Mule deer have been studied intensively the last 50 years. While we don't know as much about the species as we do whitetail deer, we do have a body of evidence to draw from that can help make us better hunters.
I attended a mule deer symposium in Missoula, Montana in 1998. It was a collection of biologists, researchers, and various officials from game & fish agencies from around the West. We were still reeling from the winterkill of '92/'93, so hard winters were a hot topic.
One of the keynote speakers was researcher Richard J. Mackie of Montana State University. He was presenting on his then recently released research project titled "Ecology and Management of Mule Deer and Whitetail Deer in Montana."
I learned something from him that day that I'll never forget:
When mule deer populations shrink substantially—like after a bad winter—in the following years the remaining population occupies mostly the highest quality habitats while largely vacating less desirable habitats. If mule deer populations begin to increase, more deer will move into those less desirable, formerly vacated habitats.
In laymen terms, that means some areas will hold almost no deer after winterkill.
I've witnessed this in the foothill country east of my hometown of Iona, Idaho. This is lower elevation country mostly void of the rougher terrain that big bucks are attracted to. It's dry-farm (no irrigation) and mostly lacks the green highly nutritious shrubs, herbs, and forbs that deer need to grow fawns and big antlers. It's also got too many roads to serve as a sanctuary and more often than not holds few deer and even fewer big bucks. However, when mule deer populations are relatively high or peaking, I find more than a few deer and even a few big bucks using this habitat. My experience in this area seems to mirror what Mr. Mackie had observed.
Mr. Mackie's observations have since been confirmed by other researchers, including Dennis D. Austin, research biologist for the Utah DOW in his book, "Mule Deer: A Handbook for Utah Hunters and Landowners" (I'll be reviewing his book soon on the Rok Blog), so I know this is not an isolated phenomenon.
For the Intermountain West units that I hunt, the highest quality habitat is typically the aspen/conifer zone (which by the way often grows the biggest bucks, but that's a topic for another blog post.) The least productive habitat is usually desert country. There are many exceptions—like burns, certain agriculture, sanctuaries, and microclimates— so the only sure-fire way to find them is by scouting and hunting.
If your area was hit with significant winterkill, look first to the highest quality habitats for deer and big bucks. Every state and even unit is different, so you have to draw on your own experience or do some research. A local biologist should know the most productive habitat types for deer and big bucks.
This post wraps up this series on hard winters (if you missed anything, see Bad Winter? Now What?, Hard Winter—Spring Update (and podcasts!), What Really Happens to Big Bucks After Hard Winters, Bucks I've Taken After Hard Winters).
As spring picks up speed, I'll be blogging on mule deer books, clothing for the mule deer hunter, winter range bucks, and why I still have a file cabinet for researching big mule deer.
See how I research mule deer hunting in my book, Hunting Big Mule Deer
I've been blogging on the winter's effects on mule deer since January. With near-record snow totals in parts of the West, this was a timely subject. Now that spring is taking hold and the worst should be behind us, I thought we'd move to the subject of what to expect come fall. If you're just joining in, see these previous posts to understand where winter had the most impacts: Bad Winter? Now What? and Hard Winter—Spring Update (and podcasts!)
I started hunting big mule deer without much more than a dream and a few extra dollars. Dad had set me up pretty good with the essentials: a good rifle, a good truck, and a back built for working. Beyond that, the rest was up to me.
While conditions did somewhat improve shortly after that post, it may have been "too little, too late" for some mule deer. As a big buck hunter, you need to pay close attention to winterkill. I certainly do. It can affect everything from big buck numbers, your ability to draw a license, and even where big bucks will show up in your unit come fall.
There's been some good news since my last post Bad Winter, Now What?. The weather has moderated across a big swath of the western states. We're not out of the danger zone yet. Significant winterkill could still be a factor, but if we don't get any big cold storms between now and late March, we may skate over what could have been a very bad winter for mule deer. Stay close...
