Road Map to Monster Muleys

Follow this route to the trophy of a lifetime.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Those of you who have been keeping up with outdoor literature have no doubt read hunting articles about the demise of the mule deer. Many scribes preach doom and gloom, asserting that big bucks are practically nonexistent and that deer herds in general are declining to the point of no return. That's too bad, and, in my opinion, not true.

While mule deer numbers are nowhere near what they were in the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s and probably never will be again, there are nevertheless stable-to-increasing herds throughout much of the West. Happily, plenty of trophy bucks still roam, big boys that would please the most discriminating trophy hunter, if that's what you're after. There are ways to find those big bucks, with or without an outfitter, but most don't come easy. Here's how.

** MAKE A PLAN**
Define the basics first. Will you be hunting on your own or with an outfitter? If you're hunting unguided, are you going stone cold, or do you have some knowledge of the area you'll be hunting? Has someone in the party been to the place you're hunting?

If you're going with no advance knowledge, dig in and order maps of the area you intend to hunt. Study them intently.

If you're serious about taking a Boone and Crockett buck, get the latest record book and study the entries. Focus on places where the most recent heads were taken. Then get on the phone and begin calling sources. Game wardens, biologists and land management agencies will give you a head start. Then you must plan on resolving all the details. Will you camp or stay in a motel or B&B;? How will you travel, and what about food, gear and all the little items that become big items if things go wrong? If you plan on hunting with an outfitter, you still aren't home free. Though most are reputable, some are crooks, and it's tough telling the good guys from the bums. Ask for references and call them; then ask those references for the names of other hunters who were in camp. An outfitter will give you only the names of happy hunters.

** TAGS and TIMING**
One of the biggest frustrations in Western hunting is obtaining a tag. With just a couple of exceptions, you can't buy the tag across the counter but must get one in a lottery draw. In some states, a lottery is required for both general and limited-entry tags. The latter is the way to go for a trophy buck if you aren't going with an outfitter. Because there's a quota on tags in limited-entry units, there's less competition among hunters and more bucks survive to older age-classes. An old buck is a trophy buck, but there aren't many in general, hard-hunted areas. Most deer in high-pressure places aren't much more than two years old.

Timing means everything. If you're a bowhunter, you can start hunting muleys in August in some states; rifle hunters can start in mid-September, but these hunts are typically in remote, high-country units or in wilderness areas. Most general-season hunts begin in October, and hunting pressure may be intense in public areas with good access. This is not the best time to go for a trophy buck. If possible, try to draw a tag for a late-fall hunt so you can pursue muleys close to their breeding season.

** EARLY HUNTS**
If you hunt muleys in September, look for your trophy in high elevations. Big bucks hang out in bachelor groups at this time; it's not uncommon to see a dozen or more in a herd, and some of them will undoubtedly have their antlers encased in velvet. Big deer like to bed high in the rimrock, often just below the skyline, where they can watch for danger around them and pick up mountain thermals from below. Stay as high as you can, working the ridgetops and slopes about a quarter of the way down from the top. If you're high enough to be at timberline, watch for deer in pockets of stunted, windblown spruce and fir trees.

LATE HUNTS
The muley rut typically srts the first week in November and picks up steam as the month progresses. Late November is prime time, and big bucks begin to drift down out of the higher elevations to seek does. Old bucks, however, often linger in remote areas and may not move to places where they're accessible until the season is over. Many bucks will hang out on ranches that are leased to outfitters or closed to hunting, but there's plenty of public land in winter-range areas. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administers millions of acres of land in practically every Western state. Savvy hunters will use updated maps and learn public boundaries. In many places, deer will feed in agricultural areas and bed in adjacent brushy public land. Hunters often key on a particularly large buck in the croplands, then ambush him when he enters BLM land. It's usually not difficult to pattern deer that are visible in farm fields. To find winter ranges where big bucks will live in late season, visit a BLM office and talk to the wildlife biologist for that region. Offices usually have maps defining winter ranges, and you can point yourself in the right direction by becoming familiar with deer movements.

** BREEDING BEHAVIOR**
Unlike whitetails, muleys don't make scrapes, and though they rub trees, it's not with the same vigor as whitetails. Muleys commonly thrash brush with their antlers to issue an auditory challenge to other bucks. Whereas whitetail bucks are on the move during the rut, traveling extensively to find does, a big dominant muley buck may simply hang out with a herd of does and breed them as they come into estrus. But don't be fooled into thinking that the buck tending the does is the dominant animal. It's highly possible that the bigger buck is bedded out of sight nearby, conserving his energy and visiting the herd occasionally to check for does in heat. He'll run off the lesser buck, and after inspecting the herd will walk a short distance and bed down again.

** READING THE MIGRATION**
Late hunts usually have the added bonus of providing sufficient snow to drive deer out of their high-mountain hideouts and down to lower elevations, where they're more accessible. But remember that nature has the last word on this behavior pattern. In units where deer are migratory, you might not see an animal if it's balmy and there isn't much snow, but if the snows do cooperate, you could be looking at hundreds of bucks. The biggest bucks are often the last to leave the backcountry, and only when deep snow leaves them no choice, so try to have an alternative place to hunt if you're hunting a herd that migrates.

