Late-Season Muleys

Still trying to bag a monster mule deer? This year, fill your tag by avoiding these five mistakes.

Each year I meet hunters who learn the hard way that mule deer aren't the pushovers they're expected to be. Such misconceptions are the reason many sportsmen go home empty-handed. Worse yet, the major- ity never know what they did wrong. Here are the most common reasons why so many tags go unpunched.

There's a "new" Muley
Mule deer are far less abundant than in the past, and mature bucks are warier and more stealthy than their predecessors ever were. Like whitetails, today's muleys slink and sneak, hide and do much of their moving at night. Hunters looking for a decent buck will need to do some homework about mule deer behavior, especially if they're planning on hunting public land with easy access. Limited-entry units, private lands and outfitted hunts generally offer a higher success rate, but taking a mature buck anywhere these days is a challenge. Is it impossible? Heck no. There are plenty of deer available during general season on public land. The trick is finding them.

Escaping other hunters by hiking away from roads and well-used trails is oft-repeated, and sensible, advice, but not all the big bucks are in the hinterlands. Many live year-round within a stone's throw of a road. Those deer stay there because they sense that they're secure. Hunters generally don't look for them in obvious places, thinking that the farther they hunt from roads, the better. Never pass up a brushy pocket that's densely vegetated, even if it's just a short walk from a good road. On three occasions that I remember I've been within 10 yards of big muley bucks bedded in dense cover near roadways, but never knew it until I unwittingly walked too close. One buck was less than six feet away when he bolted.

**Avoiding CROWDS **
When I first journeyed West in 1960 to study forestry, I couldn't wait to hunt in the wide-open spaces. Even back then, "posted" signs had become the bane of eastern hunters. Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I was greeted with a sea of hunter orange on every ridgetop and valley when I made my maiden voyage into Utah's deer country. Things haven't changed, especially in prime public-land deer country with good access.

Obviously, bucks under such heavy pressure are far warier than those that live where there's limited hunting activity. To increase quality opportunities, wildlife agencies offer an array of programs allowing hunters to avoid the crowds in general hunting units. Limited-entry areas exist in every mule deer state, but a lottery draw is required to get a tag. Special muzzleloading seasons in many states annually produce dandy bucks along with quality hunting experiences, and, of course, archery seasons allow bowhunters to roam with far less competition than firearms hunters must cope with during their seasons. Several states offer special early seasons in September in which bucks can be hunted in backcountry units. And in some places you can hunt muleys in mid-to-late November when the rut is on.

Of course, you can sign up with an outfitter who leases hunting rights on private land or makes horseback trips into wilderness areas. If your bank account is overflowing, you can buy a landowner's tag in several states or pay to hunt on one of the Indian reservations that offer outstanding opportunities, but they're pricey.

BUCKS IN BIG COUNTRY
If you're used to hunting the back 40 for whitetails a short distance from the barn, be prepared for a different scenario for mule deer. While whitetail hunting requires the skill to see and take deer that may rarely venture more than a few hundred yards from their home range, muleys may not exist within miles of where you figure they'll be. If there are indeed deer close by, the terrain and cover may be so steep and dense that you'll have a tough time getting around. Much mule deer range is inaccessible by road, requiring you to walk and hike far more tthan you expected. Deep canyons and draws, rocky ridges and expansive sagebrush flats may require unanticipated exercise. If you score, you're faced with the hassle of getting the deer to a road or spot where you can drive to it.

Prepare yourself by studying maps of the place you intend to hunt so you can get an idea of what you're in for. Have the right gear to transport a carcass -- such as a sturdy backpack if you intend to bone or quarter and carry out the meat, or maybe a wheeled carrier so you can roll the load.

Be sure you have adequate optics for long-distance viewing in big country. I suggest 8x42 binoculars. A spotting scope is also handy -- I usually carry a scope with at least 40 power. Finally, get yourself in shape to meet the demands of mule deer hunting.

THE Antler Trail
Every year, many sportsmen go home disappointed because they hunted where there were no deer. The mule deer is a nomad that often travels 100 miles from summer to winter range. He prefers to live in the high, lush mountains, but several feet of snow transforms this habitat into a hostile environment. Unable to find food, muleys descend to lower elevations to survive. This isn't the case with all muleys, but those in regions where they must adjust to winter are especially difficult to figure.

When planning your hunt, learn as much as you can about the dynamics of the herd you'll be hunting. Are they year-round residents, or do they make a sudden appearance when snow drives them down? If the latter is true, find out all you can about migration routes, winter-range locations and migration schedules. A call to the local wildlife agency or federal land manager's office should put you on the right track. If your research indicates the herd you want to hunt is indeed influenced by snow, plan your hunt as late as possible. In this case, opening day means little, if anything. What you want is the nastiest weather nature can dish out.

DON'T BE FOOLED
If you're new to mule deer hunting, be sure you've familiarized yourself with mule deer antler construction. Whitetail hunters are usually so impressed by a muley's antlers that they shoot the first buck they see. That can be a big mistake if you're hunting an area that holds a fair number of decent bucks.

Average antler spread (the outside width) on a mature mule deer buck is 20 to 22 inches. Unlike typical whitetail racks that have multiple points rising up from a single main beam, mule deer have "bifurcated" antlers, meaning that they fork and then fork again. This can look very impressive because the racks tend to be so much taller than those of whitetails.

Remember, a really good muley will carry antlers that are 24 to 26 inches wide, with a trophy rack going 28 to 30 inches. If you want one 30 inches or better, you have a goal that's not easily attained.

To become familiar with racks, look at heads in sporting-goods stores and taxidermy shops. Try to view them from different angles. Compare the width of the mule deer's antlers to his outstretched ears when the buck is alert. The distance between ear tips on mule deer is 22 to 24 inches, which gives you a good reference point.

Many hunters eagerly shoot a buck that they should have passed on and are disappointed later. The more you can learn about those wonderful antlers, the better chance you'll have of taking a buck that pleases you. Of course, any buck should be welcome, because they'll all provide great memories as well as excellent table fare.