Mule Deer Mysteries

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We spotted the bucks just after sunrise, grazing on an open face far above timberline. We were far below. There would be no time to get in position for a shot before they went to bed down in an almost impenetrable thicket of krummholz, the dense, short pines found above timberline in the Rockies.

So we took our time. We hunted up through a stand of dark timber a mile away, looking for elk, and almost got in on a herd before a cow spooked out on us. We made it to a sunny meadow at about 10 a.m. where it was perfect for a mid-morning nap.

After half an hour, I nudged Dan awake. An avid upland bird hunter, this was his first big-game hunt, and he was walking along with me as I tried to fill a muzzleloader elk and a muzzleloader deer tag. “Wanna go after those bucks?” I said.

He looked up at the mountain, still a couple thousand vertical feet above us. “What do you think our chances of success are?” he said. “Close to fifty-fifty,” I replied. “Maybe 40 percent.”

“Is that worth it?” Dan asked.

“When you consider that the statewide average is about 30 percent for all hunters for the whole season, you bet,” I said. “Okay,” Dan said. “Let’s go.”

To make a long story short, we hiked uphill for two hours, crested the ridge at 12,520 feet and then walked down on the bedding area. Sure enough, at 3:00 in the afternoon, three bucks walked out for an afternoon snack. I sneaked through the krummholz until I closed the gap to 100 yards, put the bead of my muzzleloader on a nice fat 4x4, squeezed the trigger, and we had meat.

Of all the calls I field from guys wanting to book hunts, the fellows who don’t have a trophy mule deer on the wall seem to be the most…well, desperate. For an animal that has a reputation for standing there looking at an approaching hunter, the mule deer has got an awful lot of guys perplexed. “I’ve killed a bunch of elk,” they tell me, “but I’ve never been able to find a nice mule deer buck.”

Part of the problem is the mulie’s vast range of habitat. I pulled the trigger on that 4x4 this fall at 12,300 feet. Just recently I was visiting a friend over in Delta who farms several hundred acres. He pulled a pile of nice big mule deer racks out of the rafters of his barn, all taken on his property at just over 4,000 feet in elevation. That’s 8,000 vertical feet and about 80 miles distance, and there are nice bucks all the way in between.

But how do you find them?

First, it helps to know the migrating patterns of the deer where you choose to hunt. In the early fall, bucks hang together in bachelor herds of anywhere from two or three to a dozen or more males. Depending on the variety of local terrain, they may be anywhere from high above timberline to in the middle of a cornfield. Around the beginning of November, the bucks start to join the does in anticipation of the rut, which gets in full swing from mid-November to mid-December.

In high-mountain terrain, you’ll typically find mature bucks at elevations much higher than does during until the rut begins. If you’re hunting in mountainous terrain, go up as high as possible and look for grazing deer on high-alpine slopes at dawn and dusk. If you’re looking in terrain that does not reach over 11,500 feet in elevation—and there are certainly big bucks present at lower elevations—look for the roughest, craggiest territory around, particularly where there are no four-wheel-drive roads or ATV tracks.

Big mule deer bucks like to live in an environment where they can make a quick exit from danger. If I can describe a big mulie’s ideal bedding area, it would be on a craggy knob near a canyon rim or sharp ridge, sheltered by a thick juniper tree or krummholz, but still offering a clear view of a wide expanse of terrain from above. If a predator approaches, he can make two or three quick jumps and be in the next basin. He’ll graze on lush mountain grasses in a small, high meadow, and drink from a trickling spring that you may not have noticed.

So do you think he’s going to tolerate a bunch of guys running around in the woods on ATV’s? I don’t think so! If you’re going to find big mulies, you’re going to have to walk. Though it’s fairly common to ride up on a herd of elk on horseback, it’s not nearly as common to see a big mulie that way.

Once you think you’ve got it figured out, let’s throw in the snow factor. You may have spotted a herd of respectable bucks on a high ridge above a wide-open meadow full of does and fawns. Good for you. Go get ‘em. But once it snows much over a foot, they’re gone. Two of my highest camps consistently yield nice bucks to the guys who hunt them, and they report seeing dozens of nice deer. Once there’s a fairly heavy snowfall, however, there’s not a deer anywhere in the country. A few days later, the hayfields near Carbondale, about 30 miles away, start filling up with deer.

That coincides with the deer’s diet. A deer’s stomach acids start to change as mountain grasses start to dry up and yellow, and snow begins to fall. It’s common knowledge that deer can’t eat green hay during the winter, because their stomachs cannot properly digest the rich forage. A deer’s winter diet is browse—twigs such as Gambel oak, red willow, serviceberry, mountain mahogany, snowberry, sagebrush, and if available, dry grasses. So if you’re hunting during the late seasons and there’s lots of snow on the ground, look for deer in the foothills and lower ranges. This usually coincides nicely with the rut, so if you’re going after late-season mulies, you might be hunting at elevations far lower than during the earlier archery, muzzleloader, and rifle seasons.

