Your New Mexico Mule Deer Hunting Playbook
July 10, 2012
Mule deer are found throughout New Mexico, with the Rocky Mountain mule deer inhabiting the majority of the state and the desert mule deer inhabiting the southern region. Either of the sub-species makes a fine trophy for the wall. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) offer several choices for hunters in search of quality mule deer hunting. Hunters looking to improve their chances of success can do so by understanding the progression of the general deer season and the associated effects on deer habits.
During the 2011 season, Ken Baisch made the long trip from Michigan to hunt mule deer with Jody Tapia, owner of Bucks-N-Bulls Outfitters. Tapia has been guiding in New Mexico for over 15 years across various GMUs. Baisch's hunt took place on the Cibola National Forest (NF). During the hunt, Tapia introduced Baisch to spot-and-stalk hunting, which there is not much opportunity for in Michigan.
"We spotted many animals from the tops of mountains," Baisch said. The two hunters experienced 35-degree changes in temperatures during the day, which is not uncommon, even during the earlier hunts in October. After several days without spotting a mature buck, Tapia's and Baisch's luck changed, and Baisch grounded a mature two-point buck late in the hunt.
Baisch made a spectacular shot of several hundred yards with his muzzleloader to harvest his trophy, his first mule deer buck. Hunting the West can often mean taking longer shots, even with a muzzleloader, and this is definitely true in New Mexico. "The hunter should be confident and capable to shoot at all distances, Baisch said." Baisch described his early season muzzleloader hunt as challenging, but with amazing rewards.
Last year, Stewart Hunter took his chances, braved the elements and left New Mexico with a respectable mule deer buck. Hunter also hunted with Tapia's, Bucks-N-Bulls Outfitters on the Cibola NF. On the first day of Hunter's hunt, the wind blew 30 mph during a white-out blizzard. In fact, the conditions were so bad for most of the first day that he and his guide spent the morning in the truck watching a hunting DVD, dreaming of big mule deer bucks.
Although the weather cleared before the afternoon hunt, the deer were hesitant to move, and Hunter never saw a deer on the first day. On the second morning of the hunt, Hunter and his guide climbed up a steep knoll in bitter cold conditions to glass for deer. After glassing a few groups of elk, they found a lone mule deer buck on a distant hillside. Hunter and his guide carefully planned a stalk to get closer to the buck. It took approximately 45 minutes for Hunter to work into a position for a shot at the 4x3 buck. Hunter took the buck at 444 yards with one shot to end his hunt successfully.
Late last year, Tapia took a father and son team, William "Butch" and Matt Varacallo, in search of mule deer. Tapia and the Varcallo's faced bitter cold temperatures and frequent snowstorms over the course of their hunt. However, the team stayed persistent and optimistic and overcame the challenges, and both Varcallos harvested bucks. Compared to the two earlier hunts, few deer were seen by Tapia and his hunters on this hunt. The first couple of days of the hunt were tough, and the group saw only a few deer. Tapia preached to his clients that pressured deer are hard to find, but if you keep your mind in the right place and stay focused, then you will have success. Although conditions were tough, Tapia was able to find a few deer, and the younger Varcallo was able to take his buck early on.
Tapia is a believer that being in shape is important for all hunts, but especially important on this hunt. When things are tough, you have to move more in search of deer, which usually means climbing over hill and dale to put yourself in the right spots. Put to the test, Butch Varcallo did just that, and on the last day of the hunt, he and Tapia spotted a good buck. The two traversed an inordinate amount of topography to close the distance to 150 yards, and the elder Varcallo took a unique 7x2 mule deer buck.
IMPROVE YOUR CHANCES
In 2011, Tapia's clients far exceeded the average harvest success for the GMUs that they were hunting.
"Last year, my clients harvested seven out of 10 bucks on the Cibola NF," Tapia said. In addition to that, all of his clients took a shot at a buck during the three hunts. Tapia attributes his success to his hunters' preparation; he asks his hunters to be in top shape, be familiar with their weapon and be prepared mentally for a tough hunt. Additionally, hunters must know how to hunt the West. In most cases, this means observing behind a high-powered set of optics, like Swarovski 15x56 binos, to find bucks, making a plan to close the distance, and then closing the distance for a shot opportunity. Of course, as the seasons change, the hunter must adapt to some degree to keep up with the progression of annual deer habits, especially the deer rut.
Unlike other mule deer states like Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, the mule deer rut is nowhere in sight during the majority of deer hunts in New Mexico, especially during the late October and early November general season hunts.
