Early-season, public-land mule deer action may be more accessible than you think.
As a young bowhunter growing up in eastern Oklahoma, whitetails were the only game in town. As I slowly climbed the ladder of success, I often found myself dreaming of faraway places and exotic species such as elk, antelope and mule deer. Looking through the bowhunting magazines of that time (there weren't any hunting videos back then), I always dwelled on the photos of big, velvet-antlered mule deer. I fantasized about pursuing such magnificent trophies and dreamt about how it would feel to be the stud kneeling in front of the camera while handling a huge, velvet rack. I vowed to make that happen one day.
The day finally came in the summer of 1980, when the desire to "Go West" finally got the best of me. Out on my own, independent and naive, I loaded up my truck and headed for Colorado. Wheeling into the Gunnison area late that same day, I was on cloud nine. Everything was new and intriguing, and the passion of youth further stoked the fire that burned inside me. Purchasing my first non-resident deer tag for $90, I headed for forest and mountain. Hitting the ground running, I was soon into mule deer action. Learning as I went, I quickly educated most of the mule deer in the Gunnison basin. Nothing was hitting the ground except my errant arrows.
Still, I was a happy young man just camping under starlit skies and listening to babbling trout streams. I soaked up everything my first Western bowhunt could offer. Finally, in my second week of hunting, I laid a mule deer to rest. Though it was only a forkhorn, I was thrilled to handle the fuzzy trophy. I'd found a new pursuit that I loved and could do on a blue-collar budget. I was hooked, and 30 years later, I still am.
Going For It
I relate my humble beginnings to show just how accessible a self hunt for mule deer can be. Yes, everything involved in such an outing has gotten more expensive than it was three decades ago, but it's all still very much within reach of the bowhunting do-it-yourselfers. There's plenty of public land out West, and there are plenty of deer to hunt. The way I see it, that's 99 percent of the battle. So, just jump in and do it!
This was one of Eddie Claypool's mule deer base camps at the timberline in Colorado. A good base camp will allow you to refresh your mind and body every few days after working hard in the backcountry.
OK, there is a little bit more to it than that. Nevertheless, the obstacles are nothing you can't handle on your own. And no, you don't need a babysitter (outfitter) on this one. The satisfaction and experience you'll glean will be well worth the effort. Let's take a look at the logistics involved in putting together just such an outing.
If you draw a line from western North Dakota through western Texas, then go west from there, you'll be in mule deer country. Ranging from the rocky desert all the way to alpine forests, mule deer inhabit a wide range of habitat. Where you hunt hinges entirely on your personal preference. Ask yourself whether you'd rather be in the desert in August, or in the Rockies, Sierras or Cascades? What type of mountainous habitat do you want to hunt -- foothills, mid-elevation or high elevation?
Remember, if you're after a velvet-antlered buck, you'll need to hunt them before they begin to rub, which, generally speaking, occurs Sept. 7-10. Certainly, not all Western states are equal in the timing of their bow seasons, so be sure to check on this before planning a hunt. Also, generally speaking, the best trophy hunts in most states are accessible only via lottery-style drawings. Many times, these tags go to applicants who have accrued years of preference points.
Good optics are a must for success on a Western mule deer hunt. Don't skimp on quality here!
So, if you're interested in the best opportunities for public-land trophies, you should start building points in the area of your choice. On the flip side, there are plenty of excellent opportunities for trophy bucks using tags that can be obtained without years of waiting. Spend time contacting game departments and research every opportunity available. This will take a lot of effort, but it is part of the game. If you want to shortcut this process somewhat, consider using a paid service that helps you select likely hunting areas and secure the necessary licenses.
Once you've determined where you'll hunt, it's time to prepare for the outing. It's never too early to get started! There is gear to be purchased and physical conditioning to be addressed. You'll get out of the trip what you put into it. So, get serious -- success is within your reach.
Spend enough practice time to get extremely familiar with your archery equipment, to the point it becomes an extension of your mind and body. Experiment with different accessories that might be able to extend your effective shooting range. If you're like me -- a born-and-bred whitetail hunter -- shots beyond 30 yards seem foreign. Out West, however, you should be prepared to make shots of at least 40 yards, and 50 is even better. Although mule deer can often be taken from blinds, it's time now to get your spot-and-stalk groove on. Get a good rangefinder and be prepared to use it, whether in a stand, blind or stalking. Western distances are often very deceiving!