Besides watching the weather, I've been putting together reviews on all the gear I used in 2016.
Next up is my Kryptek Vellus & Anorak review.
Kryptek married modern technology with fleece to bring about a system that I can recommend for western mule deer hunting. If you need a warm, quiet, water/windproof system, give this review a read. Even if you can't or don't want to buy the entire system, each piece offers benefits as a stand-alone garment. Just click the title below for more info...
Read about essential gear for the mule deer hunting in my book, Hunting Big Mule Deer
If you're a big buck hunter, you're probably a weather freak, too. After all, terminal weather conditions usually have the biggest impact on your hunt. Consider, too, that long-term weather patterns also affect your hunt even though it may be months away. Drought, fire, and hard winters all can have a negative effect on your upcoming seasons.
Let's do this!
First, thank you for following this project to completion: A Season of Hunting Big Mule Deer. I truly hope you learned something that will help you take the best buck of your life.
I used Random.org's random number generator to draw from the qualified entries (including those of you who were blocked by the system but emailed me your entries.)
1st Place: Vortex Viper goes to Josh Weeks
2nd Place: Huntin' Fool Membership goes to Brian Bitter
3rd Place: Hunting Big Mule Deer Book goes to Gentry Distefano
You have 10 days (January 21st) to claim your prize or I'll redraw from the qualified entries.
Thanks again. I'll be posting this year on research, gear, and more information related to mule deer hunting. If you've never done so, sign up for the Rok Blog upper right at "Rok Blog Sign-Up" to receive email notification when I post.
Thanks and God bless your hunting.
For more tips & tactics, check out my book, Hunting Big Mule Deer
I had been home from the Idaho hunt a week and watching the weather closely in preparation for my upcoming Utah hunt. The high pressure ridge that had dogged me during the Idaho hunt had mostly just strengthened over the last 10 days. This meant virtually no snow in the Intermountain West. Buck hunters from Colorado to Montana had been handed their worst season in years due to the mild conditions, and it wasn't looking any better for me.
The next morning, I was in the big saddle by first light and again sat until close to noon without spotting the big buck. My phone said there was important business waiting on my email, so I hiked out to the truck and fired up my laptop to put out the fires. By the time I was done, it was after 3:00 PM and time to head back to the saddle.
I'd been glassing since first light with my SLC 15x56 binoculars backed up by my 25-50x80mm ATS spotter, both Swarovskis. This is a lot of glass to pack, but when I don't have to hike far, it's really the best combination for finding big mule deer.
I've been an outfitter for about 15 years. We operate almost exclusively on private land in an OTC unit. Our bread 'n' butter is elk hunting but because we manage hunter numbers, every once in a while a big buck will show up. My paid hunters have first shot at these bucks, but I often hunt them once everyone has gone home for the season.
My plan was to head for the giant buck's locale the next few days but when you're job entails leading 25 employees, there's always some drama. Sure enough, I was delayed several days putting out fires back at work.
It had been 10 days since I found the giant Idaho buck. Due the terrain he lived in, I knew killing him with a bow meant still-hunting through the timber hoping for a shot. I probably have a better chance of orbiting the earth in my own homemade rocket.
It was early August when I returned my Nevada tag (backstory here). That still gave me the best month to scout an Idaho buck up. I find by early August that the big bucks have settled into their summer core areas where I can expect to find them until heavy snow, hunting pressure, or the rut moves them (in desert areas, bucks can also move if the water sources change.)
The mule deer season really starts for me a year or more ahead of opening day. To find good places to hunt big mule deer, you have to do plenty of research and even scout areas during the previous winter, if possible.
My favorite media to communicate through on Rokslide is this blog. While I love writing articles for our homepage, and our forums are downright fun and informative, it's the blog that is my own little space. It's here that I can best share with anyone who's truly interested in becoming a better mule deer hunter, particularly for outsized top-of-the-heap bucks.
