Across the country, it's an annual rite of late winter and early spring hunting down the tag of a lifetime to bag the mule deer of a lifetime.
As we speak, thousands of hunters are perusing state game department statistics on the big deer with the funny ears and the pogo-like gait, ranging from drawing odds to fawn survival numbers to buck/doe ratios to hunter success rates. But amidst all of the number crunching, map reading, and phone calls to state biologists, the goal is the same a shot at a 30-inch mule deer that scores high enough to scratch the entry levels of the Pope & Young and Boone & Crockett clubs.
Most mule deer hunters talk in reverential hushed tones these days about such big buck hotspots as Utah's Paunsaugunt unit, Arizona's Kiabab and Arizona Strip land, New Mexico's famed Jicarilla Reservation, and scattered high country honey holes located throughout the Rocky Mountain states. But with mule deer herds attempting to rebound across the west these days, the smart hunter is on the lookout for overlooked spots that just might harbor the muley buck of his or her dreams.
While some of my mule deer hunting friends might want to deflate my tires, here are a few of those out-of-the-way, overlooked mule deer nirvanas. Here's a hint: these overlooked hotspots are barely in the shadows of the Rocky Mountain high-country.
When hunters think of North Dakota, skies filled by waterfowl and ring-necked pheasants come to mind. And while those images are proper in the eastern two-thirds of the state, there are some surprising numbers of big mule deer bucks in the southwestern one-third of the Peace Garden state.
That's particularly true in the state's Badlands region according to Rock Creek Outdoors outfitter Ron Hartman of Grassy Butte.
"I believe it's a mistake to leave North Dakota out of the picture," said Hartman. "We have the opportunity to see some very good mule deer here. For archery especially, you increase your opportunity for a shot tremendously because of the terrain we have here as compared to the mountains."
Tom Miranda, host of Advantage Adventures and Strategies in the Wild on ESPN2 found out first hand two autumns ago just how good North Dakota mule deer hunting can be as a 180-class giant sauntered into range at 35-yards. Unfortunately for Miranda, his arrow sailed off the mark and the big mulie buck melted away into the stunning Badlands terrain.
While Hartman admits that not every North Dakota mule deer is that big, he says that many are.
"You're going to get opportunities to see plenty of muleys that can make Pope & Young in the 145 range," Hartman said. "You will also find a few that get up there into the 170 range and even a few that might go 180. And of course, like anywhere, there's always a chance to see one of those 190 plus monster mule deer.
"But on average, a hunter who hunts in western North Dakota can expect to have a pretty good chance to see a Pope & Young class mule deer."
If it seems like Hartman leans towards bowhunting, he is. While hunters who are persistent enough to keep applying in the North Dakota Game & Fish Department's weighted lottery system can eventually draw a rifle tag, Ron said that it's much easier to draw an archery "Any-Deer" tag.
"The 'Any-Deer' archery tag, which lets you hunt mule deer or whitetails, is on a first come, first serve basis," Hartman said. "You want to have your application in by March 1st though. They give 15-percent of the number of mule deer resident rifle tags sold the year before as the 'Any-Deer' archery tag."
What happens if the demand for non-resident archery tags exceeds the supply?
"If on March 1st they have more applications than they do tags, then they'll assign a number to each application and have a lottery drawing," Ron said. "But your odds for drawing an archery 'AnyDeer' tag are pretty high. Of course, the whitetail archery tags can be actually bought over the counter at anytime."
For more information on hunting mule deer in North Dakota, call Hartman at (701) 863-6768. Hunters may also call the North Dakota Game & Fish Department at (701) 221-6300 or by visiting the agency's website at www.state.nd.us/gnf/ .
If archery is the name of the game in North Dakota, in Kansas, a muzzleloader is basically the only mule deer hunting game that non-resident hunters can play sort of.
"If you are a relative of a landowner and they get a "Transferable Hunt on Your Own Land" tag, they can transfer that to a non-resident," said Lloyd Fox, the head deer biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
"But you have to be a collateral relative with some blood relationship there. For instance, if you moved away from Kansas but your dad owns land and gets one of these tags, he can transfer it to you and you can come back and hunt during any of the seasons on that land."
Another possibility for non-resident hunters hoping to tag a Kansas muley is to be a former resident who possesses a lifetime hunting license, but has since moved to another state. That hunter can still come back to Kansas under the lifetime license and apply for drawn tags or purchase available over-the-counter permits.
