Photos & report
by Buck Pope
Collecting a trophy mule deer is one of the most difficult challenges facing avid hunters in North America. It can be done, but it is very tough odds and can be expensive depending on where you hunt.
I have been an avid mule deer hunter all my life and can count on both hands the number of big bucks I have seen and only harvested several truly big bucks (I’m talking 200-inch plus monster bucks) in over 50 years of hunting this grand animal.
Today, here in North America, you can count on one hand the number of areas where a hunter might have a chance at finding a big trophy monster 200-inch plus-size buck. One of the easiest ways to keep track of what is considered a big buck is to use our recognized scoring systems, such as Boone & Crockett, Safari Club International and Pope & Young, which are means of scoring animals in inches of antler or horn depending on the species.
With regard to mule deer, there are two types, typical and non-typical based on antlers configuration. In my opinion your trophy bucks start out in the 180 class and go up from there. Any buck that is 200 or more is getting into the “very large” category and is often called a monster buck. A typical mature mule deer will have four points to a side and additional eye guards in most cases. A non-typical will have a similar type frame, but will have additional points shooting out here and there. Some hunters call them trash and cheaters, etc., but they can become massive and most impressive.
I like both, but to me the big old non-typical really gets my attention and blood to pumping. The spread and mass of the antlers also adds to his size and points score. To a hard core mule deer hunter, a 30-inch spread is considered the magic trophy standard. The majority of your mature bucks will range from 22 to 26-inch spreads. Mature bucks that run from 27 inches on up and past 30 inches make for impressive trophies. A lot more goes into a trophy buck than just a 30-inch spread.
It is often said a 30-inch mule deer is like getting a 40-inch sheep. That can be true, but a lot of factors make up what a trophy is and what it means to a hunter. I have seen many 24-inch spread bucks with great mass and heavy deep forks that are most impressive and a real trophy animal. I have also seen 30-inch spread bucks with thin horns, crab forks and weak backs that are not impressive at all at least to me.
However, a trophy buck is all in the eyes of the beholder and that is so true. Bottom line, if you are happy with the animal, that is what is most important. You don’t have to play the numbers game, but it is very helpful to relate to for comparison purposes.
As to rifles for mule deer hunting, there are a large number of makes and types available along with a broad range of good to excellent calibers to pick from. The bolt-action is by far the favorite action for western deer hunting and almost everyone uses a scope on their rifle. Several very affordable rifles I am familiar with include the Savage, Weatherby Vanguard and the Howa bolt-actions. These rifles are accurate and offer a lot of value for the money. You can move up in price and go into a large number of good solid rifles such as the Ruger Hawkeye, Remington 700, Browning A Bolt, and the new Winchester Model 70 just out, and others. Kimber, Weatherby, Remington and others make more expensive and very handsome and accurate rifles. Personally, I have used several Kimber Model 8400 rifles along with the Nosler Model 48 custom rifle with excellent success. Also I am impressed with the new Remington Model 700 Boone & Crockett rifle and the new Winchester Model 70 that is starting to be made available again.
Caliber selection is wide open. You really want a cartridge that is flat shooting and accurate to be able to make 300 to 400-yard shots should you have to, and that hits hard. I am pretty sure the most popular two calibers over the years have been the .270 Winchester and the .30-06 Springfield. Other popular calibers over the years in the West have been the .25-06 Rem, .264 Win. Mag, .257 Wby., .280 Rem, 7mm Rem. Mag, .300 Win. Mag, .300 Wby. and several others. Many of the short-action WSM calibers are gaining in popularity, namely the .270 WSM and .300 WSM.
My personal favorite calibers are the .270 WSM, .270 Wby., .280 Rem, 7mm STW. and .300 WSM. If I had to pick one it would be the 7 STW, 7mm Rem. Ultra Mag or 300 WSM. The reason being it’s more caliber than needed for most applications, however, should you need that extra long shot you got it. Bottom line, they are flat shooting, very fast and hit hard. In addition they make for great elk cartridges.
It is also very important to select the right bullet for your application. There are a number of good bullets available both in factory-loaded ammunition and also for handloading.
If you will be shooting a magnum, I really suggest one of the bonded bullets, such as Nosler AccuBond, Partition, Swift Scirocco or the new Federal Trophy Bonded Tip. Also the new Barnes Triple Shock is becoming very popular. I have shot more game recently with the Nosler AccuBond in various calibers than anything and am very impressed.
In the early years I always hunted with a .270 Winchester, a great cartridge still today. I used to handload my .270 Win. with the 130-grain Winchester Silvertip bullet with great success. It is still a good bullet today along with the Remington Core-Lokt, particularly in your non magnum calibers. When I started hunting with the .280 Remington, I handloaded 140-grain Nosler Partitions with excellent results.