In Parts One, Two and Three, I covered gun/caliber, energy requirements, powder, and loading procedure/development using a Vortex Razor HD LH 1.5-8x32 scope on a Knight Mountaineer. Besides load development, I showed the potential of that set-up out to 300 yards, plenty of range and energy for killing big mule deer. See Part III for that demonstration.
Trail cameras became widely used in the West in the mid-2000's. Watching the forums, TV shows, and magazines, I'd say they've only picked up steam since then. Seems everyone is a voyeur these days. Since 2008, I've used trail cameras extensively from the desert to the foothills to the high-country of the West. While I'm far from an expert compared to some hunters, I've learned a lot about them in that time and how they apply to hunting big mule deer.
I'm an early-season bowhunter, chasing muleys from the desert mountain ranges to the high country of the West. These seasons typically run about mid-August through late September. Daytime temps can soar into the 90s in the desert but fall into the twenties in the high country. This 70-degree swing requires a lot from a clothing system.
Last fall, I was planning an early season bowhunt for mule deer, so I contacted co-owner Butch Whiting at Kryptek to see what clothing I could try.
To read the entire article, click Kryptek Dalibor Soft Shell Early Season Jacket
To learn about the gear and tactics I use for Hunting Big Mule Deer, check out my book, Hunting Big Mule Deer
If you've followed this blog for a while, you know that I'm often NOT on the cutting edge when upgrading to new gear. I want to know something works and works well before I abandon my tried-'n'-true (insert gear here).
Before rangefinders came along in the late '90s, most mule deer hunters were banking their long range shots on the power of the gun to produce a flat trajectory. For years, the 7mm Remington Magnum was near the top of the flat-trajectory heap. With a 150-160 grain bullet posting a ballistic coefficient over .500 and a sight-in of 3.25" high at 100 yards, you could expect that bullet to drop about 24-26" at 500 yards. That meant an on-body hold for big mule deer to about 450 yards. That math worked for decades but is also why so few big deer were killed beyond 450 yards; when you're forced to aim at air, it's just easier to miss.
You can read the entire article here Hash Marks or Turrets? A Mule Deer Hunter's Perspective
You can subscribe to blog and receive all new posts to your inbox by either clicking on the envelope icon at top right, entering name and email, or subscribe via RSS by clicking on the RSS icon next to that same envelope icon
Read all about the weapon systems I prefer in my book: Hunting Big Mule Deer: How to Take the Best Buck of Your Life
If you've read my Vortex vs. Vortex 15x Binocular review earlier this year, you may have noticed the name "Duwane Adams". Just who is this guide who seems to be nearly everywhere that big Arizona deer are spoken of?
With so many new members joining Rokslide, it stands to reason that many of you were not around when we launched in early February, 2012. Ryan Avery and David Long worked tirelessly night and day (that's no stretch) to build the platform we all enjoy now. One of David's jobs was working with top notch hunters and writers to bring you many of the articles that are still read daily by members.
One of those articles was written by Robert Hanneman: Bighorn Sheep Hunting Tips & Tactics and is still in the top ten articles we've ever published. Besides bighorn sheep, Robert possessed a vast knowledge of western big game hunting. So it was no surprise when the following year that Robert joined the staff of The Huntin' Fool- a company dedicated to helping hunters find good places to pursue their dream species.
So you've got all your spreadsheets filled out with every bit of statistical data you could glean from every source imaginable. Good. Now consider that thousands of other hunters are looking at that same information and if they're smart like you, will probably apply for the same units. Statistics usually lead us all to the same place and is why draw odds in many units are so dismal across the West.
While this is part of the research process, what will really help your bad case of "paralysis of analysis" is prescouting units you'd like to apply for. If my research says a unit is really good and I've got the time to prescout it in the summer, I may apply without ever having scouted the unit. Still, I might be better off to wait a year like in the example below.
