If you are sitting on a mule deer tag in November, consider yourself lucky. These are special hunts. The hard-to-get controlled tags. The seasons you remember when you’re older and your hair has long since gone gray. It’s a truly storied time to be hunting muleys. As I look back on my mule deer hunting career, one moment that stands out was in Idaho. The rut was on, and the weather was so cold a four-letter word would shatter and fall to the ground before it could reach my horse’s ear. Bitter cold. We all went home with bull elk and average bucks, except for the cook, who I guided to a 27-inch 4×4 he shot with his .270 Winchester off the tent stake. I spotted the buck when I came out of the tent and ducked back inside to collar the cook—the only one left in camp with a deer tag.
Such odd occurrences are simply part and parcel of hunting mule deer in November. And if you’re fortunate enough to be able to hunt during this time, you owe it to yourself to do it right.
Many states have muzzleloader mule deer seasons in November. In these special seasons, hunters get one chance to make a well-aimed shot, usually at 100 yards or less. Mule deer are creatures of wide-open spaces, and closing the gap on them can be difficult. However, your odds are never better than in November when big bucks are on the move and are more likely to make the kinds of mistakes they don’t in other months. Muzzleloader season can also mean doe tags for some lucky hunters where the hunt itself is a trophy experience.
My taste these days runs to sidelocks, Kentucky rifles, Hawkens—traditional blackpowder guns—but even with the modern muzzleloaders legal in some Western states, the technology is remarkably similar. So, too, are their weaknesses. Whether going old-school or modern, a hunter needs to protect powder and keep caps dry in rainy or snowy weather. Deer hunting is often better when it’s wetter, but moisture can foul up a muzzleloader hunt in a hurry.
Fire a percussion cap after cleaning to minimize moisture that might be present in the barrel and load the rifle in a warm, dry place. Cover the muzzle with electrical tape or a balloon. Protect the action from moisture with a plastic or leather cover. Check the sights to make sure water isn’t blocking the aperture or fogging the optic. And be sure to fire and clean the muzzleloader at the end of each day.
In much of the mountain and desert West, the mule deer rut is said to begin in late October or early November. In some locales, mule deer may exhibit mating behavior as late as the third week of December. While the exact timing of the breeding season differs throughout the region, it will continue for a period that can last more than 40 days between the first doe coming into estrus and the last hot doe being bred.
When mule deer gather in large numbers in transition zones, with perhaps 20 or 40 deer in peak physical condition, the pheromone exchange triggers breeding. Mature bucks break out of bachelor herds and may attach themselves to one group of does or troll several small herds. In fact, there are probably several bucks shadowing the same herds, and when a doe comes into heat, a buck will have to fight for the right to breed her. Now more than ever is the time to park oneself on a hilltop to watch small herds of does and look for bucks. It means learning the keys to the migration and employing good glass to pick resting or feeding bucks out of tall cover.
Whether you hunt with rifle, muzzleloader or archery equipment in November, the strategy remains the same: Find the migration routes, then find the does. Mule deer migrations are studied in terms of winter and summer locations. We tend to think of migration occurring in specific corridors, but the data reveals fan-shaped dispersals as the deer take their own paths. In my own corner of mule deer habitat, muleys often spend summers high in the mountains then migrate out to the desert.
Fall migration starts as early as the second week of October and continues through mid-November. These deer travel from 40 to 120 miles from their summer range to wintering grounds. Deer that summer at the top of our mountains might head north while other deer move east into the sagebrush or south and east.
To gain an edge in tracking down migration routes, talk to a local wildlife biologist. This individual knows the habits of the deer in his or her management units, knows where they winter and has a pretty good idea where they spend summers. Armed with this information and a good map, probable migration routes begin revealing themselves. For example, river canyons and hogback ridges that funnel into the flatlands are perfect deer highways. If a small range of mountains lies between winter and summer habitats, even better, as notches in the skyline and low saddles create natural bottlenecks.
Deer may move at night, but bucks are likely to move in daylight hours, too. Want to hunt peak movement? Turn to the Moon Times charts in the front of this magazine and look for the two-hour periods of major activity listed for each day.
One of the mistakes mule deer hunters make is thinking they can see large herds of deer from the truck and thereby spot a buck. It can happen, but the better play is planning the hunt in advance and then scouting for sign such as tracks at road crossings. If it’s November, bucks will be following herds of does. Every herd of 5 to 15 does has a buck with it. He is there, watching, ready to drive off other bucks.
ATTRACTANTS AND RATTLING
For the past 19 years, I have kept track of the bucks on my place. All summer I would see the same spikes and forked horns and 2x3s, but I could count on big bucks to show like clockwork on the first day of November. They would fight and bloody each other for two, maybe three weeks to sort out who was who. By that time, I would no longer see the smaller bucks, and every group of does would have a buck attached, although I would not always see it.
If we were to divide the rut into component parts, we might see different types of behavior in each phase: pre-rut, early rut, late rut and post-rut. Rattling antlers seem to work best in the early phases.
That said, there are certainly occasions in which they’ll work deep into November as well. On one Thanksgiving Day muzzleloader hunt, a friend of mine found a set of antlers and used it to rattle in a big buck off a wildlife refuge. He ended up taking the deer in a cloud of white smoke from his perch in the rimrock. While this is a somewhat unique scenario, it’s a compelling argument for keeping antlers handy well into the rut.
Another way to ensure deer show up in the right places is to use scent attractants. These can fall into several potential categories, but let’s make it simple by dividing them into food and urine attractants. Food attractants like vanilla, apples, corn and acorns can draw does, which often bring bucks with them. Synthetic and natural urine lures (where legal) can lure deer to cross a trail or stop at a certain spot.
They all work, but they are by no means magic. Do the scouting to figure out where bucks are likely to be and how the prevailing wind might carry the scent. Remember that deer have powerful scenting ability and might follow a wisp of scent for two miles or more.
Either approach requires a bit of patience. You’ll want to give attractants the proper amount of time to work. The same applies to rattling for deer. Believe that it will pay off, that a buck is coming, and you may be surprised to find yourself right.
STAY THE COURSE
The mule deer rut can be both incredibly exciting and frustrating, depending on the conditions and scenarios you face. However, if you stay rooted in one place—on one good, well-scouted saddle or funnel, or in a brushed-in ground blind beside a game trail—you stand a pretty good chance. If there are does in the area, the bucks will show themselves. Keep your powder dry and savor these short days in mule deer country. They are rare and fine in a hunter’s memory.