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Author Topic: Transplant from Alaska trying to learn how to hunt mule deer during modern rifle  (Read 921 times)

Offline Troutnut

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Hi all,

I moved to Washington this year for a job, after ten years living in Alaska hunting caribou and occasionally dall sheep (never got one), bear, and blacktails. I grew up stand- and still-hunting whitetails in the midwest, but I've never hunted mule deer, and I'm hoping to get my first muley this year. I won't have time in September to do the high buck hunt, so I've got to try during the general rifle season in October. I'm hoping to hunt fairly open country with enough relief for glassing and spot & stalk, whether that's rolling sagebrush hills or mountain meadows, just because I love the scenery and that's the style of hunting I've enjoyed for caribou.

Just for fun before I start asking questions, here are some pics from my my last few hunts.

2015, caribou, Brooks Range:





2016, caribou, Alaska Range:





2016, sheep, Alaska Range, "unsuccessful" if you can use that word for one of the coolest experience of my life because I didn't shoot a sheep:





Believe it or not Alaska can get pretty crowded for OTC tags in non-flyout areas, so I'm used to trying to avoid the crowds by backpacking into the mountains for several days, solo or with one partner. Generally getting more than a mile from the nearest road or trail put me in pretty good solitude, but I'm not sure how to replicate that down here in WA. It seems like in most of north-central Washington, getting a mile from one road or trail puts you within a mile of another. And the few places where that's not the case are easy enough for everyone else to find on a map, too, so I don't know if they'd be worth the trouble or I'd just run into a bunch of other people trying to get away from people. So, is it even possible to avoid pumpkin patches on public land during the general modern rifle season? Anyone have tips for that besides the obvious, climbing high and walking far? For example, do areas of public land that aren't so well-advertised (like BLM and some DNR land) get less pressure than the national forests everyone can find on a map?

I've also been reading a lot about mule deer movements and behavior, but that has raised as many questions as it answered:

Strategy -- A lot of what I've read about muley hunting involves glassing them, watching until they bed down, then making a stalk. Are there places to do that kind of hunting during modern rifle, or is it limited to watching them bed down the night before the season and shooting them at daybreak, followed by several days of chaos as hunters push nervous animals around? Does any kind of patterning become pointless after day 1?

Migration timing -- I've read that the mule deer bucks generally spend the summers in the high country (on open ground to protect their velvet), then move down to the flats to feed on sagebrush and bitterbrush in the winter. Where exactly does the modern rifle season fall relative to the timing of this migration in north-central Washington? Should I not waste my time hunting down around 1,000-3,000 ft elevation unless weather has kicked the bucks out of the high country? Or are there plenty of resident bucks in the right lowland places year-round, just not as many as in winter when the high bucks join them? Similarly, should I not waste time hunting up high if it's already snowed enough to push the deer down? How much of a storm does it take to get them moving, and how long do they take to start arriving in the lowlands?

Numbers this year -- I've read some discouraging things about how many deer people are seeing in Okanogan County this year. But I've also noticed that every year, every unit, every state, somebody's saying it's the worst they've ever seen it, not like the good old days, and the wolves and cougars and bears and velociraptors already ate every furry critter in a 50 mile radius. So how bad is it, really? Is it just worse than usual, or is it so bad I really should be looking at a different part of the state? Are numbers similarly down in Chelan, Douglas, and Grant?

Hunting around burns -- I've read conflicting things, with some sources talking about great hunting following a burn because of all the food it provides (for how many years after the burn?) and others saying too many burns have really cut down numbers. Can anyone elaborate on what to look for with regard to burns nearby, what makes a good one and a bad one? Is it best to look for an area with a good mix of burned and unburned? Is it that burns in the pine forests produce good summer forage, while burns in sage brush country just kill winter forage that takes a long time to grow back?

Online tools/tips -- The best I've found are OnX maps of public lands (seem to include everything I've found on various agency websites), WDFW harvest stats (I was enough of a nerd to make my own maps from these but they have good ones on their site), this website, plus good articles/videos on online scouting on Google Earth (an article for mule deer, and a Randy Newberg video for elk that seems applicable). Anyone know any other really helpful places to learn, or books that are especially applicable to WA mule deer hunting?

Lastly, locations -- I know better than to ask anyone for their secret spots, but I'd like to float a few general areas I've been looking at on Google Earth and see if anyone can offer any advice about them, even if it's just to explain why a spot's not worth the trouble (no deer, wrong time of year for the area, overrun with hunters, etc). All I know about these spots is that they're decent-sized chunks of public land in units with some modern rifle mule deer harvest. Given that I know nothing about their deer populations and I'm just taking a stab in the dark, I hope that naming them here won't send any pressure their way. In no particular order, I'm wondering about:

  • Chopaka Mountain
  • Highlands on either side of the Similkameen River west of Oroville
  • High country off Grade Creek Road
  • Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, Carter Mountain unit
  • Sagebrush hills east of Palisades
  • Private lands listed by WDFW as hunt-by-written-permission around Baird Springs Rd

Thanks in advance for any help.
« Last Edit: August 15, 2017, 03:19:08 PM by Troutnut »

Online cougforester

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Nice pictures man, some of that country doesn't even look real. I'm in the same boat as you for chasing mulies for the first time this fall, but have scouted one of those areas you listed extensively and will be hunting there this season finally. Good luck this fall, with all the work you've put in it sounds like you've got a great base of knowledge to build from.

Offline Duckslayer89

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Sight your rifle in really well. Then do a check list on all gear. Make sure your in shape. Then go back to AK and forget about WA. Best advice possible.