Rewind to 1995. I'd researched a particular Colorado unit to apply for. The stats said it was good, but depending on who I talked to, the hunting could be poor to fantastic. The unit only took 0-1 points to draw and I had one, but I just couldn't make my mind up before the application deadline so I didn't apply. Not wanting to be in the same boat the next year, I made a plan...
A few months later, after clearing my schedule, I hooked up the horse trailer one early July morning and drove 500 miles to the unit. In three mornings of glassing and an afternoon or two of riding some country, I saw a few nice bucks but more importantly learned first-hand how to hunt the unit- from camp, to access, to local services- and I met a few locals who gave me some good intel.
Nine months later, I felt good about spending my two points on a one-point unit and I applied and I drew. That fall I had a chance at a GIANT buck which I muffed, and after two more hunts in the unit over the next five years, I killed a great buck going north of 200. But,it all started with that July scouting trip way back when.
So before you apply this year, look first at units and areas you'll have the ability to scout preseason. Understand that there are two values to scouting:
1) Finding a particular buck
While this is the grand prize of scouting, I've learned it's not always possible or even necessary to find a particular buck to hunt. However, if it's an early-season hunt (August/September,) bucks will usually be very close to where you've seen them in the summer. So if you're scouting for these hunts, then finding a particular animal is fantastic and probably the number one predictor if you'll take a big buck or not.
If you can't find any big bucks in the summer, your chances of finding one when the season opens is even worse. This is why I make sure I understand each state's policy regarding refund of points before I apply. You can make more money, but not more years. This policy needs to be part of your application strategy. Every state is different.
For example, Colorado offers a refund of points BUT you lose a point for that application year. Be smart as losing just one point can knock you out of a preference point system where point creep is happening (and that's pretty much everywhere). This is where a good research service is a value. They are usually the first to know when and how these systems are changing. For example, this year The Huntin' Fool announced that Colorado will still offer point refunds, but only up to 30 days before the hunt. That is a big change and will affect my application strategy that I could have missed had I not been a member.
2) Learn the unit's exact hunting areas
Many hunts in the West occur after mid-October. Typically, by then, bucks are starting to move from where they've spent the summer, either because of snow-depth, the oncoming rut, hunting pressure, or just the traditional movement of of deer in that unit. This can negate your summer scouting efforts if you're only scouting for bucks. You need to learn plenty of country so when the season opens, you can move to familiar country if you're not finding bucks.
If my research says a unit is weather or migratory dependent, I still try to prescout it to make sure I'm not wasting valuable hunting days once the season is open. When scouting these type of hunts, I remember that only about 10-20% of a unit's area will hold big bucks. Scouting is often just narrowing down where not to hunt.
By visiting a unit and talking to locals, you can figure out exact places in the unit other hunters have been successful and how to best hunt those areas. With practice, you can also learn how to identify likely buck country by the terrain itself. Google Earth is an awesome tool, but still can't replace a hunter who "knows" what big buck country looks like.
So if you're experiencing "paralysis of analysis," maybe you should consider building points until you have the time to prescout units. In every instance I have done this, it's paid off either in saved points, peace in applying, or punching my tag on a big mule deer.
Make sure you "Subscribe to blog" (Upper right under Fitness/Other) so you don't miss my next post on research. I'll be interviewing Robert Hanneman, head of research at The Huntin' Fool.
Read all about how I research hunts in my book, Hunting Big Mule Deer, How to Take the Best Buck of Your Life
With the West's first mule deer application deadline of March 3rd around the corner, I thought it was time to talk about research and how I personally decide what hunts I'll apply for. If you're looking for a blog post on units to apply for, this isn't it. I'd rather teach you something that you can use for life.
Wanted to let you all know that I, along with my Rokslide partner Ryan Avery, will be at the Western Hunting & Conservation Expo in Salt Lake City starting Thursday 2/11 at 5:00 PM.
(If you missed this mornings' post, you need to view it first here Hunting the Rut & Migration: Day 9 or this one might not make much sense)
To me, the most suspenseful moments in hunting are those between the shot and confirming a lethal hit. Because big mule deer often live in broken brushy terrain, this task is harder than it might seem to the uninitiated. After a shot, I always remember the old proverb "Fools rush in."
