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A mule deer's life typically begins in May or June. A mature doe will often give birth to twins, while a yearling doe will generally only have one fawn. Fawns will usually stay with their mother for the first year of their life. Harsh winters and predators such as black bears, cougars, bobcats and coyotes will take a major toll on the population of young fawns. As the temperature drops and the snow begins to pile high, these small deer have a very difficult time surviving. 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 usually sport a spike or two-point frame, but a three-point frame is not that uncommon. In the spring and summer a mule deer's antlers are covered in velvet. This brown soft material covers the deer's entire antlers and provides a constant blood supply to the antlers during growth. The antlers are very soft and damage can easily occur during this time period. Antler growth will continue until around mid-to-late August. As the antlers harden and the velvet dries up, bucks will begin to rub their antlers. Rubbing of antlers is often done on small trees or bushes. Mule deer bucks begin to strip off their velvet in mid-September with all the velvet usually off by the first of October. Mule deer bucks in full velvet are an awesome site and the velvet greatly enhances the size of the bucks.
As October begins, the bucks begin to feel the pressure of hunting, and move into heavy, thick vegetation. Mule deer learn very quickly and once human hunting pressure is applied, they can become very elusive. While many of the yearling bucks can still be found tagging along with their mothers, the mature bucks are often alone or in small groups of two to five and remain well hidden. If a buck is lucky enough to survive the hunting seasons, then he gets to enjoy the rut. A doe that is old enough to breed will begin to come into estrus between October and January depending on the area they live in; northern mule deer go into rut in mid-October and mule deer in Mexico rut in January. In the pre-rut phase, mule deer bucks will fight one another in order to establish dominance and win the right to breed. The rut is hard on mature mule deer bucks and they will lose valuable body fat and some of them will not make it through the winter.
Depending on the region, mule deer shed their antlers between late winter and early spring. The antler breaks at the base near the skull. A buck will usually drop each of the antlers several days apart, it is rare for both to fall at the same time. Shortly after shedding, the bucks begin growing new antlers.
What Makes a Big Buck?
Large mule deer bucks are very crafty and are a rare site in this day and age. Because of the incredible pressures put upon them, the numbers of trophy bucks are continually declining. 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 a human. It takes the genetics of both the male and female mule deer to produce a big trophy class buck. Weather can also play a big part in producing trophy mule deer. A mild winter, no late spring snowstorms and enough moisture to make sure summer ranges are in good shape are needed in order to give a mule deer a chance at producing the best antlers possible. A mule deer buck must also be given the opportunity to mature, which in most cases is 5-8 years of age. During that period, a mule deer buck is considered in his prime and will produce the best sets of antlers of his life.
The nutritional value of a buck's diet is also very important. The quality and quantity of the available food sources can greatly increase the antler growth. The quality of feed is very hard to determine, and is best left for 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, but recent droughts have limited this availability across various regions of the west. Winter ranges are a different story. As the snow becomes deep and temperatures drop below freezing, the deer are forced into a smaller area to spend the winter. If a range is over populated with deer or the quality and quantity of feed is not available, all the deer will be affected and many will die. Those that do survive will be very weak and will be susceptible to any late spring snowstorms which will cause more to die. If a mule deer buck is not fully healthy going into his next antler growing season, his chances for maximum antler growth is diminished.
Where to Hunt Them?
It is important to hunt for big trophy mule deer in areas that produce them on a regular basis. Searching record book archives is a good place to see what areas have historically produced record book animals and what areas are currently being productive. According to the Boone & Crockett Club, the following is a list of the all-time Top-5 States for both the typical and non-typical categories of mule deer including the county with the most entries listed after each state:
Typical (180 Awards; 190 All-Time)
1 - Colorado (714); Eagle County (71)
2 - Idaho (251); Bonneville County (24)
3 - Utah (209); Kane (31)
4 - Wyoming (189); Lincoln County (51)
5 - New Mexico (164); Rio Arriba (121)
Non-Typical (215 Awards; 230 All-Time)|
1 - Colorado (271); Eagle County (27)
2 - Idaho (185); Adams County (18)
3 - Utah (123); Utah County (10)
4 - Arizona (96); Coconino County (60)
5 - Wyoming (83); Fremont County (9)
Historical data is important to look at, but it is also important to look at recent state trends to know which states are currently producing the most big bucks. According to the Boone & Crockett Club, the following is a list of the Top-5 States for both the typical and non-typical categories of mule deer from 2004 to the present:
1 - Colorado (221)
2 - Saskatchewan (71)
3 - Utah (54)
4 - Wyoming (53)
5 - New Mexico (46)
1 - Colorado (48)
2 - Saskatchewan (31)
3 - Utah (14)
4 - Arizona (13)
5 - Alberta, Idaho, Wyoming (12 each)
By looking at the most recent data available, you can see that Saskatchewan at both #2s is a great current producer of big trophy bucks. You would have missed that if just looked at the all-time data presented in the first list. It is always a good idea to shrink your search area down in trying to locate an area to hunt for and harvest a big mature trophy mule deer. I like to take the same ideas from above and apply them at the county level. Here is a list of the Top-5 Counties for both the typical and non-typical categories of mule deer all-time:
1 - Rio Arriba County, NM (121)
2 - Eagle County, CO (71)
3 - Sonora, MX (70)
4 - Lincoln County, WY (51)
5 - Coconino County, AZ (50)
1 - Coconino County, AZ (60)
2 - Rio Arriba County, NM (33)
3 - Eagle County, CO (27)
4 - Mohave County, AZ (23)
5 - Mesa County, CO (21)
|[Boone & Crockett, May 2014]|
Now let us take a look and see how current data compares to the overall historical record by seeing what counties are producing the most record book bucks within the last 10 years:
1 - Sonora, MX (41)
2 - Rio Arriba County, NM (39)
3 - Eagle County, CO (22)
4 - La Plata County, CO (19)
5 - Carbon County, WY (18)
6 - Garfield County, CO (15)
7 - Montezuma County, CO (15)
8 - Coconino County, AZ (14)
9 - Mesa County, CO (14)
10 - Lincoln County, NV (13)
1 - Mohave County, AZ (7)
2 - Great Sand Hill, Saskatchewan (5)
3 - Lincoln County, NV (5)
4 - Rio Arriba County, NM (5)
5 - Coconino County, AZ (4)
6 - Eagle County, CO (4)
7 - Mesa County, CO (4)
8 - Yuma County, CO (4)
|[Boone & Crockett, May 2014]|
By analyzing the most recent data, a hunter can see where to focus their efforts for obtaining a tag as some of these areas are hard to draw limited entry areas that may take decades to draw one of those coveted tags. The good news is not all these areas are like that and some can be hunted every few years.