The mule deer mount on the wall of the East Texas lodge looked out of place with all of the trophy whitetails that had been taken on the property hanging next to it.
“Where’d the muley come from?” asked a grizzled old hunter peering at all the antlers.
The camp coordinator looked up and nodded.
“I killed that one in Colorado,” he said. “You don’t see too many like that anymore.” Most everyone in the room nodded their heads in agreement. Indeed, the consensus when talk of hunting mule deer comes up these days is that there are few big bucks—ones whose racks are wider than 30 inches or that have more than 190 inches of antler—left to be hunted. But Keith Balfourd, marketing director for the Boone & Crockett Club, has researched the matter and says that isn’t necessarily the case. Indeed, he and others agree there is still some good hunting to be found if you are willing to do your research and put in extra effort.
Mule Deer Status
Balfourd explains that after looking at the data, it became evident that much of the sudden drop in mule deer numbers was the result of several consecutive years of extremely harsh winters, where snowfall was deep, covering food and hindering the animals’ ability to move and search for it. Couple that with alternate drought conditions in other areas and you have what amounts to a lot of stress on the species. No doubt, in areas where wolf packs have been introduced and are thriving, their ability to predate on winter-weakened deer must also be adding to the decline.
The good news is that most western state game departments have recognized the challenges facing mule deer since the 1990s and have altered tag allotments where needed. They have also worked with conservation groups on projects to mitigate some of the problems facing mule deer with active efforts still underway.
“The truth is … a lot of the areas have rebounded,” said Balfourd. In fact, he points to some interesting data he uncovered while researching every B&C mule deer record entry for the book “Records of North American Mule Deer.” While the heyday of trophy mule deer hunting is generally regarded as having occurred from the 1960s to the mid-1970s, the truth is, more entries were recorded in the record books in the early 2000s all the way up to 2008.
Balfourd concedes that the increase can be attributed to the fact that more of today’s hunters are aware of and interested in entering their trophies in the record books than they were in the 1970s, and that technology has made it easier for hunters to score their animals and officially submit the entries for approval. But even with this awareness, the records prove there are still plenty of trophy mule deer being taken, something that should ease the mind of those hunters who dream of one day taking a trophy muley themselves.
Where to Go
“Keep in mind, back in the 60s and 70s, a lot of the big deer taken were from hard-to-reach areas where hunters had to really work to get into,” said Balfourd. Today, with quads, better information and better overall resources, there are few areas so remote that the mule deer are left completely alone where bucks can grow to epic proportions. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any, and for the hunter looking to score big, he can still do it if he’s willing to put in the work.
Perhaps the biggest skill a would-be trophy mule deer hunter needs is the ability to be patient as he works to build preference points for hunting some of the most recognized big buck hotspots in the West.
The Arizona Strip—units 13a and 13b—are generally regarded as the preeminent spot to take a giant mule deer. Of course, most studied mule deer hunters know this, which means fewer than one percent of those who have acquired the maximum preference points get drawn.
Balfourd notes that Saskatchewan is currently producing some of the biggest bucks in the recent records, but unless you’re a resident or can score a hunt on tribal lands, this knowledge won’t help most hunters since the real monsters are coming from the southern part of the province, which is closed to nonresidents. Outside of the United States, Sonora, Mexico, is producing some gaggers, though in his book, Balfourd points out “…mind your Ps and Qs. Not all ranches in Sonora are created equal.”
If looking to set up a hunt down there, check with a reputable booking agent such as Cabela’s T.A.G.S. adventure booking service or Outdoor Adventures Worldwide. They can steer you toward a reputable outfitter. At the very least, research numerous operators and ask them to provide you with a list of American hunters who can attest to the service and quality of the hunt. Some great, affordable hunts can be bought in Mexico right now as much of the crime along the border has frightened many hunters away.
Outfitter Jay Scott of Colburn and Scott Outfitters, who operates both turkey and Coues deer hunts in Sonora, says much of the danger has been overblown, and that the key is booking with somebody familiar with the system of entering and exiting the country and who knows where and where not to go.
In the states, Balfourd likes Colorado for its availability of land, overall mule deer population, genetics and available tags and licenses.
“Colorado Fish & Wildlife has it nailed when it comes to balancing harvest, opportunity and trophy,” he writes. In that state, he particularly likes Garfield, Eagle and Mesa counties.
Other key locations to focus your search include Utah, particularly in the northern units of the state, Rio Arriba County in New Mexico, western Kansas and even Idaho. Although Idaho is not what it used to be, the state is still producing a steady crop of record-book entries.
C.J. Brown of Outdoor Adventures Worldwide likes parts of northern Wyoming, which has a good mix of both public land and private ranches, depending on the budget and abilities of the hunter.
The key is to begin planning now and to start building preference points in key places such as Colorado. As states work to better balance the resource with those hunters looking to pursue it, the biggest challenge will remain scoring the tag, not necessarily scoring a trophy animal once you have that license in hand.