Individual mule deer personality has been overlooked for too long. This may be because many hunting styles don’t allow or require a hunter to identify the personality traits of their prey, or it may be due to the moral complications that arise within most empathetic humans (including me). Either way, it is a handicap to ignore such powerful, deterministic attributes of individual animal behavior.
Let me be clear, I do not use the word personality to imply that deer are somehow, mentally or emotionally, equal to humans. I’m using it loosely to describe “the organization of the individual’s distinguishing character traits, attitudes, or habits”, as stated in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Each individual will demonstrate behaviors that we would classify into categories like: reclusive, timid, nervous, aggressive, social, laid back, etc. The value in making these personality distinctions is apparent when making critical decisions during a stalk.
Personality cannot be precisely measured, and a particular buck may not fit squarely into the same category when two different people are observing him. This is because personality is an impression that the buck has on the observer as the buck interacts with both the environment and other mule deer. So it is both social and environmental.
I once watched a bachelor group of 5 bucks do their thing on an alpine slope for two straight weeks. There was one forked horn buck, two average size four-point bucks, one big four point buck, and one monster three by four buck. Over the course of these two weeks each buck demonstrated distinct personalities and preferences, and they did not change from day to day.To differentiate between age class traits and personality traits, I can only compare within age classes. The two larger bucks had similar sized antlers and similar body characteristics (drooping briquette, grey face, swollen belly, sway back, thick subcutaneous fat layer) that made them class four bucks. Here are some of the observations I made.
The big four-point buck was a bully, plain and simple. In the morning when it was about time to bed, this big buck always made the decision about where to go. If a couple of other deer bedded down, he would just keep on going to the place he wanted to bed, and the other deer would eventually get up and follow him. He always used the nicest beds. And when he wanted a different one (even if it wasn’t better) he would simply walk over to another deer and literally kick him out. I never saw him away from the group (even other years), but he was a jerk, so it was like he was not content being grumpy on his own, he needed others to pick on.
The Huge three by four buck was much more laid back. I only watched him kick another buck out of its bed once, and that was because when he had gotten up to stretch his legs and pee, one of the small four point bucks laid in his bed. While bedded down, he was much more relaxed than the big four point – frequently closing his eyes and laying his head on the ground. He never engaged in sparing challenges with the other bucks. One time another buck came up to him aggressively and almost clashed antlers with him, but when he didn’t flinch, the oncoming opponent veered to the side like a trick high-five. On really hot days, when nice cool beds were taken, this buck would wander down the hill a bit and bed on his own, or lay in a marginal bed near the group. This was surprising since he had the heaviest body and biggest antlers of the group.
So what if mule deer do have personality?
When we recognize that mule deer are not simply a pile of senses wrapped in leather – that each individual may react to similar stimuli in different ways – then we are one step closer to predicting what that trophy buck in the spotting scope will do.
Using the same two bucks from earlier – the bully 4×4 and the laid back 3×4 – let’s construct a stalk for each and identify some of the differences. It is 11am; you are sitting behind the spotting scope, just below skyline, looking down on an alpine meadow. The meadow is mostly Alpine Knotweed (2’ tall) growing straight out of a rock field, there is a small patch of (5-10) White-bark pine trees off to the side, and the whole thing is tilted like a church roof, breaking into cliffs below. There are 5 bucks, just as before, and they are all bedded in those trees to escape the already hot sun. On a day like today the thermals will be ripping straight uphill so a stalk from above just may do the trick – but there is no cover and the rock is to noisy.
Jerk buck (4×4): Since a stalk from above is out of the question I’m going to have to get creative. I know that mule deer like to get up and stretch periodically throughout the day. Maybe I can ambush him when he walks just a short distance away from the group. This would allow me to stay 80-90 yards away, and I could probably get there by slithering through this 2’ high Alpine Knotweed meadow. But which way will he walk when he gets up and stretches? Generally, bucks will walk out into the meadow they just fed in, so this might just work! But I’m worried because all those young bucks are so busy milling around and randomly feeding out into the meadow. They would bust me long before that grumpy old buck would get off his rear. Maybe I could ambush the whole group when they move out to feed in the evening. Mule deer normally side-hill away from their beds so if I just got down there and waited for them they might come right by me. He is so uptight though he’s probably going to be fighting the younger bucks to lead the front of the pack. If that happens, and I pop up out of the grass right in front of them, they’re going to split before I reach my draw anchor. I guess I could wait till tomorrow and see if they bed somewhere a bit better. Maybe I’ll see which direction they are feeding in the morning and get into the nearest bedding site before they do. He should be the first one to arrive. I’m running low on food and water is half a mile away, but it’s worth it if I want to kill this old grump.
Mellow buck (3×4): Now imagine you want to kill the huge 3×4 buck. Since the situation is the same, and he has similar age-class related similarities with the big 4×4 buck, I am going to run into a lot of the same obstacles. It is still going to be nearly impossible for me to stalk in from above, so that is out of the question. The younger bucks are still going to be on edge and milling about, so I can’t hang out close to the group for very long. He likes to sleep in his bed a lot so maybe I could spook the rest of the deer off while I move in fast and hope that he is slow enough to get a shot off. That is way too risky though – it may take a week to find another buck of this caliber. If I watch him long enough he may move to a bed further away from the group. If he does move to a far away bed I will need to be closer so that I can capitalize on it right away before he moves again. Ambushing him in the evening when they side-hill out into the meadow might work – he is so laid back he will probably bring up the rear of the group and I could remain hidden until the others pass by. Bingo! I like this. If I set up for this ambush I will be ready to take advantage of either situation: if he relocates to a far away bed, or if he comes out into to meadow behind the rest of the group. And, if I never get a chance at him today, I can slip out after the sun goes down without spooking a single one of them.
Of course, hind sight is 20/20, but these are the sort of things to think about when you are planning a stalk. I will talk about this more later, but I like to give myself several hours to plan a stalk and this is why. The more time spent figuring your buck out and running scenarios of possible stalking strategies, the more likely a stalk will be successful. The last scenario was based on a situation I experienced several years ago. I wanted to kill the big 3×4 – don’t ask why, he’s just my flavor – and I killed him by sneaking down in the meadow, at the same elevation as he was bedded, and waiting (7.5 hours) for the group of bucks to pass before rising out of the grass and putting my arrow through his heart.
To go back to part one of this guide, click here.