By now, most mule deer hunters have hung it up for the year.
After all, winter has descended on the high country and many seasons in a number of states have actually come to a close as hunters oil their rifles, wax the strings on their bows, polish up the optics lenses and sit by the warm fire dreaming of big mule deer on the prowl … next year.
Unless, of course, you happen to hold a late-season mule deer tag that gets you in on the hunts available through the end of the year on Colorado’s High Plains, located to the east of Interstate 25.
And if you do, given the top-end antlered nature of those mule deer drifters out there looking for love, it’s somewhat like holding a golden ticket to Charlie’s Chocolate Factory – it’s the hunting experience of a lifetime.
If one of those golden tickets happens to be in your back pocket this month (late rifle tags are good into mid-December while late-archery tags go through the end of the month), then get ready to smile big since some of the year’s hottest hunting is at hand as the mule deer rut arrives on the calendar.
How do you hunt such high-plains bruisers?
The most common method is to spot-and-stalk such bucks. The key to the first part of that scenario is to use superb optics – buy the best spotting scope, binoculars and rangefinder you can afford and then learn how to press them into service.
European glass is nice, if you can afford it – Leica, Swarovski, Zeiss and Steiner all come to mind – but quality optics can also be had in the middle of the price-range road if you’ll look through the Nikon, Vortex and Leupold lines.
Whatever glass you are looking through, realize that much of this country can appear semi-barren at first glance since big mulies are adept at hiding in tiny, secure spots among the rolls, undulations, breaks, river bottoms and fields that dot this region.
When glassing, don’t just look for the entire form of a big mule deer, because you aren’t likely to see it.
Instead, learn to look for an antler tip, the tip of an ear, a buck’s nose, or even its rump as it lies bedded down in a position that allows it to securely survey the terrain and sniff the wind for the scent of a predator.
One place that such glassing techniques can pay off is in the myriad of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fields that are found on the High Plains of eastern Colorado.
“I’ve hunted some CRP (lands) out there that is probably chest high,” Bob Davies, a longtime biologist with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, once told me.
“There are plenty of places for them to hide and it can be extremely difficult to hunt.”
Difficult, but not impossible, Davies said. The biologist found on his hunts that glassing from an elevated perch is time well spent during the evening and morning hours of a day afield.
Editor’s Note: In this relatively flat country, such a glassing high spot can be found on a small ridge, from bluffs overlooking a river bottom, atop a haystack or even from a windmill.
Once a big buck is spotted, a hunter can then try to stalk into shooting range – using the wind to the hunter’s advantage, of course – through the rolling hills, breaks and undulations of the high plains terrain.
While the broken terra firma of eastern Colorado seems to offer a hunter plenty of stalking opportunities, other parts of the region seem next to impossible for a hunter to stalk into shooting range given the pool-table flatness of harvested croplands.
“When you get into a pure agricultural setting with miles and miles of wheat, it kind of makes life real interesting trying to stalk deer,” Davies admitted. “But if you do it right, you can get close to them. It’s kind of like stalking antelope where you use the breaks, the topography or whatever cover you can find (to get close).”
Corn fields, however, present an entirely different problem when hunting mule deer in and around these golden nugget laden agricultural fields.
“After the corn harvest, the deer become much more available, especially to rifle hunters,” says Janet George, also a Colorado wildlife biologist. “But until after the corn gets harvested, there are likely to be some deer that you will not see until it comes out.”
If you’ve ever watched your favorite outdoor television host stalk a bruiser mule deer buck in eastern Colorado, you get the drill.
Why? Because they have put down some giant mule deer in and around such agricultural fields over the years.
A better question than the simple “why” above is why are those deer there in the first place.
And the answer is because big mule deer can wallow into the middle of such corn fields and find lady love while also enjoying solitude and relative security from hunters and other nearby predators as the bucks surround themselves with high, noisy stalks.
George notes that in most years – weather permitting – the corn harvest will begin during ” … the first couple of weeks of November.
“But it depends on what the weather is doing since they (farmers) have got to have the moisture at the right level to harvest,” said George.
“Until the corn gets harvested, there are likely to be some deer that you will not see until it comes out,” she added.
“That’s the advantage of that late rifle season, is that generally the corn will be out by then.”
Of course, spot-and-stalk hunting in and around CRP lands and the region’s various agricultural fields isn’t the only method of chasing high plains mulies.
And that’s especially true when hard, crunchy snow cover exists on the plains that can make such hunting tactics noisy and next to impossible.
What other method can mule deer hunters put into practice for high plains mulies?
Simple – borrow a page from the white-tailed deer hunter’s annual fall playbook: hunt ’em high from a treestand.
“There are a lot of river bottoms and creek bottoms that will grow cottonwoods big enough to put treestands in them,” George agreed.
Well known Colorado bowhunter Fred Eichler, along with America’s favorite bowhunting couple, Ralph and Vickie Cianciarulo of Archer’s Choice on Outdoor Channel, have pressed this method of hunting into service with some spectacular results over the years.
But for those less inclined to climb up into a cottonwood, blinding in with a ground blind can work too.
“Blinds can also work well, particularly along fence rows with weeds,” said George. “You can use a Double Bull or whatever brand of blind you prefer and pile up weeds and brush against them (and disappear).”
Heck, out here on the High Plains of eastern Colorado, even a pile of tumbleweeds stacked against a Double Bull blind will work well!
Which, of course, is exactly what a mule deer hunter wants to do in the first place: to hole up and disappear until a love struck monster mulie buck steps into range as the late season wind sweeps across the high plains.
And when that happens, all that is left to do is trip the trigger on one of the best hunting experiences in all of North America.