Joking aside though I would find old gated roads and ride your bike in deep man that's what I do and don't ever see anybody. Sometimes people shoot bigger bucks than I do driving around while I bust ass up the hill but I like the solitude and having a place to myself.

Offline elkinrutdrivemenuts

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If you are looking for a reason to move back to Alaska, modern deer hunting in Washington will sure do that.  Having access to private land is your best option. 

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Online boneaddict

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I can probably help you out, but it's going to take me some time to digest your post.   I'm usually pretty vague with help because I get absolutely swamped with requests, and it's really not fair for me or the requester.   I'm a little selfish on this one though because I'd like to put together a good DIY caribou hunt someday, and you might be able to help me. 

Offline Duckslayer89

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I can probably help you out, but it's going to take me some time to digest your post.   I'm usually pretty vague with help because I get absolutely swamped with requests, and it's really not fair for me or the requester.   I'm a little selfish on this one though because I'd like to put together a good DIY caribou hunt someday, and you might be able to help me.

Bone I'll take you duck hunting if you tell me where you mule deer hunt  :chuckle:

Offline DeerThug

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Yeah diy caribou is on my list  as well.  Maybe a couple of us need to talk.

You certainly can put in the work.

Here is a start on my advise.  Start NOW on your scouting.  The areas you mentioned will all produce bucks.  I prefer the sage and open land but that is just me.    Get out and take a look at a couple then spend as much time there as you can.  If there is farmland try to talk to some of the land owners.  By this time they may be full but it never hurts to ask.  BUT if they are farming leave them alone.  It is harvest season and they are busy.  Once you find a good number of deer then think small.  Pick out a few square miles and and learn the bucks by name.  Another hint - interstate - there are a ton of good little sagebrush pockets on public land that never get hit visible from the freeway.  Find a place to park and hike a ridge or two.  You could just have it to yourself...  These can be your middle of the week after works spots for a couple of hours.

You are right on glassing.  Here is a tip.  Glass an area several times a day.  The sun will change things and a buck can be where you glassed an hour ago and did not see it.  The sun changes and bam  his horns are like a neon sign.  I glass more bucks between noon and 4 than any time of the day.  Less glare too.  I find that around 1 or 2 they have to stand up and go and if you are glassing a doe will give away a buck laying not far away from her.  And even the general season is not far from the rut.  So if you glass a heard of does pick the area near them apart for a buck  Bucks normally dont bed with the does but not far off.

Then when season comes expect a cluster on opening morning.  But wait it out.  The deer you find now dont fly away they will still be there once the crowd dies down.  Most guys are back at camp by 10 or gone home.  You though, will hunt all day.  Be at your spot in the dark in the morning and let the sun come up and then hang out there till the end of the day.  Once the crowd dies down the deer still have to water and live so they will move or try to get back to their usual location later in the day.  If you can also try to learn in September what the deer do in the evening and get a plan for the end of the day.  Watch the time.  Get there a good 2 or 3 hours before the sun starts to set.  This is a good time to sit - and let the deer come to you.  A good plan is to sit by where they are headed to feed.  They will start the trip in plenty of light but normally hit the fields right at dark. That last hour before dark can really produce.  And be smart - this can also be your scouting for the next day.  If you see a buck and there are does he will probably hang with them all night.  Be back there then next day and find him.

When still hunting go SLOW and i mean slow.  One or two steps and stop and glass.   ALWAYS have your rifle ready and scope on low power in case you jump one or someone jumps one to you.  Where I hunt one place is just at a mile and a half long and most days it takes me till 3 or 4 in the afternoon to still hunt it.  Year before last on opening day me and my son were heading out and the area had been hammered with people.  He wanted to travel and i said no way go slow.  Jumped a dandy 4 point at about 15 yards and well lets just say dad out shot the son that day.  Going slow works.

And dont give up.  Hunt all season long and every chance you get.  Even if it is just an hour after work. Remember it just takes one legal buck.  This state really does have some pretty good deer hunting once you put in the time to learn how to do it.

Bipods are a must.  Never take an offhand shot at a standing buck.  You may only get one chance at a legal buck and you have to make the shot count. Never shoot at a running buck unless you are right on top of it and i mean really really close.  In stead watch it if you can and then go after it.

Spotting scope.  With the three point deal here know what you are going after.  Dont waste time with a 2 point.  And there are huge 2 points out there so in the binocs it is a dandy buck but once you use more  power - off limits.  And then there are some basket heads that are legal and good eye guards are hard to see.

Dont be too picky either.  It is a short season.  I say if it is legal drop the hammer.

If you are in eastern Wa and if you want and if  i can I will go with you and get your eye tuned in for glassing the sage.  I do have my own hunt to get ready for in a new area never been in before and there is other hunting i need to do as well.  But ya never know what might work out down the road.....

Good luck...

Shoot straight Shoot often

Offline Troutnut

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Huge thanks to everyone who's sent advice so far. Boneaddict and Deerthug, I'd be happy to share some caribou knowledge if you head up to Alaska. Most (not all) of my location-specific knowledge up there is limited to units without nonresident hunts, but I can share some tips and answer questions about behavior, movements, etc. The residency requirements in some areas are frustrating (and it's a bummer that I can't go back to hunt sheep without hiring a $12,000 guide) but caribou are still probably the best species to DIY in Alaska. And the country they inhabit is a photographer's dream.

Offline Eli346

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Bearpaw can probably get you pointed in the right direction also. All three of the guys that offered to help are your best bets!