According to many hunters, a great mule deer buck is the most difficult of all North American trophies to collect. Opportunities come dear, and anymore, a decent tag is a trophy in itself. All the best big-buck areas are in draw programs, and pulling a permit is cause for real celebration. Long gone are the days when a hunter could load up the pickup and head to Utah, Colorado, Arizona, or Wyoming, stop at a gas station or hardware store once inside state lines to purchase a tag, and hunt big bucks in prime habitat.
However, while they are obscure, a few decent over-the-counter (OTC) opportunities still exist. Most are in states not commonly on the muley hunter's big-buck radar. If you missed the 2017 draw deadline and are weeping and wailing about lost opportunities, get over it and plan a hunt to one of the following states.
POPULATION: 115,000 MULE DEER
NONRESIDENT TAG COST: $301.75
HUNTING LICENSE: $154.75; $10 ACCESS DEPREDATION FEE
AVAILABILITY: OTC, UNTIL SOLD OUT
SEASON DATES: VARIES DEPENDING ON ZONE
Almost without argument, Idaho offers the best OTC mule deer opportunities. Hunters traveling to Idaho must purchase a $154.75 state hunting license and a new $10 "access depredation fee" along with a $301.75 deer tag. To make up for the cost and hassle, a nonresident tag may be used for black bear, mountain lion, or wolf in lieu of a deer, enabling the possessor to take an apex predator if encountered as long as the appropriate seasons are open. The state has an estimated 190,000 deer, about 60 percent of which are mule deer. In areas that overlap, either whitetail or mule deer may be taken on a regular buck tag; however, the state also sells special whitetail-only tags.
Also of primary interest is Idaho's Mentored Hunter program, in which any youth — nonresidents included — 17 and under can purchase a state junior license for $31.75 and a deer tag for $23.75 as long as they are accompanied by an adult possessing a valid Idaho hunting license.
Some hunts — archery and rifle — occur during early stages of Idaho's mule deer rut. When researching a place to hunt, contact biologists about recent burns that provide young, nutritious overgrowth near migration routes.
NONRESIDENT TAG COST: $242
HUNTING LICENSE: NOT REQUIRED; $25 HABITAT STAMP
AVAILABILITY: OTC, BEGINNING JULY 10, 2017
SEASON DATES: ARCHERY: 09/01â€“12/31; RIFLE: 11/11â€“11/19
To the surprise of many, hunters of this state harvest some tremendous mule deer each season. Population numbers aren't on par with Colorado or Wyoming, and access is far more limited, but unlike those historic muley destinations, Nebraska still offers OTC tags and is currently producing outstanding numbers. In fact, 2016's mule deer harvest — almost 10,000 bucks — was the highest ever recorded. Estimated state population was unavailable, but you don't get harvest numbers like that without a significant presence. Mule deer occupy the western two-thirds of the state and in fact are the dominant species (more mule deer than whitetails) in 20 counties. Hunters who do their research and either pinpoint a public land area worth hunting or wear out some shoe leather earning an invite to hunt private land will have a decent hunt.
Pick the early archery season to hunt patternable groups of fat bachelor bucks. For a rut hunt during the early search and chase phase, opt for the mid-November rifle hunt. If you can take bitter cold and have the discipline to wait and work for a close shot, the December muzzleloader hunt occurs during the late rut.
POPULATION: MULE DEER: 346,200 (2004 ESTIMATE)
BLACKTAIL DEER: 320,000 (2004 ESTIMATE)
NONRESIDENT TAG COST: $414
HUNTING LICENSE: $160.50
AVAILABILITY: OTC, UNTIL DAY PRIOR TO HUNT OPENER
SEASON DATES: RIFLE: OCTOBER (VARIES BY REGION)
ARCHERY: LATE AUGUST (30 DAYS)
Although license and tag prices are high, Oregon offers an intriguing diversity of opportunity to hunters interested in mule deer and the blacktail subspecies. Over-the-counter tags for common mule deer are archery only — all rifle tags are lottery allocated "controlled" hunts. Two-thirds of the state on the eastern side is available to bow hunters, offering diverse terrain and habitat, as well as a fair amount of public land. Be aware that in many public-land areas a $20 parking permit is required.
Hunters interested in wandering Oregon's lush northwest for the mule deer's secretive blacktail cousin have much greater opportunity. Archery seasons run for about 30 days starting in late August, and a late November/early December season in the northwest part of the state provides the opportunity to hunt blacktails during the rut. Plus, rifle hunters may purchase an OTC tag good for a 12-day October season in blacktail regions.
NONRESIDENT TAG COST: INCLUSIVE WITH LICENSE
HUNTING LICENSE: $434.30
AVAILABILITY: DECEMBER OF PREVIOUS YEAR
THROUGH LAST DAY OF SEASON
SEASON DATES: SEPTEMBER 1â€“MID-DECEMBER
(DEPENDING ON BOW OR FIREARM)
Nonresident hunters purchasing a Washington state hunting license OTC receive a deer permit with the license and must specify whether they intend to hunt with modern firearm, archery tackle, or muzzleloader. License in hand, hunters may pursue deer in all game management units (GMUs) during appropriate open season dates. Over-the-counter tags are good for all applicable GMUs in the state and may be used on any of the three species of deer (mule deer, blacktail, whitetail) in Washington. As an interesting note, the Cascade Range separates mule deer and blacktail.
Archery hunts open September 1st and run most of the month, then pick up again in late November, enabling stick-and- string hunters to pursue mule deer during the rut. Muzzleloader opportunities this year run September 30th to October 8th, then again during late November. Rifle hunters yearning for an athletic hunt may pursue alpine muleys during "High Buck Hunts," which are open September 15th to September 25th in 2017. Standard general-season rifle hunt dates are mid to late October, although a few GMUs offer short November seasons for blacktail during the rut.
Several GMUs have a 3-point minimum, so be prepared to examine a buck carefully before pulling the trigger. Also, hunter reporting is mandatory in Washington.
POPULATION: 150,000â€“250,000 (DEPENDING ON DROUGHT CONDITIONS)
NONRESIDENT TAG COST: INCLUSIVE WITH LICENSE
HUNTING LICENSE: $315
AVAILABILITY: OTC, ALL YEAR
SEASON DATES: BETWEEN 10/01â€“12/11 (DEPENDING ON COUNTY)
Most of the Lone Star State's mule deer — about 80 to 85 percent — are the Trans-Pecos subspecies, which are a bit smaller than their Rocky Mountain and Sonoran Desert cousins. However, every OTC Texas nonresident hunting license includes one buck and one doe mule deer tag with no extra or hidden tag fees. Access is the primary issue; most of Texas is private land. On the plus side, outfitted hunts generally run south of $4,000 and offer a legitimate opportunity at a nice 140- to 180-class buck.
Flying way under the radar, the Texas Panhandle produces a few absolute stomper muleys every year. Numbers are low, but the thickets among the pivot-irrigated ag fields offer superb cover, and feed is abundant. Some locals scorn anything less than a 200-inch buck. Finagling access is akin to negotiating a major treaty. However, it's worth a lifelong crusade. If you ever do gain access give me a call to let me know how you managed it and then do whatever it takes to make the most of the opportunity.