Being the diligent do-it-yourself bowhunter that you are, it goes without saying you're not a slacker. That's an admirable trait, and you'll need it, because, as far as Western bowhunting is concerned, lazy doesn't cut it. Most of the "easy" trophy mulies out West reside on private property you and I can't or won't access because of the money involved.
OK, it's time to get dirty, so here we go. Nasty fact: there's a huge difference between whitetail bowhunting and high-elevation mule deer bowhunting. It's not that you must be a much better hunter to succeed, but it is a pre-requisite that you'll have to be a much better athlete to get'er done. Take away a large percentage of the air your lungs are accustomed to accessing, while walking many miles a day over steep, rough terrain, and you get the idea.
Start your physical fitness program months before a trip and slowly work your way to peak mental and physical shape. This is one part of t
he outing you can control -- do it. Such preparation will go farther toward your success than anything else. Sound like it's worth it?
As far as equipment, basic gear that supplies a comfortable base camp is mandatory. Next, outfit yourself with backcountry gear necessary to access roadless country and survive for a few days at a time. Don't skimp on price here. Get yourself a top-end backpack, tent and lightweight sleeping bag that matches the conditions you'll encounter. Add a comfortable, insulating sleeping pad and you've got the core gear for making a living in the backcountry. Surround this setup with appropriate support accessories and test it with a summer backpacking trip in mountainous, wilderness country. Only by putting yourself in the elements can you work out all the kinks. With time and experience, you'll learn the ropes.
Eddie Claypool walks up on one of the many velvet monarchs he's been blessed to be able to take over the past 30 years.
Now that you've got the gear, a hunting tag and two weeks off from work, load your truck and drive. It is really that simple! Plan for the best, but be prepared for some tough times. With such an outlook, you are going to be successful even if you don't get a monster buck on your first outing.
If you've chosen to hunt mulies in foothill regions, late August and early September could very well be most profitable at remote water sources such as ponds or springs. Here, treestands and/or ground blinds will be effective tools, so take a few with you. If stand hunting isn't paying off, get your butt on the top of some prominent points at first and last light. Glass your quarry, then slip into some moccasins and execute a smooth stalk, using morning and evening thermals to your advantage. And when your trophy hits the ground in the late-summer heat, be prepared to handle the field dressing chores promptly.
If you've chosen to pursue mulies in mid-elevation country, ditto for most of the aforementioned advice. In this type of area, water is usually much more plentiful. Thus, a water-oriented approach may not work. Instead, the name of the game is usually spot-and-stalk and/or still-hunting. This type of habitat is usually heavily forested, often making glassing tough. In such a case, hit the ground running and look for areas of deer concentration. Then, possibly, spend your days slowly still-hunting through such locations. This type of hunting can be a tough row to hoe, requiring much patience and stealth. The rewards of a successful still hunt, however, are immense -- there's not a more satisfying way to harvest an old monarch buck.
Finally, if you've chosen to pursue the ultimate mulie buck, go for an alpine buck above the timberline. By timberline, I mean the highest altitude at which trees will grow in an area. In the southern Rockies, this is about 12,000 feet above sea level, progressing lower as you travel north in latitude. In locations such as Montana, the timberline occurs at about 10,000 feet or slightly below.
The reasons I call timberline mulies the ultimate challenge are multiple. Hunting a mature mule deer buck in an alpine environment is the nearest thing to bighorn sheep hunting most of us will ever do. The habitat is brutal, yet breathtaking. Simply functioning at such elevation, in brutal topography -- never mind effectively bowhunting there -- is a daunting task indeed. Everything involved in such a pursuit will stretch your mental and physical abilities to their limits, and usually, beyond. All things that lead to "tag soup" can -- and probably will -- happen on this type of hunt.
So, why even pursue such a ridiculous effort? If you're a hardcore bowhunter, you know the answer. If you find yourself speculating as to the why, well, this type of outing probably isn't for you! Go ahead and give it a try. Chances are you'll survive, but you probably won't try alpine mule deer hunting again. No kidding.