So, to crystallize my information into a simple paragraph, look for big bucks in the high, wide, and lonesome during the earlier seasons, and when the snow starts to fall and the migration and rut simultaneously occur, look for them in good winter habitat.

There is much talk amongst hunters about the 30-inch-wide mule deer as the magical trophy. Who came up with that number? As I write this article, I’m glancing up at a 29-inch buck hanging on my office wall, and let me tell you, it’s a damn big buck. In this day and age of decreasing habitat, increasing hunter pressure, and declining mule deer numbers, you’d be well advised to consider any buck over about 24 inches wide to be wall-worthy. Sure, you can hold out for a 32-inch monster, but don’t get frustrated if that goal is never realized.

I observed over a dozen hunters this fall who had used over 6 preference points to draw for a coveted early September high-country buck tag in the Colorado wilderness. To a man, they all talked about 30-inch bucks as their goal. After four or five fruitless days of hunting the elusive 30-inchers—and there were a few of them up there—the 24- and 26-inch bucks started falling.

Even at that width, a buck can really be a special trophy. It takes a score of 190 to make the Boone & Crockett record book, and I once watched a guy measure a 15-inch-wide buck that ended up scoring 170. It had heavy, deep-forked antlers, and was an impressive deer despite its narrow spread. If your goal is to make the record book, look for a deer with good mass and very symmetrical, deep-forked antlers. The buck I killed this fall was only 20 inches or so wide, but I consider it a trophy because I killed it at 12,300 feet with a percussion muzzleloader. I wanted to know if I could do it.

If there’s one piece of information that I wish to stress above all else, it’s scouting. If you think you can roll up to Meeker, Craig, Kit Carson, Dove Creek, or any other town known for big mule deer, and then walk out the next morning and kill a big one, you’re wrong. You need to know where you’re going well in advance of the hunting season. If you’re from out of state, then there’s a good excuse to take the family for a summer vacation. If you’re from in state, then there’s really no excuse. Plan your trip so that you’re in deer habitat early and late in the day, and then go swimming or fishing with the kids in the middle of the day. You may just end up locating a monster for the coming fall.


arrowflipper's picture


I thoroughly enjoyed this story (essay) on mule deer hunting.  It is full of good advice and has some great pictures.

The 30 inch magic number.  You can say what you want, but the 30 inch number will stick.  We all want a 30 incher.  That sure doesn't mean I won't take a smaller buck.  I've only seen a couple of 30+ bucks while hunting.  Both were in Utah.  One was a 3X3 that was 4 to 6 inches outside his ears and fairly tall.  He was more than impressive.  But it was the day before the season and I was carrying nothing but my binoculars.  Why did I leave the camera in camp?  He was only 50 yards away, feeding in the open.

The other one was during the season and I was armed.  Unfortunately, he got no closer than 90 yards and my Matthews bow just doesn't fling arrows that far (accurately).  He was a true monster.  What I call a "Mollyhawker".  BIG!!  There were two of us and we estimated him at very close to 40 inches.  I consider myself lucky just to see one that big.

I agree with Gary about spending time scouting during the year.  In my opinion, you can't spend too much time in the field.  It's good to see what the animals are doing at different times of the year and it's great just to get out and smell the freshness.  I have learned a lot by going out scouting early in the year.  The bucks may not be right where I saw them in the summer, but hopefully, they won't be too far away.

Thanks for an informative and enjoyable story about mule deer.


hunter25's picture

A great article and since I

A great article and since I live and hunt in the same areas he is talking about make it even better. This article was written in 2004 and sadly some of the fields he talked about by Carbondale are now filling up with houses. Theres still a lot of great bucks out there though.

I'm glad you mentioned that the magic 30 is not the end all for a trophy buck. My personal best only measures 21" at it's widest but has a gross score of 172 and nets 168. Symetry and deep forks is where it's all at. The wider bucks do look great but the others are just as good.

Thanks for taking the time to share this information with everyone.

jim boyd's picture

Another great article by Gary

Another great article by Gary and one that also, again, includes some great photographs.

Them more I read, the more I am ready to pack the pick up and start driving!

Ooops, it is almost December, I have no money and I do not have a tag.

Nix that idea but it sounded good.

Back to the article, you can really tell Gary knows what is going on and is a true western mountain hunter.

It would seem that the true "monarch" mule deer do live up high in the Rockies - his logic makes perfect sense.

I long for the day when I really can go on a hunt like that even if I have to do it below 8000 feet!

Great work!!

Oh can't wait for deer season

Oh can't wait for deer season to get here. Thanks for the great article

jaybe's picture

That's Great

That looks like really great country out there, Gary!

And as was said, it's pretty obvious that you know what you're talking about.

That's a super buck to take with that percussion rifle; well done!

Thanks for the advice on pre-season scouting. No matter where you hunt, there just isn't any substitute for knowing where the game are and what they are feeding on, etc.

Thanks for the great tips.