Hunting The Grey Ghost

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Elusive and crafty, prairie mule deer are a challenge to hunt – but if you know where to look and when to look, you’ll increase your chances of bagging a monster deer

 

The prairie regions of Alberta and Saskatchewan are well known for growing big mule deer. However, many mule deer tags get hung on the Christmas tree instead of a mule deer at the end of the season. Mule deer often don’t get the credit they deserve for their craftiness and, because of it, many hunters never see some of the biggest bucks out there.

To hunt these big prairie bucks, hunters may be forced to use everything in their bag of tricks, or look right in front of them. It was a hot September afternoon and I was archery hunting for mule deer in southern Alberta. My morning was a rough one: I’d been busted on two previous stalks and was making my way across the field to where I parked my truck. The 27-degree Celsius heat had beaten me down. The landowner’s tractor was parked in the field only 60 metres in front of me and the shade on the west side of the tractor looked like a good place to rest for a minute and have a drink of water before pressing on. I walked to the back of the tractor to submerge myself in the shade but a 4X4 mule deer buck had beaten me to it. The buck didn’t move from his comfort zone until I rounded the corner and was no more than eight feet away from him. The encounter startled me and it happened so fast, all I could do was watch the buck run across the field.

I’ve had the good fortune of filling many mule deer tags over the last 25 years, and, better yet, I’ve had the good fortune of learning something new about prairie mule deer each time I’ve gone out.

On the hills and in the valleys

Mother Nature knew what she was doing when it came to mule deer. Their mousy grey colouring blends into a wide variety of terrain and they’re often referred to as the “grey ghost.”

Mule deer will use the hillsides and valley edges to their advantage. Mature bucks and does have learned that by bedding down halfway up on the sides of the hills, with the wind at their back, the wind will carry the scent of anything approaching from behind them and they can still keep an eye on the field or valley below them.

I was hunting a particular buck one fall, which I’d scouted for a month prior to the season opener. He was extremely easy to pattern, but extremely difficult to hunt. He would spend his whole day bedded on the side of a large, steep hill, only leaving his perch to feed during the cover of darkness. In the morning, before legal shooting light, he would make his way back up the hill to bed down for the day. The direction of the wind determined what side of the hill he would bed down on – if the wind changed direction during the day, he would move locations to keep the wind at his back.

With the wind working to his advantage, and a king’s view of the land below, he was impossible to get to within bow range. And to make matters worse, if other deer bedded with him, he would always bed in the centre of the herd so there was lookout deer in all directions. I had the good fortune of taking the old veteran, but it wasn’t until the opening day of rifle season.

If you’ve ever spent time walking the prairies, you know they’re not as flat as many believe. The prairies regions of Alberta and Saskatchewan are full of valleys, river bottoms and small natural drainages that mule deer use for travel corridors and concealment. Mule deer will use these areas similar to how they use the hillsides, but in valleys and drainages there’s usually much more vegetation for the deer to conceal themselves in during bedding and travelling, and they have learned to use it to their advantage.

When bedding down, they will submerge themselves in tall grass, cattails, weeds or in the shadows of the valley crevasses. When a hunter is walking the valleys and coulees, they may never see the deer because of their colouring and they stay completely motionless. A hunter will walk right by bedded mule deer and never see them. And because the hunter is moving further away, the deer may never leave their beds, leading you to believe there’s no muleys in the area.

I like to hunt valleys from above. Without sky lining yourself, work your way to the edge so you’re looking down into the coulee or valley and patiently scan the area with your binoculars. You may not see a whole deer, so have your mind set to see portions of a deer. Eventually you will see the flicker of a tail or the movement of some antlers. Once you locate where the deer are, you can plan a stalk. In most cases, I have found it best to get into a good position and wait them out. However, I’ve used a grunt tube or elk call in these situations, to get the deer to stand, and a familiar sound won’t trigger the flight mechanism in the deer. However, once they get up, be ready. They will be looking in your direction and once they figure out they’ve been tricked, the flight mechanism kicks in.

Wide open mule deer

It’s amazing how mule deer can stand out in the open without being seen. They know every low spot in a field and how to travel from field to field using them. When I’m hunting the open fields, I always walk the low spots and drainages within the fields. I’ve often bumped deer out of their beds following game trails. Their beds may be in the middle of nowhere, but it’s a low enough spot in the field to conceal them. Also, if you see trees in the distance, even if it’s only three or four standings trees, it’s definitely worth the walk to check them out. Over the years I’ve taken several mule deer that were bedded in the deep prairie grass that grows amongst the standing trees. Even a small number of trees will grow tall enough grass to conceal a few mule deer.

