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When most hunters think of giant muleys, they envision themselves in an unsullied alpine basin surrounded by buck brush and towering peaks. That’s a good place to be. However, a rifle rut hunt on the open plains is hard to beat.
Most prairie mule deer seasons—like those offered in Colorado, South Dakota, New Mexico, Nebraska and Arizona—occur during the rut. Worried about a long draw odds and a wait that spans decades? Just do your homework. All of these states have units that offer great trophy potential and a short (if any) wait to pull a tag.
The great thing about rutting mule deer is the fact bucks are visible. Cover is sparse and, in most areas, terrain is mild. Those who stay dedicated to their optics and cover lots of ground typically earn an encounter with a true gagger.
Hot plains mule deer locales include cedar-dotted landscapes and those littered with heavy sage and dry creeks. Gain a vantage point, which might be a small bluff or towering plateau, and put your optics to work. Rutting bucks will be working overtime to keep a harem of does together and there will be plenty of satellite bucks circling. If there are heavy batches of cedar or pinion, locate cuts or drainages that lead from the cover to more open flats. Deer use these areas as travel routes between food and bed. They make great ambush sites. Also, during glassing sessions, take note of any small cutouts and dugouts. Mule deer love to bed in these areas, especially if you can locate them amongst a sea of towering sage.
Water can be another key ingredient. Rut action gets intense, and mature bucks spend a good grip of their day warding off rivals and trying to keep the girls together. Thirst becomes an issue and they have to drink. Knowing the locations of ponds, stock tanks, springs and seeps will boost your chances of success.
Beating the does and satellite bucks is the name of the game. I’ve had mature mule deer bucks walk within feet of my truck with me standing outside of it. They get fixated on the breeding process and much of their wariness goes out the window. Of course, you must always play the wind, but when planning a stalk, scheme a plan that allows you to fly under the radar of does and smaller bucks in the area.
Don’t just find that trophy and go. Develop a plan. This is especially true if you’re glassing from a vantage point. Drop to the valley floor and everything will look the same. Take note of distinguishable landmarks, and if possible, snap a few pics of those landmarks with your smartphone. Being able to look back and match landmarks on your stalk is a great tool. I also recommend, before starting your stalk, to pull out your digital mapping app. Mark your glassing location as well as the location of your target buck and any other deer in the area. This will help you plan your approach, and if you know glassing will be difficult throughout most of the stalk, these waypoints will prove invaluable.
Plains mule deer provide a great opportunity for the wanting-to-get-close rifle goer as well as those looking to harvest a mature buck with a long-range shot. Though cover is often limited, the patient hunter willing to crawl and scoot can typically close the distance to less than 200 yards. This is a true challenge and great fun. Of course, the West is vast and open, which gives those looking to push the limits of their mule deer rifle a chance to do so.
No one knows your rifle like you do. With that noted, lots of hunters come West toting a rifle that is too heavy fitted with a scope with too much magnification. It’s likely your stalks will be long, and even if you’re using a vehicle as a scouting tool, you will often venture far from it. You want a rifle that isn’t a tank to carry. In addition, especially if you plan to do some stalking, you want a scope that doesn’t overpower when it comes to magnification. Tight shots are very possible, and you want an optic that ensures you can make a close-range shot.
When it comes to cartridge, I like choices like 270 Win., 280 Ackley Imp. and 7mm Rem. Magnum. All hit like a ton of bricks and fly flat and fast, and you can get them in Federal’s Terminal Ascent. The bullet features a Slipstream polymer tip that initiates low-velocity expansion and a copper shank and bonded lead core that penetrate deep at any range.
Believe it or not, we are in the glory years of mule deer. Sure, bad winters take a toll on rut-worn bucks and droughts can wreak havoc on fawn recruitment, but overall, populations and trophy quality are incredible. Play your cards right, and you’ll find some of the best hunting the West has to offer on its plains.