Here are a few lessons I learned from my New Mexico mule deer hunt that I plan on applying during future hunts.
I recently returned from a self-guided New Mexico mule deer hunt on public land where I managed to harvest my first mule deer. Not only did I have a great time and manage to take a nice 5x4 buck, but I also learned a ton about mule deer hunting as well.
Below are a few lessons I learned on the hunt that you can use to increase the odds of harvesting a big buck in the future.
It may seem obvious, but it's critical when you're hunting mule deer in an arid region like I was. No matter how good the country may look, if there's no water nearby, you likely won't see any deer.
Fortunately, this can simplify the task when it comes to finding deer in dry regions like the Southwest. You can simply eliminate areas without water when you do your scouting. In addition to the obvious things like ponds and streams, be on the lookout for man-made water guzzlers and patches of green vegetation on the landscape, as they may indicate water sources too small to see on a map. Deer don't need much water either, so even a very small pool will work.
Once you identify the water sources, look for fresh signs like tracks and scat to confirm the presence of deer in the area. Then, identify food sources and possible bedding locations within a mile of water.
Use Good Optics
Glassing can be a very effective technique for finding mule deer, especially once you've identified likely bedding locations and a reliable source of water. I did a ton of glassing on my New Mexico mule deer hunt and saw firsthand the importance of high-quality optics.
Especially when hunting wide-open country, the differences between mediocre and top-of-the-line optics becomes very apparent. I used a pair of Leupold BX-5 Santiam HD 15x56mm binoculars (provided by the good folks at Ochocos) and was able to spot and even judge deer from more than 1,000 yards away. I also picked out the deer I ended up shooting when he was bedded behind some thick brush. Even though he was only 227 yards away, I very likely wouldn't have been able to do that if I didn't have top-notch optics.
So, if you plan on doing a lot of glassing on your mule deer hunts, invest the money in a set of really good optics. You won't regret it.
Have Confidence In Your Weapon
You should always have confidence in your chosen weapon, regardless of what and where you're hunting. However, this is particularly important when pursuing mule deer. Now, I'm not saying you should take incredibly long-range shots, but having an intimate familiarity with your weapon will undoubtedly make a difference.
I spent a ton of time at the range prior to my New Mexico mule deer hunt and it really paid off when it came time to make the shot. Since I'd practiced so much beforehand, I knew exactly what my rifle, scope and ammunition were capable of. Perhaps even more importantly, I was intimately familiar with both my strengths and shortcomings as a marksman.
Based on the things I learned at the range, I knew my limitations before I hit the woods. However, I was also confident in my abilities with my equipment within those limits. I was then able to formulate a hunting strategy that would hopefully put me in a position to take a shot without the temptation of "stretching the barrel" beyond what I was capable of.
When I got a clear broadside shot on that buck at 227 yards, it was easily within those established limits. Since I'd already made that shot dozens of times at the range, I was very confident that I could make a clean and ethical shot, and I did.
Practice Realistic Shooting Positions
While practicing at the shooting range is an essential part of preparation for a hunt, you must practice from realistic shooting positions while you're there. It's fine to sight in your rifle from a bench rest, but the rest of your practice should be done from real-life shooting positions. Prior to my New Mexico mule deer hunt, I practiced a lot from a prone shooting position using my backpack as a rest. I also practiced shooting standing up using a shooting stick as a rest, and also from sitting and kneeling positions.
I'm glad I did this because some of the vegetation between the deer and me prevented me from using the prone position. For that reason, I shot from the sitting position, using my backpack as a rest so I could see over the bushes in front of me. Fortunately, that wasn't the first time I'd shot from that position.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned on my New Mexico mule deer hunt is to be patient. Even though I didn't actually shoot my buck until day four of a five-day season, I saw deer on every day of the hunt. However, I really had to put in the miles and spend a bunch of time behind my binoculars to make it all come together.
More than once, I glassed a hillside for several hours before I finally spotted deer that had been there the whole time. If you're hunting an area with fresh signs of deer but not seeing anything, make sure you spend some time seriously looking over the place before you conclude there aren't any deer there and move on. Ultimately, just don't give up. Good things come to persistent hunters.