Hunting Big Muleys in the West
Pursuing Mature Mule Deer
For big game hunters, there is nothing as classic and timeless as the pursuit of big mule deer in the west. Iconic mule deer hunts across vast grasslands, over sprawling desert landscapes, and atop lofty rugged mountain ranges conjure visions of huge chocolate colored antlers silhouetted against western skies. Whether your pursuit of mature mule deer bucks is spot-and-stalk hunting boundless drainages with a rifle in hand, closing the distance to within archery range on a mountain top, or maybe still-hunting the snow line, following tracks, and shouldering a muzzleloader; pursuing mature mule deer bucks is not for the faint of heart.
The Deer of the West
Found throughout the western Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the desert Southwest, and along the West Coast of North America, the mule deer’s range, by definition, proves that mule deer hunting is truly a western hunt. The most notable differences between mule deer and their white-tailed cousins include: their namesake larger mule-like ears, their black-tipped rope-like tail, bifurcated antlers, and a larger body size on average.
What isn’t apparent by simply comparing the two species on the surface is their differences in habits, in the way they use and thrive in differing terrain, and the tips and tactics unique to the pursuit of mature mule deer bucks.
Pursuing a Ghost
Mule deer in general are known to be less nervous or skittish compared to their white-tailed deer cousins. Young mule deer bucks and does in fact may even bound off one hundred yards or so when startled or threatened, only to stop and look back at the threat. Bands of mule deer does may sometimes congregate around agricultural production farms, ranches, and near barnyard areas, seeking the nutrition of crops and livestock feed.
Don’t let these few examples of easy to find mule deer fool you. Mature muley bucks find a way to graduate into a class of their own when it comes to hiding, to moving around undetected, and to giving hunters the slip. Nicknamed the gray ghost by many die-hard mule deer hunters, mule deer bucks don’t grow to maturity by making mistakes when hunting season arrives.
Tactics for Hunting Big Mule Deer
The pursuit of old, wise, and mature mule deer bucks falls into a sort of cult following. Hunters often dedicate multiple seasons in pursuit of a single buck. Matching wits with a bruiser buck carrying 200 inches of antler on his head can put you to the test. Here are some proven tactics to help you fill that coveted big country muley tag.
Early Season Mature Mule Deer
Most states in the west open their seasons with archery and muzzleloader opportunities. Starting your hunting season off in early September may seem less traditional, but it can be extremely effective.
Look for bucks still in bachelor groups near ag fields. Spend time studying maps and satellite imagery looking for areas where groups of bucks can set up shop with both feed and water nearby.
Once you locate a group of bucks, keep your distance and learn their patterns and travel paths by glassing and playing the wind. It’s critical to study the weather forecast and winds, and pay attention to thermals so you don’t get busted. When the time is right, set an ambush, and put your plan into practice. Try to single out your buck in a transition area traveling from cover to feed or water.
Hunting Mule Deer During the Rut
Rutting bucks are both a blessing and a frustration. While the rut puts a normally crepuscular animal on its feet all hours of the day, it also makes them more unpredictable.
The peak rutting dates for deer (both whitetail and mule deer) will vary by latitude and the amount of daylight versus darkness hours in a day. Factors like weather, barometric pressure, and moon phase can definitely be a contributing factor to the intensity of the rut. Scouting and observation through optics will go a long way to identifying rutting activity during your hunt.
Mule deer typically rut later than white-tailed deer, and so the last days of November and into the month of December are your best bet to focus your hunting time, if you are looking to capitalize on mule deer rutting activity.
A proven tactic to hunting mature mule deer bucks during the rut is to hunt the does. Hunting the wind and thermals becomes critical to getting close to a doe group’s core area. Cruising bucks looking to capitalize on the breeding season instinctively know to play the wind in those same areas. Sneak into a doe family group’s bedroom, watch the wind, and wait for a mature buck to come in with his guard down.
Late Season Mule Deer Tactics
Perhaps one of the most overlooked seasons for big mule deer bucks, late season hunting offers a fantastic opportunity to fill your tag this season.
Mature mule deer bucks look for refuge, solitude, and recovery calories when the last days of the breeding season wind down. Focus your efforts looking for single bucks, or sometimes pairs of bucks, in out of the way areas that take some work to get to.
Locating late season muley bucks can take a fair amount of patience behind optics, and picking gnarly high country or vast grasslands apart. Try to keep the sun over your shoulder, and keep an eye on shadow lines as the sun’s angle changes throughout the day. What was simply a dark patch of brush in a shadow at 8 AM can magically become a trophy deer when the sun hits his antlers a half an hour later.
Hunting Mule Deer Opportunities
The pursuit of big mule deer is no easy feat, and no doubt will provide more un-notched tags than filled freezers, but that’s part of the game.
Fortunately for hunters willing to put in the time and the effort, pursuing mule deer across the west can be surprisingly affordable and holds plenty of opportunity. By researching states from North Dakota to New Mexico and Kansas to California, it is more than feasible for today’s hunter to hunt mule deer at least once every year…maybe even twice if your work and family schedules allow. So if you want to hunt a big mature mule deer buck this season, get out there, put some miles on your boots, and start scouting.