The other two options for a non-resident to get a crack at a Kansas mule deer are a little tougher and potentially pricier according to Fox.
"You can apply directly and possibly get the non-resident 'Any-Deer Muzzleloader Permit," he said. "Half of those permits went to Kansas landowners however, who can sell them to whoever they want at a price that they name."
The application period for non-resident muzzleloader mule deer tags runs throughout the month of May and all applications must be postmarked by May 31st. Hunters send in their $250.50 cents and wait results or refunds are generally available by the first week in July.
But for hunters hoping for a permit giving them a crack at the state's quality mule deer bucks, Fox advises not to ask the boss for vacation time just yet.
"They're real tough," Fox said of the draw odds. "For example, in Unit 1, there were 14 permits available last year and 184 non-residents applied. In Unit 2, there were 14 available and 536 non-residents applied."
Are their preference points for non-residents who fail to draw a tag this fall? Not really, although Fox admits that an explanation is in order.
"It's not a straight luck of the draw," he explained. "If you did not have a permit from the year before that allowed you to take an antlered buck, you have preference over someone who did. And that includes whitetail permits too. If you had a permit last year that allowed you to take a whitetailed antlered deer, in most cases you're just not going to be able to compete with the other hunters."
For hunters who are lucky enough to draw a Kansas mule deer tag, there are some good muleys in the Sunflower state. The top archery typical and firearms typical bucks (including muzzleloader) both net out at just more than 202-inches. The top archery non-typical sports a net score of 269 0/8-inches while the top firearms non-typical buck has a net score of nearly 261-inches.
For information on hunting mule deer in the state of Kansas, call the KDWP at (620) 672-0728 or visit them online at www.kdwp.state.ks.us/main.html .
Yes, I know Colorado is hardly a secret when it comes to hunting big mule deer. But when most hunters think of Colorado muleys, they think of the aspen studded high country west of I-25. I'm talking low-country muleys in the state's foothills and sagebrush choked eastern plains east of I-25. And trust me, the muleys there are every bit as big as their thin air cousins.
"Mule deer are still out there in very good numbers on the Eastern Plains," said Colorado Division of Wildlife State Big Game Manager John Ellenberger. "When you look at a distribution map of mule deer in Colorado, all of the state is considered mule deer habitat with the exception of the metropolitan areas."
While Ellenberger admits that the region does support some high quality muleys, the downside for hunters is that most of the land east of I-25 is private, making hunting access difficult and often expensive at best.
The state biologist also said that mule deer populations tend to be more spotty in the plains than in the mountains, due primarily to the abundance of short-grass prairie that provides more limited cover and food resources than the Colorado high country does. Still, Ellenberger said that hunters who find some diversity in habitat and topography that provides cover, water, and food like that found in alfalfa fields can often find some big muleys hanging around.
With Colorado's April 2nd big game application deadline looming, the biologist admits that the odds for drawing an Eastern Plains mule deer tag may not be as difficult as some of the more famous high country units in the western half of the state. But once again, he reminds hunters that finding a place to hunt can still be a difficult task because of the high amount of private land ownership in the region.
"It's probably a little bit easier to draw a tag there," Ellenberger said. "Probably with two, three or four preference points, you should be able to draw those units out there. But you still have to contend with the private landowners who control access to those mule deer herds. You still have to work with them to get on their land to hunt those mule deer."
Are the muleys on the Eastern Plains in Colorado bigger in the headgear department? Colorado's top big game biologist said that while there are certainly some impressive racks coming out of the plains region, that's true in other high country areas as well.
"Trophy antlers are a function of age and quality habitat. I've seen very good bucks coming out of both areas," stated Ellenberger. "I can't say that there is a genetic disposition for plains mule deer bucks to have bigger antlers than those in the high country."
"There are some dandies that are out there, but then there are also a few of those in a lot of areas in the state," he said.
For information on Colorado's Eastern Plains mule deer, contact the CDOW at (303) 291-7529 or by visiting the agency online at www.wildlife.state.co.us/index.asp. Ellenberger said that calling the various service centers around the state and asking for the terrestrial biologist in charge of the unit in question might also help hunters to obtain helpful information.
As the tag-application game for big mule deer bucks continues across the U.S. over the next several weeks, it pays to not only look high in the western mountains. Sometimes, it pays for hunters to look just a little bit lower and little bit more to the east of the Rockies.
When they do, the reward is often some overlooked - but high quality - mule deer populations that just might provide a hunter with a crack at the mule deer buck of a lifetime.