Written by: Fred Eichler
Whitetails are a dime a dozen. I’m not sure exactly what that means but I have heard some older guys refer to things being a dime a dozen when they are all over the place or talking about something that is very common, so I had to throw it in.
I don’t mean to offend any die hard whitetail hunters with my old adage. I love hunting whitetails, but the truth is whitetails are found in huntable numbers in forty-four states; whereas mule deer can only be hunted in seventeen states. Kinda makes em’ a bit more special in my opinion.
I think besides the fact that mule deer aren’t found in as many places as whitetails; I like them because they are larger bodied, larger eared, larger antlered (except the ones I shoot), and they are found in the West. Nothing against the East but you never hear anyone say, “hold onto your hat, things are about to get Eastern.”
In my opinion the views and country that mule deer are found in is just hard to beat. Whether it’s the Rocky Mountains, the high desert plains, yellow leafed Aspens in the fall, cottonwood river bottoms, the arroyos in Kansas or the deserts in Texas; you just can’t beat the views.
Now before my fellow Eastern hunters get upset I have seen some beautiful sights on Eastern whitetail hunts as well. I have watched a whitetail come sneaking down a trail in Florida as the mist lifted off a swamp and the sun filtered in through waving Spanish moss. I have sat in a whitetail stand in New York and marveled at the colors the fall brings to that country. I have even sat in a small woodlot in New Jersey and used the sound of sirens to cover up the subtle noise of me drawing my bow. But in my opinion, it’s hard to beat the west and the country mule deer call home.
To put it into perspective, there are tens of thousands more entries in Pope and Young in the typical and non-typical category for whitetails, than entries for mule deer counting both typical and non-typical entries.
The great news for mule deer hunters is that western states have a lot of state and federal land with great hunting opportunities, especially for the hunter willing to pack into country away from the parking areas. Area biologists and game wardens can be a great source of information on where to go. Another resource that is available, if a trophy mule deer is your goal, is the Pope and Young record books. You can look at which counties have a larger number of entries.
Some western states have mule deer tags available over the counter. Other states like Colorado have draw systems in place. Don’t let that discourage you from going. By doing some research you can find the odds of drawing. For example, although Colorado is a draw state, there are many units that a hunter can draw a tag in every year.
Other ways to get mule deer tags is to purchase a land owner tag. Many on-line sites have listed what ranches have these available. If you decide to try and draw a tag, it is a good idea to build up points in several western states. By building up points you can be assured of drawing the area you want by researching how many points you need to draw. In some states it is not cheap to build up preference points. In some western states you must send them the total cost for a non-resident tag when you apply. At a rough average of three hundred dollars a state that can add up quickly. They do send your money back in one to three months if you don’t draw, but you still have to come up with the money. My trick was to get a credit card and dedicate it to tags. So I would use one credit card for applying to multiple states. When I didn’t draw and I received my money back I would use the refund to pay off the credit card. Granted you do get charged interest and some states keep anywhere from three dollars to twenty if you don’t draw, but at least I was able to apply for points in states when I couldn’t really afford to write a check. The trick here is to make sure you do the research and keep track of when you are getting close to having enough points to draw the tag you want. As long as you apply for points every year you will build up points and won’t lose them. Some states will even save preference points for a certain number of years before you lose them if you stop applying. I have always stayed up on drawing odds to make sure I didn’t draw more tags then I wanted in a given year.
Public land is the most affordable way to hunt mule deer all over the west. For those hunters that don’t want to “do it yourself”, there are plenty of outfitters that offer both guided and non-guided mule deer hunts on both private and public land. Don’t overlook the less expensive price of going non-guided with an outfitter. If you have chosen your outfitter correctly, the scouting has been done for you.
Your minimal payment on a non-guided hunt is usually for lodging be it a wall tent or cabin and permission to hunt private land or public land where the outfitter has prescouted and knows you will be in a good area. Make sure you do your research and understand what you need to bring and if stands or ground blinds are set up or if you need to do that yourself as well.
For those interested in taking up the challenge of hunting the western deer, don’t forget that mature mule deer aren’t slouches. In areas where they are pressured, big mulie bucks can become as scarce and cagey as a whitetail any day of the week. I like big mature mule deer as much as the next guy but I also enjoy eating mule deer meat. So if a little buck gives me an opportunity first, well, he will probably be moving into my freezer.
For gearing up for a mule deer hunt out west you have to think optics first. According to Pope and Young most mule deer are harvested from the ground on spot and stalk hunts. To be truly affective at this type of hunting you need good quality optics. I like an adjustable 40-60 power spotting scope and 10x42 binoculars.
Early in the fall the bucks are usually in small bachelor groups. Sometimes the really large bucks become reclusive loners. If you’re hunting the mountains it’s a great time to get above timberline and start glassing the small meadows and open mountain areas. Later during the rut I often utilize a lot of commonly used whitetail strategies for mule deer. Rattling, doe bleats, and even snort wheezes all work great on mule deer as well. I have heard big mule deer bucks snort wheeze as many as ten times in a row trying to intimidate another buck.
Despite the fact that the majority of mule deer bucks are taken by the spot and stalk method, I often use both blinds and tree stands when hunting mule deer for myself and when guiding clients. Many areas out west where mule deer are found are dry arid regions. Active water holes can be a great place to ambush a mule deer buck. Agriculture fields can also offer great places to target mule deer on private ground or on public land that borders agriculture fields. By walking the fence lines it’s pretty obvious which trails the deer are using going to and from the fields. By hunting mule deer like whitetail from a tree stand or a ground blind I have had some great hunts.
For bow gear I advise practicing at longer ranges. Mule deer are commonly found in open areas and if you’re on the ground trying to spot and stalk sometimes a longer shot is your only option. The good news is that mule deer are not normally as prone to reacting to the sound of a bow shot as quickly or as much as whitetail often do. I also try and go with the lightest set up possible in over all weight. Mule deer hunts usually require a lot more walking then most whitetail hunts do.
Since mule deer hunts are often in remote areas where you have to pack in it’s important to have a good plan in place on getting your animal from the field so no meat is wasted. Not only is wanton waste illegal, mule deer meat is as good as any wild game I have ever tired. Game bags and even pepper will help keep flies off your meat. If I am forced to hang meat for a few days I always take precautions as most mule deer country is also bear country. I always tie meat up away from camp and store it high between trees where bears can’t get to it. If bears aren’t an issue I will often store meat in bags in a hole I dig and cover with a tarp as the cooler dirt found a few feet down will keep meat longer. Sometimes I will hang it close to a creek in a draw where temperatures are cooler as well. Another method is putting meat in strong but thin waterproof bags and letting all the air out and weighing them down in a creek or lake. It is important you cool the meat first before putting it in the bag or you will simply lock the heat in and lose the meat to spoilage. For your trophy, if you choose to get your animal mounted, it is important to not only cape the deer but to also turn the ears and lips and salt thoroughly. It is relatively easy once you know how.
By planning ahead you can ensure the meat and your trophy return home in good shape. Nothing puts a damper on a great experience like a ruined deer cape or losing the best part of a successful hunt, the meat.
Whitetails are great, but mule deer are their larger less populated cousins. If you’re not an avid mule deer hunter yet, go bowhunting for them. My guess is you will become “Mad over Mulies” as well.