We’d barely walked a half mile from the trailhead on the first morning when a respectable, dark-horned 4×4 strode out into the icy breeze 100 yards ahead. The appearance sent my four buddies into a flurry of conversation. “Nate should shoot it; it’s his birthday.” “No, Carson, you’re up, we wanted to get your first 4-point.”
We’d already seen three other good bucks, a herd of pronghorn, and a bachelor group of ten bull elk on the short drive in, so my buddies from back home on their first Montana rut hunt were trying to manage the kind of enthusiasm you’d expect from a group of 7-year-old boys on their way to a waterpark. The buck kept walking, thick necked and stiff legged, completely unaware of or unconcerned by the politeness party devolving nearby, until he was out of sight.
I just chuckled. I knew we’d see bigger, and I wanted to have a tag in my pocket when we did. Paul ended up shooting that buck on Day 3. Once we all held it, we were all surprised we’d let it walk.
The Time and the Temp
Generally speaking, the peak of the mule deer rut occurs slightly later than that of the whitetails in the same region. Last year I watched several nice Nebraska muleys still rutting hard in the first week of December. Some southern regions don’t see their rut end until well into January.
Rut hunting opportunities vary widely between states, from Montana’s November-long rifle season to Utah’s archery-only, lottery rut hunts. More and more regions are restricting opportunity to draws in the rut in order to protect threatened or declining muley herds when they’re at their most vulnerable. But there are still plenty of chances to experience mule deer glory if you’re willing to do your research and hit the road.
Due to the more rugged and exposed landscapes muleys often reside in, their rut cycle is more likely to be thrown off by drought or other interruptions to fall feeding, like major snow or ice storms. Photoperiod, not temperature, however, is the driving force behind rut timing, and will reliably start the festivities at the same time every year. That said, mule deer are purpose built to handle cold weather and seem to be much more comfortable when we aren’t. While you will see bucks roaming around in daylight hours on nice days, it does seem to happen more often when the weather sucks.
I personally target my annual deer camp toward the early rut in the first week of November. In late October, big bucks often haven’t shown up yet and by mid-Nov they’ll be locked down with does doin’ the business. But, when you find that sweet spot, they’ll often be running around in the wide open playing grab-ass, fighting, or just following the wind into the great unknown. Bucks may return to these habits a bit at the end of November with a strong second estrus cycle, which is harder to predict, but many a monster muley has been killed at the bitter end of November.
I hunt a lot of mixed prairie, coulee, and breaks country for November mule deer, as well as some of my mountain elk areas. If you’re hunting with me, there’s no quicker way to get on my nerves than walking fast.
Mule deer bucks, especially in the rut, love to lay up in tiny folds between hills, timber pockets, and little creek drainages you didn’t know were there. Hiking hard from Point A to Point B with your head down and legs swinging is the best way I know to run every good buck out of your zone. Watching a white butt and wide rack bounce over the horizon doesn’t count in my book, because you’re unlikely to ever see him again.
Mule deer are often less hair-trigger wary than whitetails, relying on their speed advantage and stotting flight to escape open-country predators. They’ll sometimes even stop to look back, presenting a shot. But you should never underestimate their eyesight. I once watched a really big one pick off a buddy and me sneaking across a low saddle at 1,000 yards on our way over to stalk him.
Walk slowly over every rise. Each step can reveal swaths of new country you haven’t seen yet. Deer won’t spook at the silhouette of your head, but they will if they see your whole body skylined. Take a few steps, then glass. Take a few more steps, then glass. “Gray ghosts” can be shockingly difficult to notice against a gray mountainside. Covering less country well will provide more and better kill opportunities than will covering more country fast.
Mind the Migration
Whitetails are homebodies, often living their whole lives within one square mile. Muleys, on the other hand, are far more nomadic. Some recent research employing GPS collars have found that some populations migrate more than 150 miles in a year between high mountain summer range and desert wintering grounds. Even in less dramatic circumstances, bucks will regularly descend thousands of feet from alpine summer haunts to rut and winter in the flatlands. Even resident flatland deer can travel dozens of miles looking for does.
All that is to say that the place where you glassed muley bucks during elk or antelope season may not hold them anymore. Whitetailer concepts like “home range” and “security cover” go out the window with muleys. If there don’t seem to be many deer around, get the hell out of there and go somewhere else.
Find the Females
This part is barely different than whitetails and elk. Once November rolls around, if you see a few does, there’s a damn good chance a buck is hanging around nearby. If you see a large collection of does, it might make sense to hang out and watch them for a bit.
One notable difference between mule and whitetail deer is that the former will collect harems much like elk and pronghorn. This doesn’t always happen, but I have seen mature bucks pushing whole groups of does enough times to believe it. These groups will even collect satellite bucks, just like elk. So, if you’re on either side of the peak rut, finding and monitoring does is a solid strategy. They’ll usually be more visible and less careful out in the open. You just need to wait for daddy to show himself.
Rock the Roadless
Here in Montana, I wouldn’t be surprised to know that a majority of mule deer killed every year were first spotted from inside a vehicle. Driving back roads in nasty weather during Thanksgiving week to find a deer to harvest is as much a tradition as anything in many rural communities. And plenty of people kill giant, incautious, rut-crazed bucks that way every year.
However, the bucks with a proclivity toward wandering near roads are likelier to get picked off at a younger age. If you really want to find that mountain masher or breaks bruiser, you’re going to have to target areas that don’t get a lot of coverage with 10x42s. That means hiking.
But mule deer country sometimes requires less hiking than you might think. Several hours after my friends and I couldn’t decide who should shoot the dark 4-point, an incredible stroke of luck led me to glass back into country we’d already walked through to find my personal biggest buck, a 175-inch nontypical 6×8. He died less than 2 miles from the trailhead.
In my digital and boot-leather scouting, I look for basins that are hidden from view from roads or even from obvious glassing tits. I prefer spots that require a long walk across open prairie or a steep climb over a butte before you can see anything. These are the places where deer can grow old or get pushed into from the front country. The orange-and-denim army doesn’t like to leave the truck heater and hot coffee when the thermometer is only showing one figure. So, lace up good boots, strap on a loaded backpack, and go wander in search of does. You might run into a big giant buck doing the same thing.
Feature image by John Hafner.