When asked about how to hunt the earlier seasons, Ross Morgan, public information officer with the NMDGF, said, "These two dates are about the same. Most of the bucks are still running around in bachelor groups, not really paying much attention to the does. You may find that the younger bucks have started popping up around these doe populations, but there is no real interest in them at this time."
To be successful, Morgan suggests focusing away from doe groups during the late October or early November hunts and searching for bachelor buck groups.
Darin Emerald has been hunting mule deer in the state since he was 10 years old, and has been hunting there professionally with several outfitters for over 20 years. "The major differences that I see between the early hunts in October and the November rifle hunts is pressure and the ability to pattern bucks," Emerald said.
Emerald is among those of the belief that bachelor groups of bucks utilize the same water and food sources in October, making them more vulnerable to those hunters who put forth the effort to scout prior to or, at least, during the hunt. In contrast, Emerald believes that the further into November you go, the more likely mule deer bucks will become nomadic, looking to isolate themselves from does and other bucks, making them harder to find.
In either case, Emerald knows that the most important attribute that a hunter must possess to be successful on any hunt is preparation, which means scouting. "All the patience in the world won't help if the deer aren't there," Emerald said.
If you are hunting the mid-November time frame, Morgan suggests changing focus and spending your time paying closer attention to the doe groups, as the bucks have started to move away from the bachelor groups in search of a few does. Depending on which region of the state you are hunting, you won't see much rut activity until the earliest of mid-November and, more than likely, only in the northern regions of the state.
"I would say that mid-November is the earliest that the northwest quadrant of the state has seen the deer rut," said Emerald. Expanding on that point, Morgan added, "Mid-November is the very beginning of the rut. The deer are starting to move out of bachelor groups and move in their own direction thinking about the rut, in search of does. At this time you may see a few of the younger-class deer with the does trying to push them around."
Experts agree that trophy bucks can be taken in almost any unit and at anytime; it really boils down to how much time and effort the hunter is willing to put forth while scouting and during the hunt.
As you can imagine, hunting deer in mid- to late November means scouring the countryside for deer that have been hunted non-stop for several weeks. And, in many cases, bucks have left their small bachelor groups. Finding a single deer is more difficult than finding a group of deer. Compound those elements with the unpredictability of the weather and the fact that late-season temperatures are several degrees colder on average than the earlier seasons, and it's easy to understand why hunting conditions can be tough during the late season. Hunters that hunt hard, like Tapia, can find and hunt pressured deer, if they know where to look. Tapia says that skittish deer are harder to hunt, which is a huge factor in the outcome of a hunt. Hunters that can adapt and find locations that have received less pressure or who can get further into the backcountry will significantly increase their odds of a harvest.
WHEN & WHERE TO HUNT
The New Mexico general deer season opens in earnest in late October in several GMUs throughout the state. In some GMUs the early season is a rifle hunt, while others are a muzzleloader hunt, including some special hunting opportunities in select GMUs that are limited to primitive weapons only. Hunting a primitive-only unit, such as GMU 15, where deer are never pressured by hunters using high-caliber centerfire rifles, is a unique hunting opportunity. A second general deer season opens around select GMUs around the first week of November. The general deer season concludes with a third week of hunting that falls in early to mid-November. In many cases, GMUs are hunted for three consecutive weeks.
Most experts would agree that the northwest region of the state offers some of the state's best mule deer hunting for trophy bucks. This region is famous for its big bucks that are taken on the Jicarilla Apache Indian Reservation.
Additionally, this region is well-known as a trophy hotspot for two reasons. First, this region has several large private land tracts where deer hunting is limited and a landowner permit is required. Private land hunts are top-notch in Game Management Units (GMUs) 2A, 2B, 2C, 4 and 5A, but can be good in GMUs 8, 46, 54 and 55 as well. Second, several of these northern GMUs are located on or near the Colorado border, and bucks migrating across the border to New Mexico, in the later months, are trophy-caliber. One of the best GMUs in this region with public land to hunt is 2B.
Although the northern regions of the state may be the most popular, there are several other GMUs around the state that offer good mule deer hunting as well. Specifically, the southwestern region of the state, which includes the Gila and Cibola National Forests as well as a wealth of state and BLM lands, are particularly good. Several GMUs within this region of the state, such as 10, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 23 and 27, offer quality mule deer hunting for trophy-caliber bucks.
Emerald also agrees that while the northern reaches of the state produce trophy bucks, the southwest region is no slouch. "Although the densities are low, this is where I have seen the largest deer, year after year," Emerald said.
Regardless of when and where you choose to hunt, New Mexico provides several quality mule deer hunting opportunities where prepared hunters can enjoy success.