Published by admin on 22 Jan 2010
Word on the street says that big mule deer are
almost impossible to find. But this is far from true
Story and Photos by Tom Tietz
Mule deer herds are declining throughout the west. There are no longer any trophy mulies to be found. This is the talk of the day throughout the western states. Some pundits make it sound like a waste of time, money and effort to pursue trophy mule deer bucks these days. Well to that, I say HOGWASH!
Although mule deer herds and trophy bucks are nowhere near the levels as during the heydays of the 60s, there are still sustainable populations with quality bucks out there for the hunting. It just takes a little more effort on the part of the hunter nowadays. Granted, the days of driving your truck down a road and having your pick of big four-pointers are probably gone forever, but good bucks are still out there, on both public and private lands. A bowhunter with reasonable expectations of taking a buck that qualifies for P&Y can find success in any western state. It just takes a little homework and pre-season effort on your part. While there are very few, if any, areas that consistently produce 190-class mule deer, there are a myriad of areas where one can pursue and have a reasonable chance at harvesting 150-plus class mulies.
Getting a Tag
The first thing one has to do to find big bucks is to learn how to play the draw. Most of the better hunts in the West are now on some type of limited draw system for tags. At first glance this may look incredibly complicated, what with bonus points, preference points, multiple choices, hunt codes and the like, but it really isn’t all that difficult to learn. The key is to start early. The days are gone when you can decide in July that you’re going deer hunting in August. You need to start getting your act together in December. Every state has a somewhat different system, and application deadlines can range from January to May, Contact the states you’re interested in hunting in late fall and get on their list to receive information and applications as soon as they become available.
Playing the Odds
Drawing a tag can range from literally once in a lifetime (due to astronomical odds) to something you can do virtually every year. Usually the tougher the draw, the better the quality, but you can find P&Y bucks in nearly every unit in nearly every state. Some areas may be excellent for 150-class bucks but you will have no realistic chance at a 190. These areas are usually much easier to draw. Believe it or not, some areas are still capable of producing 200-point bucks, but getting a tag in these areas can be another story altogether. Some guys try to hit a home run and apply for only the premier areas in every state, in hopes of drawing at least one really special tag every couple years, whereas other guys prefer to hunt more often and apply for areas that have the better odds of drawing.
Some states reward those who apply but don’t draw a tag with bonus or preference points for future drawings. This way the hunter who puts in every year has a better chance to draw the more sought-after units. Others just have an all out draw, where every applicant has an equal chance of drawing every year. The key here is to start getting points in the states that offer them and keep trying to draw prime units in the other states. If you set up a system for drawing different states, you can pretty well assure yourself of a good quality hunt somewhere each year.
Selecting an Area
The first key to getting a trophy mulie is to find out where thy live. You can be the world’s greatest hunter, but if the area you’re hunting doesn’t hold big deer, you’re not going to get one. There are several ways of finding areas that harbor trophy bucks. Read as many articles and books on mule deer as you can find. Although you may not get much on specific areas through these sources, you can still glean a lot of valuable information. For example, an article on trophy mulies in Nevada’s high country will narrow your search down to units in Nevada’s high country will narrow your search down to units in Nevada with high mountain ranges. Or an article about hunting in CRP will narrow your search to those areas and states with large expanses of CRP.
Another source for information is state game departments, where you can get harvest data, herd data, draw odds and hunter distribution. Look for areas with light to medium hunter pressure, high buck-to-doe ratios and stable or increasing deer numbers. Don’t just rely on one year’s data either. Get at least three years up front, then update your information each year. Set up a file for each state or area. From this you can determine trends in overall quality for each area. Areas that meet these criteria have the highest likelihood of producing trophy bucks. The best areas will usually be the toughest to draw, but there are some gems out there with good odds of drawing, you just have to look. Put this data together with things you’ve read and you can narrow your search drastically.
Another way to get up-to-date information is from sport shows and conventions. Talk to other hunters about where they have had success. Again, most won’t give you specific information, but put what you hear together with what you’ve learned and your search becomes even narrower.
I know you’re thinking, “man this is a lot of work.” It really isn’t as bad as you might imagine. You can do a lot of your research in the winter months when you’re relaxing after a few hours of snow shoveling. And what could be better than planning your next trophy mule deer hunt? Just sifting through the information you accumulate will get you pumped up for the upcoming season.
One last thing is to watch the weather. Is the area you’re wanting to hunt having an unusually sever or mild winter? This will have a lot to do with the health of the herds and trophy quality come fall. If an area looks good statistically but had a very sever winter within the past couple years, it may be best to shy away from it. On the other hand, if the area has put together a string of mild winters and the statistics add up, you may have discovered one of those uncovered gems. Remember that just because an area produced some big deer in the past, things can change, and it may not live up to your expectations next fall.
When to Scout
You’ve done your research and drawn that coveted tag. Now it’s time to find out where the big boys play. A lot of where to look will be based on the time of year you’ll be hunting. Mule deer are generally migratory and where you find them in August could be miles from where they are in October. Even though you may not hunt until later in the fall, the best time to do some pre-season scouting is in late July or early August. Due to their reddish summer coat (which sticks out like a vegetarian at a barbecue), mulies are very easy to find this time of year. Their antlers will be nearly fully developed, although the velvet coat that covers them will generally make them look about 15 percent bigger than they really are.
The first step towards successful scouting is to obtain topo maps of your area. These can be obtained from USGS, or Delorme has some neat software that enables you to print up-to-date topo maps right from your computer. They also have state atlases that are very detailed and show basic topography and access roads.
When scouting, do so with little or no impact. Glass wide expanses from a distant high point using a high-quality binocular or spotting scope. With their reddish coloration, deer will be easy to spot from a distance, and you will be able to observe them without disturbing them. This is especially critical if you are going to hunt in August or September, as the bucks you see will probably still remain in the same general area. If your hunt is later in the fall, the bucks probably will have headed for lower elevations, but at least you’ll have an idea of the overall quality available to you.
If scouting early isn’t a possibility, you can still get some pre-season scouting in. The best chance you’ll get at a real trophy is in the first couple days of the season before other hunters have stirred things up. If you are going to take seven days for your hunt, for example, you would be better off scouting for two or three days prior and only hunting four or five days, than to arrive the night before season and hunting for the full seven days. Your best chance of taking a real buster buck is to locate him before opening day and then try to nail him in the first day or two of your hunt. Once the deer get stirred up, all bets are off. Those big guys didn’t get that way by being stupid. They had to survive a number of hunting seasons to grow trophy antlers and know where to go to get away from hunters.
Remember that scouting is important, but scouting smart is even more important. The less you disturb the deer before the season, the better your chance of taking your trophy come opening day. If you continually disturb the animals and the area while scouting, the bucks, especially the big ones, can be miles from where you first found them.
Trophy mulies contrary to some beliefs, are still out there for the taking. With just a little common sense and by using the information that is readily available, you will uncover areas that you can consistently hunt for that trophy of a lifetime. Although luck always plays a part, trophy hunting is an endeavor where you usually get out of it what you put into it. Research is an essential part of today’s trophy mule deer hunting. It can be hard work and somewhat time consuming, but the rewards can make all the effort more than worth it.