August 28, 2020
By Wayne van Zwoll
Easing through North Park timber, Edison Pillmore stepped into a clearing too quickly and startled a small group of deer. They bounded for cover as the hunter reflexively shouldered his rifle. The enormity of the two racks rocking over his sights stunned him, but he managed to peg the bead to the biggest buck’s ribs. At the crack of his .303 Savage, the animal faltered, then pitched to earth. That 1949 Colorado mule deer set a world record for typical antlers and earned Boone and Crockett’s coveted Sagamore Hill Award.
THE GLORY DAYS
Across the West, hunters won’t soon find deer hunting to match that of the 1940s and ‘50s. After Lewis and Clark noted the big-eared deer on the prairie, settlers shot the animals for meat. The Homestead Act of 1862 brought more bad news for deer. In 1879 John Wesley Powell advised Congress to allocate 2,560 acres for each farmstead on the Plains. Congress mandated 160. Overgrazing ensued. As bison vanished, market hunters peddled venison to rail gangs and steamboat crews. Harsh winters in 1886 and ’87 rested the range by killing up to 90 percent of its livestock. But deer died, too.
The 1930s improved prospects for mule deer. The Depression and Dust Bowl left bankrupt farms empty. State wildlife agencies took root. World War II pulled hunters abroad. Poison and aerial gunning throttled coyote numbers. Easy winters during the 1940s hiked deer survival.
Biologists I’ve interviewed across the West consider early post-war deer hunting an anomaly—a bloom of mule deer that plumped records books. Since then, wildfire control and reduced logging have decreased the early successional plant habitat that benefits deer. Growing elk and whitetail herds take forage once reserved for wintering mule deer. Subdivisions sprawl where deer once lived. We pave 6,000 road miles annually.
To maintain herd objectives in the face of high demand for hunting opportunity, states have set license quotas. Where I once bought mule deer tags over the counter, drawings grant a limited few. Failing to find big deer, many hunters shoot sub-adults that might otherwise grow eye-popping antlers.
You’ll find 5- to 8-year-old bucks on private land managed for them, but at increasing cost. “A big mule deer is one of the most coveted trophies in North America,” observed one outfitter. “Hunts that produce them run to five figures.”
DIY BIG DEER
If you are like me, you’re not made of money. While you still enjoy hunting and just seeing deer, you’d stand on your head in a dark corner all day for a shot at a big buck.
It will take some work on your part, but public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management can still bring you that chance. Though generally less productive for raising livestock, Western public land includes the broad range of habitats that support mule deer: desert, grassland, foothill, forest and, seasonally, alpine. As most arable ground is privately owned, you need permission to access it. You’ll find some posted, some leased, but don’t despair. Knock on doors, but do it early, not the week before the season opens. Offer to help with ranch chores. Point out that you’ll hunt only on foot. Failing that, ask about a DIY hunt for a daily fee.
Many habitats support a mix of mule deer and whitetail deer. Some farmland is overlooked by mule deer hunters as “whitetail country.” I hunted such a farm recently, where the owners ran a back-porch hunting program, charging modest fees for access. I saw lots of whitetails, but I killed a beautiful mule deer buck.
Land on some Indian reservations produces fine bucks for hunters careful to follow reservation regulations. I first hunted one a decade ago, braving an epic blizzard with snow drifts that piled up high enough that the cattle could walk over the fences. As required, I engaged a native guide. Plying the wintery badlands, I bumped a 4-point mule deer from a draw and tumbled it with my .30-30.
To tap the best public hunting, study data from state wildlife agencies. Across various states, there are fabled mule deer areas like Arizona’s North Kaibab. Though these might seem like a logical starting point, check draw hunt odds for those places before you get too excited. In many places long-shot odds might steer you elsewhere. You can’t kill a big buck if you don’t draw a tag.
Fortunately, big bucks have come from many places, not just those with low-odds draws. Public lands with reasonable success rates and secluded habitat are good places to start looking.
ZERO IN ON THE BUCKS
Get a U.S. Geological Survey map of the area you want to hunt, and do it early enough that you have time to pinpoint a spot where you can hunt far from human traffic. Arrive the day before the opener, not a week, as too much scouting activity will move deer. Camp unobtrusively below the places you want to hunt. Basin bellies not only give you access to water, they muffle camp noise and confine your scent when thermals sink at night.
Climb in the morning against the thermal drag. Move across-slope a rifle shot’s distance from the crest. Trails quiet your step, ease passage in cover and put you where bucks expect other deer. Look for beds. Favored places remain so for generations. These are typically near but not at ridge-crest. They hide the deer while giving them views that turn realtors green. They’re sheltered from storms but have good wind coverage of approach routes, plus escape routes up, down and laterally. Bucks don’t like to leave these places.
