Skip to main content

Hunting Desert Mule Deer

Head for warmer temperatures to get a shot at the Rocky Mountain mule deer's distant cousin: the desert mule deer.

Hunting Desert Mule Deer
The Mexican cowboys see antler width as the primary criterion for a muy grande. This is a good Sonoran buck with a 32-inch spread, but I wish he was a bit heavier. I should have looked a few seconds longer.

The shorthair went on point in thorny brush above a little dirt stock tank, a perfect place for Gambel’s quail. Everyone set, somebody stepped forward and kicked a dry cactus.

The brush exploded, but not with whirring wings. A gorgeous 4x4 mule deer buck burst out and vanished into the desert horizon. I reckon that was 25 years ago, hunting quail not far from Tucson with the late Gary Sitton, a former editor of this magazine.

The buck was a desert mule deer. Slightly smaller than his Rocky Mountain cousin, the desert mule deer tends to be paler in body color with a lighter forehead cap. Together with the desert bighorn and Coues whitetail, the desert mule deer is part and parcel to the arid Southwest, occupying a huge range from West Texas across southern Arizona and New Mexico and northwestern Mexico.

Most of my life, desert mule deer had been classified as Odocoileus hemionus crooki, after Gen. George Crook (1830–1890). Following distinguished Civil War service, Crook spent his remaining years in the West. In command of the Bighorn and Yellowstone Expedition in 1876, Crook’s column was fought to a standstill at the Battle of the Rosebud; another of his three columns met their fate with Custer. Prior to the Great Sioux War, Crook was in command of Arizona Territory, and in the 1880s commanded the Department of Arizona. Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux said of Crook, “He, at least, never lied to us.”


I always thought it fitting that the mule deer of the Southwest bore Crook’s name, but according to DNA research, it turns out the specimen was actually a mule deer/whitetail hybrid. Today science concludes that the desert mule deer is O. h. eremicus. This is interesting because that was the scientific name proposed for the long-disputed “burro deer” of the Sonoran Desert. Although sparse, the browse in Sonora is especially rich, and there’s no question Sonoran mule deer grow exceptional antlers. Knowledgeable Mexican hunters insist the “desert mule deer” is found east of the Sierra Madres, while the larger-antlered Sonoran deer are “burro deer.”


mature desert mule deer hiding
A mature desert mule deer buck tries to hide in an ocotillo forest in the Davis Mountains of Far West Texas.

At this writing science doesn’t support this, but if you want a big desert mule deer—or just a big mule deer—then the Sonoran Desert is one of the great places. It is certainly not the only place. Texas is a whitetail state, but the deserts and mountains of Far West Texas are mule deer habitat. Conditions are harsh and the population fluctuates widely depending on rainfall. Even so, in bad times Texas is home to 100,000 desert mule deer. After a few good years, the population has swollen to more than 200,000.

Texas is not known for producing really big mule deer, but it is primarily a private land state and Texans know how to manage deer. For many years, Texas mule deer were more or less left to Mother Nature, but today a lot of ranchers and outfitters are focusing on mule deer, limiting harvests and improving water and habitat. Mule deer respond surprisingly well to a bit of nurturing; the average Texas mule deer buck today is bigger than you might expect, and monsters are turning up every year. The same can be said of desert mule deer on managed lands in Coahuila and Chihuahua. Considering the great difficulty in finding a “really good” muley in the Rocky Mountain West today, the desert mule deer should not be overlooked.

Blistering hot in the long summer, desert mule deer country is mild and pleasant in late fall and winter. The country is spectacular, encompassing rocky buttes and ridges, ocotillo forests, and plenty of cactus. For me, the most common hunting methodology is perfect: glassing and stalking. There are usually ranch roads to glass from, so the hunting is as physical as you want to make it. I like hiking and climbing from one vantage point to another. Desert mule deer are thin on the ground, so don’t expect to see big numbers. However, put in the time and you’ll see more deer than you expect.

There are two additional hunting techniques. I like one of them; the other I don’t. Both are mostly peculiar to the Sonoran Desert. Here, perhaps because there’s more browse in the valleys than up in the rocks, deer are far more likely to be seen on the desert floor than up in the hills. This is problematic because although dry it’s very much a living desert, blanketed by brush too tall for effective glassing. So one technique employed a lot in Sonora, unfortunately, is “high-racking,” cruising ranch roads in a vehicle with an elevated platform. This allows you to see over the brush, at least for a few hundred yards. It works, but it’s not my thing.




