When I was a youngster in the East, I remember reading articles about giant mule deer in the Rockies. As I looked at pictures of those big bucks, I couldn’t wait to see one of them in person, but I knew that day would be a long way off. I finally made the trip west in 1960 when I traveled to Utah to study forestry, and I was overwhelmed when I saw my first mule deer buck. He was high on a ridge, and I gazed in awe as he slowly walked out of sight. I didn’t get him, because he was much too far away for a shot, but I’ll never forget that experience.
It wasn’t long afterward that I tagged my first muley. The hunt wasn’t difficult from a physical exertion standpoint, but I wouldn’t have gotten the buck without the advice of a savvy hunter in our party who drove me out into the sagebrush in the black of night, then told me to descend halfway down a draw and sit there until noon. He explained I’d be watching an escape route, which big bucks commonly used to get to the safety of a thick cedar forest below. A major trail in the bottom of the draw was obvious, and it wasn’t long after shooting light when a big buck walked briskly down the trail. It was his last walk, and I still remember walking up to him after my shot. He was very old, with 4 points on one antler and 3 on the other. His rack was massive, and approximately 28 inches wide. I couldn’t have been any happier.
As the years passed, I continued to hunt mule deer with fervor. Big bucks came relatively easy, as hunters across the West enjoyed high success. Without question, the 1950s and ’60s were the banner years for mule deer, and the Boone and Crockett Club record book reflects that statement as many huge bucks were taken during that era. Then came the early ’70s, and one of the most severe winters in history. I toured three states and filmed thousands of dead and dying deer during that time. Mule deer never fully recovered, and the final blow was the energy boom that opened up the Western United States. Roads were punched into prime mule deer country, allowing access to places where big bucks once took refuge. Furthermore, urban sprawl began taking its toll on valuable habitat, and predators enjoyed protection like never before. Mountain lions were no longer bountied, and were established as game animals. Coyote control programs were severely reduced, and the canines thrived. All these factors combined to wreak havoc on mule deer populations to the point where wildlife biologists in every Western state gathered to talk about the “great mule deer decline.”
But the great decline was short-lived. Mule deer populations ebbed and flowed in cycles, though some will have you believe mule deer are on their way to extinction. I occasionally hear and read about that scenario, but I’m convinced—as are biologists around the West—that muleys are here to stay. While the old days of mule deer hunting will never return, important new management practices have been enacted to provide quality deer hunting.
Nevada was one of the first states to implement this new management vision. General deer licenses were eliminated, and hunters, including residents, had to draw a deer hunting license via a lottery. And after 3 decades of this lottery system, Nevada now offers exceptional hunting opportunities for big mule deer. Other states followed suit, including Colorado, which is now considered to be the country’s top mule deer state.
So where does this leave today’s hunter who’s looking for a trophy muley? First, it’s important to understand the vast differences of the mule deer’s habitat as compared to the whitetail. In the Western mountains, much of the mule deer’s domain is unroaded, and typically includes large, steep, heavily timbered regions. Hunting deer in this high elevational terrain is akin to hunting elk. The only difference is the quarry pursued and the hunting strategies used.
Finding Trophy Mule Deer
Unless you have a horse or hire an outfitter, hiking is your only option. Some of the biggest bucks live on or close to ridgetops, and often in pockets or basins that are away from major horse or pack trails. Simply climbing a mountain isn’t necessarily going to get the job done. You might need to fight blowdowns, dense pockets of underbrush, rockslides and other formidable obstacles to get to where the big bucks live. In that sense, hunting a trophy mule deer is vastly different than hunting a trophy whitetail. You can outsmart a mature whitetail on your back 40, or even a few yards from the barn, but you’ll need to expend plenty of energy to find a big mountain mule deer. I believe an old muley buck is just as savvy as an old whitetail, despite those people who say muleys are dumb compared to their cousins. Indeed, mule deer are typically less nervous than whitetails, but the country in which they live is far more open. As such, they’re more visible than whitetails, and their escape strategies are different. Young muley bucks might seem extremely trusting around humans, and are more prone to stare at danger than to flee. That’s not the case with older bucks that typically bound away when alarmed, and never look back. The habit of taking a last look before topping a ridge has become a muley’s trademark, but older bucks might keep on going. Biologists believe deer look over their shoulder to pinpoint danger, thus determining their best route of escape.
