New Mexico’s Desert Mule Deer

Each January for many years I’ve made a pilgrimage to the desert Southwest in search of wide-racked desert mule deer.

Pulling into my isolated camping spot in the desolate mountains of southwestern New Mexico, I established a snug base camp. This accomplished, supper wolfed-down, and a lunch packed for the next day, I settled into my down sleeping bag with visions of big bucks dancing in my head.

Hunter scouting hunting groundsWhen scouting new ground, rubs are good indicators of both size and density of local bucks.

At daylight the next morning, I was on a prominent point, glassing the surrounding area for any deer movement. The mule deer rut was in full swing and it soon became apparent that the local does were attracting the attention of many small-to-medium-sized bucks. From past experience, I knew that it only was a matter of time until the big bucks came down from the mountains to take over as harem masters.

Dropping down from my vantage point, I began descending through the brush; headed for the nearest group of does. As I passed through the foothills of the mountains, another quiet desert day settled in around me. Pausing to catch my breath, I scanned the slope ahead of me.

Zeroing In On Does

On a distant ridge-line, movement caught my eye. Glasses up, I soon identified the random wanderings of a group of mulie does. Knowing that there was probably a buck present, I decided to get a closer look. Sneaking toward the group, I caught a glimpse of big antlers moving through the brush. I could tell that he was wide, heavy, and definitely worthy of a try. The big fellow was very busy chasing his lady friends, scattering them in all directions. I knew that if I could get near a couple of the “tag along” does, there was a good chance that the boss would come back to round them up.

For the next half-hour, I worked my way up to the action. Avoiding a dozen sets of eyes, ears, and noses was a tall order. Finally, I was within range of three different does. It had been a good while since the buck had been close to these lower does and I figured he would be showing up soon.

Assortment of hunting gear and essentialsHaving the right gear is key to a successful backcountry hunt for mule deer. Some of the necessary equipment needed to increase your odds includes binoculars, a rangefinder, spotting scope, and a sturdy backpack.

Rattling brush, clattering rocks, and grunting announced his approach. As he circled the nearest doe, I got my firstgood look at him. My brain clicked … Shooter! Draw, shoot … and just that fast, it was over. My bow drove the Rocky Mountain broadhead completely through him, and a short trailing job soon led me to anawesome 4- point buck.

My first day afield, actually the firsthour and my tag was filled. It was unbelievable!

As the reality of my situation settled in, my emotions ran bittersweet. I was extremely thankful for such a fantastic animal, yet stunned at the realization that my hunt already was over.

Note: My wide-racked buck later stretched a tape to 32-1/2 inches, and would gross score 180″ P&Y.

Trip Tips:

The most important aspect of bowhunting desert mulies in the rut lies in location. The desert is a vast landscape, with a relatively small amount of country preferred by the deer. Many factors (moisture, current food sources, people pressure, etc.) affect where the deer will be concentrated. Waterholes are one place to start looking as mulies regularly visit them and often can be ambushed there.

Another good rule of thumb to use to locate mulies, is to find remote foothill regions of desert mountain ranges where finger ridges spill into valley flats. Ideally these finger ridges will be oak brush, manzanita, and/or juniper covered, while interspersed with grassy openings. Preferably these ridges also will originate in high, rough, mountainous country and terminate in valley floors that are interspersed with cactus, mesquite, and large grassy areas.

It has been my experience that the does prefer the easy country, while, as the rut heats up, the larger bucks will begin to appear on the scene from the higher country.

The key in locating deer lies in covering a lot of ground, glassing from high points in the early morning and late evening, and foot scouting during mid-day hours. Quality optics, patience, and a positive attitude are a must.

Hunter kneeling next to 4 x 4 buck after huntingHere’s the buck the author harvested on the hunt in New Mexico. The wide-racked 4 x 4 buck later stretched the tape to 32-1/2 inches, and would gross score 180 P&Y.

During the rut, big bucks will usually be found tending doe groups, or on the prowl, solitarily looking for a doe. Each of these situations presents different approaches. Be prepared to use any and all types of stalk and/or interception tactics that are best suited to each opportunity. Appropriate camo, a laser rangefinder, and silent, comfortable footwear will prove their worth at this stage of the game.

Finally, bevery familiar with your bow’s (and your own) limitations, and stay within them. Pass on “maybe” shots and wait forgimmies, so that when the moment of truth has come and gone, you’ll be a hero and not a zero.

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