August 21, 2023
21 years ago, in an unnamed mountain range in central Idaho, I cut my teeth as a mule deer hunter at the ripe old age of 12. I didn’t know it at the time but hanging my tag on that young four-point buck planted the seed for a lifelong obsession. Fast forward two decades and my passion for hunting these special animals has taken me all over the West and fostered some of my most cherished memories.
After experiencing the consuming addiction of hunting cagey mule deer firsthand, it is easy to see why hunting them continues to grow in popularity with each passing year. With that said, the rise in popularity has greatly altered the mule deer hunting landscape across every state in the West. Tags are harder to come by, trophy quality is down, and public land becomes increasingly more crowded and difficult to access with each passing year.
If you are looking for a feel-good article to bloat your reality of what hunting mule deer out West will be like, then you might want to stop reading now. However, if you want a straightforward guide for setting realistic expectations and how to hunt mule deer more often, continue on.
The Tag Conundrum
First things first, to hunt mule deer, you must have a valid mule deer tag. Unfortunately, the days of being able to go down to the local hardware store and buy an OTC (over-the-counter) deer tag are all but over – for the most part.
If my recollection doesn’t fail me, Idaho is the only state that currently offers any sort of an OTC tag for non-residents to hunt mule deer, though they sell out within minutes. The rest of the West has resorted to a lottery-type draw system to manage the massive influx of prospective mule deer hunters every year.
Draw systems vary state to state, but typically involve the upfront fee of purchasing a non-resident hunting license and then some sort of application fee. Some states require hunters to pay the full price of the tag up front and then refund a portion of your money if you are unsuccessful in the draw. While other states do not charge your card until after the draw is complete. To put it simply, applying in multiple states is not a thrifty venture, often requiring several thousand dollars just to put your name in the hat. Even after the monetary burden, navigating different states application processes and elaborate point schemes the odds are usually stacked against you.
On the flip side, while many premium tags could take decades of accumulated bonus points to draw, there are a few units in states across the West that mule deer tags can be drawn dang near every year. But buyer beware, though you have a tag in your pocket, if you are hunting public land in these “opportunity” areas, you better know what you are getting yourself into. Expect heavy pressure, don’t be surprised to see multiple teams of camo clad hunters on nearly every ridge and vantage point and the roads thriving with trucks, campers and off-road vehicles.
This past year I hunted an “opportunity” unit that had one ½ mile stretch of road choked with more than 20 camps with license plates ranging from Pennsylvania to California and about everywhere in between. The number of hunters on that small block of public land was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Consequently, with the uptick in pressure, the deer are also going to be scattered few and far between. That’s not to say that finding a mature buck isn’t possible in these areas, because dedicated hunters dig big bucks out of these units every year. But know going into your hunt that a mature buck in an “opportunity” unit is the exception, not the norm.
As for where to apply, that’s for you to figure out. Every state publishes their draw odds each year. If you want to hunt mule deer, study units with good draw odds, decent success rates, and a high percentage of public land and start doing your homework. E-scouting and talking to local biologists are a suitable place to start and nothing can replace time spent in the unit with boots on the ground.
One caveat to consider in upcoming years is that tag numbers are going to be drastically reduced in parts of the West due to the brutal hand that Mother Nature dealt this past winter with high mortality rates making tags more difficult to obtain. But, if you are willing to archery hunt, you open yourself up to even more opportunities to put a mule deer tag in your pocket regularly.
Everyone Wants to Shoot a Big Buck
Unrealistic trophy expectations are the biggest hurdle to overcome when hunting mule deer. Of course, everyone wants to shoot a giant buck with deep forks. But the sad reality is that opportunities to hunt and kill a truly big mule deer are very rare and becoming increasingly more difficult to come by with each passing year.
Generally, units that take a wealth of accumulated bonus points to draw should increase trophy potential in that given area. Drawing these premium units help up the odds of seeing a mature buck, but they do not guarantee you kill that big buck. In fact, If I was a betting man, the average Boone and Crocket score of bucks killed, even on some of the best mule deer units in the country, would still be south of that 170 mark. And on “opportunity” units, I would guess the average Boone and Crocket score to be in that 120- and 140-inches range. That might sound disheartening, but this is the reality of hunting public land mule deer in the West.
To give an example, Idaho conveniently publishes the percentage of bucks killed with 4+points in each unit. In a popular Idaho OTC unit, hunters success rate in 2022 was 18%. Of those 18% of hunters that were lucky enough to fill their tag, 22% of them killed a buck with at least four points on one side. That means that roughly four percent of hunters in that unit killed a “four-point” buck. Also keep in mind that a “four-point” is a subjective trophy term and encompasses everything from a young, 130-inch buck like my first buck, to a true 190+-inch giant.
My suggestion would be to shift your mindset to defining a trophy by age and not by inches of antler. The quest to hunt and kill a mature, 5+ year old mule deer on public land is a monumental feat worth devoting countless hours to achieve. The sacrifice is well worth the reward when you defy the odds and hang your tag on a mature public land muley.