Written by: Fred Eichler
My cameraman Kyle and I had just climbed into our stands. We were set up in two different cottonwood trees only a few feet apart. Below us was a small metal cattle tank that was put in by the rancher years before to water his cattle. The additional benefit to having water in the area is that besides cattle using the water a lot of other animals were using the water as well. I had set up a Stealth Camera and had seen some great deer hitting the water over the last few weeks. Most of the pictures had been in the afternoon and most of the pictures had been in legal shooting light. I was hunting with my recurve bow and we were attempting to video a mule deer hunt over water. We had only been on stand a few hours when I noticed some does heading our way. It was the latter part of November and the mule deer were just starting to rut. As the does started making their way to the waterhole I spotted a big mule deer buck trailing them. One glance through my binoculars was all it took to realize I was looking at a monster. I was trying to keep my breathing under control as this big buck followed the does right into the waterhole. Despite the fact that this big buck was less than twenty yards, he was quartering to me and I didn’t have a good shot at his vitals. Finally, just when I was getting worried that my arrow quivering on my rest would spook the deer, the buck turned broadside. My recurve came up and my arrow flashed over the cattle tank and struck the buck in the center of the lungs. The buck sprinted about seventy yards before dropping in the sage flat right in front of us. To say I was excited would not accurately describe my feelings. I was ecstatic. The big buck grossed just over 193 inches.
Was it lucky? Sure, it was. I was ready to shoot any buck that came into the water, and he just happened to be it. What made this hunt great for me is that I have oftentimes utilized water sources to get myself and my clients in range of some great mule deer. If you are planning a hunt out west, don’t forget the water. I have listed below why and how I go about finding water to hunt.
If I am hunting mule deer in one of the many arid areas out west learning where the water sources are is one of my top priorities. If I am hunting public land I usually scout using topo maps or looking at satellite pictures on a computer. If I am hunting private land I will talk to the ranchers or farmers in the area. Oftentimes talking with other hunters or game wardens can help fill you in on hidden waterhole locations. Lots of times the best scouting is done by wearing out some boot leather and finding your own spots or at least being able to confirm or deny reports you have received from others.
All animals need water. Mule deer have to drink at least once a day and in some areas when the weather is warm they have to drink two to three times a day. Waterholes can be a great place to scout and see what type of deer are in the area. They can also be great ambush spots as well if you play your cards right.
In the past I have made the mistake of accidentally ruining waterholes by spooking deer from them while scouting or by leaving too much scent around a waterhole. Big bucks will not take much pressure before they move to another area or become nocturnal.
Mule deer are under constant attack from predators and have to adjust their routines constantly due to predation. Man is not the only predator to take advantage of mule deer coming to water. I have seen all types of predators including mountain lion, bobcats and coyotes lie in wait near water for an unsuspecting mule deer. Because of this mule deer tend to circle water holes from the downwind side and will usually drink from the downwind side as well.
Once I find a waterhole I feel has a lot of potential due to numbers of tracks or animals I have seen frequenting it, I try and minimize my impact. I try and only slip into the area in the middle of the day and when I do I wear rubber boots and try not to leave any scent. Trail cameras are a great way to scout with minimum impact. They will also give you great feedback on what time of day the majority of deer are drinking.
If I plan to hunt a specific waterhole, I try and find the major trails leading into or out of the area. Sometimes ambushing a deer on their way in is better than waiting for them at the water. If I plan to hunt close to the water I try and set up my treestand or groundblind on the downwind side. I also try and set up by a natural obstacle where possible to prevent the deer from totally circling downwind of my location.
Waterholes may not work for every hunt, but in the right conditions they can be a deadly way to harvest a mule deer. Next time you go out for mule deer out west, if it’s dry country don’t forget to ask yourself, where is the water?