Master Plan For Muleys

November is prime time for mule deer in the West--the later in the month, the better. In mountainous regions, deer commonly migrate from the high country to winter ranges where they're far more accessible to hunters. There's one caveat, though: Mild winters can delay the migration, and the deer might not show up until the season is over. It's a risk worth taking. There's nothing much better than sweet, crisp mountain air in late fall and some fresh snow to help you track your buck.

Another plus in November is the rut. Muleys begin thinking about breeding in early November, progressing into the peak of the rut around Thanksgiving. Find some does, and a big boy might be just around the next bush. That doesn't mean the bucks are pushovers, however; they're simply far more available than when they were roaming the high country.

Be aware that many general deer seasons end before the migration and breeding begin. Plan your hunt now, and check into units that offer late-season hunting. Most of those will be limited-entry draws, but many offer preference and bonus points to raise your odds of drawing. It might take some homework and effort, but a big-racked November muley buck is worth it.--Jim Zumbo

Colorado

November in the Colorado Rockies can be a magical time for trophy mule-deer hunters. The mountains are receiving the first significant snows and the muley rut is beginning. This is when the bucks become more visible to hunters lucky enough to have fourth-season tags in their pockets.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife opens several units during the fourth rifle season in mid-November on a very limited draw basis. These areas can vary from year to year and are based on significantly imbalanced buck-to-doe ratios. The limited nature of this hunt, along with the start of the rut, makes for an awesome trophy mule-deer hunt.

During earlier hunts, the better bucks tend to keep to themselves in some of the nastiest habitat available, but this special late hunt is a different story. The way to hunt mid-November trophy bucks is to hunt the does. Mule-deer doe herds are usually easy to find at lower elevations, especially around hay fields and relatively open south slopes where favored browse such as mountain mahogany and bitterbrush abound. Ample piñon-juniper stands provide excellent daytime bedding cover.

Even though any of the 30-plus units are capable of producing that once-in-a-lifetime trophy, I tend to favor the units in Eagle County, such as 35 and 36 along the Colorado River. There is ample public land and access is good. Work the ridges just above the private ranches. Large doe herds tend to hang around the hay fields and are visited every night by bucks. When you find does, the big bucks won't be far away. If the does are alone, start glassing the nearby ridges and look for antlers. I can recall several times when I located a big buck that had spent the night with the does, only to bed on higher ground where he was safer but could still keep an eye on his ladies.

Another good bet this time of year is a float trip from State Bridge to Dotsero. There's some awesome habitat on BLM lands along the river. Glassing the sage- and piñon-covered hillsides above the river is an effective way to find bucks that have left the seclusion of the high country's deadfall timber to search for does in lower elevations.

Another effective and exciting tactic is to get away from the roads and still-hunt through the piñon-juniper stands. Move slowly into the wind, glassing everything ahead as you go. Don't look for the whole animal. Instead, try to pick up a patch of hair or the glint of an eye or antler tip and then stalk in for a close shot.

Each unit that offers the late hunt has its own challenges and habitat types. A good way to do some armchair scouting before applying for a tag is to obtain a copy of the Big Game CD, offered through the Division of Wildlife's Web site, http://wildlife.state.co.us. (Look for "Shop @ DOW" on the home-page navigation bar.) It features harvest and draw stats, topo maps, recommended hunting areas and other valuable info for every unit in the state.--Tom Tietz

Idaho

Big mule deer have become scarce, but the Snake River tributaries draining the northern Rockies have enough trophy bucks to supply savvy hunters. You'll find such hunters glassing remote patches in November.

Southeastern Idaho around Driggs has produced many big deer. So has the rim of the Snake River above Lewiston. Steep, rugged draws lining Hell's Canyon offer the security that's top priority to old deer. I've found bucks in thickets midway up these draws, where neither horsemen on top nor hunters debarking from jet boats can reach them undetected.

The high deserts of southern Idaho can deliver big deer, too. Focus on areas that get little human traffic. Glass from low ridges into basins where the sage is tall enough to hide a car. Move a little, look a lot. Keep the sun behind you.

Such advice works for mountains and the breaks of the Salmon and Snake rivers, too. But even if you hunt well in promising places, you won't see many big deer. Hunters kill many bucks before their prime, hard winters account for others and still more fall prey to mountain lions. Recently, friends who hunted the River of No Return Wilderness reported that expanding wolf numbers have depressed deer herds there. On a hunt near Challis in 2001, I saw no mature bucks.

