Mule deer are as ruggedly handsome and unique as the Western landscape they call home. Tagging a true trophy can also present one of hunting’s most challenging prospects.
Residing in a land of hungry coyotes, and just as often mountain lions, makes the mule deer a cunning adversary, and if the deer itself doesn’t defeat you the rough-and-tumble landscape where he lives just might.
This makes a wide-reaching set of mule deer antlers one of big-game hunting biggest prizes. Putting your tag on an outsized buck means hunting hard, while also hunting smart. Here are five tips to help you succeed.
Beat the Clock
The biggest problem with public-lands hunting is the public. Opening mornings, especially weekends or holidays, can witness an invasion of pumpkin-clad nimrods. The best-laid plans are easily shattered by sudden spikes in pressure, including the crux of modern hunting, ATVs.
The problem, of course, is you may have done your homework, but the weekend warrior who showed up the night before opener hasn’t and is prone to driving his raucous machine right through the middle of your hunt. This is most common in logging country where roads are common, but unfortunately it can become a problem in areas with fewer roads as more hunters become adverse to two-legged locomotion.
The author has long been a fan of backpacking to get away from the masses while mule deer hunting. Better equipment and dehydrated food make this easier than it once was, with all the comforts of home now available in a lighter payload. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Meitin)
Your best chance to tag a bomber buck is always opening morning, each passing ATV and roaring rifle compounding difficulty exponentially. A hunter with limited time is better to use a few days prior to opening morning scouting and studying a buck’s habits, and striking fast and decisively with the first hint of opening-morning light.
This might include waking at 3 a.m., hiking five miles in the dark, but pays big. Make a plan, and do what it takes to be on hand with the first hint of light. A quality light-gathering scope never hurt either.
In the Thick of Things
Beyond opening day you can count on savvy bucks abandoning open areas and heading for cover. Those high alpine bowls that are so easy to glass, inviting alfalfa fields beside tangled Western rivers, and meadows, clear-cuts and burns won’t hold deer long—at least not the biggest bucks. To succeed now you must wade in after them.
Don your quietest hunting togs (wool is a good option), soft-soled boots and grab your lever-action brush gun or stack your bolt-action magazine with round-nose bullets and start still-hunting.
Still-hunting is an often overlooked ploy while pursuing mule deer. But the fact is many sage old mule deer bucks survive by abandoning open areas and taking to thick areas others avoid. Slow, careful hunting can net shots at big bucks. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Meitin)
Proceed at a careful pace to start, but as you begin to encounter fresh sign (wet droppings, tracks in snow or atop rain-washed soil) the real still-hunting begins. Pause often to soak in your surroundings, engaging all the senses, watching for the smallest hints of movement. Use binoculars often, glassing ahead for antler tips jutting from cover, a flickering ear or churning legs.
Of course the best advice of all, when possible, is to simply outdistance the masses, seeking the path less traveled. This might involve backpacking into true wilderness (or de facto wilderness where roads don’t exist), or setting out earlier to hike into remote areas in the dark of morning. The most successful mule deer hunters I know seldom hunt mule deer without a backpack trek at the front end of their quest.
One of the best pieces of advice any trophy mule deer hunter can follow is to do what it takes to leave the maddening masses behind. Some hunters backpack, others pack-stringing into vast wilderness areas where others will not go. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Meitin)
Study maps carefully, looking for remote bowls, snaking ridges and benches where food and water is abundant. Remote springs not only provide hydration for deer, but water needed by backpacking hunters to remain in an area for prolonged periods. Most hunters are lazy. Put 5 to 8 miles behind you and you just might find a pocket of undisturbed, trophy-size deer all to yourself. With today’s modern gear backpack payloads are lighter and Spartan camps more comfortable than ever.
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is while most mule deer hunters migrate into higher altitudes each deer season, sometimes better (at least less disturbed) hunting is found by heading downhill. All those shrubby foothills, desert washes and plains wastes the vast majority of deer hunters whiz past on their way into higher country often harbor plenty of deer for the hunter willing to haunt uglier habitat. My best muley bucks have both come from wide-open country far from snow-capped mountains.
The author’s best mule deer buck to date didn’t come from high alpine peaks, but from the wide-open plains of eastern Colorado, with mountains an hour away. The trophy hunter should never forsake lower ground, as many big bucks go unnoticed there. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Meitin)
Some of this desert or plains country can hide its deer quite effectively. It’s important to cover it thoroughly, canvassing every brushy draw, low swale or hidden recess far from available roads. When possible, climb to high points, even if this involves a windmill tower, grain silo or haystack, and give surrounding ground a thorough look. In desert habitat I’ve had good luck walking out snaking draws, kicking deer out of their midday beds. Such areas no doubt include lower deer density, but the ones that are there are relatively easier to find and see, and often completely unmolested, meaning they grow trophy antlers.
Optics, The Great Equalizer
The smart mule deer hunter invests in the best optics possible and uses them religiously. For me this means 10x42mm binoculars for general glassing, tripod-mounted 15x60mm binoculars for poring over vast, broken or brushy country, and a variable-power spotting scope for sizing up distant deer or checking out suspicions while glassing. The latter two items (plus a sturdy tripod) can be a pain to tote, but prove real time savers.
Optics are the great equalizer when hunting mule deer. They allow you to cover more ground with less hiking, and find bucks others easily walk past. The basis for all productive mule deer glassing is a quality pair of 10x42 binoculars. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Meitin)
Optics are also put to best effect by locating a commanding vantage in the areas you hunt and planting yourself patiently. When I know good bucks are in an area I often spend more time sitting on my rear and peering through glass than burning boot leather during an average day. Smart bucks often move only under the cover of darkness, but careful glassing can reveal bedded bucks hunters in a hurry to cover as much ground as possible will seldom see on purpose. My glassing is also less than random, using a regimented, systematic approach to look with my optics instead of merely through them, assuring I cover every square foot of a piece of habitat so I miss fewer animals.