White-tailed deer get the lion’s share of Texas deer hunting publicity, and rightfully so. This state has over four million whitetails and arguably the country’s best whitetail hunting, whether you’re trying to bring home the venison or selectively shopping for a trophy room highlight.
Often overlooked in the 21-gun salute fired each fall by 600,000 whitetail hunters is Texas’ other deer, the mule deer. Two of them hang in our living room, arguably the toughest trophies in our family’s collection.
My wife, Emilie’s buck was the most recent, taken at the final moment of a hunt with veteran hunting outfitter Roy Wilson near Sanderson. We’d spent two difficult days, just trying to see a mature buck and had seen but one. It was jumped from the top of a mesa and left on a dead run, never stopping to look back, as mule deer so often do.
Now we were literally headed back to camp, the last rays of sunlight brushing the steep canyon through which we drove. Silhouetted on the ridge to our right stood a mule deer buck, just standing and watching us drive by on the road far below. Wilson threw on the brakes and I told Emilie to get her rifle out the truck window while we sized up the buck. She laid a sandbag on the window and adjusted it to the right height as Wilson slipped out of the truck.
He was trying to glass the buck without looking through the dusty windshield but I later realized that Wilson wanted to be outside the truck if a shot was fired. The fewer people inside, the less chance somebody would move at the wrong instant.
“He’s a mature buck and it looks like he’s got some extra points,” Wilson said.
Emilie had never shot beyond 200 yards and I figured this deer was at least 250. She had a sandbag rest, though, and her right side was leaned into the truck seat. It was hard to imagine a more solid rest. The deer just stood broadside, watching the truck below.
Emilie was shooting my 7 mm-08, a remarkably accurate rifle with an excellent trigger. It was zeroed to shoot an inch high at 100 yards. I was thinking about the influence of the uphill angle when Emilie asked about the range. She had cranked up the scope to 14-power.
“That looks like a long way,” she said. “Is there anything I should know about this shot?”
“No,” I said, as casually as possible, considering the situation. I was praying the uphill trajectory would take care of the bullet drop, in case I’d underestimated the distance. “Just put the crosshairs on his lungs and squeeze it off.”
Emilie lined up the shot as I trained my binoculars on the distant buck. When she took a deep breath, I held my own breath, hoping not to create the slightest quiver in her vehicular rifle rest. When the rifle roared, I saw the buck react to the shot, then he was out of sight over the ridge.
“He’s hit,” I said, and our guide agreed with the assessment. Excited by the last-minute opportunity, we headed for the top of the ridge without bothering to grab my backpack, which held flashlights and knives. It must have taken 20 minutes to scale the steep ridgeline and it was dark when we reached the summit. When I looked down at the truck, I realized the shot was more like 300 yards than 250. We knew where the buck had been standing, however, and it didn’t take long to find a piece of his lung in a nearby mesquite bush. Because the shot was uphill and the exit wound was higher than the entry wound, the deer did not leave much of a blood trail. It took another 10 minutes to locate him, though he hadn’t gone far at all. We gutted him with a penknife on my keychain and began the difficult job of dragging him to the truck. Thankfully, it was downhill all the way.
Emilie’s 13-pointer scored 163 on the B&C scoring system, an excellent counterpoint to the mule deer I killed on an equally difficult Culberson County hunt over 20 years ago. It was the third morning of a hunt on a vast, rugged and mostly roadless ranch between Van Horn and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I had yet to see a mature buck and was walking toward a distant mountain when I came to a rock ledge overlooking a huge flat.
My rifle at the time, a .300 Winchester magnum, was equipped with a Harris Bipod. It was early in the morning and I spent about 10 minutes using my binoculars to study the flat. I didn’t see any deer but I’d brought a fawn distress call, which I carried in my shirt pocket. I planned to blow the call in hopes of making any laid-up buck within hearing distance stand at the sound.
Before I could get the call from my pocket, a mature buck about 100 yards below me suddenly took off on a dead run straight away. I sat down and fumbled with the bipod to extend the legs so I could shoot from a sitting position, then had to back up slightly to find a level place to shoot from. By now the buck was 250 yards out, still running hard and straight away.
I put the crosshairs on him, figuring to break his back but the shot missed by a few inches and I broke his right rear leg, instead. This slowed the buck, which changed direction slightly, headed for a brushy draw to his right. I had to balance the bipod on its right leg to swing with the deer, following him with the vertical crosshair on his nose as I squeezed off another shot. The buck disappeared and I just sat there, wondering where he’d gone.
My hunting partner was just over the hill and I knew he’d heard the shots and would show up to investigate. While I was waiting, I looked around on the slab of rock where I’d sat down and noticed a series of bore holes where ancient people used to grind stones to break down fibrous plants for food.
It took awhile to find the buck, which had disappeared because the second 180-grain bullet had struck him right on the point of the shoulder. I knew he was a mature buck when I shot but I didn’t know he had 10 good points and would score almost 170 B&C points. Had there been a Texas Big Game Awards (TBGA) at the time, that buck would have been among the top 10 for the season. Not anymore, though.
