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The best time for mule deer

 

Mule deer eating bitter brush
Photo credit: Steve Alderman

Why do most western states have their mule deer season in October?

Most western states have the majority of their mule deer seasons in early October, for the simple fact that it is the toughest time of year to hunt them. You can allow more hunters in the field, and you will have lower success rates. Allowing hunting any other time of the year is a death sentence to the mule deer. For example, Montana and Colorado are cutting back on the seasons and late hunts to try and build their deer herds back.

Given this information, when is the best time to scout for a mature mule deer buck, and when is your best chance to harvest a buck of a lifetime? 

A month-to-month mule deer comparison

The best time to scout is obviously before your hunt, but the best answer would be in July and August. Mule deer bucks are usually bachelored up this time of year. They are also usually bachelored up with other bucks of the same age structure. Young bucks can either be with the does or with a group of adolescent bucks while the mature bucks seem to hang in their own group or alone.

Their antlers are growing and are somewhat delicate, which again, is to our advantage. The bucks stay out of the heavy cover to help them from injuring their antlers during growth. Their overly fat bodies stick out like a sore thumb this time of year as their coats are in summer mode and are red/orange in color. For these obvious reasons, you can see why this time of year is the best time to scout, but lets take a look at the best times of year to hunt them.
 

Mule deer bedded in the open
While in velvet, mule deer bucks will throw caution to the side and bed out in the wide open to protect their growing antlers. Photo credit: Steve Alderman

August 15 through August 31

This is one of the best times you could possibly hunt mule deer. The deer are very easy to spot this time of year with their velvet antlers and the reddish tint to their coats. This would be my favorite time to hunt if it was easier to get tags for this time period.  

However, there are a few downfalls to hunting this time of year. The biggest is getting a tag. Unless you're an archer, this is going to be the biggest hurdle for you to overcome, as these hunts are very limited for the rifle hunter. The second and equally as important as acquiring a tag would be the heat. You need to be able to get a deer off the mountain quickly when you harvest it. Third, and only a factor to a few, is the fact that the antlers will still be in velvet. They will be mostly hardened but will be fully encased in that beautiful gold fuzz.  
 

Summer mule deer buck
Red summer coats make for easy long-distance spotting of mule deer. Photo credit: Steve Alderman

Early season scouting and hunting is the best time to use your glass as deer are more apt to stand up and switch their beds during the heat of the day. Couple that with the color of the hide and it makes for easy glassing. This is by far the best opportunity to harvest a mature mule deer. Bachelor groups, red coats, patternable behavior and few hunters make this a recipe for success.

September 1st through September 15th

This is the time when a few more hunts start to open up across the country. Still a great time to harvest that buck of your dreams, but now a few things are starting to change. The reddish orange coats are changing to the grey, brown coats of fall and winter. Their antler pedicles are drying up, the blood is finishing the calcification process, and by the end of this time period, most have stripped their golden fuzz for the more popular chocolate-brown hard horn.  
 

Mule deer buck stripping velvet
First of September mule deer shed their velvet and summer coats and also become harder to spot. Photo credit: Steve Alderman

This time of year signals transition for the bucks. They are stripping their velvet, sparring and strengthening their necks for the upcoming rut. They are still somewhat patternable as they often stick to their summer patterns of the last couple months. It's getting harder to spot them for a number of reasons this time of year. The color of their coats helps them blend into the background, and they are starting to venture into thicker cover to bed. It's best to have found your buck prior to his coat changing and the shedding of the velvet. The bucks are still spending time up on their feet during daylight hours, but that time is lessening as the days get shorter.

September 16th through September 30th

Hopefully, you have found your buck by now and have been following him for weeks or more. Scouting is about at its hardest now as the bucks become nocturnal and their coats are in full fall and winter mode, making it very hard to spot them.

They are still in their summer patterns, but may have moved from one basin to another in search of the most palatable or high-in-protein foliage they can find. Mature bucks know what it takes to survive and are constantly looking for the most nutritious food to carry them through the winter. As one basin or foliage dries up, they are off to the next food source. This is a battle you will fight the entire scouting season. They usually don't move far after the middle of July. Their summer range is typically within a two-mile radius -- and that is water, feed and bed. On many occasions, in the high country, it is even smaller than that.  

Hunting a mature buck this time of the year is the second hardest two-week period, especially if you haven't found your buck prior to this. The upside to this time of year is the coats are in my opinion the prettiest they will be. Full winter color with a thin undercoat make for some of the most beautiful mounts.

