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Do-it-yourself mule deer hunters: How to improve your odds

Big muleys are not easy to find even on the better ranches. They're smart and use all of their outstanding senses to survive. Do not expect to find a trophy-class deer just by riding around on ranch roads, stopping occasionally to glass.

One of our most successful do-it-yourself trophy mule deer customers over 20 years was a contractor and part-time hunting guide in California before he eventually moved to the heart of mule deer country in Utah and began leasing his own ranches. Over the years Gary Andersen hunted several of the properties we have booked, including seven or eight ranches in Utah, two Idaho properties, four Wyoming ranches and a Montana property. He consistently took a good buck or helped one of his sons, his father or his uncle to kill one. I asked him to share his insights:

"Big mule deer are a lot harder to hunt than most people think," he said. "You might see a trophy out in the open in September or during the rut after the season, but not very often during rifle season. Mature bucks are pretty nocturnal in October, and the bigger the buck the more nocturnal he is. If you don't happen to be in exactly the right spot during the first few minutes or the last few minutes of the day, spotting and stalking isn't going to work. And if the weather is warm, he'll be bedded before first light and probably won't start moving until after dark. You'll need to still hunt through the timber, which is almost impossible to do if the weather is hot or dry, or you'll need to put on drives.  

Gary Andersen with a mule deer he shot while hunting on his own on a lease we lined up for him in southwestern Wyoming.

"Or you can do what I usually do, and that is to be patient and just keep hunting, glassing into timber during the day and on the edges at morning and evening.

"Just because you're seeing does and small bucks doesn't mean there are no big bucks. The older bucks act totally different than the other deer, and they often hang out in different areas. A lot of times a big one will give you just a moment to take your shot, so you need to be ready all the time.

"I'm prepared to shoot long distanceas, and I carry top-quality optics. My binoculars cost $1,000, and my spotting scope cost almost $2,000. A lot of guys show up on trespass-permit hunts, and they don't have good binoculars and they don't have a spotting scope. I would hate to handicap myself that way.

"Most hunters just can't act quickly enough to make a shot count when things are happening fast. If a big buck shows himself at all, it's usually just for a moment, and then he's gone for good.

"A lot of guys just want to drive around on an ATV or in a truck and look for deer. The big bucks hear them coming and hide.

"Some guys think if they don't see a big muley, the big bucks have cleared out of the country and gone somewhere else. My experience is that the bucks are right there -- you're just not seeing them.

"Most of the ranches I've hunted have bordered public land or ranches that get just as much or more hunting pressure, and so the deer really don't have anywhere to go. Instead, they just hide. There are plenty of places for a buck to hide, and with his eight-power eyes, his fantastic ears and his nose, he usually will sense you before you know he's around.

Gary with a bull elk he shot the first time he hunted a ranch in Idaho. Click on photo for larger image.

"I figure that I see only about 10 to 20 percent of the bucks that see me, and in a week of hunting I might see only two or three mature bucks. And keep in mind that I hunt at least twice as hard as the average guy. I don't get disappointed, and I keep at it day after day. I've got up at 4 in the morning for two weeks in a row, and I usually don't get back to camp until way after dark. I might take a break during mid-day, but even though you're not going to see big bucks in the open during the middle of the day you can still hunt through the cover. Most guys go back to camp and sit around all day, and they're definitely not going to kill anything doing that.

"The big ones where I hunt seldom have antlers that are less than 24 inches wide, and they're usually 26 to 28 inches or so. Bucks over 30 inches wide are rare anywhere, and I don't see one every year in the areas I hunt. I don't worry about spread much.  I'm looking for a heavy rack, and I want long points if I can get them.

"On good properties I can usually find at least one shooter in a week, and I've seen several in a day, but that's really rare. The best properties I've hunted are now leased by outfitters who take only guided hunters.

"If you want to be assured of seeing big bucks, you need to go to a game farm or book one of the premium guided hunts where the outfitter charges enough that he can reduce hunting pressure to a bare minimum, such as one buck per 2,500 to 10,000 acres. I'm not interested in game farm hunting myself, and the premium hunts costs too much now at $6,500 to $10,000. I choose to spend my money and time on trespass permits in good areas. There's no guarantee I'll be able to find what I'm looking for, but I'm confident the kind of buck I want is there, and I like the challenge of matching up my skills against his wariness to see if I can find him.

"We've also been very successful on self-guided elk and antelope hunts as well as blacktail deer hunts in California, and I think a lot of my advice would apply to hunting those animals as well as most game species.

"To sum up, don't underestimate the animal or the difficulty of hunting, be prepared to deal with all sorts of conditions and events that might come up, maintain a positive attitude, buy all the quality gear you need, and have fun."