If hunting mule deer is something that’s on your radar, or if you’re looking to expand your mule deer hunting opportunities into new areas, there are some great options across the west. For the first-timer out west or first time out-of-state, it can be overwhelming to figure out where to start. Prior to researching new areas, I have some broader considerations that help me focus on what I’m looking for before diving deeper into the specifics.
What are your expectations?
I know that I get excited pretty quick when hunting mule deer and that my expectations about what caliber buck I’ll be happy with are much lower than some. I’ve also been fortunate enough to harvest a few mature bucks so I might be a little more selective than others. Either way, I know what my expectations are and can research and ultimately plan a hunt accordingly. If having an opportunity at a true trophy buck is more important than just hunting for a mature, representative animal; factor that into your options. If you’re just looking for a good time and would be happy coming home with a muley buck and a cooler full of meat then look for those opportunities. You’ll likely be hunting a lot sooner and a lot more frequently than most!
How long are you willing to wait?
Trophy areas are no secret, and depending on the tag allocation system in place it may take years, or even decades, to get an opportunity to hunt those areas. In some cases, demand is so much higher than the number of tags issued that you may not get to hunt a particular area in your lifetime! If you don’t want to wait that long or would prefer to hunt more frequently (or even every year!), there are several states and areas that fit that bill. As you would expect, mature bucks are a lot tougher to locate in areas with higher hunting pressure. I like to keep a longer-term strategy so that I’ll eventually draw those “someday” tags while still getting to hunt mule deer every year.
What are you hunting with?
I’m a bowhunter at heart, but prefer to hunt mule deer with a rifle. I also know that if I’m willing and able to hunt with a bow or muzzleloader I’ll have more opportunities to hunt deer, and oftentimes more primitive weapon choices come with more desirable season dates. Most rifle hunts across the west coincide with the toughest time of year to turn up a mature muley buck; after their relaxed summer patterns and before the rut. I see a lot more bucks, and generally bigger bucks, during the earlier archery season than the normal October rifle hunts, and it’s much easier in most places to get a tag to hunt during the prime later rut dates if you’re proficient with more primitive weapons. Opportunities still exist to hunt great season dates (early and late) with a rifle without the years-long wait but they typically come with their own challenges, like rugged terrain or a lot of competition with other hunters.
When do you want to hunt?
As mentioned above, season dates often determine weapon choice, but not always. And for some hunters, season dates may be more important than weapon choice and that could narrow down the list of states and units you might hunt mule deer in. Last year I was fortunate enough to hunt mule deer during great rut dates and be in the middle of this particular herds migration to winter range. I’ve never seen so many bucks, and unless I’m lucky enough to find a new hunt or draw a similar tag I most likely never will again! I highly recommend everyone try to hunt the mule deer rut at least once in their life! I was sold on only hunting rut dates from there on out, but the reality is that I probably wouldn’t be hunting mule deer very often if that were the case.
Where are you most effective?
In terms of enjoying your hunt and being successful, this is might be the most important consideration to help a hunter decide which states or new hunting areas to target. I grew up hunting Texas whitetails from a tree stand, so during my first few western mule deer hunts, I relied heavily on familiar ambush tactics. Over the years I’ve come to love hunting big, wide-open country sitting behind good optics. Some of the most successful hunters I know prefer to still-hunt through dense timber. There’s no right or wrong way to hunt mule deer, but pairing up the type of hunting you prefer with a landscape conducive to those tactics can lead to a great hunt!