Eight Questions about Mule Deer Hunting Answered by Guides and Outfitters

A mule deer buck

Whenever we discuss vacations at our family meetings, my grandmother always asks the same question: “Why are you always talking about some exotic places? What’s wrong with this great country?” I used to reply with a joke about “saving the tastiest bits for later” and “before they close their borders on us”. But suddenly travel bans become a reality, and many Americans, who might have otherwise been seduced by the wonders of Africa, Europe and Asia, are now focusing on travelling and hunting in the USA (as confirmed by our survey). 

We already published Ron Spomer’s take on why “Target Pronghorn for Your First Western Hunt”. Today we’ll cover another iconic species of the American West: the Mule Deer. As you know well, BookYourHunt.com is an online marketplace, where outfitters post their hunts. So, I asked the outfitters who post mule deer hunts a few first-timer’s questions about mule deer hunting and this is what I learned. 

Q: Where do I go for a good mule deer hunt?

A: Prepare to get high!

Mule deer inhabit a wide range of habitats: desert sage brush country, mesquite flats, oak-covered mountains in Arizona and all the way up to steep mountain ridges that will make a sheep proud. But wherever you go hunting, your hunt will be quite a while up above the sea level – anywhere between 4,000 and 11,000 feet. 

The subspecies of mountain mule deer behave almost like goats staying in the highest reaches of alpine country far longer than the rest of the animals”, says Patrick Tabor Jr. of Swan Mountain Outfitters

But isn’t it a good thing? Mountain hunting is usually perceived as the most ethical and rewarding, but also one of the most challenging types of hunting. And this is precisely what, according to our outfitters, stands between most new mule deer hunters and getting their trophies. 

“Most hunters don’t realize how much altitude affects them” – says Johnny Bergeson of Trophy Room Outfitters in Wyoming – “They get tired fast and as a result they make poor shots. It cost one of my clients a record book moose bull in 2019. They don’t realize even if they are in good shape, the altitude will still affect them”.  

Mule deer are often found up in the mountains

You should take your time and prepare well for the shot, considering carefully steep angles of the mountains that cause many a miss for hunters who mostly hunt on plains. It’s easy to misjudge distances, wind direction and speed. Most hunters tend to shoot too high rather than too low. However, wide open spaces may present an opposite problem – unlike objects in the mirror, mule deer are not as close as they appear to an untrained eye. 

Q: What’s the best time for a mule deer hunt?

A: Depends on what you want

If you want your mule deer hunt to be a mountain hunt, you should not only go to hunt in a mountainous region, but also schedule your hunt accordingly. Generally, the rule of thumb is that the mule deer are up there early in the season and descend to lower regions later in the season. Therefore, by contrast, if you are not sure you’re up to the physical demands of a mountain hunt, think later in the season. Landscape diversity allows a good outfitter to adjust the hunt to the physical ability of the hunter.

“You’re often hunting in mountainous terrain above the treeline in the early season and the deer tend to migrate out to lower country with the oncoming rut and snow conditions of November” – says Tom Kotlarz of Silent Mountain Outfitters“Hunting during September is one of my personal favorite times to hunt as the bucks are usually found in bachelor groups and it’s hard to beat alpine scenery where they hang out at that time of year. By November they travel lower down in elevation as mature bucks start looking for does and winter range. During this time some of the bigger bucks can show up out of nowhere due to the rut getting the better of their senses.”

Big bucks prefer rolling hills, often as rough and steep as they can find in the area, where they can easily evade predators. If they have this option, they will come down to fields to feed. Good guides take advantage of this behavior and intercept the deer on their travel routes. In winter, they get down to lower altitudes and prefer sticking closer to agricultural areas which provide a better food source. Bad weather drives mule deer to cover, nice weather has them more in the open. 

“Our tactics and techniques vary depending on the season and time of year.” – says Steven Ward of Ward’s Outfitters“Our early archery season mainly consists of spot and stalking bachelor herds of bucks in large flats and sitting water. During our rifle seasons, the main technique is glassing, locating and putting bucks to bed and then making the move in for the kill. During our December and January archery season, the main techniques are spotting and stalking, calling and sitting large agriculture fields.

Q: What gun or bow should I bring?

A: The one you shoot best with!

Admit it. Deep in their hearts most hunters love to be told they need to buy a gun or bow. Shopping around, talking with gurus and experts, holding a new weapon, sighting it in – many people enjoy this foreplay almost as much as the hunt itself. Well, in the case of a mule deer hunt chances are that you don’t need that new rifle. If you’re a mountain hunter, pack your sheep and goat rifle. If you mostly hunt white-tailed deer, your deer rifle will do, as long as it’s chambered for a 300+ yard cartridge like .30-06 or .280. Familiarity with your weapon is more important than a slightly better accuracy or a slightly flatter trajectory. 