Thanks for following this hunt to completion. I truly hope you learned something that will help you Take the Best Buck of Your Life
I'll draw for The Vortex Diamondback 3-12 x 42 with BDC Reticle (shown below) on 12/22 according to the rules posted here. Make sure you check your email as you'll only have 24 hours to respond to be entered in the final drawing.
Read all about the research, gear, and techniques I use in my new book, Hunting Big Mule Deer, How to Take the Best Buck of Your Life
I camped as close to the area I wanted to hunt as possible, but I was still about 90 minutes from where most of the deer had showed up in the last few days. That meant 90 minutes of riding a horse in subzero temps. Riding a walking horse is a pretty sedentary activity. About every 20 minutes, I'd have to dismount and walk to warm up. Once in the deer country, I'd tie the horse and hike, so staying warm wasn't as tough; that is until I sat down to glass! What I'm getting at is that while hunting in these conditions can be great, you're always in survival mode.
Today dawned cold and clear- perfect conditions for some Extreme Long Range Glassing (I wrote an entire chapter on this subject in my book). Time for the big Vortex 15x56 Kaibab HD Tripod Binoculars along side my old favorite, the Swarovski CT 75 (I take a lot of ribbing on that scope but I still crown it the best spotter for the backcountry hunter.)
Don't wait too long to get entered. Good luck and thanks for following.
Read all about the research, gear, and techniques I use in my new book, Hunting Big Mule Deer, How to Take the Best Buck of Your Life
Seems like no matter the time of year, there will be good hunting days and bad hunting days. The difference often lies in the conditions. Typically the colder winter weather makes for good and even great hunting (notice the game trails in the freshly fallen snow in the lead image of this post). Problem is, hunting in subzero temperatures (0 was the low, 14 degrees was the high this day) all day long is both mentally challenging and physically tiring.
The migration is in full swing and bucks are rutting hard. If I can stay off the trigger, I might have a chance at a really good buck. Here is today's video.
Buck hunting is about logistics. You can be the best hunter on the planet, but if you don't have the gear and a plan to be where the deer are, no hunting skill can make it up. Today's video is a good example of logistics:
It's day six. I was up at 4:45 to saddle the horse and grab a quick breakfast and coffee. The weather report says a big storm is coming in less than 36 hours and could dump up to 10" of snow at the elevation I've been hunting. With a solid foot on the ground now, I know this will be enough snow to push the deer out of here. Besides that, I might not be able to get camp out to the main road as even now I'm chained up on all fours and can barely get around.
On migration hunts, you have to pay close attention to the conditions- snow depth and temperature (and in some units, the calendar)- on a daily basis. The deer are responding to those conditions and if you don't, you might end up where there are few deer, even if hundreds were in the area just days ago. That is why migration hunts can be frustrating to the unprepared.
With day 4 already here, I had hunted most of the immediate area on foot and by glassing from the truck. I'd seen some good bucks, even one crowding the 180" mark.
I think one reason many people are drawn to mule deer is because glassing for them is fun. I think in some cases we can actually spend too much time glassing but when the conditions are right, no other technique will show you more deer.
One of the techniques I write about extensively in my new book, Hunting Big Mule Deer, How to Take the Best Buck of Your Life, is Still-Hunting. A few generations ago before scopes and rifles capable of shooting beyond 100 yards became widely available, still-hunting was more popular. However, even today it's the perfect technique for hunting the timber and brush of the West where so many mature mule deer spend the dayllight hours.
While I wait all year to hunt big big bucks, I'm surprised at the emotion I sometimes experience as the hunt approaches: Dread! That's right, dread. I can't really explain it but it's a common emotion I feel (I've heard other serious hunters admit the same thing). I find it's worse if I'm going to be hunting alone.
