Hunting the Mule Deer Rut
After a four-year wait, my wife Heather and I finally drew coveted deer tags. Not just any tags mind you; these permits would allow us to hunt on a military base from November 26 through 28 of 2009. So what's the big deal you ask? This annual event is a management hunt designed to cull deer, but more importantly it would allow us to hunt the early stages of the mule deer rut. Each hunter is given three tags, all of which may be used for either mule deer or whitetailed deer, and only one has be used on an antlerless deer. Now, where else can a person harvest two mule deer bucks? While many jurisdictions from Canada all the way down to Old Mexico allow hunting during at least some parts of the mule deer rut, afforded the opportunity to take two if desired, well that was a special treat. Over the years, I've hunted mule deer a lot in the early stages of their annual rut, but rare are the opportunities to hunt the peak of the rut. Allow me to share how our hunt went last fall, and what I've learned about rutting mule deer.
Yes, North America's "other" deer do have a rut cycle... and, if seasons are open, you can capitalize. I learned this firsthand the first morning of my hunt last fall. November 26, Heather and I parked the truck and set out on foot. The sun was already cresting the timberline off to the east. Looking around, I smiled. The area was as close to mule deer heaven as one could imagine. A patchwork of rolling hills laced with spindly aspen, silver sage, and other scrub brush offered reasonable visibility and plenty of food for the deer. Black powder rifle in hand, I'd chosen to still hunt. Mild temperatures complemented by the absence of any breeze whatsoever created ideal acoustics. As I eased my way up on to a knoll, I heard a loud snap. Something large had stepped on a sizeable branch. Near as I could tell, it was probably 150 yards away. Even better still, I was in the perfect spot to cash in. Continuing to follow a heavy deer trail along the spine of the ridge, I advanced. Sometimes you just know it's going to happen and this was one of those deals. Not only was I on the height of land, but the trail I was walking was all sand. Even I could scarcely hear my own footsteps. Finally close to where I thought I might intersect the deer, I carefully peeked down into a shallow basin. Not 50 yards away was the buck and he was coming my way. He wasn't huge, but with an extra buck tag in my pocket, I wasn't going to pass him up.
What intrigued me was the intensity with which he sniffed the ground. He clearly had one thing on his mind. We've all seen this kind of rutting behavior in whitetails, but few of us get to see it in mule deer. I find it fascinating. Bucks normally on alert are not easily fooled, but this guy was clearly preoccupied. So much so in fact, that I opted to lie down on the ridge to steady for the shot. Even though the buck diligently walked across my field of view, there was only a small window of opportunity between the trees. As I shifted, I accidently made a noise that was obviously foreign to him and he halted momentarily to check me out. But that's all he did. In an instant, he dropped his nose back to the ground and proceeded on his way. Surprised, but pleased that he was more focused on finding a breeding partner, I waited until his chest was free and clear, zeroed the crosshairs on his shoulder, grunted to stop him, and squeezed. With a boom and a billow of smoke looming overhead, the rest is history. He piled up just 15 yards from where I'd shot him.
Leaning down for a closer look, the first thing I noticed was the overwhelming odor and soaking wet tarsal glands. To say it was pungent would be a gross understatement. This buck was clearly in full rut. He stunk, and bad! Neck fully swollen, bark shavings plastered just above his pedicles, nasty smelling glands, and a mindset to go with it, there was no denying this deer was rutting hard.
As we would come to affirm, my buck was a zealous player in the pre-rut seeking phase. He'd been searching for hot does and was caught in the crossfire, so to speak. In my experience, the peak estrus for mule deer typically occurs around the first day of December. I couldn't wait to see what the rest of our hunt held for us.
The author took this rutting buck on November 26, 2009
Managing a Vulnerable Species
Volumes have been written highlighting and defining whitetail estrus cycles and explaining breeding behavior, not to mention how hunters can capitalize on increased vulnerability to get that coveted shot opportunity. I think its equally mind-boggling how little is published about mule deer.
Sure mule deer are less mysterious, and in turn, perhaps not as sexy, but they are extraordinary animals nonetheless. This might be at least in part, because mule deer are less secretive. They've been through their bumps and bruises. Overharvested and then managed to recovery in many home ranges across Canada and the U.S.A., they have a history. Part of this management regime involves minimizing the harvest during their most vulnerable time, the peak of the rut. Many hunting seasons are either closed or winding down by the time mule deer rut. An already vulnerable species, the rut exposes them that much more. While mule deer tend to live in a variety of habitats, one thing remains common, and that's their tendency to spend a great deal of time in the open. Overexposure as well, presents shot opportunities and, in turn, makes them easier to kill.
