Updated July 27, 2023
Several books have been published on finding and killing Giant Mule Deer, and all of these books, no doubt, address several of the key components to achieving this lofty goal. However, if giant mule deer is still on your bucket list, these tips for mule deer hunting success are worth the read.
As a young man, I noticed each year before the Mule Deer season, every gas station and sporting goods store in my town sold orange hats with their company name and a giant mule deer logo proudly displayed on the front. By giant bucks, I mean the kind of bucks with an insanely heavy main frames with a half a dozen cheaters and in-lines on each side. Those goofy looking Elmer's Fudd hats, as we called them, always got me wound up for the upcoming deer hunt. I have always dreamed of killing a buck like the ones on the fronts of those hats. The truth is, most hunters will never see a buck like that in their lifetime let alone kill one.
So what’s "The Big Secret" to consistently putting big bucks on the ground? The truth is, I don’t believe there are any secrets. If a giant buck is what you are after, it’s good to have a solid plan to achieve your goal.
In recent years there appears to be big movement in regards to fitness and hunting. I’m not picking on the fitness guys. Fitness can certainly play a role in success. However, I believe it is overemphasized concerning other areas that should receive equal focus. It seems every year the same group of fitness gurus that eat tag soup or take a buck well below their goal, commit themselves to more time in the gym as if their lack of strength and endurance was the cause for their unpunched tag. While
I’m not at all against being physically fit, fitness will only get you so far when it comes to notching your tag on a big ole Muley. This is probably the most important mule deer hunting tip.
The focus and prioritization are simply off balance. I don’t care if you can run marathons and bench press 300 lbs, you're not going to kill big deer if you are hunting in units with poor genetics.
Likewise, physical stamina doesn’t always translate into being accurate with your weapon of choice. While there are several components to putting a big buck on the ground, I would like to focus on two. If you want to increase your odds of wrapping your hands around a big buck, you must first and foremost hunt where big bucks live, and second, make your first shot count.
Hunt The Right Unit
Growing up, we had a family tradition of hunting the same unit and area every year. It was a 2-hour hike up a rugged canyon trail in the dark to a place we called the ledges. It is the “buckies” looking canyon you can imagine. The only problem is, it was always void of big bucks.
One tip in hunting mule deer is this.You gotta hunt units that have the genetics to grow big deer. The record books bare this out. For example, a quick examination of B&C will reveal that Eagle County Colorado has more entries than any other county in the state, but keep in mind that is for all time. Likewise, Lincoln County in Wyoming is a top producing county for Wyoming. While that is good information, it is also pretty general. You want to be more surgical in your research by narrowing it down to counties within a state, which have produced the most entries in the last 5 years. From there it's a matter of narrowing it down to units within those counties.
After getting married, I started to hunt more on my own. I tried some new areas, and it wasn’t long before I was seeing more mature bucks. After hunting several units, I began to notice a pattern. Some units did not produce big bucks no matter how hard I scouted or hunted. While many of these units maintained healthy populations of deer and even had the great buck to doe ratios, they all seemed to be lacking the essential ingredient: Genetics.
Check The Record Books
This can certainly be a helpful tool, but data mining the record books really only gives you broad search results. In today’s age of information and subscription-based hunting services, the big gold nuggets have been flushed out into the wide open. With minimal effort, the average hunter can know the top mule deer units in every state. This is another tip for hunting mule deer that can be very helpful in your hunt.
The unit I took this buck in is a consistent producer of big bucks. It receives immense pressure from public land hunters, so the number of mature bucks is minimal, but they are there as evidenced by this old mature buck.
The more you are out hunting the better your odds are of connecting on a giant buck. There are a few states I will make an exception. For example, in Utah, the Henry Mountains and Paunsagunt is the gold standard for mule deer. In Arizona, 13B is the best of the best. It’s no secret 44 in Eagle County Colorado is a top shelf unit for big bucks.
These are your big gold nuggets that frankly, take more points to draw than most hunters will ever have in their lifetime. Since mule deer are my passion, I keep a mental record on which units big bucks are coming from. With few exceptions, many of the largest mule deer come from units that can be drawn with few, if any points.
Find A "Honey Hole"
What you're looking for in the data mining process are small gold nuggets. The small gold nuggets you are looking for are units you can draw every year or every 1-2 years, which consistently produce a few big bucks. I have been hunting units like this for the past 15 years and have put many good bucks on the wall.
Finding and applying for these units is only half the battle. You need to put in the time scouting to find the “honey holes;” within the units that consistently produce the top end bucks. What better way to get in some fitness than to scout your unit from top to bottom. All but a couple of my biggest bucks have come from units you can draw with 0-2 points.
There is a reason it only takes 0-2 points to draw a unit. Many of these easy to draw tags are archery or muzzleloader which comes with a lower success rate. These units also have fewer mature bucks, as a result of more tags and hence more hunters. However, in my experience, your best chance of hunting a big buck undisturbed is on the archery hunts or early muzzleloader hunts. I have taken more big bucks in August and September than any other time.