As mid October approaches across the West, I think some of the toughest hunting conditions for big mule deer are upon us. Unless you are hunting opening day or it's cold and snowing, big bucks spend a big portion of their days in the thick and nasty. You have to rely heavily on tracks and knowledge of your area to know where to be at the prime hours, which are the first and last half hours of legal shooting light. MIss those times and your odds plummet for locating a big buck.
While I hunt many places in Idaho and the West to take advantage of the different seasons, here are the last three days of the general rifle hunt in this unit. I share some of my tips for finding big mule deer at the toughest time of the year:
Make sure you subscribe so you don't miss my preparation for the upcoming rut rifle hunt including a caliber change from my long-time favorite, the 7mm Remington Magnum, and a new ultra-light rifle test. Simply click "Subscribe to blog" upper right under Fitness/Other links.
If you want to learn how to hunt big bucks in the West , check out my new book, Hunting Big Mule Deer, by clicking on the cover sample below.
As you saw, archery hunting for Big Mule Deer is no cakewalk. Although big bucks are more visible during the early season, your weapon dictates that you have to be very close- something that is typically hard to do with older wiser bucks.
Now it's time to switch to the early rifle season. Around the West, many mule deer hunts occur in early October. The bucks are harder to hunt as they've moved into or closer to the cover by this time. If it's opening day or there is little hunting pressure, you can sometimes catch them out of the thick stuff. However, I've learned that if you aren't seeing them in the wide-open basins, you gotta figure out where they might be hiding and still-hunt, track, or ambush-hunt those areas to have a chance. Here's how that looks in real life:
Also, as I move into the later seasons, my gear changes.
First and most obvious is my weapon. I learned about 20 years ago that heavy rifles don't have much place in hard-core mule deer hunting for the DIY guy. You simply have to hunt too many days to put up with overweight guns. I like my rifle under 8 lbs, including scope. For 2015, I'm shooting the Christensen Arms Summit Carbon topped with a Vortex Diamondback HP 3-12 x 42 in 270 WSM. This is an entire project that I'll be posting on later this month.
I'm also switching to a larger tent. Later in the fall, you spend more time in your tent due to long nights and a greater chance for bad weather. I'm using the Seek Outside Cimarron for the extra space and weight savings. This allows for a wood-stove option if needed with not much weight penalty over my two-man backpack tent with no stove. More on this set up later.
You can read about all the techniques and gear I use to hunt big mule deer in my new book, Hunting Big Mule Deer: How to Take the Best Buck of Your Life. Just click on the cover below...
The general archery season in Idaho runs August 30th to September 30th. I hunted 19 days of that season and I'm always surprised how fast it goes by. Here's a video wrap-up of Huntin' the Pockets. Thanks for following...
While I love the high country, over the years I've found that some of the best bucks live in the lower elevation aspen/conifer zone of the West. High country certainly can hold some great bucks, but it can't handle much hunting pressure due to the open terrain. Combine that with the ability of more rifleman to shoot long-range, the quality of bucks in the high country across the West seems to be declining.
I'm back. I arrived at the trailhead at the end of my high country hunt earlier this month and set my Athens Convixtion bow on the hood of my truck so I could unsaddle the horses. It started to slide off the hood, so I leaned it against the tire (you know what's coming) and threw my leather gloves on the hood so I'd have a reminder about my bow. Well, in the meantime, the wind blew the gloves off the hood where I couldn't see them. With 10 days of hunting behind me, I was eager to get on the road for home, momma, and the kids and quickly ran over my bow equipped with a Black Gold Ascent sight, Ripcord rest and Tight Spot Quiver. After a few choice words, I composed myself and accepted what happened.
As the title says, it's day 10 of this hunt. That's 10 days of solid hunting from the desert to the high country OTC on mostly public land. I've hiked, rode horses, glassed till my eyes blurred, and even made a few stalks. Check out my last day and see if I was able to pull it off (remember, the last day can be the best day):