I grew up hunting the West when mule deer numbers were high and elk weren’t nearly as common as they are today. And although muley numbers have declined across much of the animal’s range due to a number of factors, you can still find some superb mule deer hunting. Every year a handful of public land hunters shoot dandy bucks. But truth be told, the best hunting is found either behind the locked gate of a private ranch or on limited-entry hunts, where the odds of drawing a tag are longer than Shaquille O’Neal’s arms.
If your goal is to shoot a true trophy-class buck, then you have to hunt where the odds are greatest you’ll encounter such a deer. That means researching the entire West and hunting where the statistics tell you to hunt, which might not necessarily be where you’d like to go. I enjoy researching the record books, talking to hunters, outfitters and booking agents and compiling data that helps me apply for tags in the best places. To help you sort the wheat from the chaff, here’s what my current data tells me.
First off, while historical data is interesting, I focus on what’s happened during the past 10 years, which gives a better indication of where I might be able to swoop in and score right now. According to the Boone and Crockett Club’s records, the total number of mule deer entered into its system during the past decade looks like this: Colorado, 171; Wyoming, 69; Idaho, 60; Saskatchewan, 55; New Mexico, 49; Utah, 40; Oregon, 35; Old Mexico, 29; Nevada, 25; British Columbia, 23; Arizona, 20; Alberta, 19; Montana, 14; Kansas, 10; Washington state, nine; North Dakota, five; Texas, five; and California, South Dakota and Nebraska, four each.
There are some interesting notes to be made from this general list. First, you can eliminate Saskatchewan because Americans aren’t allowed to hunt mule deer there. Second, if you look more closely at the B&C records, you can find out which counties have produced the most record bucks during this period. The top five counties are New Mexico’s Rio Arriba, 45; Sonora, Mexico, 28; Lincoln County, Wyoming, 23; Eagle County, Colorado, 21; and Gunnison County, Colorado, 18.
Another factor to consider when looking at the records is where the most—and least—tags are issued. For example, Nevada and Arizona might be ninth and 11th on the list, but these states issue relatively few mule deer tags when compared to the top three states. That means if you can draw a tag, your odds of killing a good buck might be better than if you hunt these other states. And Alberta, where I hunted last year and killed a massive muley the first morning with a rifle, doesn’t see that many nonresident hunters and restricts resident hunting, too, making it another good option.
Other Things To Consider
OK, this is a great start, but there are other things you need to consider. First, your best chances of finding a huge muley buck are in areas where the deer, all things being equal, have the best chance to grow old enough to reach their full potential. This means their major predators have some sort of controls placed on them (mountain lion hunting is allowed, for example), and that hunter access is seriously limited either by the number of permits issued by the state, or the area is so rugged and remote that few hunters go there.
Areas with a track record of producing big bucks include: the rugged, high-elevation, timbered areas of western Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming; the vast strip of high desert spanning northern Arizona and southern Utah known in mule deer circles as the Arizona Strip; Utah’s Paunsaugunt Unit and Arizona’s Kaibab Region, where tags are extremely tough to draw; and the thick cactus-infested deserts of Sonora, Mexico, where more and more Americans are hunting but success rates on huge deer aren’t particularly high and hunt costs are approaching five figures. I do love hunting Sonora and have taken my best two bucks there.
An area that has come on like gangbusters in recent years is the semi-open plains and agricultural areas that span eastern Colorado and western Kansas. Here, hunting pressure is limited by two things: the number of tags issued and the fact that most of the best hunting land is privately owned. Outfitters lease most of this country and hunt costs are growing, but if you’re willing to pay to play, you can find some good bucks during both the archery and gun seasons.
Another option is to obtain a landowner permit. Some states issue landowners a set number of tags for big game based on a complicated formula involving their total acreage and the number of animals believed to use the property. The landowner can then keep or sell the tags, and most sell them to outfitters or individuals with deep pockets. I hunted with such a tag in western Colorado last year and the system there baffled me, because we weren’t even required to hunt on the landowner’s property, but to stay inside the general deer unit in which his property lay. Two friends killed bucks scoring just over 200 points, while mine had a G-4 tine broken completely off but still scored 180 points.
B&C Bucks Are Rare
I should make one other point about using the B&C record book as a reference: Bucks that reach the B&C minimum typical score of 195 points are extremely rare. There are many bucks killed each year that gross more than 195 inches but come up short after deductions. I believe any muley buck you kill today that scores more than 180 points is a real dandy. I have dedicated friends who are good mule deer hunters and while they’ve shot some bruisers, none has qualified for B&C. So if you’re new to the game and think you can simply do your homework and clear some wall space for that big B&C head, you might want to reevaluate.
And remember, you can’t shoot a true monster if you kill the first “nice buck” that walks by. Because shot opportunities at huge bucks are so rare—and because they often happen in the blink of an eye—when the time comes it’s quite possible you won’t have a lot of time to decide whether to put the hammer down. That decision needs to be made in advance.
For those dedicated to hunting trophy mule deer, it’s a lifestyle, not something they do when deer season rolls around. However, you can play the game, too, if you do your homework, spend as much time as possible in the field and, when the time comes, have the skills to make the shot. Trust me, when it all comes together there’s no better feeling in all of Western hunting.