Know Their Habits
This is a big investment of time and money, but it also pays big dividends. Scouting big bucks is only one part of the equation. You must learn his habits; Where does he bed? Where does he feed, and finally where does he escape too when he's spooked? The one Achilles heel big bucks have, is they will generally stay in the same geographical area until they migrate. Once you find and observe a big buck, stay with it until he makes a mistake. Just because you can't glass him up, doesn't mean he has left. These old bucks are extremely cagey. They don't get rattled, and every move they make is calculated using all of their senses. In order for a big buck to survive 5+ years and multiple seasons of hunting pressure, means he don't make a lot of mistakes. The key is to be there to capitalize when he does. Learning his habits, will put you in a better position to capitalize.
The old timer proverb "The early bird gets the worm," certainly applies to hunting giant mule deer. It’s a biological fact that mule deer bucks are less active during daylight hours in October than they are in August and early September. I’m not
suggesting you can’t take a big buck in October, but the odds aren’t in your favor. Furthermore, archery equipment and the archers using it are so advanced that archers are killing a lot of the top end deer.
If you are dead set on hunting with a rifle, look at some of the rut hunts in Colorado that can be drawn with very few points. The opportunities to hunt big bucks every year are plentiful. With some research and scouting, you can nail down several units that will give you a chance to hunt big bucks year in and year out. Believe me, there are more options than you might realize.
Mentally Prepare For The Shot
It’s embarrassing to admit, but as a young man, I was a terrible shot when the moment of truth arrived. This mule deer hunting tip could really help you in the long run. I could shoot the X ring out of a paper target with a rifle, but when I had an animal in front of me, I couldn’t seem to compose myself for an accurate shot. Thankfully this bad habit was short lived. As a teenager I always hunted with a rifle, however, in my early 20’s, I started hunting with a muzzleloader and bow. Hunting with primitive weapons made me a better shooter. It was a mental thing for me. In my mind, I knew I had but one shot so I would commit to a little extra time to compose myself before executing the shot.
I taught myself to make the shot mentally before I made it physically. It has made all the difference. Whether I’m shooting my bow or a long gun, the mental process is the same. Acquire the target, and then maintain target acquisition through the shot. As silly as it sounds, practice makes perfect. Spend plenty of time at the range developing the mental process that plays a key role in accuracy. What works for one doesn’t work for all. I like to hold my breath through the shot, yet some shooters will tell you this is a bad habit. My advice is let your groups and hence your accuracy determine what is working and what is not.
Make The First Shot Count
One common frustration all guides have, without exception, is clients missing easy shots on trophy animals. I find it amusing that hunters will spend 1000’s of hours in the gym, $1000 on hunting equipment and an outfitter, and two decades worth of preference points only to miss the trophy of a lifetime because they didn’t invest time at the range.
Practice, Practice, Practice! I can’t stress it enough.
I shot this buck at 229 yards with my iron sight black powder rifle. Practicing at that distance helped me to make the shot when the moment of truth arrived.
Fat guys wearing cheap camo can kill big bucks if they can shoot. All the money and points in the world can’t buy you a big buck if you can’t connect with a lethal shot. Making your first shot count is a common sense principle, yet it’s the one critical piece to putting a big buck on the ground that is often approached casually.
Invest In Quality Hunting Gear
While guys wearing cheap camo can tag out on some pretty big bucks, having the right gear can put you further ahead. Mule deer country ranges from low rolling foothills to above the timberline. And weather can change in an instant. If you want to wrap your tag around one of these elusive monsters, you need to invest in high quality hunting gear that will allow you to stay on the mountain and hunt hard. SKRE created the Mule Deer Bundle to allow you to do this - giving you an advantage over those who do opt for cheap camo and end up having to quit their hunt early.
Whether you are pursuing giant bucks above timberline, or in the vast high desert country, remember a hunter is only as good as his gear. A quality layering system is a means to an end. Crafty marketing graphs, and technical data charts look impressive in a catalog, but bare little weight when it comes to performance in the field. SKRE, crafts layering systems that plain and simple work.
Some of the top athletes in the world have a bad game or two. Some even have a bad season. So how does a top athlete return to greatness? Without exception, they get back to the basics. Finding and killing giant mule deer is no different. You have to be doing all the right things consistently with the right tools if you want any chance at a buck of this caliber. The intention of this article is not divulge new techniques, but to really get back to doing the kinds of things that most hunters already know they should be doing. Giant mule deer are very hard to come by. It takes age, genetics, and good feed to grow bucks of this caliber. Unfortunately, those factors rarely line up especially on public land easy to draw units; but when they do, mother nature can grow the kind of bucks we all dream about. In my experience, the glory days of hunting giant bucks are back. I’m confident that allocating more time to researching, scouting, and shooting will place you at the end of some short blood trails.