ROADSIDE TROPHIES
While many big bucks prefer remote country, many are at home close to civilization, just like trophy whitetails. Don't overlook foothill areas, especially thick scrub-oak stands or piñon juniper forests adjacent to highways and primary dirt roads. Big bucks feel secure because of the cover and may be closer than you think. Some people are unwilling to leave their vehicles, preferring instead to drive and hunt. These hunters need not be considered competitors, though occasionally they will luck out and spot a big buck. Deer are keenly aware of road traffic and hide accordingly, sometimes very close to roads, where they know they can't be seen.

Try this. Park your rig and take a short hike down into a small valley, draw or gorge that has no road in the bottom. Few hunters will descend a slope knowing they have to climb back out, especially if they have to pack a deer uphill. These "holes" can be hot spots, even though they aren't more than a few hundred yards from a road.

** GET PHYSICAL**
It's no secret that many giant bucks live in the backcountry, where they're seldom seen by hunters. If possible, rent a horse or hike to distant ridges where there's little hunting pressure. Many national forests have good access roads, some that cross high-elevation passes. You can park anywhere on public land and easily make one-day forays. Be sure you have a compass and a good map or GPS unit. If you're up for it, you might carry a sleeping bag, food and other supplies and bivouac where night finds you. Carry a pack that will allow you to carry meat if you're successful, as well as the antlers. All Western states require that you pack out all edible meat. One option is to hire a packer to bring your deer out on horseback, but you have to make arrangements before the trip.

PICK THE RIGHT OUTFITTER
If you decide to hire an outfitter, make sure you're both on the same page and that the outfitter understands you're looking for a trophy buck. Some outfitters take the condescending attitude that hunters will take the first decent buck that comes by and be happy with it. Tell him what kind of trophy you're looking for so that he knows you're going to be discriminating. If he sends you a brochure loaded with pictures of big bucks, as most will, ask him how many were taken in the last 10 years. Check references carefully, and check with the state wildlife agency to confirm that the outfitter's area indeed produces trophy bucks.

** JUDGING TROPHY ANTLERS**
Very few hunters can accurately evaluate antlers in the field. If you're used to seeing average whitetails, a modest muley buck with a 24-inch outside spread will look huge (especially if he's walking away from you). He may very well be a trophy in his own right, but you might want something better and be sorry you squeezed the trigger. Do yourself a favor and look at as many mounted bucks as you can. Visit taxidermy shops and sporting-goods stores where you live. Look at the way the antlers fork and compare the tine lengths with the size of the ears. The tip-to-tip spread on a muley's ears is 20 to 24 inches, depending on his body size. Hence, a buck whose antler spread extends well beyond his outstretched ears on either side is certainly one to consider carefully.

If your heart is set on a buck with a 30-inch spread (the Holy Grail of mule deer hunting), you'll have a tough task, as very few are taken each year. Better yet, don't be so focused on getting a huge buck, unless you're really into it, but consider settling for a nice representative animal, or even no buck at all. In the latter case, you might not be bringing a deer home, but your memories of a Western hunt will no doubt keep you coming back for more. that cross high-elevation passes. You can park anywhere on public land and easily make one-day forays. Be sure you have a compass and a good map or GPS unit. If you're up for it, you might carry a sleeping bag, food and other supplies and bivouac where night finds you. Carry a pack that will allow you to carry meat if you're successful, as well as the antlers. All Western states require that you pack out all edible meat. One option is to hire a packer to bring your deer out on horseback, but you have to make arrangements before the trip.

PICK THE RIGHT OUTFITTER
If you decide to hire an outfitter, make sure you're both on the same page and that the outfitter understands you're looking for a trophy buck. Some outfitters take the condescending attitude that hunters will take the first decent buck that comes by and be happy with it. Tell him what kind of trophy you're looking for so that he knows you're going to be discriminating. If he sends you a brochure loaded with pictures of big bucks, as most will, ask him how many were taken in the last 10 years. Check references carefully, and check with the state wildlife agency to confirm that the outfitter's area indeed produces trophy bucks.

** JUDGING TROPHY ANTLERS**
Very few hunters can accurately evaluate antlers in the field. If you're used to seeing average whitetails, a modest muley buck with a 24-inch outside spread will look huge (especially if he's walking away from you). He may very well be a trophy in his own right, but you might want something better and be sorry you squeezed the trigger. Do yourself a favor and look at as many mounted bucks as you can. Visit taxidermy shops and sporting-goods stores where you live. Look at the way the antlers fork and compare the tine lengths with the size of the ears. The tip-to-tip spread on a muley's ears is 20 to 24 inches, depending on his body size. Hence, a buck whose antler spread extends well beyond his outstretched ears on either side is certainly one to consider carefully.

If your heart is set on a buck with a 30-inch spread (the Holy Grail of mule deer hunting), you'll have a tough task, as very few are taken each year. Better yet, don't be so focused on getting a huge buck, unless you're really into it, but consider settling for a nice representative animal, or even no buck at all. In the latter case, you might not be bringing a deer home, but your memories of a Western hunt will no doubt keep you coming back for more.