With the rut popping, now is the time to bag a big cactus-country buck
Wide-open desert is tough and unforgiving country to hunt mule deer. It can seem to swallow deer before your eyes. It’s full of brush that pokes, prods and bites at every turn. That harsh environment, combined with vast public tracts and the sheer number of over-the-counter units, can make picking a spot to start overwhelming.
But there’s no place like it. The mule deer rut in the Southwest runs from mid-December to mid-January, which makes it a great option when activity dies down in other spots. More importantly, bucks are on the move, which will help level the playing field. So will these tips.
1. Glass for Bucks
Plan on spending long hours behind glass. If you stick with it, you’ll spot deer. Once you locate a buck during the early morning hours, put him to bed and hatch a plan to slip to within bow range. Pay close attention to as many landmarks as possible when you’re planning a stalk. Scenery changes once you leave your glassing vantage and get on the deer’s level. Be meticulous and wait for that perfect opportunity to get close and capitalize on it.
2. Monitor Doe Groups
Keep track of the doe groups you’ve located during your scouting efforts. It won’t be long until a buck joins them. One of the most effective ways to kill a mule deer during the rut is to wait until he splits a hot doe from the group. There are fewer eyes then, and with the buck preoccupied, you have a better chance of sneaking into bow range.
3. Stalk Within Range
If you locate bucks moving with does, slip in close and attempt to cut them off. It won’t be a short endeavor. It’s hard to move undetected in such open country, so use the terrain to your advantage. Work slowly where you’re exposed, and move quickly when you’re fully concealed. Although this approach makes for some long days, it’s your best shot at killing deer during the rut. Don’t forget: it’s that extra effort you employ – or don’t – that often makes or breaks your hunt.
4. Hunt Water Holes
Can’t seem to glass up a buck? Try an early season tactic like locating a water source. In the desert, these sources are key year-round, including during the rut. Although actually walking areas can help yield liquid gold, the most efficient way to scout waterholes is by finding them digitally. Set the date ranges in the Google Earth timeline between May and June (the driest time of year) and look for lush green spots. Once you arrive on the ground, do a little leg work to confirm your suspicions.
5. Use Whitetail Tactics
Rattling antlers and subtle grunts can bring a curious muley into range. This is especially true for satellite bucks that do not have a harem of does. Mule deer densities tend to be lower in these regions, and this creates competition among rivals. Although they typically won’t come in looking for a fight like a Coues deer might, the racket of a couple bucks duking it out can pique interest. Blind calling typically doesn’t work as well, though. Instead, locate a buck, sneak inside that 100-yard range, and start making some noise.
Bonus: Don’t Forget Coues Deer
The hunting season for mule deer is structured similarly for Coues whitetail. Over-the-counter tags are usually good for either species, so you can chase either if the opportunity arises. Desert mule deer and Coues country overlap in many areas, and you never know what might show up once the rut arrives.