To Find Big Mule Deer Bucks, Take a Look Off the Beaten Path
Big mule deer areas across the West draw bowhunters like ants to a picnic, but sometimes, the biggest bucks fall outside the usual hotspots like Colorado or Arizona, instead coming from places like the Rolling Plains of western Texas
In a conversation I had a few years back with legendary bowhunter Chuck Adams, the veteran archer made a statement about the how and why of his ongoing success in tagging big mule deer bucks with his bow.
In short, Adams is constantly on a quest to find spots where big mule deer exist, pockets of big-rack opportunity existing in places like the plains of Montana and southern Canada.
"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.
In other words, a bowhunter dreaming of killing a big mulie buck with his bow can't afford to leave any stone un-turned in such a quest.
Even if those stones happen to lie somewhere off the beaten path in terms of where most other bowhunters are looking.
Case in point was the huge typical mule deer buck killed by Jonathan Burpo during the 2004/2005 season in Texas.
While many hunters would never think about the possibility of arrowing one of the bigger mule deer bucks of all time in the Rolling Plains of western Texas, that's exactly what Burpo did.
In fact, when he tagged the huge Cottle County mule deer buck boasting a net score of 185 7/8 inches, it’s a buck big enough to still rank #102 in the Pope & Young Club record book more than a decade later.
If you're keeping score at home, that's from terra firma lying well outside the traditional big mule deer hotspots like the central mountains and eastern plains of Colorado; the Paunsaugunt and Book Cliffs units of Utah; the Missouri River Breaks country of Montana; and Arizona's famed Strip region and Kaibab Plateau.
While the Lone Star State is better known for its whitetails than its mule deer, there are solid concentrations of mulie bucks in the Texas Panhandle, portions of the High and Rolling Plains not far from Lubbock and in the Trans Pecos region of far southwest Texas.
What's more, hunting tags are available over-the-counter if a hunter can gain access to a hunt on the vast stretches of private land crisscrossing the state.
That's exactly what Burpo was able to do when he took his huge buck during the 04/05 season, hunting a ranch his father had secured a spot on earlier in the year.
On the opening morning of that particular archery season, it didn't take long for Burpo and his dad to spot a big mule deer buck they had first observed in pre-season scouting efforts.
With the season finally open and a Texas tag firmly in hand on the mild and cloudy early-autumn day, a long and tedious stalk quickly ensued.
"This mule deer was about 300 yards away when we first saw it that morning," said Burpo. "It was walking first (in line) with five other bucks. We watched it for awhile and it finally bedded down."
That gave Burpo the opportunity he had been dreaming of since first seeing the buck through his optics during the late summer months.
"We got downwind of him and snuck around and up on him and it took a couple of hours," said the bowhunter who was 20-years old at the time of his hunt.
"We stayed down in the low spots and eased really slow up through there. We stopped and watched (him) with our binoculars occasionally. And of course, we were always making sure the wind was in our favor."
At one point, there was a heart-stopping moment during the long stalk as the buck suddenly picked himself up and disappeared over the top of a nearby ridge.
"I thought when he got up it was over with," said Burpo. "He kind of went over the ridge that time, but he actually just went over and (laid) down on the other side of it."
When the buck disappeared from sight, the young archer and his dad continued to silently press forward.
"We (still) didn't know that he had bedded back down," said Burpo. "We snuck around downwind to the end of the ridge and finally saw him again."
Nearly a half-hour of stalking later, it began to appear as if Burpo’s big bow buck dream might finally come true.
"He was looking the other direction, so we got up to within about 50 yards of him and he still hadn't turned around to look at us," said the hunter. "I thought we might actually have a chance (to get him then)."
As Burpo's dad quietly dropped out of the chase to watch the final few yards unfold, the young archer readied for the shot.
Moments later, Burpo brought his Mathews bow to full draw and readied to send an arrow-and-broadhead combination downrange towards the buck's boiler room.
"When I got to 20 yards, all (I) could see was his head and horns sticking up as he was lying there," said the archer. "I came to full draw and grunted at him. He jumped up and angled away from me and I shot him."
A college student at the time of his hunt, Burpo and his father waited quietly for nearly an hour before beginning the recovery effort.
Their search ended quickly when the pair walked up on the dreamy 5x5-typical mule deer buck sporting a P&Y score of 187 5/8 inches gross and 185 7/8 inches net.
Once ranked as high as #79 in the all-time records, those numbers still have the Burpo mulie buck anchored as the Texas state record in the most recent edition of the Pope & Young Club Bowhunting Big Game Records of North America.
"That (was) the first thing I've killed with a bow," said Burpo of the huge buck taken in only his third year of bowhunting.
Not a bad day's work for an archer anywhere out there, especially in a spot where most other bowhunters looking for a huge mule deer buck would tend to overlook.
Even if it's in the kind of place that an archer with no less credibility than Chuck Adams says to be on the lookout for.
A place that might be off the beaten path for big mule deer, but still a spot that is capable of giving up one of the best trophy mulies of all time.