Note: I wrote this shortly after returning from my first trip to South Dakota over 2 years ago and just found it as a draft realizing I hadn’t ever finished or published this. I’ve added some additional notes after a second trip a few months after that. All great lessons especially for someone headed west for the first time after Mule Deer.
I definitely learned a lot on my first Mule Deer hunt. I’ve been on several backpack style hunts now but each one brings new lessons especially when it involves a new species. Here I’ll document both things I learned on this trip as well as concepts that I’ve known but were reinforced on this trip.
– 1. Mule Deer Are Different –
It kind of goes without saying but, they like most species, just act different. In my experience whitetails really don’t like the wind, we had 5 does just hanging out below us in crazy winds taking their time and feeding not worrying about the 30-40 MPH sustained winds. Forget what you thought you knew about deer species as a whole if you are used to hunting whitetails because they just do things different. In my brief experience it seemed that the mule deer like draws, canyons and creek beds while whitetails liked the woods and wood lines. That may not always be true but I definitely noticed a theme in my encounters with both species inhabiting the same area. If you’re looking to learn a bit about Mule Deer and Mule Deer hunting check out the book ‘Blood in the Tracks: A Mule Deer Manifesto’.
– 2. Pack Light & Be In Shape –
While there is definitely gear that is required and isn’t light always take a long hard look at your gear and just get rid of stuff you most likely won’t need. Don’t skimp on things like rain gear or at least a decent amount of food but you likely don’t a decent chunk of the stuff you are packing in. Even though we rode bikes in, it doesn’t change the fact that traveling light is better. Even though you’re pedaling you’re still exerting effort to move that gear. The be in shape part is where I’m often lacking. I had started running and riding prior to this trip but then between work and travel the 3 weeks before my routine went out the window and lost most, if not all gains I had made. My lack of fitness made the ride in absolutely miserable, and that’s not how I like to start out hunt!
– 3. Hunt On Two Wheels –
This was my first time hunting from a bike and the Cogburn CB4 did not disappoint. Loaded with gear and trudging through mud the only limitation was from me as the rider. We were so much more efficient in covering ground because of the bikes. They do basically no damage to the land, are silent and scent free. If you haven’t considered hunting from a bike you should and you should consider the CB4.
– 4. Maps vs Covering Ground –
I studied the maps long and hard before this trip and unfortunately I still didn’t know the land that well. We had to change our route of entry, things I thought were closer together weren’t and the habitat was much different in certain areas compared to what I gathered from maps. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t study the maps, you should, but expect some of what you find to just be wrong or very different when you are there on the ground. I’m sure I’ll get better at understanding and using maps while understanding how they look in reality but it’s going to take a lot more experience. So study the maps but also go in with an open mind, check the GPS often and cover as much ground as you can.
– 5. Choose Your Hunting Partners Wisely & Make a Plan –
Make sure the people that you go hunting with have similar drive, goals and interests. I was lucky in that both of my hunts in South Dakota were with easy going, hard working friends. We had a lot of fun and we hiked and biked miles and miles together. One trip was in terrible weather yet we trudged miles in 8 inches of snow each at one point or another encouraging each other to keep going. On that same note I’ve heard horror stories of hunting partners having completely different ideas and ending up spending a lot of money to ultimately be miserable. Lastly, have a plan. On my second trip to SD we missed some shot opportunities because we didn’t have a solid plan of who the shooter was and having too many people on a stalk. Designate a shooter, one or two people on a stalk only and the second person should more often than not hang back or get in position for a follow up shot. Some of that seems obvious but one time in particular didn’t designate things at the truck then were surprised on a stalk because the deer had moved much closer during a stalk and we were all 3 caught off guard, and no one got a shot. If we had designated first shooter there would have been a lot less hand gestures and shouted whispers in the driving snow as an amazing mule deer bounded off.