If you absolutely insist to have a special mule deer slaying wand, get a quality light-weight accurate bolt action like Kimber Mountain Rifle, Christensen Arms, Weatherby, or custom-built Remington, chambered for a flat-shooting round such as 6.5 PRC, 6.5 Creedmoor, 257 Weatherby, 7 mm. magnum or .300 RUM. Top it with a powerful scope like a 6.5×20 Leopold Mark-4 with good light gathering and range of magnification. There are many other great actions, calibers, and scopes that will work just as well or even better, but the above are a few examples of the types of weapons our outfitters and guides trust.

A nice mule deer with antlers in velvet

As for archery gear, the fine balance of attunement between you and your particular weapon is much more important than with rifle shooting. Most outfitters don’t even offer to lend their bows to their clients because it is such a fine-tuned to the individual shooter scenario. In short, if you can’t bring your own bow you can shoot well, forget about archery hunting for mule deer. 

Q: What should I do so as not to spook mule deer?

A: Mind the smell! 

This is a bit counterintuitive. Mule deer are creatures of the wide open spaces, and are usually hunted by the spot-and-stalk method. They are also graced with proverbially good ears, and are indeed good at hearing things. So you would think that while mule deer hunting you ought to focus on not letting them see or hear you, with smell a secondary consideration. And yet, most outfitters agree that it’s their sense of smell that busts more hunts than any other sense! Perhaps it’s because of our human-centric vision: we are better at seeing and hearing than at smelling, so it’s easier for us to make sure we’re not seen or heard than smelt. 

Smell control is especially important for archery hunting, but is important for rifle hunters as well. The most important thing you can do about it is to work the wind, which also helps to carry away the sounds you may possibly make. You should probably trust your guide’s judgment, in most occasions, in how to play the wind, especially in the mountains. Mountain winds are fickle with downdrafts in the morning quickly turning to updrafts once the sun crests the horizon and warms the air. The only to come right back down once the sun begins to hide itself behind the westward ridges. But it’s totally up to you to reduce your own smell to the minimum. Deer may be as attractive to you as a sexual partner of your own species, but they won’t be attracted by a heavy smell of your favorite perfume!

Mule deer are amazing creatures. They may seem a bit more “tame” or less switched on than whitetails, especially whitetails in states with high hunting pressures. But when a muley knows it’s being hunted, it can disappear from his usual haunts like a ghost in the darkness.. A lot of hunters underestimate the hearing, seeing, and smelling powers of the mule deer.

Q: What else should I bring?

A: Good optics, raingear, but no muck boots please! 

Like in all mountain hunting, good gear is essential. That includes boots, raingear, and clothes. But the single most important item of gear are optics. “I find that most first time mule deer hunters are lacking the optics needed to be successful mule deer hunting” – says Dustin of Big Rack Outfitters.Whether it’s about binoculars, a spotting scope, or a riflescope, when it comes to your vision there’s no substitute for quality. You may be glassing hard for hours, and the strain from bad lenses will wear on you. You can save a lot of unnecessary wasted effort and bootleather in the mountains by letting good optics do much of your “hunting”, saving yourself for when you really need to make that stalk count. Also, think about a good but light tripod for your spotting scope. 

Spotting plays an important part in mule deer hunting

Another essential item of gear is footware. Most hunters show up with less than adequate, already worn out or uninsulated boots regardless of the previous conversations” – says Johnny Bergeson – “with one of my hunters, the soles fell off on the first day. They thought their boots were good enough until that happened, so we ended up spending half a day going to town for a new pair”. 

Jen Jenkins of Great Plains Outfitters agrees: “We have a lot of hunters that bring their “muck boots” since that is what they hunt whitetails in. DON’T DO IT! Muck boots are not made for walking long distances, they tend to give you blisters and make you feel older than you really are the next day. You need a good boot that you are comfortable walking on uneven terrain in and for long distances if need be!” Needless to say, the boots you wear must be “broken in”. Good ankle support is a must as well as most hunters aren’t used to the demands on your ankles from sidehilling and the steep uphill and downhill treks of the mountains.

Last but not the least, mule deer may inhabit desert country which hardly ever sees the rain. But in other places raingear may be the most important part of your kit. Besides pure comfort, hypothermia is a serious health risk. With cheap raingear, you may get soaked in your own sweat if you move a lot under the rainy conditions, even though not a single raindrop penetrates it. Pick high quality gear from proven brands such as Kryptek, Kuiu or Sitka. In the mountains, your life can literally depend on it.

Q: How do I prepare for my mule deer hunt?

A: Get in shape and practice!

Getting yourself in shape for any hunt is key to success but never more so than on mountain hunts. A hunter who is fit to hunt the rolling hills of his home area are often quickly humbled in the mountains. Walking stairs or bleachers with a weighted pack well before your hunt will not only get you in shape and raise your odds of success, and reduce chances of injury by strengthening legs and ankles, you will enjoy your hunt much more if you aren’t struggling or worrying about your heart blowing out of your chest. 

