The Best Spots for Trophy Mule Deer Hunting

Mule Deer Hunting
This mule deer hunter hunted private land in Colorado to take this 4x4 scoring over 180 B&C points.

Mule deer remain the symbol of western big game hunting. Overshadowed by elk in recent years, regulars grew up hunting the West when muley numbers were high and elk numbers not nearly what they are today.

Mule deer numbers are in decline across much of the animal’s range due to a number of factors, not the least of which are increased habitat loss due to human development and encroachment, and predation from critters like mountain lions, coyotes, and bears. Unlike the adaptable whitetail or their blacktail cousins, muleys need some elbow room to thrive.

That’s not to say that you still cannot find some superb mule deer hunting today. Every year a handful of public land mule deer hunters shoot dandy bucks. But truth be told, the very best hunting today is found either behind the locked gate of a private rancher or on limited entry hunts, where the odds of drawing a tag are longer than Shaquille O’Neal’s arms.

If your goal is a true trophy-class buck, then you have to hunt where the odds are greatest that you will encounter such a deer. That means researching the entire West and hunting where the statistics tell you to hunt, which may not necessarily be where you would like to go. The hardcore guys are researchers, and they love to check record books, talk to deer hunters and hunting outfitters and booking agents, and compile data to help them apply for tags in the very best places. To help you sort the wheat from the chaff, here is what the data bases are saying right now.

Trophy Mule Deer
The various record books and their online resource centers are great places to get a handle on where trophy-class bucks are being produced today.

First off, while historical data is cool, you should be more concerned with what has happened the past 10 years. This statistics give a picture of where you might swoop in and score right now. According to the Boone & Crockett Club’s records, the total number of mule deer entered in their system in the last decade looks like this: Colorado, 171; Wyoming, 69; Idaho, 60; Saskatchewan, 55; New Mexico, 49; Utah, 40; Oregon, 35; Old Mexico, 29; Nevada, 25; British Columbia, 23; Arizona, 20; Alberta, 19; Montana, 14; Kansas, 10; Washington, 9; North Dakota, 5; Texas, 5; and California, South Dakota, and Nebraska, 4 each.

There are some interesting notes to be made from this general list. First, if your an American you can eliminate Saskatchewan. Americans are not allowed to hunt mule deer there. Second, if you look more closely in the B&C records, you can find out which county has produced the most record bucks during this period. The top five counties are New Mexico’s Rio Arriba (45); Sonora, Mexico (28); Lincoln County, Wyoming (23); Eagle County, Colorado (21; and Gunnison County, Colorado (18).

Another factor to consider when looking at the records are where the most – and least – tags are issued. For example, Nevada and Arizona may be ninth and eleventh on the list, but these states issue relatively few mule deer tags when compared to the top three states. That means if you can draw a tag, your odds are better than if you hunt these other states. And Alberta does not see that many nonresident mule deer hunters and restricts resident hunting, too, making it another good option.

Deer Hunting Muzzleloader
Choosing an alternative weapon to your rifle can up your odds for drawing a quality tag for trophy-class muleys.

OK, this is a great start, but there are other things you need to consider. First, the best chances of finding a huge muley buck occur in areas where the deer, all things being equal, have the best chance to grow old enough to reach their full potential. This means areas where their major predators have some sort of controls placed on them (mountain lion hunting is allowed, for example), and that hunter access is seriously limited either by the number of permits issued by the state for a specific area, or the area consists of country so rugged and remote that few hunters go there. General examples -- and areas with a track record of kicking out big bucks– include the rugged, high-elevation, timbered areas of western Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming, which are really hard to hunt; the vast strip of high desert spanning northern Arizona and southern Utah known in mule deer circles as the Arizona Strip and Utah’s Paunsaugunt unit, along with Arizona’s Kaibab region, all areas where tags are extremely tough to draw; and the thick cactus-infested deserts of Sonora, Mexico, where more and more Americans are hunting but success rates on huge deer are not particularly high and hunt costs are approaching five figures. Hunters love hunting Sonora and have taken some of history’s best muleys there.

An area that has come on like gangbusters in recent years is the semi-open plains and agricultural area that spans eastern Colorado and western Kansas. Here hunter pressure is limited by two things – the number of tags issued and the fact that dang near all the best hunting land is privately owned, and the odds of the unattached hunter knocking on a rancher’s door and gaining permission to hunt is about as high as picking a winning lotto ticket. Hunting outfitters lease most of this country and hunt costs are growing, but if you are willing to pay and play, you can find some really good bucks during both the archery and gun seasons.

Another factor in the trophy mule deer game is the landowner permit game. This is where some states issue landowners “X” number of tags for deer, elk, or whatever based on a complicated formula involving their total acreage and the number of animals believed to use the property. The landowner can then keep or sell the tags, and most sell them to outfitters or big-dollar private individuals.

There is one thing about the Boone & Crockett record book as the focus of your research – the typical score of 195 points is extremely tough to make. There are far more bucks killed each year that gross more than 195 but fall out of the book due to deductions, something to keep in mind. A 195 typical muley is an unbelievable buck! Any muley buck you kill today that scores over 180 points is a real dandy, no matter where you shoot him.

Finally, two other points about trophy mule deer hunting. With muleys, the records are different. Some guys are extremely dedicated and have hunted muley their entire lives, yet havn’t dropped one book buck. The odds of doing so are extremely small, and while they have shot some bruisers, none have qualified. So if you are new to the game and think you can simply do your homework and clear some wall space for that big mounted head, you might want to reevaluate. And second, you can’t shoot a true monster if you kill the first “nice one” that walks by. Because shot opportunities at huge bucks are so rare and because they often happen in the blink of an eye, when the time comes it is quite possible you won’t have a lot of time to decide on whether or not to put the hammer down. The decision needs to be made in advance.

Trophy mule deer hunting. For those dedicated to the task, it is a lifestyle, not something they do when deer season rolls around. However, you can play the game, too, if you do your homework, spend as much time as possible in the field, and when the time comes, have the skills to make the shot. And when it all comes together, there is no other feeling in all of western hunting.

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Russell, MB
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