October 1st through October 15th

If you haven't scouted by now, you must really enjoy camping and hiking. This is by far the most difficult time to harvest a mature mule deer. If you don't have one patterned, you are almost shooting in the dark. You will need to catch your deer the first 30 minutes, and if you're lucky, the last thirty minutes of legal shooting light, and more often than not they won't get up until dark to feed out of the bedding area.

This two-week period is by far the hardest time to find and harvest a mature mule deer. Fortunately for me, I have harvested three 200-inch deer during this time period. The secret to my success was the scouting and patterning. If it wasn't for scouting, I might have shot one of these bucks, but definitely not the other two. Two were harvested on the first day in which I hunted and the the other was on the eleventh day of the hunt and was a backup buck.
 

Steve Alderman with a 213 inch October mule deer
October 1st, 2007 - opening day at 8:00 a.m. with a 213" buck on the ground. Success was due to watching this buck for two months prior to the opening of season. Photo credit: Steve Alderman

Bucks are very nocturnal this time of year, and seem to bury themselves in the thickest brush they can inhabit. You can still find and harvest big deer this time of year, but you are going to have to concentrate on their bedding areas. Moving slow and glassing is the best technique to use; you are hoping to see him before he sees you. If you are continually harvesting great bucks this time of year, my hat is off to you, because I know the dedication it takes.

October 15th through October 31st

Hunting a big ol’ cagey mule deer starts to get a little easier now. They are becoming a little amorous with the ladies. Checking for hot does at night, and if you are lucky enough you can catch a mature buck in the daylight hours before he peels off from the girls and heads to his bed.
 

Steve Alderman's wide mule deer buck
This buck was caught opening morning checking does on the 15th of October. My preparation put me in the right spot at the right time. Photo credit: Steve Alderman

During the last week of October, the pre-rut is in full swing. Bucks can be seen spending a little more time out during the daylight hours roaming for girls. This is my favorite time to hunt an old bruiser. I usually start seeing signs of the rut around the 20th of October. The earliest doe I have seen being bred was on the 27th of October.

November 1st through November 30th

The pre-rut is really kicking and bucks are very vulnerable at this time. Some females have already been bred, and the bucks are cruising looking for more females. This time can also be frustrating. While you get to see lots of deer and some great rutting action, big bucks will up and vanish. They will find a hot doe and hang with her until she is ready to breed. It used to be: find the does and you would find the bucks -- but this is not the case anymore. Sure, they are checking the does, but once they find her, they drive her away from the herd to avoid any competition from other suitors. This is the easiest time for the average hunter to kill a giant deer.
 
It is easy to understand why game departments try to have the majority of the rifle hunts during the first part of October. The bucks are holding tight in the thick stuff, conserving their energy for the upcoming rut and winter. However, you can still be successful this time of year, and your best friend will always be your pre-season scouting. If you are looking to see more deer, try hunting earlier or later.

6 Comments

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Andrew M. - posted 3 years ago on 08-14-2016 09:19:03 pm

Great article. Was wondering if there are certain elevation ranges these bucks are in during the late Aug-early Sept time frame? And when do they start to migrate to their winter areas? How long does it take them? Thanks!

Michael B. - posted 3 years ago on 03-01-2016 01:15:00 pm

I too am new to Mule Deer hunting and found very interesting & helpful myself. I am planning 1st Mule Deer hunt in NW Colorado in fall of 2016, during 3rd rifle season which begins November 5th.

Wondering if Steve or others can share any info as to how weather, snow in particular, effects Muleys and the rut? I've heard any significant snow and they will begin to leave higher elevations. Is this accurate, if so how does that change approach?

Jose Hernan T. - posted 4 years ago on 10-08-2015 11:54:08 am

Southern Ca, San Diego local mountains. Not very many bucks and a lot of hunters, difficult terrain, a lot of hicking with a rifle !!! again I am very new at this, still a lot to be learn. I am glad I found this web site has a lot of good information.

Brady J. Miller
Brady M. - posted 4 years ago on 10-08-2015 11:40:34 am
Las Vegas, NV
goHUNT Team

@Jose, Glad you enjoyed the article. Steve is a wealth of mule deer knowledge. Hope you have a great season. What state are you hunting in?

Jose Hernan T. - posted 4 years ago on 10-08-2015 11:23:50 am

I am new at hunting and this information is very helpful, very nice pictures.
Thanks

Cory D. - posted 5 years ago on 10-08-2014 09:17:19 am

Good article! I appreciate Steve sharing his knowledge and experience with us. Thank you Steve for taking the time to put this together. I also really enjoyed your "Why we hunt" article. That was another well put together peice!