Skip to main content

Locating Bucks During the Mule Deer Rut

Locating Bucks During the Mule Deer Rut

It's a beautiful thing when testosterone kicks in and gnarly old mulie bucks quit thinking. Nocturnal monarchs strut around in broad daylight, thicket-loving old hermit bucks stand silhouetted on open ridges, and alpine-country cliff dwellers descend to mingle with does in less protected, more accessible habitat.

In most regions, you're not allowed to hunt mule deer during the rut. All you can do is take a detour through areas high in doe numbers on your way to work, break out the spotting scope, drool all over the front of your business suit, and take some shaky iPhone photos through the ocular lens.

Mule deer bucks are notorious for using the rough terrain to their advantage. That's why it's so crucial to find them when their guard is down during the rut.

But if you really want to hunt bucks during the mule deer rut badly enough, there are ways. No, I'm not talking about poaching.


Several great mule deer states offer some sort of a late-fall rut hunt. Usually, it's in a limited-draw area, and you'll put in for half your life in the hopes of pulling a tag. However, there are exceptions. Frequently, those exceptions involve archery equipment and lots of cold weather, so you'll have to be both adaptable and tough to capitalize on them.


Take my home state of Utah. Ask any local hunter if Utah offers a general-season mule deer rut hunt, and he'll laugh ruefully in your face. Utah, like many Western states, manages for hunter opportunity, not hunter success.

But after a minute a light will go off in some cobwebbed recess of that local's brain, and he'll say something like, "Actually, if you're willing to work your way through a labyrinth of suburban neighborhoods, park near city water tanks or whatnot, and climb near-vertical slopes into the Wasatch Mountains, there's an extended-season archery unit€¦." Hunters may pursue big old bucks until mid to late December on the west-facing, extremely steep slopes above Salt Lake City.

These deer are never rifle hunted. Some years ago, a law prohibiting hunting with rifles was created due to fears of rifle bullets flying out over the city. That's not to say that the local deer are dumb — far from it.

They get hunted from mid August to the end of the year. But it's a legitimate rut hunt, and you'll see big bucks working does among the oak brush clinging to the steep slopes. Whether you're man enough to climb and put a stalk on one is up to you. I've put many a stalk on mature bucks on those slopes and blown all but one.


Just like chasing whitetails, peak movement for mulies will happen when the sun is low.

A buddy and I found a big buck near the bottom of the far slope in a steep, very rugged knife-bottomed draw, tending a doe in estrus. After racking our brains for a way to put a successful stalk on him, it dawned on us that if spooked uphill, the ledges and cliffs above him would funnel him through a 20- yard-wide gap in the rocks atop the far ridge. There was simply no other way for him to go — assuming he went up instead of fishhooking around.

It was worth a try. I won the toss and spent the next three-and-a-half hours in knee-deep snow, dropping clear down to the valley floor to get across the draw without spooking the buck, then climbing the gut-wrenching far ridge. Finally in position, I thumbnail-scraped the eighth-inch layer of ice off my bowstring and arrow and waved at my partner. He piled off the far slope in a cloud of powder, going right at the buck.


Just about the time I could no longer stand to wait, antler tips showed suddenly above the bulge of the slope below me. With my heart doing jumping jacks on my stomach, I focused on a spot at the front edge of his shoulder, planning to smoothly draw my recurve and shoot as he passed only 18 yards away, leading the region I wanted to hit by just a few inches.

Suddenly in the perfect spot, tongue hanging out from climbing the slope, the buck stopped. In disbelief, I drew to anchor, rushed the shot, and missed right over the 170-class buck's back. I still haven't forgiven myself.

Destination Testosterone: Where To Hunt

While many hunters believe that the mule deer rut occurs at the same time as the whitetail rut (and in some regions it's true), most of the violent rutting action I've observed occurred after the first of December.

Finding a place to hunt can be complex. Studying the regs in the state you want to hunt is a great start, but a call to a wildlife biologist can prove a worthwhile shortcut. Biologists can point you to areas with high deer populations, tell you about migration patterns you'd otherwise be unaware of, and suggest routes to access remote public land.

Sometimes the land where rut hunts occur is private, and knocking on doors to ask permission to hunt can prove as fruitless as a celebrity marriage. Fish & Game agencies can often help by referring you to cooperating landowners that participate in open-access programs. High-tech GPS mapping programs that display blocks of public within private lands can also be very useful.

Killer Methods: How To Hunt

Once you've found a region and a legal spot to hunt and obtained a tag, get your boots on the ground and find out where the does congregate during late November and December. Rutting bucks are as predictable — and as unpredictable — as teenagers with high hormonal levels, and usually the old bucks can be found patrolling doe populations.

I once read that a good way to tag a monster buck during the rut was to find the biggest group of does in the area and watch that group — sniper style — day after day. Sooner or later, a gnarly old buck will swagger out of the nearest thicket and start sticking his nose under the tails of those fine-looking does.

A less boring method is to roam and glass doe groups from a healthy distance. Sooner or later, you'll find a big buck as he cruises through during the mule deer rut. Be warned: With a bunch of buck-ravished, spooky doe eyes on the lookout, stalking can be tougher than sweet-talking a pretty girl at a church quilting bee.

