having the time to look for every possible arrow deflector would allow me to make a quick decision on a shot if offered. MuleDeer6 900We had only been sitting for 30 minutes when the buck suddenly lifted his head and stood without warning. I was ready and immediately drew my bow, placing my 30-yard pin just above my target. The buck was quartering away, and when I squeezed my release trigger I watched my arrow fly straight into the deer—and pass right through.

MuleDeerEight 900Just like that the deer was off and running with his funky-antlered friend following close behind, trying to determine what had happened. I watched the deer streak across the prairie and head back toward the reservoir shoreline. The open country allowed us to watch where the buck ran and, even when he disappeared, our knowledge of the terrain told us he had to be along the shoreline. And that’s where he ended up.. The recovery was short and sweet. It was the biggest mule deer buck I’ve ever taken with a bow, complete with hunt memories to last a lifetime.

MuleDeer14 900On the last day of our hunt, we were out early and barely had enough light when we found three big bucks about three miles east of where I had shot my deer. We sat and watched them for close to two hours as they wandered through a dry slough bed and up a shrubby draw before bedding. We knew there was no way to drive closer, so Joe headed out from our position for the long stalk to the draw where the deer disappeared.

MuleDeerTen 900I opened my HuntStand app and checked the wind forecast. It told us Joe would have about two hours to get close and hope the deer would stand, before the wind changed direction. We had hunted the same area the year before, when I belly-crawled through some rough prairie and cactus to get within 38 yards of three other dandy bucks. I laid there for close to two and a half hours before the two smaller bucks stood and fed right in front of me, but the largest never budged. With the sun high in the sky, I could feel the wind shifting, as it often does during late morning, and in seconds as a breeze cooled the back of my neck, the big buck blew out of his bed like he had dynamite under him. I was flat-out busted. If I had known the wind was going to change, I could have backed out and watched until the conditions were again in my favor.

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I drove to the main road to head back around to the top of the draw and parked where I could watch the dry slough and the north side of the draw Joe was hunting. I got to see the events unfold, and when two of the deer ran out across the prairie, I knew the reason the third buck wasn’t with them. Joe had snuck to within 30 yards of the bedded deer, and as luck would have it, the big three-point presented the first shot opportunity. Joe drew his bow and sent an arrow right through the big-bodied buck, which turned and headed down the draw, crashing into the cover about 100 yards away.

MuleDeerOne 900We had seen and debated about the big three-point several times that week, and I thought it was the oldest, mature buck in the herd and outweighed his closest competitor by 60 pounds.

Hunting prairie mule requires patience and strategy. We never stalk a buck from above, as we seem to get busted almost every time. Coming from below has proven to be the best way to stay undetected.

MuleDeerTwo 900Don’t get too close. Stalking to 35 or 40 yards seems to provide enough distance to make a deer comfortable if he does stand and look right at you. It may stare for a minute, but if you don’t move it will likely turn away and start feeding. At 20 yards, a deer normally raises its hackles and gets nervous right away, and the second the deer stands it will typically catch sight of you. The new distance-measuring feature in your HuntStand Hunting app is accurate enough to predict exactly where you need to get to on any given stalk.

MuleDeer16 900As a rule, we only stalk deer after watching them bed. It often takes hours of watching and following, giving you plenty of time to check the HuntStand Hunting app for wind direction changes over the next four or five hours, which is how long you often need to stalk, then wait for a deer to stand. The app will help ensure the wind stays in your face through the lengthy process. It is virtually impossible to stay hidden in the open grassland, where deer can see for miles. However, when they do bed, they often pick a small depression, creek bank, or some other feature that keeps them out of the wind or direct sunlight. A hunter must take advantage of this to stalk close, while the animals are in their beds. It can be more challenging when there is more than one deer in the herd, but keeping a constant eye on the known bedding site, means you can hit the ground if your target buck stands before you get within range and/or reach your final setup.

MuleDeer15 900Don’t be in a rush to draw your bow. A deer that stands up to feed will first survey its surroundings. It is extremely difficult to hide movement from a deer on high alert, so wait. When the ears on your target animal look relaxed, and it begins feeding or turns away, you will have plenty of opportunity to draw your bow. MuleDeerFour 900Learning the ropes that are required to complete a successful stalk on wily mature, prairie-country mule deer has indeed made it easier to find consistent success, but I’ve certainly paid my dues, and the process has taken years. Even today I know it is impossible to have every stalk work out with a harvested deer, but win, lose or draw, the excitement of these up-close-and-personal encounters is special. In the end you’re left with a unique, addicting adrenaline rush that will have you coming back for more—year after year.



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