I still like the .270 Win. and .280 Rem., but if you have to make any very long shots (350 yards and beyond) you’re better off with a .270 WSM and larger.
Scope selection is another very important part of your rifle package. Variable scopes represent over 95% of the scopes out in the field today. I still like a fixed power and a 6X is hard to beat. However if I were selecting a riflescope for western states hunting where mule deer and perhaps elk were my main game animals it would be a variable. I like best the 3-10X, 4-12X and 4.5-14X models. I still like one-inch models because of their size and affordability. Still the 30mm scopes are very nice and are a nice up-grade. A good rule of thumb is buy the very best optics you can afford and this also applies to your binoculars and spotting scope.
Scope makers such as Swarovski, Kahles, Leupold, Burris, Zeiss and others make quality optics that will stand up in the field and give you years of service. Your optics are very important and can make or break a hunt. I like several of the ballistic ranging reticles available today on quality scopes. My experience has been with the Burris Ballistic Plex reticle, Leupold Boone & Crockett reticle and the Swarovski BR reticle. These range systems really work and can greatly increase your success on long shots. You combine the reticle with a quality Lazer rangefinder, get out and practice by trying it and see for yourself how well it works. I use both Bushnell and Leica, they work very well.
I mount almost all of my scopes on my rifles using either Talley or Leupold rings and mounts depending on the application. They are totally dependable and I have yet to experience a problem.
Another great shooting aid is shooting sticks or attaching a Harris tripod to your rifle. I also like to use my pack if time permits; your first shot is critical in harvesting an animal.
In talking about trophy mule deer, if you’re serious about hunting big bucks then you have to go where they exist. A number of the Western states have several areas within their boundaries that are known for big bucks being taken. You need to do some research and find these areas and see how to apply.
Chances are they are on a draw system and there are low odds of winning a drawing. A number of guys will put in for multiple states and keeping putting in each year. Some states offer points for applying each year. There are a few sleeper areas that a big buck may come out of but not many.
If you want big bucks they have to have genetics, food, minerals and be in areas where they can grow to maturity and beyond, that means 5 years and on up in age. Mexico has become very popular, but it is expensive and for most hunters beyond their budgets. Canada is also producing some big bucks and could be a consideration, but again it is costly. Colorado has far more trophy mule deer in the books than any other state. It is truly a great mule deer state and is always a good choice. Wyoming has always been a good trophy mule deer state as well as Utah. Arizona, Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico. These states hold some awesome bucks but again drawing a tag is very tough. The remaining other Western states have some good trophies on occasion but not like the specifically mentioned states.
Remember that in any state only a few areas within that state have the trophy qualities you’re looking for. Do your research, read and learn.
This past season, I drew a permit in my home state of Arizona to hunt mule deer in the famous area known as “The Arizona Strip.” This area has been very famous over the years since the 1960s for producing trophy mule deer. The area is managed by the Arizona Game & Fish Department for the harvesting of older mature bucks. The permits are few and there are not a lot of deer in the area, but when you do see a buck he might be a really big one.
The season is only 10 days long and the area very remote and it is highly recommended you hire an outfitter unless you can spend a lot of time scouting the area. I hired Chad Smith of Vaquero Outfitters, a highly respected outfitter who has hunted the area for a number of years with good success. My personal guide was Aaron Overton for the one-on-one hunt.
On the evening of the seventh day, I finally got my chance at a trophy buck. The big buck had a 31-inch spread, was 8 X 7 score-able points and ended up scoring a gross 220-6/8 inches He was the buck of a lifetime and he was estimated at 8˚ years old. I used a Nosler Model 48 rifle in the .325 WSM caliber using Nosler’s own Custom 200-grain AccuBond ammunition. My scope was the Swarovski AV 4-12x50mm with the BR reticle using Talley rings and mounts. This combination shot 1-inch or less three-shot groups at 100 yards, a great hunting package.
I had only had two preference points and I was very lucky and drew a tag. My point is you can’t give up, keep trying for choice areas. If you want some help in selecting areas to apply for, there are consultants available to help you choose areas and assist you in applying. There are also several magazines that offer inside information on the best places to apply, etc. These are The Hunting Fool, Eastman’s Hunting Journal and Muley Crazy, three good publications full of data and photos of game, etc.
So if you have a great passion for hunting mule deer and in particular big bucks, get with the program; start doing your research, save your money for applying for a tag and have at it. It is a passion that hard to top and will keep you going year after year.
Eastman’s Hunting Journal
The Hunting Fool