Autumn has arrived and with it comes the time-honored tradition of the hunt. For countless decades hunters have looked forward to the annual deer hunt perhaps more than any other.
Times have certainly changed. In my youth I remember deer camps with multiple big canvas tents, wood burning stoves, and a central fire ring where everyone gathered in the evening to tell the tales of the hunts gone by.
Today most of those wall tents have been replaced by more convenient campers or even motel rooms.
But deer hunting continues to be the biggest draw to hunters every year.
Deer, whether it be whitetail or mule deer, is without a doubt the most popular big game species in North America. Deer can be found all across the US in every imaginable habitat from the highest mountains to lowland hills to American farmland and the hottest deserts.
My deer hunting background has mostly centered around mule deer, specifically desert mule deer. Having been fortunate to have hunted deer since my early teenage years, even though my hunting ventures have taken me all over the US and abroad, every November I usually end up in my old stomping grounds of southeastern New Mexico in search of desert mulies.
Hunting deer out west usually requires several good pieces of equipment if you want to be successful, especially for a “good” mule deer buck. Items such as quality binoculars and perhaps a spotting scope, and obviously your favorite rifle that you have confidence in shooting and has the ability to make shots well beyond 100 yards.
A good day pack (carrying water is a must) with essentials, and a solid pair of boots that are comfortable all day are also a must for desert hunts.
The area I hunt in southeastern New Mexico is comprised of both public and private lands at an elevation of 3,500 to 4,000 feet. This Chihuahuan desert habitat is full of rocks, cactus, mesquite, creosote, yucca, and the occasional juniper or cedar tree.
The draws often contain sumac and mahogany which deer love for browse. Some canyons will contain cottonwood, hackberry, or black walnut trees.
Unlike hunting whitetails or even heavy timber mule deer, the desert mulie hunter needs to be prepared to do lots of glassing at long distances. Which means sitting with quality optics and looking over every square inch of ground in promising areas.
Normally the headers of draws and along rimrock areas of canyons that may have a water source are a sure bet. Finding trails and watering areas that have plenty of deer sign tells you what you need to know in terms of deer usage.
One of the best mule deer bucks I ever took was a result of glassing from a good vantage point, spotting the buck from about 1000 yards and then making a stalk to close in for a 75-yard shot. He was close to 30 inches wide.
Another great tactic if your legs and endurance are in check, is to work the canyons and draws on foot, moving along likely canyons slowly and glassing along the way. I like to start out in the morning with the sun to my back and the wind in my face.
You need to be prepared for a quick offhand shot as on occasion you will jump a buck right out of his bed as the day wears on. One side note, when walking or sitting to glass be on the look out for rattlesnakes in the desert!
Mule deer in the desert rarely weigh more than 175 pounds on the hoof with the occasional 200-pounder being the exception. I have taken mulies with everything from a .243 Winchester to the venerable 30-06 Springfield and most recently, 6.5 Creedmoor.
Sighting my rifle in at two inches high at 100 yards gives me the ability to never worry with holding daylight over the buck out to around 300 yards. While I have certainly watched mule deer at 800, 1,000, and beyond, I have elected not to take such long shots for fear of not making an immediate kill shot.
I have taken desert deer at less than 50 yards and up to 500 yards. Wounding game and not recovering it is something I try to avoid at all costs. As with most native American big game, given a perfectly broadside presentation, my hold is just behind the shoulder, where the animal’s vitals lay.
This results in a heart/lung shot if you do your job well.
There are rules, but those rules have exceptions. I have learned over the years that mule deer and some very nice bucks do in fact bed and spend time in areas most hunters overlook primarily because it just does not look like a location deer would be.
My best desert mulie was taken with an offhand shot at no more than 100 yards. He was bedded in a low draw with nothing but sparse mesquite for cover. I had hunted the opposite side of the ridge for decades because of the nice deep draws with good brush, and had taken many deer there over the years.
But for whatever reason decided to cross the ridge and hunt areas on the periphery that most hunters would never consider. It paid off with a heavy, 27-inch 12 point!
There are of course many other methods for hunting desert mule deer, by horseback and just driving the roads, a tactic that has given hunters a poor reputation in some cases. While driving is certainly necessary to get into the area, I prefer to glass and walk canyons with the wind and sun in my favor once I get to my key hunt zone.
If you have never hunted desert mule deer and wish to give yourself a new hunting challenge, look to states such as Arizona, Utah, Nevada, northwestern Texas, southern Colorado, and southern New Mexico. Scenery and sunsets in the desert are stunning and will offer you a chance at a desert mule deer that is unique and memorable.