The other Sonoran technique is tracking. It’s famous and should be. African trackers are legendary, but the Mexican cowboys who track mule deer (and not all can) are the best trackers I’ve ever seen. You won’t find a good track every day, but when you do, these guys can tell if it’s a buck or a doe—and if it’s a buck, whether it’s worth following. This says nothing about antlers, but if they want to follow a track, it’s worth a look. If the wind holds, they can follow a track to the end of the earth. Sonoran mule deer hunts have gotten kind of pricey, but if you seek (and insist on) a tracking hunt, it’s worth the money just to see a great tracker at work.

Success is not guaranteed. The big ones—muy grande—are not plentiful. I figure the odds are much the same as, say, a hunt for a big northern whitetail in Alberta or Saskatchewan. It depends on the year and you must do your homework carefully. but when it happens, what an amazing experience. Two of the desert mule deer I took down there were shot in their beds, both after several hours of tracking. You think it’s a put-on as they follow faint marks you can’t see. In soft sand it’s easy, but these guys follow across gravel tailings and hard-baked ground. Trust me, they will see the buck long before you do.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Venison Curry Recipe

Venison Curry Recipe

Hearty and flavorful, this curry is simple to make and requires just a few ingredients you can likely find at your local store. The cooking method turns tough cuts tender, making it a great choice for shoulder and hindquarter cuts from deer, elk and other venison. Bonus points if you use axis deer, which are native to India.

New for 2021: 6.8 Western Rifle Cartridge

New for 2021: 6.8 Western Rifle Cartridge

The 6.8 Western features a .277-caliber bullet loaded into a case that's been optimized to fit longer, heavier bullets. Consider it a .270 on steroids, or more accurately, an improved version of the .270 Winchester Short Magnum, which never gained enough traction to make it mainstream.

New for 2021: MEAT! Grinders, Vacuum Sealers, Accessories

New for 2021: MEAT! Grinders, Vacuum Sealers, Accessories

MEAT! Your Maker, makers of quality meat-processing tools for do-it-yourself hunters. The company's commercial-grade products are built "with quality in mind, not price point" for fellow hunters.

Best Whitetail Shot Placement with a Rifle

Best Whitetail Shot Placement with a Rifle

Craig Boddington breaks down where hunters should aim on a whitetail that provides the best possible margin for error.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Chances are good that you're not getting the best out of your trail cams.3 Ways You're Using Trail Cameras Wrong Optics

3 Ways You're Using Trail Cameras Wrong

Tony J. Peterson

Chances are good that you're not getting the best out of your trail cams.

Perfection takes practice, a little skill and the understanding that not all steaks are created equal. How to Properly Grill Venison Steak Recipes

How to Properly Grill Venison Steak

Hank Shaw

Perfection takes practice, a little skill and the understanding that not all steaks are...

Here's how to toughen up the weakest link in your shooting system.How to Mount a Rifle Scope for Maximum Accuracy Optics

How to Mount a Rifle Scope for Maximum Accuracy

Joseph von Benedikt

Here's how to toughen up the weakest link in your shooting system.

See More Trending Articles

More North America Big Game

Here's the down and dirty on where, how, and when to hunt the western pronghorn.DIY Guide to Hunting Pronghorn Antelope North America Big Game

DIY Guide to Hunting Pronghorn Antelope

Kali Parmley

Here's the down and dirty on where, how, and when to hunt the western pronghorn.

Success is sure to feel even sweeter than normal after a difficult bout with target panic. Overcoming Target Panic for Montana Pronghorn Success North America Big Game

Overcoming Target Panic for Montana Pronghorn Success

Joe Ferronato - October 19, 2020

Success is sure to feel even sweeter than normal after a difficult bout with target panic.

A two-week horseback hunt in British Columbia yields a whopper moose, an edgy horse, and a lesson in riflescopes.A British Columbia Moose Hunting Misadventure North America Big Game

A British Columbia Moose Hunting Misadventure

Andrew McKean

A two-week horseback hunt in British Columbia yields a whopper moose, an edgy horse, and a...

Icons of the Mountain West, wapiti are coming home to ALL the lands they once roamed.Eastern Elk Conservation Efforts Mean More Hunting Opportunities Conservation

Eastern Elk Conservation Efforts Mean More Hunting Opportunities

David Hart

Icons of the Mountain West, wapiti are coming home to ALL the lands they once roamed.

See More North America Big Game

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save.

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Petersen's Hunting App

Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Petersen's Hunting subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now