Spot-and-stalk deer hunting is not to be confused with still-hunting, where you walk slowly and quietly, looking for deer in areas you think they might inhabit.
In spot-and-stalk mode, you sit in one place and use binoculars and/or spotting scopes to locate the buck you want, and then you slowly sneak to within shotting range.
As a tactic, spot-and-stalk typically works well only in wide open geography where you can see long distances. In this article, we'll focus on using spot-and-stalk methods to hunt mule deer because this is the most common way muleys are hunted today. But don't think this tactic is limited only to mule deer. In certain areas, it can work well for blacktails and whitetails as well.
There are three things that make spotting and stalking such an effective tactic for hunting mule deer:
Without question, high quality binoculars and spotting scopes are the most essential pieces of equipment for spot-and-stalk hunting. You'll spot far more mule deer during dusk and dawn hours than any other time of day, and good binoculars will add brightness during these times, giving you an extra half hour of prime spotting time on both sides of the day.
Obviously, binoculars are invaluable for spotting mule deer at long range, but they're just as useful for close range use while stalking, allowing you to pick out detail you'd never be able to see without them. Today, 10x is probably the most popular choice for all-around use in mule deer hunting, with 8x being the minimum you should consider.
Keep your binoculars readily accessible at all times. One of the best ways to do this is to use a "binocular bra" which transfers the weight from your neck to your shoulders and allows you to draw your binoculars from your chest to your eyes at a moment's notice.
When spotting, you must hold your binoculars steady to be able to see mule deer efficiently. Always sit down and support your binoculars on a rock, a log, or your pack frame -- or rest your elbows on your knees for support. For serious glassing, get a lightweight, adjustable camera tripod and an adapter to mount your binoculars on it. Then you can sit and glass in style with the binoculars resting comfortably at eye level.
You should also consider getting a quality spotting scope. This will allow you to judge antlers at distances of over a mile. Scopes with magnification powers of 15x or more require a tripod for steady viewing. Keep in mind that using a spotting scope for any protracted amount of time can cause major eye muscle strain from having to continuously squint one eye. Instead, a handy trick is to leave your non-spotting eye open and just cover it with your hand.
The first secret to spotting is knowing where to look for bucks. Mule deer (and especially bucks) do not spread out evenly over an area. Rather, they tend to stick to isolated pockets, and you can use maps to look for these pockets before you even get to your hunting grounds. Look for gullies, bowls, basins, streams, and edges of timber, and concentrate your efforts on the north- and east-facing slopes. These areas tend to have the most attractive food scources in late summer and fall.
The second step is to select a good vantage point where you'll do your spotting. In general, you want to be as high as possible, facing away from the sun, downwind of the areas you're observing, with some sort of cover behind you so you're not silhouetted against the skyline.
So, when is the best time to spot? It is certainly possible to spot mule deer any time of the day, but they are most active during the first and last hours of light. Morning spotting gives you a key advantage: you can spot a buck feeding, watch him bed down, and then you've got the whole day to plan and execute your stalk. You'll want to get up early, brave the darkness, and be in your spotting position well before the first signs of light.
If you don't spot any deer in the morning hours, all is not lost. An ideal way to spot bedded mule deer during midday is to sneak along a high ridgetop above potential bedding areas, then slowly inch your head over the side to spot resting bucks. It's a smart idea to wear camo face paint or a camo face mask when using this method.
Once you've spotted a mule deer buck and you've watched him bed down, make sure you wait at least 45 minutes for him to settle in and get comfortable before you begin your stalk. Use this time to make a plan.
Take your time before you start stalking and think out every detail carefully -- the buck's not going anywhere. Your first consideration is the wind. You must make certain the wind will not carry your scent to the deer, which is the surest way to blow a stalk. Next, consider the terrain you'll have to navigate to get to the bedded buck. Take note of any and all obstacles you'll encounter on your route, and sketch all this on a map that you can refer to as you stalk.
Make sure you note the location of other deer between you and the buck that could spoil everything. It can be helpful to take a compass bearing on the buck's location. Or use your GPS to mark the buck's location as an estimated waypoint.
As you begin your stalk, remember one thing above all else: slow down! Successful stalking requires you to go as slow as you think you can go, and then go even slower.
A mule deer has three levels of defense you'll have to defeat in order to get close enough for a shot: sight, sound, and smell. Here's some basic tips on how to defeat them:
As you're closing in on your buck, often it can be very challenging to relocate him. You're now closer, and you may be approaching from a different direction than your spotting position. This is where your map of the buck's position, as well as your compass bearing and estimated GPS waypoint, come into play. Your binoculars will also be invaluable at this point. Glass the area meticulously, looking for a tail, an ear, a nose -- anything that will reconfirm his position.
If you can't relocate the buck, try bleating softly on a fawn or predator call. This could make him stand up to investigate, exposing his position. Often, if he can't find anything, he'll settle back into his bedding spot.
In some situations, using a partner when stalking can be a huge help. One hunter sets out to stalk while the other stays at the spotting position and directs the stalker with hand signals. Make sure you develop and practice your hand signals before the hunt so you don't have any miscommunications.
With patience and practice, spot-and-stalk can be one of the deadliest deer hunting tactics that just might enable you to bag that buck of a lifetime.