Mule deer are a particularly vulnerable species, in part because they often live in open areas.
Few of us invest the time and energy required to outsmart big mule deer by taking advantage of the rut. Somewhat variable, their biological cycle tends to follow an approximate two-week delay from that of whitetails. For example, if the whitetail estrus peaks around the 14th of November, then the mule deer estrus will likely fall somewhere around the 28th. The breeding season for mule deer in western Canada (i.e., British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan) for instance, occurs during the approximate four week period from mid-November to mid-December, peaking right around the last few days in November or the first few days of December. In the far south, e.g., Texas and Old Mexico, just as whitetails will rut later in December and January, so too will the mule deer however the two-week offset is generally consistent.
By definition, the peak rut period refers to the 48 to 72 hour timeframe in which most does go into estrus. While it is commonly understood that whitetails undergo this rut period throughout the month of November in most northern states and provinces, it is offset by two weeks for mule deer. Even where seasons are open, many mule deer hunters fail to capitalize on this magical period. Particularly vulnerable at this time of year, large bucks become more mobile and visible. Dominant bucks zero in on resident does and stay with them, constantly checking for their state of readiness for breeding. This time of the year presents an exceptional opportunity for trophy buck hunters to locate and take a truly impressive buck as it is common to see them bedded in open areas during daylight hours showing little concern for anything other than their female counterparts.
Just like whitetails, mule deer bucks make rubs and scrapes. While these tell-tale rut signs may be more obvious in the world of the whitetail, they can sometimes be less pronounced in the world of the mule deer. They begin marking territory and rubbing off their velvet early in the season. In most cases their velvet is gone by the end of the first week in September. I've seen it hanging on as late as the third week in September but this is more the exception than the rule. Near the end of September, muley bucks rub their antlers on both coniferous and deciduous trees. These signposts identify territorial boundaries and provide a communication tool for does and other bucks living in the area. Just like whitetails, rubs and scrapes are made to at first identify territories and as the estrus period approaches, primary scrapes are made allowing the bucks to communicate with does by urinating in the scrapes. Pheromones in the urine tell the bucks when does are ready to breed. In my observation, mule deer make less scrapes than whitetails. In general they utilize rubs in the same manner but don't appear to scrape as much.
Rut Hunting Strategy
I was in awe the first time I watched a friend rattle in a mule deer. This happened during a bow hunt nearly 20 years ago. Sitting in stands about 150 yards away from each other I could see down a ridge into a valley. As my buddy rattled, soon enough a doe came eagerly wandering up the ridge and stopped directly under his stand. Looking intently to see what was making the commotion, she had clearly been attracted by the sound of antler on antler. This happened on November 30, right as the mule deer were entering their peak estrus period. Since then, I've seen bucks come in to inspect the familiar sounds of antler on antler as well. In my estimation mule deer respond less to rattling than do whitetails. Much the same as with whitetails, the key to rattling in a mule deer buck lies in hunting areas with a high buck-to-doe ratio where competition for breeding rights is high.
I've hunted mule deer from tree stands over prime food sources during the rut, and it has been very effective. Alternatively my preference is spot and stalk hunting. Like whitetails, mule deer bucks are on the move during the rut. Constantly searching for hot does, they are where you find them. Fortunately mule deer often live in areas that have mountains, rolling hills, river bottoms, coulees, and open farmland. By finding high spots you can spend time glassing for movement. During the rut, it's only a matter of time before you find a buck on the move. Most importantly, focus on doe groups. A buck will show up to breed eventually. Thinking back I'm amazed by many times I've seen exceptional bucks, i.e., in the 170-inch B&C or better class, bedded out in the open during the pre- and peak rut with a harem of five or more does. Their priority is keeping tabs on these does and capitalizing on breeding when the opportunity presents itself. If hunting seasons are open, hunters can close a tag by capitalizing on this increased exposure and vulnerability.
While this buck was taken in September, you can see that he was in the process of
shedding his velvet – a first step in the very earliest stages of the annual rut cycle.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com.
Member of OWAA & OWC.