By Ron Niziolek
“Go west,” they say. If you’re a bowhunter looking for adventure, and bowhunting mule deer is on your adventure list, you should indeed head west. A do-it-yourself hunt for mule deer will be one of your most exciting and memorable hunts. Good numbers of mule deer abound from Mexico north through Alberta, existing in every type of habitat imaginable. They’re found in terrain ranging from high basins above timberline at 12,000 feet to the low-lying deserts of the Southwest. Some bowhunters are hooked on pursuing muleys at lung-searing altitudes in the alpine. Others chase their muleys at elevations from 5,000-10,000 feet, while some prefer the long, tedious hours spent glassing in the desert environment. However, regardless of where you choose to hunt, start planning now and make it happen. You won’t regret it!
Mule deer populations are relatively stable throughout the West, although overall trophy quality has diminished from years past. Colorado does continue to produce whopper bucks, and while some areas are tough to draw, many are a sure thing every year, or every other year. States like Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, and New Mexico have some tough-to-draw areas that consistently kick out large deer. The trophy quality of Wyoming’s muley population is suffering, but there are still plenty of deer to hunt, and you’ll find some big bucks in certain areas. Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska all have long archery seasons, and you can hunt mule deer in these states during the rut. Oregon has some decent draw areas as well, but it’s very tough to draw a tag. In several of these states, you can hunt every year with over-the-counter tags, or via fairly easy drawing odds.
Guided or DIY
As a beginning mule deer hunter, try not to set unrealistic goals for yourself. Taking any mule deer buck with your bow is a great accomplishment.
Unless your Western mule deer hunt will be a once-in-a-lifetime hunt for you, or you want a Pope and Young-class buck your first time out, I strongly suggest a DIY hunt versus a guided hunt. Decent bucks are plentiful in many areas and provide a very affordable, enjoyable hunt. While spending a year or two doing these DIY hunts with over-the-counter tags, you can start building bonus or preference points in the states that require you to draw tags for better odds at larger-racked bucks.
Arizona, California, Idaho, Oregon, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Washington are states where you can purchase tags over the counter and hunt mule deer every year. Arizona, California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington also offer draw tags for some units.Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming are states where you need to draw a tag to hunt mule deer, although some of these states may have tags to purchase in a leftover drawing.
There are three types of point systems — pure lottery, bonus-point, and preference-point systems.
Lottery is just that — a lottery. Everyone has one ticket in the hat.
Preference-point systems award tags to those with the most points. Some states with preference-point systems give out a certain percentage of their tags to top point holders and then a percentage to everyone who applies in a random lottery.
Bonus-point systems give you an extra “ticket in the hat” for every point you have. So, like in Arizona, if you have three points you get your application plus your three bonus points for a total of four tickets in the hat. Some states like Nevada square your points, so if you have five points you get your app plus five squared (25), for a total of 26 tickets in the hat.
Planning & Research
Doing a little state-by-state research is your first order of business. Do you have a state you’ve dreamed of hunting? Do you want to hunt trophy bucks, or do you just want to hunt any mule deer? Check out the different state game and fish agencies on the internet, or order hunt applications and regulations that you can study and compare. Lots of decisions need to be made. Are you going to begin applying for hard-to-draw trophy areas in anticipation of future hunts? Or, are you just going where you can hunt every year? I recommend both, if you can afford it. Go ahead and apply for those hard-to-draw tags, but before you draw those tags, you can gain valuable experience by hunting mule deer wherever you can.
Remember that season dates vary quite a bit from state to state, so timing those hunting seasons with your vacation time might be the deciding factor with regard to where you go. Research of the Pope and Young records might help you narrow your focus to a few specific counties in a state you’re interested in. Contact the state game biologist and game warden assigned to your area of interest. Direct the conversation to where deer typically spend their time during the timeframe of your planned hunt. Ask about land ownership there — whether it’s Forest Service, BLM, state land, or private. The Game and Fish personnel will probably be very helpful with this information. If they mention private land, don’t rule it out automatically. In fact, it may be a very good place to do further research. Many tracts of Western private land adjoin public lands, and if you’re willing to do some homework, you may find some of the public lands around private tracts have excellent hunting.
In many of these areas, deer will feed on ranchland pastures or crops at night, and in the morning they’ll travel into or through public land to bedding areas. That’s a great situation to capitalize on. Learn to read a topographic map, and use a GPS unit or onXmaps app on your smartphone for navigation.
My Colorado Mule Deer Hunt
I started planning mule deer hunts in several Western states in 1999. Since then, I’ve successfully hunted Utah, Oregon, and Montana, as well as my home state of Wyoming. Colorado was a state I always planned to hunt, so after researching both the Pope and Young and Boone and Crockett record books I narrowed my search down to a specific county. It’s important to note that while researching the record books, I focused on recent entries. Units change over time, and it’s important to look at recent trends. I’ll admit the close proximity to Wyoming was an added influence.