Having said that, there are indeed places where you can tag a giant buck without killing yourself off in the process. To be sure, big bucks live in the desert, the foothills, sagebrush expanses, in and around ranches and croplands and anywhere else where they can find adequate food, water and cover. A common problem in hunting these deer if they’re on public land is the improved access, which engenders more hunting pressure, and consequently, fewer mature bucks. Then there’s the private land aspect. With few exceptions, most prime mule deer country is off-limits to public hunting, and is usually leased to outfitters, hunting clubs or groups.
The best way to design an economical mule deer hunt is to apply for limited–entry tags that offer a quota of deer licenses in a lottery. If you’re successful, you’re apt to experience the hunt of your lifetime. But there’s the catch of drawing that tag. For obvious reasons, the best hunting units are the toughest to draw, but some states now offer preference and bonus points to increase your odds of drawing a tag. Some people believe the biggest bucks live exclusively on private land or limited entry units where hunting pressure is restricted, thereby allowing bucks to live longer. There’s an element of truth to that, but many mega-muleys also live on public land.
Three Distinct Seasons
The early season typically begins in early to mid-September, and bucks are almost always found in the high country. The early season is the toughest of all the seasons, because hunting mule deer at this time of year is a serious climbing activity. Bucks are generally in bachelor groups, and in the highest elevations. With few exceptions, these early fall hunts are in national forests, with some of the best “general” hunts offered in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. The term “general” means anyone with a valid hunting license can hunt these applicable units.
Mid-season hunts begin in October, which is also when most regular hunting seasons open. The heaviest hunting pressure occurs during this season, with competition among hunters at its most intense level. Big bucks quickly seek out escape cover when the shooting starts, and it takes some doing to find the wary old animals.
The late season takes place in November—my pick for the best time to hunt trophy muleys. Deer enter the rut in mid-November, and if big bucks are ever dumb, it’s during this time
of year. This is when bucks leave the higher elevations to find does, and become more accessible. As another bonus, there’s more potential for deep snow later in the fall, which pushes animals from the higher country. That’s the good news. The bad news is most deer seasons are closed by early November. One notable exception is Montana, which has a standard 5-week season beginning in late October and running until the Sunday of Thanksgiving week. There are also some excellent late-season hunts offered in limited-entry units.
Before you plan a trophy mule deer hunt, you must first determine what a trophy means to you. Some hunters consider a trophy to be a buck with a 30-inch outside spread. This is indeed a very good buck, and one that isn’t easy to find. Age is usually the determining factor in antler size, but genetics play an important part in actual antler configuration. I’ve seen many old bucks that had antler spreads of 24 inches or less because their genes weren’t designed to produce wide antlers. That being the case, if you want a 30-inch buck, you must hunt an area that historically produces them. Some hunters want a Boone and Crockett Club-class buck, which is an exceedingly difficult task. Only a dozen or so, usually less, of these bucks are taken each year. More realistic is the hunter who wants a decent representative buck that has double, deep forks on each antler. Some of my handsomest bucks have high racks no wider than 25 or 26 inches.
If you’re seriously interested in a B&C buck, do some record book research to determine where these animals are coming from. Be sure to look at the most recent records, since older listings might not indicate the kind of bucks that are being produced today. The most recent data from the Boone and Crockett’s 26th Big Game Awards Program for typical mule deer shows Colorado to be the top mule deer state, with 29 of the 68 typical mule deer record book listings coming from that state.
Other top mule deer states include Idaho (10 listings), Utah (six listings) and Wyoming (six listings). For non-typical trophies, Idaho is No.1 with eight of the 22 top non-typical mule deer listings. Wyoming has four listings and Colorado has three. These deer were accepted by the B&C club for the period Jan. 1, 2004, to the present time.
To me, a big mule deer buck is a sight to behold. There are still lots of them out there, but it takes plenty of determination, perseverance and sometimes good luck to see one up close and personal. That’s a challenge I enjoy each year, as well as many other hunters, so join the fraternity if you haven’t done so already.