Have you ever dreamt of shooting a deer with antlers so wide you have to reach for a yardstick to measure them? Have you dreamt of hunting, walking and glassing for days on a piece of land bigger than a king’s estate that belonged to you? How about trading a small woodlot bordering a cornfield for the wilds of the west, where purple sage and tree covered mountains stretch to the horizon?
If you have, and who among us hasn’t, boy have I got a hunt for you. The hunt won’t be easy. It will demand hard work, a real measure of skill and a healthy dose of luck, but if you succeed, you’ll end up with one of North America’s greatest game animals-a trophy mule deer. Even if you don’t get a big buck or any buck at all, it will be an adventure you’ll not soon forget.
There are two basic ways to go: you can book a hunt with an outfitter, which will cost $5,000 to $10,000 for a high percentage chance at a 160 to 190 class buck, or you can opt for a public lands, do-it-yourself hunt, which will cost about $2,500 to $4,500.
I have nothing against outfitters; I’ve used them myself. But let’s face it, anybody with a big enough check book can book a hunt that offers high odds of success. It takes a hunter with a sense of adventure, who’s willing to work hard and who knows the odds are stacked against him, to embrace the challenge of a public lands hunt.
For those wishing to get a nice buck and who haven’t the time or inclination to take on a do-it-yourself hunt, go for it and book a good outfitter. You’ll find many of them on the Internet, but check their references and talk with hunters who have hunted with them. Even better, you can find union-owned outfitters offering discounts to USA members on this website.
For those who want to take on the challenge of a do-it-yourself, public lands hunt, your hunt begins months if not a year before it’s time to head out.
First, you’ll have to decide which state you want to hunt in and what your odds of drawing a tag are. I’d start my search in Colorado, Wyoming and/or Montana. You’ll need to apply for tags between January and April through a lottery style draw. If you draw a tag, especially in an area known to produce big bucks, count yourself lucky; you’ve passed the first big hurdle.
Next, you’ll need to gather as much information as you can about the area you plan to hunt in. Call the local office of the agency that manages the land. Most likely, it will be the US Forest Service (USFS) or Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Ask to speak with their biologist or manager who spends time on the ground. Then call the state wildlife agency and ask to speak to the local wildlife biologist or conservation officer. Gather as much information and as many maps as you can. All your pre-hunt work will lay the groundwork for the real hunt and greatly increase your odds for success.
My buddy, Tom, applied for a handful of years before he drew a mule deer tag in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest. He talked to every wildlife manager he could track down. He poured over maps of the area. He was familiar with the area even before we (I accompanied him) stepped foot in it.
We hunted hard for four days and passed on a number of nice bucks, holding out for a real trophy. Late on day four, we spotted the kind of buck he was looking for and, after a series of adrenalin filled stalks, Tom shot the 30-inch, 170 class buck. It was a hum-dinger and the buck of a lifetime. Days later, on the same forest and in the same hunting district, another hunter killed the current Montana record, a buck scoring 203 5/8 points!
Dreams can come true with hard work, perseverance and luck. Two hunters in Montana proved that in 2005 and you can too.
The best way to begin planning a do-it-yourself mule deer hunt is on the Internet. The following web addresses will help get you started. Don’t have the Internet? Ask a family member, friend, neighbor or any 10-year-old for help. You can even use Google Earth to look at areas you want to hunt.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks: http://www.fwp.mt.gov/
Wyoming Game & Fish: http://gf.state.wy.us/
Colorado Dept. of Natural Resources: http://www.dnr.state.co.us/
US Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/
Bureau of Land Management: http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en