THE MAGIC OF THE MULE DEER RUT
By Steve Alderman
As we stood to leave, a monster 6 x 7 rose from his bed. The heavy, dark horned mule deer had been lying in the shadow of a Palo Verde waiting for the perfect time to breed one of the does that circled him on the dry desert floor. I froze in disbelief. This was the kind of deer I had heard many stories about when trying to catch the rut in the Sonoran Mexican desert. The deer and I stared at one another as I, ever so slowly, raised the gun to my shoulder. He started to turn to follow his harem of does out of range of my muzzleloader, but with the hammer pulled back, I put pressure on the trigger and the white smoke filled the crisp morning air. As I rounded the cloud of smoke, I could see the buck that up until this moment in time I had only dreamed of. He was lying motionless on the ground a mere 80 yards away. It was a surreal moment standing there looking, not only at my dream buck, but the dreams of so many trophy mule deer hunters across the country.
What makes hunting the mule deer rut so attractive to so many people? Where can one find a mule deer rut hunt? When is the rut? So many questions to answer in such a short article!
Let’s start with the easy question to answer. Why is the rut such an attractive time to hunt? It’s simple. It is the opportunity to harvest a monster mule deer that is checking his herd of does for that girl who is in the peak of estrus. You get to see tons more deer, bucks fight over hot does, and maybe, just maybe, the buck of your dreams. This is the one time of a year that a mature mule deer buck forgets what it takes to survive, throws caution into the wind and becomes vulnerable to the hunter.
The second easiest question to answer is when is the rut? To make it as simple as possible, the rut is all about the amount of light in each day. What I mean is the estrus cycle in a doe is determined by the amount of light that enters a doe’s eye during a given day. This triggers the hormones in a female mule deer’s body. It’s a whole scientific process that would bore most mule deer hunters, so I’ll spare you most of the details. As the sun sinks further and further south the days get shorter and the lack of daylight triggers the rut. The weather, snow, or daytime temperatures have nothing to do with when the rut happens. They do have an effect on what you, as the hunter, might get to experience in the field. Warmer temperatures during the day will make the better rutting activity happen during the colder temperatures which are usually dusk and dawn.
And now the final chapter! Where can you, the hunter, find an incredible mule deer rut hunt? I sat down at the table here in hunting camp and gathered a couple of the most knowledgeable hunters in the West and asked them what they thought. Together we came up with the following list of rut hunts. Some are over the counter hunts and some are where you might have to save your money for a few years to get the opportunity to hunt rutting mule deer.
Let’s start with the hunts that might cost you a couple years of your vacation money! Auction tags. I know this eliminates 99 percent of us, but it sure would be fun if we could afford it. My dream auction tags would be The Strip in Arizona or the Henry Mountains in Utah. If your vacations are a little more like mine, you might want to consider an Old Mexico hunt. This would be my second choice, with a landowner tag in Colorado following in a close third position. As for a fourth and fifth choice, they would probably be on the Jicarilla in northern New Mexico, and the Navajo in the four corners.
For those of us with more time than money, a draw hunt might be the perfect choice. Keep in mind that some of these rut draw hunts may take you up to 20 years to draw and in Idaho you might not ever draw one with the crazy system we have. Our first choices for draw hunts would be Colorado fourth season tags in units 61, 44, and, 10. Unit 44 takes a nonresident over 16 years to draw and Unit 10 takes a few more years. Second, would be Idaho units 40, 67, and, 32a, in no particular order. Remember, you may never draw a tag in Idaho with its current system; however, a points system has been in the works for years and will make eventually drawing a tag a guarantee. Our third choice is Nevada’s 114 and 115 muzzleloader tag. Bringing up the rear of this elite group would be Utah’s Dolores Triangle and the extended Wasatch Front archery hunt.
For those of you that think this rut hunting sounds pretty cool, don’t want to wait, and don’t have the money sitting in a Swiss bank account, you also have a few additional options. Our first suggestion would be Southeast Montana. There is quite a bit of private property Montana, but their management agency has a block management program that pays property owners to open their land for hunting. Currently, there are thousands of acres of land open for prime rut deer hunting. Montana is the only state we could think of that allows over the counter rifle hunting during the rut. There are the exceptions of Texas and Oklahoma that have over the counter rut mule deer hunts, but finding a place to hunt is the hard part. Actually, it is next to impossible. Our second over the counter hunt is Idaho’s archery hunts in units 39 and 55. Arizona pulls into third place with some of its general archery hunts in the central and southern parts of the state.
So, there you have it. The best rut mule deer hunts in the country for every budget! Hunting the mule deer rut can prove to be challenging in more ways than one. You need to be prepared for wet, cold, and I mean cold, conditions. You need to think about your safety, clothing, as well as accessories for your automobile such as chains, shovels, and extra blankets. Despite these few challenges, hunting the mule deer rut can be the hunt of all our dreams. Good luck this season and be safe!