Whether you hunt the mountains, canyons or high desert, November prompts deer movement. A buck will service multiple does during the rut, moving from one to the next. You should see more bucks this month than at any other time during hunting season. The rut's peak is hard to pin down and depends on weather. When winter boils in through the passes, deer herd up and move toward wintering grounds as far as 100 miles from summer ranges.

Look where you see lots of deer and deer sign, but remember that old bucks don't always stay with does during migration. In fact, the biggest bucks I've seen have been in cover. I've nudged them from inhospitable thickets that showed no other deer sign. I like to hunt slowly through thicket edges a rifle shot below ridgeline in mountainous country, and on the lips of ravines in sagebrush. A big buck's track is unmistakable and is worth following in fresh snow. Though you'll look at a lot of empty country, persistence might turn up a deer that will take your breath away.--Wayne Van Zwoll

Montana

The effects of the rut, together with the first winter storms, combine to create the best hunting of the season. Mule deer thrive across the state, from the prairie up to the foothills and mountains. The varied country requires different hunting methods.

On the plains the deer have a huge home range, although only about a third of the habitat is suitable for them.

In late November muleys concentrate in rough country of coulees and breaks for protection from the weather and predators. They might feed during the night in a grain-stubble field over the next ridge, or in one several miles away. But by first light they're slipping back toward the cover of the breaks.

Hiking the heads of coulees and glassing from a vantage point helps locate the deer. Remember, bucks are running most of the day, fueled with the lust of the rut. When you spot a buck you want, move toward him by following coulees and washes.

At the onset of winter, mule deer in the mountains of central and western Montana stream out of the high country and head to the foothills. Often an inversion sets in, with cold, stagnant air trapped in the valleys by a blanket of warmer air circulating above. By climbing above the inversion line, mule deer are rewarded with temperatures 20 degrees or so warmer than below. You can see these inversion lines where a ceiling of fog and clouds of stagnant valley air meet the clear, warmer air circulating above. Glass along this line at the edges to spot a buck tending his harem of does. You're most likely to sight a shooter early and late in the day.

Deer retreat to the forest's old-growth trees and thickets to weather blizzards. Wind makes deer spooky, and they stay in their beds. Conversely, the reduced visibility provided by falling snow makes deer feel secure and they'll move around.

One November day I stepped into a forest lit dimly by the red horizon of a sailor-take-warning dawn. Tracks led into the timber. I followed along, peering ahead through the falling snow. After a short distance, I saw a doe and then several others browsing among the trees. Then I spotted a flash of a leg headed toward the spine of the ridge. I hustled to the top and through the fir trees' branches saw the brown of thick antlers. The buck stepped into the clearing to run; he didn't make it.

With my rope around his antlers, the buck slid easily down the mountain. That was good, because I didn't want to be late for Thanksgiving dinner.--John Haviland

New Mexico

Muleys inhabit the lowest deserts, the highest alpine peaks and everything in between; small wonder they're the state's most popular big game.

Desert deer are the most common of New Mexico's muleys and in general sport the smallest antlers. The greatest numbers of these deer (along with over-the-counter tags) are found in southern strongholds such as the Sacramento, Capitan and Carrizozo areas, the Jicarilla Mountains and much of Gila National Forest. Bragging-sized 5x5s do appear occasionally, but this is mostly a meat hunt. The drier portions in the southeastern sections of the state, the Mescarelo sands or Caprock east of the Pecos River, occasionally produce bucks that nearly make B&C class.

Most of the good alpine hunting is in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and requires long pack trips into extremely rough, high-altitude habitat. The mule-deer genetics here are top-notch.

Hard-core trophy hunters dreaming of book-quality antlers should seek limited tags. Most of these units are in northwest or north-central New Mexico. Draw odds are often steep, but units like 2A and B, 4, 5A and B, and 10 are worth the wait. Drawing a tag doesn't guarantee you a trophy, however. Big bucks never come easy.

Southern draw areas--San Mateo (Unit 17), Burro (23) and Pelloncillo (27) among them--are home to smaller desert deer, but they still offer great opportunities for better-than-average antlers.--Patrick Meitin

Move slowly into the wind, glassing carefully ahead. Try to pick up a patch of hair, a glint of an eye or antler tip.