In many western states, the general rifle hunting seasons take place during the month of October, and into the first half of November. While these rifle seasons provide a great deal of opportunity and the tags are relatively easy to obtain, they also provide some of the most challenging hunting conditions for both elk and mule deer.
Hunters can sometimes find bugling elk during the early part of the rifle hunting seasons. But as a general rule, the elk rut has subsided by the time most rifle seasons begin. Bulls will be silent, moving off alone or in bachelor groups to areas where they feel protected and can recover from the strenuous breeding season.
Meanwhile, mule deer have not yet begun to show signs of the rut. During the month of October, bucks will remain solo or in bachelor groups, sticking to rough terrain and sanctuary areas where they can avoid most of the hunting pressure. By early November, hunters might see small bucks beginning to chase does. But the mature bucks will remain much more coy until later in the month.
Here in Colorado, our over-the-counter elk seasons and most of our mule deer licenses are issued during this timeframe from mid-October through early November. Here are a few strategies that we like to remember during these challenging mid-season hunts:
1. Be Prepared to Work Hard
Many hunters might enjoy a glorified fall camping trip, staying up late drinking beer around the fire with their friends. And while having fun is certainly part of the adventure, success during the rifle seasons also takes hard work. To consistently find mature mule deer bucks or bull elk this time of year, you need to be out of camp before daylight, and prepared to return after dark.
To help with this routine, load your daypack the night before. Pack your breakfast, your lunch, and fill your water. Then, you can quickly be out the door of your tent in the morning. If it takes 30 minutes to walk from your camp to where you want to be at daylight, factor that into the equation and set your alarm accordingly.
I like to be in position a few minutes before daylight. First, it allows me to arrive under the cover of darkness. And second, I have a few minutes to set up my tripod for glassing, and get comfortable. You should be ready to glass as soon as it’s light enough to see. Plan on glassing for the first couple hours of daylight during prime time. Then, you can take a break and eat your breakfast during the mid-morning lull. I even like to bring an ultralight stove like the MSR Pocket Rocket in my daypack to make a cup of coffee on the mountain.
Hunt all day long. Pack a lunch so that there’s no need to return to camp in the afternoon. While game will be most active early and late, you might be surprised what you’ll spot during the middle of the afternoon.
Finally, decide where you want to be during the prime hours before dark. Get set up early, and be patient. Continue glassing until you can no longer see. Even if you spot an animal after legal shooting light, this can provide you with a great game plan for the following morning.
For several years, a few friends and I did an annual rifle season mule deer hunt together. In the span of four years, we packed out 12 bucks. No matter the weather, we were out of camp early, sometimes an hour before daylight to be in good positions. And on more than one occasion, we were packing deer quarters back to camp late into the night.
Getting out of camp before daylight and staying out until it’s dark isn’t easy, especially if the weather is cold. But hard working hunters will give themselves more opportunities this time of year.
2. Be Prepared to Glass
When hunting during over-the-counter or general rifle seasons, let your eyes do the walking whenever possible. Post-rut bull elk and pre-rut mule deer bucks may not travel far if you can locate them in protected sanctuary areas. Do your best to locate them first. Then, you can plan a careful stalk.
Locating game this time of year can be challenging. Animals have felt the hunting season pressure, and they may not move far from timber or bedding areas to their feeding areas. Be ready to spend hours each day behind your binoculars picking apart the timber and glassing along these transition zones.
Spend those “prime time” hours at the beginning and end of each day in a good glassing position. Carefully glass the seams between bedding and feeding areas. Focus on timber edges, the edges of burns, or avalanche chutes. Don’t expect a big bull elk to be feeding out in the middle of a big flat meadow. Instead, he’s more likely to be hanging around the seams on steep slopes or other hard-to-reach areas.
Bring a tripod and a mounting adaptor for your binoculars. Glassing for hours each day becomes much easier when your binoculars are on a tripod. And you’ll be surprised how much more clearly you’ll be able to see when your optics are stable. Even 8x or 10x binoculars benefit greatly from the stability of a tripod.
Still-hunting can be effective during hot weather or during the middle of the day. And moving around can help break up the monotony of glassing. However, my experience is that more often than not, this results in seeing the rear ends of animals as they’re running the opposite direction. When given a choice, I’d almost always rather put myself in a good glassing position and spot them before they see or smell me.
3. Stay Positive
Keeping a positive attitude on a challenging hunt is much easier said than done. When conditions are tough or when you’re not seeing animals, it’s far too easy to let your guard down. One of the best things you can do to increase your chances of success, is to maintain a positive attitude.
I don’t know how many times I’ve become discouraged or frustrated on a hunt, forgetting how rapidly things can change. Then in the blink of an eye, I’m looking at an animal within rifle range. It literally takes seconds to change the course of an entire hunt. Unfortunately, I can think of at least two situations when these unexpected opportunities became missed opportunities, because I wasn’t ready.
When things are difficult, keep working, keep glassing and don’t quit. Try and remind yourself as often as possible that each moment could be the critical moment. And you need to be ready. When you mentally give up, you begin to create your own self-fulfilling prophecy.
Success in hunting does take some luck. It often means being at the right place at just the right time. But the more you can persevere through challenges and continue putting yourself in good positions, the more “luck” you’ll create. And sometimes that biggest challenge is overcoming your own mental letdown.
Mid-season hunting is tough. When I begin with that expectation, I find it easier to work through it, enjoy it, and stay positive even when things aren’t going my way.
Gear Up with Hunting Gear Outfitters
Be sure and explore the rest of our website to gear up on everything from boots to game bags and everything in between. From the start of a hunt to the very end, these products are items that we personally carry in the field and have tested extensively. Please feel free to contact us with any questions and we'd be happy to give you our honest feedback on any of these products.
Be safe and have fun out there this season!
By Ryan McSparran
Ryan is an outdoor writer based in Colorado, and is proud to be a part of the team at Hunting Gear Outfitters.