Bowhunting Mule Deer: Tactics to Overcome One of Hunting’s Biggest Challenges

Bowhunting Mule Deer is something many hunters dream about, but is rarely turned into reality. Mule Deer inhabit a vast area of the western half of North America that is characterized by arid deserts, rugged mountains, forests, and prairies. To harvest a mature mule deer with a bow is one of the most difficult things a hunter can do.

What is Bowhunting Mule Deer?

Bowhunting mule deer can mean different things to different people. Anybody that has spent much time in mule deer country can tell you how dumb a young mule deer can be. It would not be much of a challenge to drive around on the road until you see a herd of immature mule deer, slip out of the vehicle and off the road, and arrow a 1 or 2 year old mule deer dink. These deer do not know any better and for someone who is really passionate about bow hunting mule deer, this would not be considered an achievement.

For the serious mule deer bow hunter, a mature mule deer is what dreams are made of. A mature mule deer is on a different playing field than young mule deer. Although a mule deer can successfully breed at 3 years of age, serious mule deer bowhunters typically refer to a mature mule deer as 4 years old or more. This is the age when you start to see their antler growth potential and their ability to evade hunters. While antler size will continue to increase through at least their 6th year depending on nutrition, most hunters (regardless of weapon) will agree that a four year old buck is a shooter and has developed the skills to keep himself alive even with rifle hunters all over the place.

Unfortunately, not many mule deer live to be over three years of age due to the fact that they are shot when they are young and dumb. In general hunting areas where there is no limit on the amount of hunters, especially rifle hunters, for a mule deer buck to reach maturity is to overcome unreal odds. If one is able to make it through a few years of hunting seasons, then it has a sixth sense to overcome hunters and to take one with a bow is one of the hardest challenges a hunter can experience. In the rest of this article, we will discuss the tactics that can make a hunter consistent at bowhunting mule deer.

Methods for Bowhunting Mule Deer

There are several methods that can be employed to harvest a mature mule deer. The most common are Spot and Stalk and tree stand or ground blinds.

Tree Stand and Ground Blinds

One of the (dare I say) easiest methods to take a big mule deer buck with archery equipment is using a tree stand or a ground blind. While sitting there waiting for a buck may not require a lot of energy, it does take a lot of patience. Patience is the easy part. The real work is finding a good spot that a mature mule deer will walk by in daylight hours. This takes a lot of work with preseason scouting, trail cameras, and patterning bucks so you will have a good idea of where they will be when the season arrives. It is much harder than it sounds and takes a lot of time to be consistent year to year.

Of course, you can just put your tree stand or ground blind at any waterhole, food source, or other high deer traffic area and be successful on a mature mule deer, but this will require a lot of luck and possibly patience. Once you do find a good area that produces large bucks, it is reasonable to assume there will be more there in the years to come, so this type of hunting does get easier once you have established a good area.

Spot and Stalk:

Though requiring a little bit more energy than hunting out of a tree stand or blind, spot and stalk bow hunting is usually a faster paced way of bowhunting mule deer. The object is to spot a big mature mule deer buck and then stalk to within bow range undetected.

The number one thing to remember when spot and stalk bowhunting mule deer is to be patient. If conditions are not right, then wait for them to improve. This might mean waiting for the buck to bed down in a better place where you will be able to get closer, or waiting for the wind to pick up or change direction to not only carry your scent away from the buck, but also to cover up your noise once you get close.


Most of the mule deer bow hunters that consistently harvest large mule deer begin their season well before the bucks are even done growing their antlers. It is important to have a good idea of what the area holds for big bucks so you can develop a minimum size and an order to which bucks you will focus on first.

Of course size is not the only factor in determining if a buck is a shooter or not. An experienced hunter can often judge a deer’s age by body signs and antler configuration. In my eyes A 6 year old buck with low scoring horns is more of a trophy than a 4 year old buck with great future potential.

For spot and stalk hunting, it is important to have several shooter bucks picked out and in known general locations before the season starts. This is because it usually takes several stalks before one is successful. After several years of spot and stalk bowhunting, I have found that the average success ratio for stalks is 1/6 or so. Of course, it might happen in the first try, or it might take 15 times. An inexperienced hunter may go several seasons without having a successful stock on a mature mule deer.

