November 22, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.