Hunting mulies requires patience, because you never know what buck will be found in the next group of does.

If there's good fresh snow, tracking can be effective. Take a skillful buddy along, put him on a promising big track, and veer out to the side, climbing high points in the terrain and watching out in front of your partner as he works the track. You might just catch a big old buck sneaking through the thickets ahead of him.

If you've got a long season, where you can relax and have a little fun, try rattling in edge cover near high doe populations. While I've never personally rattled in a mulie buck, my brother has — big ones.

If you catch an amorous but lonely buck just right, he might come stomping in snorting steam, blood and fire in his eyes. More probably, the big bucks in the area will just raise their heads at the sound and look long and hard — which can be just the trick you need to get a clear look at a buck to evaluate his rack.

In the end, though, glassing is where it's at. Cover a lot of country during high movement periods at dusk and dawn and carry powerful binoculars that suck up light, along with the very best spotting scope you can afford. When you find the buck you want, move on him with everything you've got because you may never see him again.

Hunting mule deer in the rut is a far cry from hunting rut-crazed whitetails. They don't vocalize much, they aren't really callable, and they don't hold predictable rutting territories. On the other hand, they do become visible.

A highly visible monster mule deer is the most contagious carrier of buck fever in the world, and if you decide that hunting rutting mulies is on your bucket list, you'll contract it sooner or later.

Be warned: There is no cure.

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

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Moon Phase Rut Tips

Moon Phase Rut Tips

John Dudley, technical writer and host of Nock On TV discusses why it's imporant to follow moon phases for the rut.

Top Ten Hunts

Top Ten Hunts

Here at Petersen's Hunting we have compiled the 10 best hunts caught on camera from the last 2 years of Petersen's Hunting TV. Enjoy!

.500 S&W vs. the King of the Beasts

.500 S&W vs. the King of the Beasts

Smith & Wesson's Tony Miele and host Kevin Steele track an African lion across the Kalahari for the ultimate handgun showdown with the King of the Beasts.

Stuffed Elk Backstrap Recipe

Stuffed Elk Backstrap Recipe

Take your venison loin to a whole new level with this delicious reverse-seared stuffed elk backstrap. Smoking the backstrap on a Camp Chef Woodwind pellet grill first, then finishing it on a blazing-hot skillet or flattop, creates a perfectly cooked, medium-rare steak with a crispy, seared exterior. The filling of diced mushrooms and creamy Boursin cheese adds a whole new level of amazing flavors to an otherwise classic smoked venison loin.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Salty capers add a burst of flavor to the sauce, which pairs beautifully with the grilled venison loin in this recipe.Grilled Venison Loin with Caper-Mustard Sauce Recipe Recipes

Grilled Venison Loin with Caper-Mustard Sauce Recipe

Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley

Salty capers add a burst of flavor to the sauce, which pairs beautifully with the grilled...

The outdoor industry gets serious about recruiting new hunters with some curious marketing strategies.Are New Hunter Recruitment Strategies Working? Conservation

Are New Hunter Recruitment Strategies Working?

Andrew McKean - May 05, 2020

The outdoor industry gets serious about recruiting new hunters with some curious marketing...

We evaluate the 6.5 in a real-life case study. Is The 6.5 The Perfect Hunting Caliber? Ammo

Is The 6.5 The Perfect Hunting Caliber?

Mike Schoby

We evaluate the 6.5 in a real-life case study.

Check out the new fleet of off-road options for hunters.2020 ATV Buyer's Guide Wheels Afield

2020 ATV Buyer's Guide

Rick Sosebee - June 23, 2020

Check out the new fleet of off-road options for hunters.

See More Trending Articles

More How-To

With the right gear, a little time spent researching on the Internet, installing a smartphone mapping app and making a few phone calls, any hunter can tap into America's public lands and have an opportunity to be successful.How to Find and Access Public Land for Hunting – Backcountry Essentials Primer How-To

How to Find and Access Public Land for Hunting – Backcountry Essentials Primer

Petersen's Hunting Staff

With the right gear, a little time spent researching on the Internet, installing a smartphone...

A look at the three types of terrain backcountry hunters are likely to find themselves in during fall seasons, and the tactics and gear needed to find success.Backcountry Terrain Types and the Tools You'll Need to Hunt Them How-To

Backcountry Terrain Types and the Tools You'll Need to Hunt Them

Petersen's Hunting Staff

A look at the three types of terrain backcountry hunters are likely to find themselves in...

Learn how to achieve tender venison meat by applying these essential deer-hanging tactics during the rigor mortis period.Rigor Mortis: The Importance of Hanging Deer How-To

Rigor Mortis: The Importance of Hanging Deer

Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley - December 04, 2020

Learn how to achieve tender venison meat by applying these essential deer-hanging tactics...

We give hunters an edge on hunting public land close to home.Public Land Hunter Magazine Now on Sale

Public Land Hunter Magazine Now on Sale

Game & Fish Staff - July 21, 2020

We give hunters an edge on hunting public land close to home.

See More How-To

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