The particular county I chose encompassed several hunt units, some of which needed no preference points to draw, and some that needed three to five points to draw. I went to the Colorado Division of Wildlife website and looked at all the statistics they have available. First, I checked the season dates and fees to make sure I could afford to apply, and that the archery season dates wouldn’t conflict with other hunts I’d planned. I then looked at the Preference Points Required section to compare the different units. I also looked at the total number of tags offered. Colorado also offers a Hunt Recap Summaries section and Harvest Survey Statistics. Along with those, I looked at the success rates for my units of interest. Colorado has a very helpful feature on their website called “Plan Your Hunt.” There is a wealth of information there. All of this helps develop knowledge of the area and further consideration of options down the research trail.
I then started closely monitoring mule deer dialog on Bowsite.com, while not asking any specific questions myself. I called as many bowhunting friends that I could, asking if any of them had experience in any of those units, or if anyone they knew possibly did. I contacted the Bureau of Land Management (blm.gov) and ordered maps to cover all units in my area of interest. I always manually trace the unit boundaries on my BLM maps with a highlighter, as this helps me familiarize myself with feature and drainage names for future talks with biologists and others.
I looked up a few taxidermist phone numbers in the area and spoke with them at length. I also looked up the District phone numbers of the Department of Wildlife and local BLM offices and placed phone calls to each, asking to speak with biologists. I need to note that all of this was done prior to the application deadline. Biologists get swamped with phone calls after people draw a tag, and I’ve found they are more willing to visit and share information earlier in the year. Knowing I had enough preference points to draw, I settled on a unit to apply for after asking the following questions:
- Are the deer in these areas managed for numbers and hunter opportunity, or for trophy quality?
- What’s the habitat like — open or timbered — and has there been recent drought or other conditions that might affect my hunt there, including wildfires?
- What about “No-tellum Ridge,” or “Buck Spring?” I ask about specific drainages or features. It lets the biologists know that I’ve at least done some homework. Sometimes that can make the difference on whether they share something more specific with you than they might with others.
- What can I expect for deer densities and quality of bucks?
- What can I expect with regard to hunting pressure, or are there some out-of-the-way places where I can go to get away from it? Let them know you’re willing to work.
- Will the hunting pressure ease off significantly after opening weekend?
- Are there good places to camp? Is there water nearby, or should I haul my own?
- How is the access? Do I need a 4WD vehicle? Can I haul a tent camper, etc?
- Can I expect any cell phone service?
I now had enough information to easily make my unit selection. Since my summer schedule was busy and I wouldn’t get to visit or scout my area, I set my vacation schedule so I’d arrive at my area a day and a half before the season opened to get a little scouting done.My next step was to finish getting my maps in order. I contacted the friendly folks at Mytopo.com to get a map of my unit. With maps ordered, I then spent many hours on Google Earth studying the terrain where I’d be camping and hunting.
I left home in Wyoming early and made the long nine-hour drive. I found a place to camp, set up my tent trailer, and scouted from my truck the rest of the day. The following day was spent glassing many ridges, hiking, and checking for water sources. I tried to find isolated pockets of bucks that maybe other hunters wouldn’t work to find. I also tried to find an area with cell service, so I could check in at home every day or two. I must mention that even with the biologist’s warning, the number of hunters showing up was completely unexpected. However, most of them never left their quads or trucks to scout. I only hoped that was how they’d hunt, too.
Opening morning was unproductive for me, seeing only a handful of smaller bucks and hearing the ever-present drone of quads running the roads. Around 5 p.m., I watched two nice mature bucks through my binos. One was a big four-point with good brow tines, and the other was a nice three-pointer.
I noted landmarks across the canyon and was off on a big loop that would skirt the canyon rim and bring me down right above the bucks with the wind in my favor. I slipped off my boots at about 200 yards and kept slinking ahead. I knew I was very close, and I thought I was being patient and stealthy. Yeah, right! That’s why big bucks stay big. The four-point busted me mid-step at 25 yards. He had his head down, and I couldn’t see his back in the tall brush. Right after he blew out, another nice four-point popped up with his vitals in the open. I saw deep forks and made the instant decision to shoot. My arrow blew right through him, and he kicked his back legs straight out like a horse.
After a short, crashing run through the brush, silence returned to the canyon. I sat down and slipped my pack off, marked where I’d shot from with a little ribbon, and then I drank one of my water bottles. After a short wait, I gathered my boots, took up his trail, and found him dead 200 yards down the canyon. By the time pictures were taken, and the meat boned-out and packed to the truck, it was midnight. I stopped often on the hike out, savoring the Colorado mountain air and the brightness of the full moon. Once the meat was hung up at camp, I tumbled into bed, totally exhausted but satisfied.
Not all hunts go that well, but you have to be there to make it happen. So get started planning your own mule deer hunt soon, and hunt hard!