Finding a productive area is part of your job. Finding a big deer is the next step. Seeing that deer as soon as it’s visible and before it sees you is what results in a shot. Many hunters fail at this last task.
Once, paralleling a pal on an adjacent ridge, I spied a buck in a patch of mountain mahogany just ahead of him. The deer slipped downhill a few short yards, then stopped, watched my hunting companion ease past and returned right to its bed. A couple of hundred yards on, I waved my friend back. He killed the surprised buck.
Big bucks make use of small places, often where you see little that would hold them.
After two consecutive opening days had yielded mature bucks high on a slope of shattered basalt, I helped my partner drag a huge deer from a bed of dust wallowed deep by generations of mule deer. Why were they here? We looked closer. All summer, rivulets from snowbanks fed tiny forbs, providing tender green forage. This east face yielded bucks at dawn, as sunrise warmed the deer. Later in the day they slid into tangles of whitebark pine just below the ridgeline.
Hunting pressure can send old bucks from normal haunts into odd places. A pal and I once hunted a Wyoming canyon that practically shouted, “mule deer live here!” It was rough but not sheer, with shrubby benches. The first day we saw several bucks, the next two days fewer. My final day showed us not an antler. An hour after my travel schedule pulled me from the field, my hunting partner shot a dandy buck in short grass on prairie habitat adjacent to the canyon. That deer may have left the canyon we’d pounded. Perhaps if we’d imposed less pressure, glassed more from afar and varied our entry and exit, we’d have killed that deer days earlier.
It’s easy to ignore open places. No deer would live there. If one were there, I’d spot it. Legions of bucks escape notice not because they’re hidden but because they mimic background. Hunters dismiss them as shards of the insignificant. Try looking between what you know is not a deer. A stationary buck commonly reaches your eye as patches of earthy colors. Twigs distract, grass adds striations and shadows impose confusing patterns.
An antler tine may be the only visible part of a deer. Once, an exceptional buck lay 150 yards from me for an hour as I glassed distant slopes. When I moved to rise, a branch I’d dismissed earlier became an antler fork. He broke as I muffed a sneak, but my .35 Whelen tumbled him as he quartered off.
While whitetails are known for holding tight, mule deer also learn that movement draws fire, and that hunters often don’t see them if they’re still. Once, on a trail threading low shrubs, I turned to glass a ridge behind me and was astonished to see a grand buck peering at me over a bush 20 steps away. Avoiding eye contact, I kept turning and took another casual step on my original path. As the rifle inched up, I came back on the buck and fired. He dropped with a broken neck.
Another time, I killed a buck that popped from a prairie ravine that was almost invisible at a distance. At dawn I had watched him and a few does receding toward tall sage far away. Suddenly the does were alone. Incredulous, as the ground was almost devoid of cover, I probed a series of narrow cuts. The buck rocketed from the cool, dark depths of one and my first hurried shot missed at 40 feet.
Bucks old enough to grow big antlers know how to hide. Look where you think deer don’t expect you to look. And look as they look. An alert buck stands stone still to sift detail and catch slight motion. Don’t pan. Study. Mind colors. White is easy to see but shows up most often on departing deer. One huge buck came to my eye as a fleck of chestnut in a snow squall, another as a shadow on dark rock. Like deer, prioritize what you see. What’s close matters most; look there first.
As you look, remember that chances at truly big mule deer are exceedingly rare. Yours can come and vanish quickly. After all, Edison Pillmore barely had time for a shot.
IT’S NOT TOO LATE TO FIND A TAG
If you didn’t meet deadlines for mule deer tag applications in your favorite area, take heart. Over-the-counter (OTC) tags may still be available in states with high success rates and, in some areas, promising numbers of mature bucks. Consider these options.
Arizona offers archery-only deer permits for late-season hunts, with some parts of the state giving hunters a good chance at mature deer.
Idaho sells general-season firearms deer tags until they’re gone. They may last longer this year, as virus-related state restrictions have reduced hunter demand for fall hunts in some states.
In Washington, general-season deer tags are OTC for the Eastern part of the state until opening day in October, with a 3-point-minimum antler rule for mule deer. Okanogan County doesn’t produce the deer it once did, but it and Chelan County have vast tracts of National Forest, and big bucks still come from remote units.
New Mexico allocates some tags to private landowners, who can sell them to visiting hunters without a lottery.