With the start of summer, bowhunters begin to set their sights on Western big game hunting seasons.
Especially for big old mule deer, the kind of giant racks that haunt the dreams of many archers.
Including me. From the Texas state record mule deer typical I once scored in my duties as a Pope & Young Club measurer to the 200-class typical seen while elk hunting in Colorado one year to a monster non-typical mulie I saw while bowhunting whitetails in the Badlands of North Dakota, I've seen some dandy's down through the years.
The kind of big antlered monarchs that keep reappearing to me as I drift off to sleep each night, hoping that one day, my moment will come to slip my hands around a giant racked mule deer apparition.
Bowhunters who dream of harvesting giant Pope & Young Club mule deer, like this Texas buck killed by Jonathan Burpo, can take several steps during the offseason to increase such odds. (Lynn Burkhead photo)
Here are five steps to follow during the offseason to make your big mule deer dreams come true:
Get a Tag: As this is written, the final days of this year's Western big game application deadlines are coming and going for a number of tags earmarked for big mule deer across the West.
While some of those tags carry lottery type odds in terms of drawing – especially for non-residents – not all do. I've beaten the odds before and so can you.
There are four basic routes to obtaining a mule deer tag each year, the first of which involves an enterprising do-it-yourself hunter combing the Internet to figure out the best areas, determine unit draw odds and play the tag game on their own.
While most of this pathway to a mule deer hunt involves drawing a tag through a springtime state drawing system, sometimes, leftover tags are available during the summer months.
When that is the case, they can either be obtained by way of a second left-over tag type of drawing or by purchase in a first come, first serve type of sale.
A second route to a hunt this year involves booking a mule deer bowhunt with a reputable guide or outfitting service.
When these types of tags are available – either by way of a guaranteed outfitter tag or by way of improved draw odds because a hunter is using a guide or outfitter – they will involve booking a hunt in addition to the tag.
Be forewarned, however, while this route may get a hunter into the woods this fall to bowhunt mule deer, this is often one of the more expensive routes to go.
The third way of getting into the mule deer game involves using a tag draw service like the ones provided by Cabela's Outdoor Adventures, Bowhunting Safari Consultants, Larry and Stephanie Altimus' Hunter Application Service or the Huntin' Fool tag application service among others.
Some of these hunts can carry solid draw odds, others carry mediocre draw rates and still others are difficult at best as a hunter builds preference points to eventually draw a coveted tag.
In several instances, these types of tag drawing services will even front the tag application fees (for a fee, of course), enabling a hunter to enter far more tag draws each year than they might be able to do on the strength of their individual bank account.
Finally, a fourth way to get into the mule deer bowhunting game is to buy a hunt – literally, I might add. Such hunts are either available in the form of an over-the-counter hunt (like those offered in Texas or in parts of Canada) or by way of a purchasing a mule deer tag and/or hunt at auctions held at various conservation group gatherings around the West.
If this all seems a bit too difficult, that's not always the case since legendary bowhunter Chuck Adams is proof positive that in most years, a bowhunter can both fill their freezers full of mule deer steaks and add another set of big headbones to the wall.
When I asked him once upon a time what the secret to his consistent tagging of big mule deer was with his bow, one of the greatest archers of all time responded that it was possible in great part thanks to doing plenty of homework.
"I think there are always going to be good mule deer here and there, but you do have to do (the research), finding places where drought conditions or spotty bad weather haven't hurt the big buck population and the antler growth in a particular year," said Adams.
If you've ever seen Adams' huge mule deer bucks being shown off in the pages of magazines like Bowhunter, then you're probably well aware that when it comes to big mulies, it pays to take the Wyoming bowhunter's advice to heart.
Want to tag a big mule deer archery buck in the fall? Then don't leave any stones unturned in the quest for a tag that gains an archer entrance into the annual Western bowhunting game. (Lynn Burkhead photo)
Scout Early and Often: Just getting a tag is only one part of the mule deer bowhunting equation each year. Once such a tag is secured, the next task is to then find a good buck worth spending the tag on in a particular unit.
Utah's Jeremy Houston is one very dedicated Western big game bowhunter who knows how to do that, arrowing one of the biggest mule deer bucks ever killed in Utah a few years back.
With other sizable bow-killed critters to his credit since then, he knows that getting a tag means that the work has only just begun.
"Through experience I have learned that early pre-season scouting is the key to hunting great bucks on a yearly basis," said Houston. "The more time you can get out there, the better your chances of finding a big buck (are)."
Extend Effective Shooting Range: While I'm not advocating irresponsible long-range shooting here, the fact remains most archery shots at Western big game species are usually at distances much further than those encountered back east in the whitetail woods.
Meaning, it would behoove most bowhunters heading out on a mule deer trip to do the work in spring and summer to increase their effective and ethical shooting ranges.
Even if a bowhunter is punching paper and 3-D targets at distances on the practice range they don't intend to be shooting this fall in the mountains and in the woods.
"If you can make a 60-yard shot, those 40-yard shots are a little easier," said Houston. "You've got to be pretty intimate with your equipment and practice every day or at least several times a week to be confident at shooting that far."
Punch the Clock: When the time to hunt actually arrives, be sure to have enough days allocated for a hunt in order to allow for the best chance at succeeding.
While he has work and family responsibilities like the rest of us, Houston is prowling in the woods each fall as often as those important tasks will allow for him to do so.
Because the bottom line is, there’s simply no other way to kill a big old, long-eared buck that has survived the test of time than to be there when the trophy mulie saunters by.
"Probably for the most part, it's 90-percent luck," said Houston. "It's being there in the right place at the right time."
And to be in that spot at that time, a hunter must punch the clock as often as possible come fall.
Make the Shot Count: Of course, all of the above is for naught if a hunter can't seal the deal when a big antlered opportunity comes calling.
And this means making the shot – the first and only shot that a bowhunter is going to get – count in the moment of truth.
For Houston, there is simply no substitute to being dialed in with his bow, able to make a shot while being on virtual autopilot after months of practice for the moment a big rack suddenly is in front of him.
"The first key as far as archery hunting is concerned is being able to make the shot when you get the chance," he said. "I'm probably a fanatic (about it). If my arrow doesn't fly good or I don't hit where I want to, then I want to know why."
And now, during the offseason, not later, is the time to find out all of those whys.
Which helps to explain the steady practice routine Houston puts into play on an almost daily basis through the offseason months, sometimes meaning hundreds and hundreds of shots launched at a target each week.
Because in the end, Houston is seeking both deadly accuracy and relentless consistency with his bow.
All in an effort to ensure he is a stone-cold deadly when it comes time to make the next shot that he gets on the mule deer buck of a lifetime.