When I hunted a cut grain field, I worked my way to an area of the field that had half-dozen trees that were eight or 10 feet tall. The grass amongst the trees was knee high. I approached the area cautiously, but it wasn’t until I entered the grass that five mule deer exploded from their resting spots.

After the deer ran off, I set up a safe distance away from the area and waited for the deer to return. Within an hour, the deer circled around and returned to their beds. It turned out the buck in the small herd wasn’t what I was looking for, but had I not walked to the trees I wouldn’t have known the deer were there.

If you come across tall, grassy areas and the grass is bent over, broken off and trampled down, these are good areas to keep an eye on as the mule deer will use them regularly. And don’t overlook the tall grass around power poles, irrigation equipment, dugouts or the dugout itself.

Rock piles and shrubs should be investigated. Rock piles are created when farmers pick rocks from their fields and pile them in one location. These are often added to each year and are a familiar sight to the resident deer. The rock piles will often hold mule deer and it’s not uncommon to see game trails leading to the piles. These areas are an excellent place to set up an ambush for travelling mule deer, and they also provide lots of great rifle rests. Small patches of shrubs work the same way.

Two seasons ago I watched an antelope hunter, through my binoculars, as he walked 45 metres from a small shrub in the middle of an open field. I’d been watching the small shrub for half an hour because I knew it concealed two mule deer does. I expected the deer to take off as the hunter passed by them, but the deer didn’t move from their hiding location.

I had an antlerless mule deer tag burning a hole in my pocket, so I decided to make a play on the does. There was no way to get to the deer without being seen by them, so I walked right at them to within 75 metres of the shrub and lied down on the ground and readied myself for a shot. The deer knew I was there and they soon became nervous and stood up. My crosshairs were settled on the biggest doe’s vitals and as the doe walked clear of the shrub, I closed my antlerless mule deer tag.

As I was field dressing the doe the antelope hunter returned. He asked me what direction the deer had come from. I told him where the deer were and where he had walked. He said he never saw the deer or considered looking in the small patch of shrubs for game.

Mule deer are quick learners and have learned to use whatever is in their surroundings to their advantage. Mule deer will often bed down in the middle of crop fields, completely concealed by the standing crop. After the crop has been cut and baled, mule deer will still use the fields and bed down behind the round bales. To make it even tougher to be spotted, they’ve learned to bed down on the opposite side of the bales so they’re not seen from the roads. Hunters drive by the fields, never giving them a second thought.

If you walk the fields, it’s not uncommon to bump deer from behind the bales. Carefully glassing the fields from a variety of vantage points will help you locate the deer. If you’re fortunate enough to locate a buck bedded behind a bale, get yourself positioned behind an adjacent bale and wait him out. However, patience has never been a strong point of mine so to speed the process up, I use my grunt tube or elk call again.

Often overlooked in the open stubble fields are chaff piles. Chaff piles are left behind during harvest, when the combine operator dumps the waste seed shellings. Mule deer will bed down behind the piles and even though it’s just the seed shells, it’s very high in nutrients and the deer will feed on it. With a nutrient-rich food source and a place to hide, the deer may only leave the area to drink, and if there’s a lot of hunting pressure in the area, they may only drink during the night.

Haystacks and grain bins that are in the fields are another good place to find mule deer. They also offer some great set ups during late November and December hunts, especially if there’s deep snow on the ground. The colder, the better. During cold spells, the deer will rarely leave the comforts of a haystack. They have shelter, food and they get enough water from eating snow to satisfy their thirst. Get on top of the haystack and build yourself a fort to keep yourself concealed from the deer and protected from the wind. Once inside, sit and wait for the deer to come and feed. I’ve had deer watch me build my bale blind, watch me get inside and within 15 minutes they cautiously made their way back to the haystack to feed. This is an excellent set up for archery or crossbow hunters, as most shots are less than 40 metres.

To consistently hang your tag on prairie mule deer, you need to be willing to wear out some boot leather and check every nook and cranny. You may not always see the grey ghosts, but they’re out there.

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