Play The Waiting Game to Tag a Giant Mule Deer
Shooting a big muley takes time. In fact, if you're looking for a true trophy, you'll need to be okay with holding out and being selective.
Many hunting gurus consider a Boone & Crockett mule deer buck the hardest of all North American game to collect. They’re probably right. Unless you have scandalous amounts of uncommitted cash and are willing to spend lots of it on elite landowner tags and outfitters, shooting a true stomper muley buck is hard. So hard that it becomes a lifelong crusade for many DIY hunters.
Why is it such a challenge? Several reasons. Mule deer populations are still well below objectives in most states. B&C minimum scores are stringent enough that most bucks—no matter how long they live—will never grow enough horn to measure up. Habitat is often steep, deep, and challenging to hunt. Unless you live in a special-draw unit known for giant genetics, the fact is that without some savvy planning and serious effort, you’ll most likely never lay your eyes on a B&C mule deer.
That’s not to say you won’t see some very good bucks that anyone in their right mind would shoot.
Hunt Good Genetics
As the old saw goes, to shoot big deer, you’ve got to hunt where big bucks grow.
Research shows that Colorado produces more B&C bucks than any other state—or, at least, more B&C bucks shot in Colorado are entered into the record book. It’s worth remembering that Colorado is historically the western destination state for non-resident hunters, who are far more likely to have a giant buck scored than residents trying to keep a lid on their local honey hole. Idaho and Wyoming are also great places to hunt big bucks.
If you like playing the tag lottery, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah can’t be ignored, but it’s become difficult to get even a general-season buck tag in those three states. Montana, New Mexico, and most of the other western states have good mule deer hunting but lack — percentage-wise — the record-book genetics of Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Arizona. However, each has pockets quietly known for producing giant bucks.
Genetics vary widely within state boundaries. Research on B&C’s website will show which counties produce exponentially bigger numbers of high-scoring bucks than others. A call to a state’s big-game biologist can also help pinpoint areas with great genetics, but remember, biologists talk to a lot of out-of-state hunters and provide the same info to them all.
If a Boone & Crockett mule deer is your personal quest, then by all means do your research, fill out those applications, and hunt for a high-scoring buck. However, you’ll have to pass on a lot of good bucks in search of a great one. But if you someday grip long, heavy, wide-sweeping antlers with those Holy Grail numbers, you’ll be glad you did.
Remember this: For every B&C mule deer, there are dozens of massive old bucks that don’t score well. They may not “measure up,” but they’re spectacularly big deer. Age makes a buck impressive. I’d far rather shoot an old, gnarly 185-inch buck with tons of mass and character than a 3.5-year old 190-inch net typical buck with long, spindly tines and no mass, even though the latter will squeak into the B&C four-year book.
So let’s look at field judging mule deer two ways: fully mature, massive trophy bucks and B&C bucks.
No matter his antler configuration, or width, or number of tines, a massive old buck is very impressive. Primarily, look for physical indications of age. Bucks five years and more have heavy bodies, with bulky shoulders and drooping stomachs. Often they are swaybacked. They can appear twice as large as the deer around them.
Look for bucks that move deliberately, without wasted effort. Old bucks can display shocking amounts of power and vitality in a fight, but they’ve learned the value of conserving energy. They pick the best forage, browse efficiently, and move leisurely. I’ve often watched the old-timers in a bachelor group leave a feeding area at dawn, the first to head up a steep ridge to bed. By the time the group is halfway up the mountain, the straggling younger bucks have all passed the heavy, slow-moving old bucks, which climb a few steps at a time, jaws agape.
If you just want a big, impressive buck, don’t pass such deer. They’ll have the opposite of ground shrinkage as you approach, and their mass and character will inspire awe no matter whether they have shallow-forked clubs of antlers barely scoring 170 inches or a wide-flung, long-tined rack that measures into B&C.
If your goal is to collect a legitimate B&C buck, however, you’ll have to focus your field-judging efforts on the antlers. And if you’re new to mule deer, you’re going to overestimate a lot of bucks at first.
I don’t have the space here to delve deeply into field-scoring antlers, so I’ll simply share the three-step process I use for quick, on-the-fly judging. Look for long, wide-sweeping beams; look for tremendously deep forks; and look for mass. The latter is the least important to score but lends the greatest visual impressiveness.
Without all three, rarely will a buck make Boone & Crockett minimums.
Each consecutive year you hunt a specific area, you’ll hunt it exponentially more effectively. Unless your family owns thousands of acres in a prime mule deer area and you grew up shooting big bucks off the alfalfa fields, diligent, consistent, year-after-year hard work is your best bet to tag a monster muley.
You’ll learn travel and escape routes and bedding and feeding areas and how to best hunt the local terrain. You’ll learn the secrets of the deer population, what they’re doing during the season, and how to turn those activities to your advantage.
Once you’ve researched and found an area that has good genetics, a reasonable deer population, and you enjoy hunting: Stick with it. The grass-is-greener syndrome has left more than one otherwise good hunter wandering forever big-buck-less.
To pinpoint an area where you’ll find great bucks, where you’ll enjoy spending season after season hunting, and where you’ll eventually put your crosshairs on a big muley, do research online and on foot. Once you’ve nailed down a region by talking with biologists, researching B&C’s records, and studying maps and Google Earth, pull on your boots and put on the miles. Talk to locals and read between the lines. Look for giant racks in local gas stations and hardware stores. Camp overnight and glass late and early, noting in a journal the bucks you find and where. Once the hunt rolls around, make every hunting day a scouting day to continue learning the area and local deer habits.
By being willing to let young bucks grow old and to go home empty-handed, you’ll eventually begin cutting your tags on big bucks.