Practice ought to be a no-brainer, no matter what particular hunt we’re talking about. A flat-shooting rifle, a rangefinder and quality optics are a great help in long-distance shooting, but the best gear in the world is useless if you don’t do your part. Take your time to steady yourself before the shot, don’t think yourself above shooting from a rest, and – practice, practice, practice! 

Gene Plihal of Plihal’s Frank Lke Guiding says: the biggest error of first-time mule deer hunters is lack of advance target shooting. Rolling terrain can be deceptive in judging distance, so it’s important to acquaint oneself with how one’s gun functions at various ranges. Why spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on a mule deer hunt if you don’t spend 50-100 on bullets on a target range?”

Laziness and greed are both mortal sins, and even if you’re an atheist, don’t give in to them. Take a few practice shots on arrival to the site of your hunt, to make sure your rifle sends the bullets where you think they should go. And don’t forget that glassing needs to be practiced, too. Chances are, your eyes don’t often get a chance to focus on objects a few hundred yards or even miles away. When you suddenly force them to do so, they may get tired quickly leading to eye fatigue and headaches, which may in turn cost you dearly when it’s time to shoot. 

Q: How do I get a big one?

A: Listen to your guide, and never give up!

What is the difference between a hunter that can harvest a big mule deer buck, and the one who doesn’t seem to be able to? Of course luck can be a factor but many other factors can come into play. This could be because of their goals, or because one hunts prime private land while the other may be hunting only overcrowded public lands, or due to lack of good equipment. But the single most important factor in success is perseverance. The more time you spend in the woods, the harder you hunt, the further you go, the better are your chances. 

A mule deer buck in a field

One way of “giving up” is to shoot the first legal deer that walks your way. Nothing wrong with that if your goal is to just fill the freezer or take a “representative” buck,  but if your goal is to kill an old, mature deer that everyone would be proud of, you must hold out. It is a common saying in hunting, “you can’t kill a big one if you shoot a little one.” However, not every first-time mule deer hunter will be able to estimate accurately the size of the buck or its rack. Mule deer antlers are just in general much larger frames than whitetail antlers so it is easy for a first time mule deer hunter to misjudge the size. 

“The size of these deer is deceiving so listening to your guide can be a huge advantage when you’re trying to figure out the age or approximate score in a buck” – says Richard A. Schneider of J&J Guide Service

In any case, our outfitters say in unison that you should not compromise your standards. Hunt for the buck of your dreams, adapting your tactics to changing conditions, and you shall be rewarded.

Should I book a mule deer hunt? – Hell yeah!

When you first look at these “deer hunts” you may wonder what all the fuss is all about. But the more you learn about it, the more you will want to do it. “There is no experience like hunting a mountain mule deer high up in the mountains of Montana. There are few animals that will test your stamina, patience and resolve like these cliff dwellers. It’s the epitome of fair chase mountain hunting” says Patrick Tabor Jr.

“The way we hunt mule deer in our outfit embodies most styles of mountain hunting around the world making it a very rewarding hunt. Not only are you hunting in some of the most beautiful country you can find anywhere but also there’s some dandy bucks around with the chance of getting something extraordinary. Stalking a big old mulie buck in the alpine is a feat that’s hard to beat!” says Tom Kotlarz. In short, if you’ve always wanted to experience mountain hunting but can’t afford an ibex or sheep hunt, mule deer on high elevations is your best bet.

Mule deer can fill the freezer as good as any whitetail or exotic species, and in the early season, especially in the plains, are easy enough to kill. However, many outfitters point out that unlike whitetails, mule deer numbers have been in decline recently in many states. If you’re only after meat, it may be the more responsible things to hunt a more numerous species instead. “But, if I am after that buck of a lifetime with chocolate brown antlers, huge mass and 300 plus lbs of meat you will always find me hunting in the most rugged mountain ranges” says Patrick Tabor Jr.

And they will give you a great experience away from the crowd. If whitetailed deer woods during the rifle season in your state look and sound like someone wanting to fight the Great War over again, this is something you’re not likely to experience during a mule deer hunt. The hunts normally take place in sparsely populated regions, and most outfitters prefer not to take a lot of hunters. 

“Mule deer are such an iconic animal and the big mature bucks are difficult to kill. It really is a great accomplishment to be able to put one of these old boys up on your wall and in your freezer. The scenery here is amazing, the terrain is very hunter friendly and the camp atmosphere is fun” says Jen Jenkins. The tight circle of friends, the camaraderie and friendships made around the campfire, good company and friendly atmosphere come as a standard feature of our typical mule deer hunts. Book one and see for yourself. 

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