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"Mule Deer"

Photo by Steve Wright (Racks & Rods)
Photo by Steve Wright (Racks & Rods Outfitters)
Mule Deer are one the most exciting and beautiful big game animals in the world. Large mule deer bucks are very crafty and a rare site in this day and age. Because of the incredible pressures put upon them, the numbers of trophy bucks are continually declining.
Mule deer originally received their name because of their large ears, which resemble that of a mule. They have incredible hearing, great noses and can see very well. A mule deer's life typically begins in May or June. The mature doe's will often give birth to twins, while yearling doe's generally only have one fawn. Fawns will usually stay with their mother for the first year of their life. Harsh winters will take a major toll on young fawns. As the temperature drops and the snow begins to pile high, these small deer have a very difficult time surviving. Predators such as cougars, bobcats and coyotes are always looking for the weak and old. Combined with winter ranges that may have diminished food sources, these fawns are at great risk.
For many mule deer, the first winter is often the most difficult. By spring these deer are very lively and ready to move to higher ground. Mule deer return to their summer ranges as soon as the snow starts melting and temperatures begin to warm. Antler growth typically begins in February or March. Yearling bucks will often sport a spike or two-point frame for the first year of their life.
Genetics, nutrition and age have much to do with antler growth. Genetics play as much a part of a mule deer's life as they do for human's. Big bucks and doe's with big buck genetics will often produce more big bucks. During spring and summer antlers are growing at an awesome rate, with large bucks, up to a quarter of an inch per day. If summer ranges are in good shape, those antlers should grow very well.
Throughout the spring and summer months antlers are very tender, even having flies or other insects landing on the antlers can be very annoying. The antlers are very soft and damage can easily occur during this time period. Antler grow will continue 'til around mid. to late August. As the antlers harden and the velvet dries up, bucks will begin to rub. Rubbing of antlers is often done on small trees or bushes. Rubbing will continue 'til the buck sheds the antlers in mid-winter.
Many bow hunters see bucks while they're in full velvet. Mule deer bucks in full velvet are an awesome site, and often look much larger than they really are. As October rolls around the bucks begin to feel the pressure of hunting, and moving into heavy, thick timber or deep thick canyons is not uncommon. Mule deer learn very quickly and once the pressure is applied, they can become very elusive. While many of the yearling bucks can still be found tagging along with mother, the mature bucks are often alone or in small groups of 2-5 and remain well hidden. If a buck is lucky enough to survive the hunting seasons, then he gets to enjoy the rut.
Doe's begin to come into heat in November and bucks are naturally drawn to the aroma of a "Doe in Heat". Many mule deer bucks are willing to fight to the death over breeding rights with any doe. Big bucks will loose valuable body fat during the mating season, especially in areas with low buck-to-doe ratios. With winter lurking ahead, being in top shape is of utmost importance.
As January and February roll around the bucks begin sheding their antlers. The antler breaks at the base near the skull. A buck will usually drop each of the antlers several days apart, it's rare for both to fall at the same time. Shortly after sheding, the bucks begin growing new antlers. And a New Year begins again.

Photo by Brian Latturner

Photo by Brian Latturner
What Makes a Big Buck?

As mentioned before, age, genetics and nutrition are major role players. Lets first talk about age. In most cases the magical number is 5-8 years. A mule deer buck will usually see his "Prime" within' that age range. The "Prime", being the most healthly year of a bucks life. Typically the best antler growth will occur when the buck is in the best physical condition.
Genetics, what did dad or grandpa look like? Some areas can produce giant bucks, while others do not. It boils down to genetics. It's very similar to human genetics. Take for example, a young boy has a father who is 6' 9" tall and a mother whose 5' 11". There's a very good chance that boy may be tall, right? The same holds true for big bucks. If you were to check the Boone and Crockett record book, you'd find that some area's have produced many giant bucks. While at the same time, you could find certain area's that have never produced a Boone and Crockett buck. Genetics are obviously better in some areas. I would guess most of us are willing to take much less than B&C bucks, but the same still holds true. Most big buck hunters are looking for something with the magical 30" rack. If you're hunting in an area that is known for wide bucks, you'll have a better chance of seeing one. I personally have hunted in area's where over a 10 year period, neither my father, myself, or any of our hunting buddies, had ever seen a buck that we thought was over 30". Well, I wouldn't spend my hunt looking in that area for a big big one. That area did have many bucks in the 24"-26" range, but rarely anything better than that. You can improve your chances by hunting an area that can produce wide, heavy, tall, typical or non-typical bucks, whatever you prefer. Remember that there will always be exceptions.
The Nutritional value of a buck's diet is very important. Quality and quantity of the feed can effect antler growth dramatically. The quality of feed is very hard to determine, and is best left for the biologists. But the quantity can be determined by viewing the summer and winter ranges. Typically the summer ranges have plenty of feed for all the game animals. Winter ranges are a different story. A great example of diminished winter range can be found along the Wasatch front of northern Utah. Homes are being built higher and higher on the mountain. This inturn shrinks the winter range and lessens the number of deer that can be supported on the range. Over the past few years the winters have been fairly mild along the Wasatch front. But eventually we will have another long, cold winter. As the snow becomes very deep and temperatures drop low, the deer are forced into a smaller area to spend the winter. If a range is over populated, all the deer will be effected and many will die. Those that do survive will be very weak through spring. For a buck, this weakens the antler growth, and the chance for maximum antler growth is gone.

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