Preseason Scouting for Mule Deer -- Is it worth it? Pre-season scouting seems to be getting more and more popular, but is it really the best way to consistently find success while hunting?
A few years ago, I had spent a late summer day out on a scouting trip for high country mule deer. We found a buck that had our jaws on the floor. He had great mass, length, and some extras. There was still about a month left until the early archery season started, and then there would be other weapon hunts that followed. I had an opportunity to hunt multiple seasons and this buck was on the top of the "hit list!" I stopped scouting other areas and keyed in on patterning this particular buck. I returned about 3 days later to try to find him again but I couldn't locate him. Four days after that I was back in the area looking but still no sighting. I returned several more times to try and pattern this buck, but still failed to locate him again. I thought he must be close by. I talked to experienced deer hunting friends who said the same thing: "Stick with it! He'll show back up!" He never did. Opening morning of the archery hunt a tent was in the saddle where I'd seen him weeks before. There were other hunters in the area, horse traffic had come up and down trails within a few hundred yards of where I had seen him earlier that summer. Did they push him out? I hunted the buck every chance I had all season, and spent well over 2 weeks hunting that deer. I still feel like I made the best decision because I had ZERO chance of killing him if I had never gone after him. I returned the following summer to try and locate him again and never did turn him up again. I feel pretty confident if I had continued to scout in different areas I could have found more "shooter" quality bucks.
Would my time have been better spent looking elsewhere and finding a deer that stuck to a more consistent pattern? Should I have prioritized my time differently so I could spend more time on this buck during the season? I'm not sure he was still in the area, although he probably was somewhere not too far away from where I'd first seen him that summer morning.
I think there are essentially 2 ways to be consistent in taking mature mule deer bucks; (1) scouting and patterning a buck preseason and killing him early in the season before hunting pressure moves him out of the area or (2) spending more time during the hunt in quality areas that hold mature bucks (it always takes a little bit of luck mixed in as well). Ultimately it comes down to the amount of time you have to spend in the field. There's no substitute for time in the field, and although I don't feel that it is completely necessary to scout in order to consistently harvest mature animals, scouting provides a few benefits:
Understanding Potential for my Hunt: Scouting pre-season, when the bucks are more visible let's you know what you may run into during the hunt, and set expectations accordingly.
Staying Positive: The mental game of hunting big mule deer is probably harder than the physical aspect. After a few days of not seeing a mature buck, my mind starts telling me to check different areas, or that the bucks have left due to outside pressures. Knowing the bucks that are in the area can help you stay positive, and settled to make good decisions and keep hunting wary bucks.
Finding/Hunting Exceptional Bucks: These are the extremely rare bucks that are exceptional. By covering country pre-season, when the bucks are more visible - we are much more likely to find them vs. during the hunt when they're pressured and spending less time in the open.
Learning Buck Behaviors: When hunting new areas, bucks will often use the same trails, bedding and feeding areas, and escape routes through multiple generations. But bucks all seem to have a different disposition, so patterning a specific buck's movements, or learning general deer movements in a new hunting area can be done, to an extent, during the preseason.
Planning: Nothing replaces boots on the ground. You can better plan approaches, camps, schedules, and timelines by simulating a hunt preseason, so when opening morning rolls around, you can make the best of it.