It’s now August and most bucks have put on about as much antler growth as they’ll get before shedding their velvet. With season starting soon this is a good time to get in a few quality days of mule deer scouting in hopes that your season will be a success. With that said, scouting for mule deer in the high country can be a daunting task if you aren’t sure where to start. Ever wonder where you can learn about the necessities of backpack scouting? Below we’ll take you through some of the process so your next trip into the mountains is time well spent.
Your first order of business should be deciding where you want to go. Mule deer have a wide range of habitats ranging from sage flats, to high mountain peaks above tree line. Depending on your physical ability, and willingness to hike, you’ll have a wide range of options to chose from in Montana and many other western states. I personally like to scout in more remote locations and at higher elevation. If you are willing to do the hiking it takes to get into the backcountry, you’ll eliminate many of the struggles that people sticking closer to roads and town will have due to human pressure on the animals.
When preparing to scout the high country, I try to look for a few key things that will be essential for deer to live there. Food, water, and cover are the main three, but other things come into play as well. When looking over country on Google Earth, it can be hard to figure out where all of these necessities are located, but if you pay attention to detail, you will be much more successful at finding deer. For instance, much of the high country in western Montana is rocky and rugged. This means that in an area that’s super rocky, you’re going to want to look for grassy meadows in bowls, basins, and on top of ridgelines for food sources. Another great food source for high country bucks are burns. Burns provide regrowth, and abundant amounts of food for deer and elk to feed on in the summer months, but can make glassing much harder, and make the animals much less predictable due to the abundance and wide range of feeding locations. When looking at a spot on google earth, I always try to think about: “Where are they going to eat, how are they getting there, and what are they eating?”
When scouting high country mule deer, you will want to have a very select list of gear in your arsenal, and know how to use it well if you plan on being successful at finding that giant velvet buck you’ve been dreaming about. When packing for a trip, I try to keep three important things in mind: space, weight, and durability. You’ll want to make sure you have everything you need, while eliminating items that you don’t think will be necessary. As a general rule, I tell myself that If I’m not going to use something three or more times on a trip, then it’s not going in my pack. This obviously excludes necessities like first aid kits, bear spray, and emergency survival gear, but you get the point. Below is a list of some of the items that always come with me into the backcountry, that are easy to find in different weights and sizes depending on how much money you are looking to spend.
- One or two person lightweight tent (I prefer a two-man tent to keep myself and my gear dry in the event of a storm.)
- Lightweight packable sleeping pad
- Sleeping bag & compression sack
- Water purification pump
- First Aid kit
- Bear Spray or a side arm
- Mountaineering boots (Although not a necessity, a stiff boot with added support will make your hikes and time scouting much more enjoyable, avoiding unnecessary foot fatigue.)
- Spotting scope
- Lightweight compact tripod
- Freeze dried food items (Mountain house, Backpacker’s Pantry, etc.)
- Snacks ( anything from Cliff Bars to trail mix/jerky to a bag of M&M’s. You will want to bring something to snack on while glassing / have a way of getting some calories in you without stopping to make a Mountain House)
- Eating utensils
- A 100 Ounce water bladder or a couple one liter Nalgene bottles.
Now that we’ve gone over what gear to bring on your trip, it’s time to discuss packing your pack. Ideally, you are going to want to have a good sized pack that can easily hold all of your gear. I like to keep in mind when packing my pack that if it were hunting season, I may need more room on the way out in the event that you do harvest a buck. When putting your gear in your pack you will want to make sure you are distributing weight evenly, and that you aren’t putting the important things that you may need to access quickly at the bottom of your pack. I know it sounds like a no brainer, but the last thing you want is to be desperately digging around for your spotting scope as a stud buck is heading for the timber off in the distance.
A couple of weeks ago I went scouting in Southwest Montana, and it was an eye opening experience for me, in the sense that I had no idea how big the country was going to be. This was my first time scoutng in that specific spot, and had an awesome experience. Over the course of the two days we spent in the backcountry, we spent time scouting between 6,500 – 8500’ and were able to locate a good number of bucks, in a wide range of locations. On the first day we packed in at dark hoping to reach a solid glassing point by daybreak. After reaching where we had planned to start glassing, I quickly realized that the country we were in was much larger than I had imagined. As the day went on we covered more country, locating multiple water sources and stopping at a few more good vantage points to glass, but only located a few deer. After a midday nap, followed by hunkering down in a hailstorm, we moved to the next ridge and sat down to glass.
It wasn’t long, and Zack had spotted a group of bucks bedded down. As the evening went on, we worked our way around the bowl, glassing it from multiple vantage points, and turning up more and more deer. A lot of times the key in scouting the high country is finding the pockets where the deer like to frequent. Many times when you find one group of deer in a basin, there will be many more as well.
The following week, I headed into another promising backcountry area with a good friend in hopes of locating more bucks and bulls before the fast approaching season. After my experience the week before, I knew going into it that the country was going to be much larger than it looked on Google Earth, so I planned accordingly bringing extra food and water for the hike in. After a six mile hike, we set up camp and glassed the last hour of the evening, turning up one small buck. As the next morning rolled around, we got up and glassed the first couple of hours on the other side of camp from where we had glassed the night before. Just as I was about to move to a new spot, I found a group of bucks feeding through the bottom of a basin surrounded by cliffs and shale slides on all sides. Although none of the bucks were shooters, it was nice to know that I was finding deer in areas where I had predicted they would be because of readily available food.
Over the course of the day we hiked an 8 mile loop up to one of the surrounding peaks, and back. This gave us the opportunity to spend the middle of the day checking out new country, and glassing occasionally in spots that looked like they would have the best chance of holding animals. We didn’t turn up any more bucks that day, but it was an awesome way to see the country first hand, and get an idea of what areas we needed to focus on come September. As we got back to camp and built a fire, the wind picked up, and the temperature began to drop as a storm rolled in. Although this was a less than ideal situation, we came prepared, and were able to layer up and hunker down for the night while the storm passed.
The next morning, we decided to glass a new spot closer to camp, and to our surprise, turned up three more bucks, but again no shooters. That afternoon, we packed up camp, and began our hike back to the truck. About half way into the hike, we came across a ton of bear sign. This was no surprise to us, and if you plan on hunting and scouting in the high country, and wilderness areas in particular, then you’d better be ready to encounter bears. This isn’t something that should scare you, or deter you from going into these areas, but it is something to be aware of and prepare for.
Whether you are on the drive into the trailhead, or ten miles from the truck, I can’t stress enough how important it is to be prepared for any situation. My final piece of advice would be to double check everything from your tire repair kit in your truck, to your first aid kit in your pack before you leave, because you never know what can happen out there. Luckily, if you come prepared, you can keep a little problem at bay and fix it before it becomes much more serious. Do your research, pack smart, come prepared, scout hard, and have an awesome time doing it.
Written By: Calvin Connor
Edited By: Zack Boughton
Photos: Travis Boughton, Zack Boughton, Calvin Connor