For Stand hunting (tree or blind) it is not as important to have several shooter bucks spotted, as it only takes one mature mule deer in the area and you can hunt him the whole season. Of course your odds will be greatly increased if you can identify multiple shooters in an area. One thing you do not want to do preseason is disturb an area too much. You will run the risk of spooking off the bucks before you have a chance to start bowhunting them.

Archery Practice: One thing that cannot be overlooked is shooting your bow. No matter how good of stand location you have or if you are the stealthiest person on the planet, if you can’t seal the deal when it counts, then you might as well stay home. Of course, everybody that has hunted enough has missed or made a bad shot, but shooting throughout the year can increase your odds of being able to perform when you have to. A good thing to do is to enter into 3D competitions where you will have an opportunity to shoot at life size deer targets in different positions, angles and ranges.

During Season:

Once the season has started you will obviously be targeting the mule deer buck that you like the best. One thing to keep in mind is that with bowhunting mule deer you will not always be able to get the number one buck on your list. Sometimes all you get is one chance, and if it does not happen the first go around, you may never see that buck the rest of the season. That is why it is important that you need to know where other shooter bucks hang out.

Stand BowHunting Mule Deer:

If you are sitting in a stand, you must be patient. Just because the opening day did not produce much does not mean the big buck won’t show up the next day right where you want him to. I have an impatient friend that moved his tree stand after opening day because the buck took a different route. He then got trail cam pictures of the buck the following day from the tree his stand was in the just 12 hours earlier while he was sitting in a tree a few hundred yards away. Should have stuck it out!

Spot and Stalk BowHunting Mule Deer

You should have a good idea of where there is going to be a good buck on opening morning if you did much preseason scouting. It is best to be in position to spot him from a far when that first ray of light begins to show. Once you have found the intended target, you will want to assess the situation and determine if the conditions are right to put on a stalk right away or to watch and wait until the conditions have improved. This is where only experience and common sense can help you out, as every spot and stalk situation is different. Knowing when to go on it and when to not, as well as how to go about it will vary a lot depending on how things fall into place.

The same factors that are responsible for most mule deer bucks not being able to achieve maturity are the same factors that make them so hard to get with a bow. Many of the areas they inhabit lack cover for them to escape rifle bullets that can shoot in excess of 500 yards. This same fact is why it is hard to get within bow range of a mature mule deer that has managed to sneak past rifle hunters. There simply is not a lot of cover for a bowhunter to hide behind in order to get a good shot. In this case, you have to use the lay of the land in order to get close enough for a bow shot.

Bowhunting Mule Deer Equipment:

Bow hunting mule deer can be made easier with the right equipment. In fact, some equipment is necessary to give bow hunters the upper hand. Below is a list of the archery equipment you will want to consider buying before you begin mule deer bowhunting. Just remember you get what you pay for, so go with the best you can afford, and then upgrade as you can.

  • Rangefinder: Knowing the exact distance to your target is a huge benefit especially when shooting long distances or bow hunting. There are certain specs that you will want in a rangefinder, so make sure you check the link below to be sure you get the right one.
  • Binoculars: Spot and stalk deer hunting requires you to find the deer. It is amazing how many more deer you can find with the use of binoculars that you would not see otherwise. They also are essential in the stalk as you need to find the deer before they find you, which means using your binoculars to pick out the tip of a horn or the flick of a tail.
  • Spotting Scope: Both used for spotting deer and then being able to judge them to make sure they are worthy of a stalk. Spotting scopes are also important to find other deer and anything else that can compromise your stalk that is in your intended path. It is very easy to get busted by an animal you did not know existed. Spotting scope are a must have for Spot and Stalk Hunting.
  • Boots: When stalking deer, it is important to be as quiet as possible. I have taken my boots off and stalked in my sock successfully before, but with cacti and thistle prevalent where I hunt, this is just not doable. Therefore I wear lightweight boots made for stalking to close the final distance to within bow range. They have saved my feet and helped me to be much stealthier.
  • Camouflage: With deer vision it is not as important to be the same color as the back ground, but more so to break up your silhouette. Plus, in typical spot and stalk habitat the foliage can be dry and yellow in grasses, or green in trees and shrubs. Therefore it is important to have a camo pattern that is very versatile.
  • There is other gear that will give you an edge that you may want to take advantage of that we will talk about later.

Experience: Now Go Learn For Yourself

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