The same management philosophies that changed Texas whitetail hunting from good to exceptional are now at work on mule deer. Just take a look at last season’s entries in the TBGA (www.texasbiggameawards.org), or better yet, look at the five top typical and non-typical mule deer bucks entered in TBGA.
All of the top five typical bucks would qualify for the B&C All-Time Records as would the best two Texas non-typicals. The Texas record typical whitetail (as recognized by B&C) was taken in 1963, while the biggest Texas non-typical in the B&C record book was found dead in 1892. The only two non-typical mule deer that qualify for B&C records were taken in 2003 and 2014. The top five free-range typical mule deer entered in TBGA all qualify for B&C, including the oldest entry, the state record typical killed by Mickey Van Huss during the 1996 season. It scores 196 5/8. Those top five typicals and top five non-typicals came from nine different counties.
Shawn Gray, who heads the mule deer program for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), said mule deer populations vary annually, depending on range conditions. In the Trans-Pecos Region of far west Texas, the region-wide estimate is 164 acres per deer, he said. In the past 20 years, more ranchers, hunting outfitters and lease hunters are practicing mule deer management. Since managed lands deer (MLD) permits were approved for mule deer in 2005, Gray has seen the program quadruple.
According to Hunter Ross, the same two principles that sparked Texas whitetail management are now being used to improve mule deer—age and nutrition. Ross owns Desert Safaris, an outfitting company based in San Antonio, and believes mule deer management will become even more intensive because of increased demand from hunters and decreased the supply of quality Rocky Mountain bucks.
Ross targets bucks that are 5 ½ to 7 ½ years old. Check out his website at www.desertsafaris.com to see the results. Five ranches where Ross hunts have MLD permits for mule deer. Some ranches are using supplemental feed formulated specifically for desert mule deer by Lyssy & Eckel Feeds. He said one of the ranches feeds 50,000 pounds of protein a month, year round, spread over 172 sections.
“On the protein-fed ranches I have, the population is about one deer per 50 acres,” said Ross. “We have localized the deer, made their home ranges smaller and made the bucks more easily located with protein feeding.”
Ross’ guides identify and locate trophy bucks with game trail cameras and pre-season scouting. The open character of desert mule deer habitat makes the deer more susceptible than whitetails to hunting pressure.
And, yes, all this emphasis on management for bigger mule deer makes the hunting more expensive. The second best buck reported in Texas last season cost $10 and less than $100 worth of gasoline to drive from Georgetown to TPWD’s new Yoakum Dunes Wildlife Management Area, 14,000 acres near Sundown. Steve Knowles drew the permit through the state’s Ultimate Mule Deer Hunt, which proved to be aptly named.
Knowles, 65 had applied for six different Big Time Texas Hunts each year since he first heard about the program. He was hoping to win the Grand Slam Hunt, which includes mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep. The sheep permit alone is worth over $50,000.
“I was excited, though, because I’d never hunted mule deer,” he said. “The mule deer hunt was my second choice.”
Knowles got to take a friend along for the hunt. He chose Jason Bienek of Houston. As they made the long drive, the friends agreed they would be lucky to each bring home a 170-class mule deer. As soon as they arrived at the WMA, biologist Brandon Childress showed Knowles a cell phone photo of what he said was a big non-typical buck he’d recently seen for the first time. Childress was adamant that Knowles should try for the buck, though Knowles really wanted a clean typical.
“We went out that first morning and 10 minutes after daylight Brandon spotted the deer,” said Knowles. “The deer was a long way off. He was with a group of does. We got out of the truck and started the stalk.”
Knowles was thinking he probably would not shoot the buck but he wanted a better look. They stalked for two hours, sometimes crawling on hands and knees or on their bellies until they closed the range to 300 yards. At that distance, Knowles decided he was interested in the deer, after all, but he wanted to get closer.
Luckily, a young buck was circling the harem and the big deer was preoccupied. The hunters closed to 170 yards and Knowles took the shot. The buck ran about 10 yards and got wobbly. Childress advised him to shoot again and this time, he flattened the buck.
“I’ve heard the term ‘ground shrinkage’ my entire hunting career and have experienced it myself,” said Knowles. “This was more like ‘ground explosion’. I could not believe the size of that buck.”
The 19-pointer with a 37-inch outside spread scored net 226 2/8 in the TBGA, which uses the B&C scoring system. It ranks fifth among non-typical mule deer entered in TBGA and was number two for the season behind a 232 4/8 non-typical killed by former TPWD Commission, Chairman Dan Allen Hughes. The Hughes family ranks among the state biggest landowners. The biggest typical mule deer the Yoakum Dunes guides had seen eluded Jason Bienek but he settled for a 10-pointer that grossed 178 and netted 172 3/8. The biggest reported typical last season was a Roberts County buck shot by Drew Hill. It scored 188 7/8.
In Texas, mule deer may always play second fiddle to whitetails but the fiddle is being fine-tuned with each passing season.