My friend Dave Pac and I spent some time talking about mule deer bucks recently, and it was a fine time indeed. See, Dave worked as a mule deer research biologist for more than 32 years, and there isn't much he doesn't know about mule deer.
Dave told me about the three biggest bucks he has ever seen: "One was across the road from Mount Haggin many years ago, another was from the air while flying in a Super Cub over the Bridger Mountains. The last was up in Saskatchewan last fall when Phil and I were hunting waterfowl."
Dave said they were sitting some distance from a weather beaten farmstead, glassing for passing geese when they noticed a couple young bucks lying in the lee of the farmstead, out of the wind. "Eventually they got up, and started moving out," Dave said. "And there was a third buck and a fourth and a fifth...there were fourteen mule deer bucks lying in that swale out of the wind, and I think every one of them got progressively bigger as they marched out of there. The last fellow was simply monstrous!"
For readers who may not know, the Province of Saskatchewan does not allow mule deer hunting by non-residents. So we can all forget the idea of pursuing this big fellow.
Big mule deer bucks are not easy to find for a number of reasons. In the Bridger Mountains near Bozeman, for example, an area that was once famous for large bucks, the entire countryside has become a playground for skiers, snowboards, hikers, backpackers, joggers, campers, hang gliders...you name it. Dave told me that several months ago he glassed a section of the Bridgers where decades ago he could regularly spot 200 mule deer. He saw six this time.
Mule deer face other obstacles in the West-they get outcompeted by white-tailed deer and they have to deal with burgeoning elk populations. And coyote, bear,wolf and mountain lion mortality has increased over the decades.
And don't overlook the hundreds of square miles of mule deer winter range that have been usurped by subdivisions and ranchettes during the last 40 years.
In Montana we have this ongoing insane tradition of five-week deer seasons that include three weeks of the rut. So it becomes difficult to find a buck that is more than 2-1/2 or 3-1/2 years old because they get shot off!
In 2012 I was hunting in and around the Judith Mountains in central Montana on an elk hunt. During the hunt I saw at least a dozen mature mule deer bucks chasing does on private land. None of them was a jaw-dropper but they were decent 4-1/2 to 6-1/2 year old bucks. With Montana's liberal seasons, if those bucks had been on public land they likely all would have been dead.
Over the decades I shot a number of fair mule deer bucks but nothing enormous. My best was scored something more than 162 points and I took it off the Shirley Rim in central Wyoming in 1977. A partner, Doug, said he thought he saw a buck far below but then lost it. So Harry and I walked off the rim. Harry kept shrugging his shoulders, wondering where the buck could be in one-foot tall sage. Suddenly that buck came rocketing out of the sage, running full speed. I clobbered him with my old 7mm Weatherby.
The oldest buck I shot was also my last-a 6-1/2 year old buck from the Ruby Mountains in Nevada in 1996. Dave Pac went along on the trip with me. We saw hundreds of mule deer but nothing enormous.
That came some years later, in 2009, when I was hunting elk in northeastern Nevada. I saw two mule deer bucks that were bigger than any I had ever seen in 30-plus years in Montana. My partners spotted a third buck later in the trip that they said was bigger than either of the two I had seen.
The biggest buck I have in my collection is one my father shot in the Little Missouri River Grasslands in 1972. I had it rough-scored a couple years ago and it was more than 185 points, which would put it in the top ten mule deer bucks taken in North Dakota in modern times.
If I were serious about shooting a big mule deer buck these days I'd apply for special permits in Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado or Utah. Or I'd hire an outfitter and hunt the plains in Alberta, Canada. Or you could do like an acquaintance of mine from Idaho, a lackadaisical hunter at best. He went out into the desert near his home, saw a couple mule deer bucks walking along a ridge. He managed to shoot the biggest one. It scored a bit more than 191 Boone and Crocket points!