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 4×3 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 7×2 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 15×56 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.