New Mexico's Big Bucks

New Mexico's Big Bucks

Looking in all the wrong places sometimes lands you the biggest bucks of the season. (Nov 2006)

New Mexico's big mulies: They are where they are.

Take the big bruiser that suddenly surprised me on an archery elk hunt a few years back.

I was making my way through a Western dark-timber jungle that would have made an eastern whitetail claustrophobic, when a sudden flash of antlers caused me to stop in my tracks.

The bad-boy mule deer buck standing 35 yards away had it all -- heavy mass, solid main beams, tines sticking every which way and good width -- a bona fide mountain monster with a reservation in the record book.

For a brief millisecond, I stood there, wishing I could somehow magically transform my elk tag into a mule deer tag. But Big Boy had already seen enough. He snorted and vacated the premises fast enough to make a NASCAR driver's head spin.

Like I said: Big mulies -- they are where they are.

SEARCH IN UNLIKELY PLACES

John Crist, a cattle rancher from the rolling plains near Yeso, N.M., is a rabid mule deer hunter, as the trophies on his wall can attest.

While he and his brother, Cary, have spent some time chasing big mulies in the Land of Enchantment's high country, most of his success with antlered quarry has been in country that seems more conducive to antelope and jackrabbits -- at least at first glance.

Take the giant buck that Crist tagged in fall 2002 while hunting with his friend and neighbor, Coy Wilson.

After watching -- through several hit-and-miss sightings scattered over a couple years -- a ghostly buck grow from being a good mulie into a great one, Crist and Wilson were hunting one afternoon when they found themselves looking at the trophy buck of several lifetimes.

After failing to connect on the first shot opportunity -- Hey, I'd miss too if I were shooting at a massive 6x6 buck with a 36-inch spread! -- Crist was able to get into position to touch off a lethal shot that anchored the mule deer for good as it attempted to elude the hunters in an isolated ravine.

Jim Welles, who operates JFW Ranch Consulting in Albuquerque, is a friend of the Crist family and has more than 30 years of hunting experience in New Mexico. (Cont.)

As proof that big mulies sometimes live where you least expect them to, he refers to a massive buck that was tagged last year in some of the state's desolate rimrock country.

"If you saw that country, you'd go, 'What in the heck can live here?' " Welles says. "It looks like the Sonora Desert."

So what's the moral of this story? Simply this: Mule deer, especially record-book monsters, will often hide in unlikely places.

And that includes habitat that might look far more comfortable for a pronghorn antelope than for a mule deer. After all, doesn't the classic tune go like this: "Oh, give me a home, where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play"?

GET OFF THE BEATEN PATH

In the New Mexico deer forecast featured last month in Rocky Mountain Game & Fish magazine, New Mexico Game & Fish big-game supervisor Darrel Weybright suggested that hunters looking for a good mulie buck get far off the beaten path.

Since many hunters never do, that's solid advice in any year. But such sage wisdom is especially true in a drought year.

In short, if you want to find mule deer -- especially those that are stressed -- get away from hunting pressure. Across the more lightly hunted terrain of the Western U.S., that usually means getting a half-mile or more away from the nearest road and/or trailhead. In very heavily hunted areas, that could mean getting many miles away from the edge of civilization.

Bear in mind, however, there are often unpressured zones lying between the close-in haunts of some hunters and the far-away semi-wilderness areas tapped only by the most resourceful and adventurous.

The point, then, isn't so much how far away from civilization you hunt, as much as it is being willing to out-scout, out-think, out-work, out-hike, and out-hunt other hunters in an effort to find -- and get into -- good, unpressured mule deer habitat.

Bear in mind, however, there could be one exception.

Actually, that exception isn't a "bear" at all, but rugged backcountry that's heavily prowled by another reclusive predator -- the mountain lion.

"In big mountain-lion country, I think deer may hang around where there are more people, because where there are more people, there may be less lions around," Welles points out.

FIND THIS YEAR'S GROCERIES

Given their choice, mule deer across most of the West prefer to dine on browse, or as the Encarta Dictionary defines it, "the tender shoots, leaves, or twigs of shrubs and trees used as food by animals such as deer and cattle."

But while browse is a mule deer's preferred diet, in a drought year just about anything edible goes, according to Welles.

"Deer are kind of like jackrabbits. When it's dry, they'll eat just about anything green," Welles says, noting that as of press time, the hungry jacks around his home were chewing on cactus!

Weybright agrees with Welles' contention.

"When deer starve, they'll eat everything there is, from pine needles to juniper berries to the mast crop -- if there are any acorns," he adds.

Earlier in the fall, deer typically munch on such things as forbs in green-up areas, including those near fresh burns. They'll also browse on items like sumac and mountain mahogany, and even chew on grasses spurred on by any early-autumn moisture.

Later in the fall, after the first frosts and freezes arrive on the landscape, sagebrush and crop fields can provide important dietary staples for mule deer.

"You can find them around areas of agriculture, which can sustain them through the fall and winter," agrees Barry Hale, deer program leader for NMG&F.

LOCATE CURRENT WATERING SOURCES

If looking in unusual places, getting off the beaten path and finding the current dietary staples are keys to tagging a big mule deer buck in a drought

year, perhaps the biggest key to finding a hat-racked monster in such parched times is this: Find the current water supply!

That can seem like a chore that's easier said than done, since permanent water sources like small lakes, ponds, creeks, and springs can all become mere trickles of their former selves -- if not bone-dry -- in a drought year.

So how do you find active watering sources for drought-year deer? Welles says, "Find the livestock." Where they are, water isn't likely to be too far away.

"My gut feeling is that as long as the ranchers have their wells turned on to water their cattle, you will see no major movement of the deer from (that area)," he observes. "Deer can smell water."

To find drought-year watering sources for mule deer, scout for such things as creeks or rivers that still have a trickle of liquid coursing through them; isolated springs that are still flowing; tanks, sloughs, or beaver ponds that hold at least some water; windmill watering troughs and overflow areas; and even irrigated crop fields.

Welles also reminds hunters not to forget to check for the presence of water sources that cattlemen use to keep their livestock watered.

"Look for range drinkers going all the way through the pasture," he points out. "Most guys don't know where those areas are."

He also suggests hunters find such unusual watering sources as wildlife trickle tanks that collect, store, and dispense sparse rainfall, along with isolated depressions that might collect water from monsoon thunderstorms.

Of course, the key to finding any active watering sources in a year like this one will be largely due to studying the right maps and putting in boot-leather time on the ground to confirm that such water really is getting to thirsty livestock and wildlife.

"Find water and you'll find mule deer," Welles predicts.

That just might be the best hunting tip of all to give to a hunter hoping to find a big mulie buck roaming the New Mexico terra firma in a dry and thirsty year.

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