Hunting Desert Mule Deer

Hunting Desert Mule Deer
The Mexican cowboys see antler width as the primary criterion for a muy grande. This is a good Sonoran buck with a 32-inch spread, but I wish he was a bit heavier. I should have looked a few seconds longer.

Head for warmer temperatures to get a shot at the Rocky Mountain mule deer's distant cousin: the desert mule deer.

The shorthair went on point in thorny brush above a little dirt stock tank, a perfect place for Gambel’s quail. Everyone set, somebody stepped forward and kicked a dry cactus.

The brush exploded, but not with whirring wings. A gorgeous 4x4 mule deer buck burst out and vanished into the desert horizon. I reckon that was 25 years ago, hunting quail not far from Tucson with the late Gary Sitton, a former editor of this magazine.

The buck was a desert mule deer. Slightly smaller than his Rocky Mountain cousin, the desert mule deer tends to be paler in body color with a lighter forehead cap. Together with the desert bighorn and Coues whitetail, the desert mule deer is part and parcel to the arid Southwest, occupying a huge range from West Texas across southern Arizona and New Mexico and northwestern Mexico.

Most of my life, desert mule deer had been classified as Odocoileus hemionus crooki, after Gen. George Crook (1830–1890). Following distinguished Civil War service, Crook spent his remaining years in the West. In command of the Bighorn and Yellowstone Expedition in 1876, Crook’s column was fought to a standstill at the Battle of the Rosebud; another of his three columns met their fate with Custer. Prior to the Great Sioux War, Crook was in command of Arizona Territory, and in the 1880s commanded the Department of Arizona. Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux said of Crook, “He, at least, never lied to us.”


I always thought it fitting that the mule deer of the Southwest bore Crook’s name, but according to DNA research, it turns out the specimen was actually a mule deer/whitetail hybrid. Today science concludes that the desert mule deer is O. h. eremicus. This is interesting because that was the scientific name proposed for the long-disputed “burro deer” of the Sonoran Desert. Although sparse, the browse in Sonora is especially rich, and there’s no question Sonoran mule deer grow exceptional antlers. Knowledgeable Mexican hunters insist the “desert mule deer” is found east of the Sierra Madres, while the larger-antlered Sonoran deer are “burro deer.”


mature desert mule deer hiding
A mature desert mule deer buck tries to hide in an ocotillo forest in the Davis Mountains of Far West Texas.

At this writing science doesn’t support this, but if you want a big desert mule deer—or just a big mule deer—then the Sonoran Desert is one of the great places. It is certainly not the only place. Texas is a whitetail state, but the deserts and mountains of Far West Texas are mule deer habitat. Conditions are harsh and the population fluctuates widely depending on rainfall. Even so, in bad times Texas is home to 100,000 desert mule deer. After a few good years, the population has swollen to more than 200,000.


Texas is not known for producing really big mule deer, but it is primarily a private land state and Texans know how to manage deer. For many years, Texas mule deer were more or less left to Mother Nature, but today a lot of ranchers and outfitters are focusing on mule deer, limiting harvests and improving water and habitat. Mule deer respond surprisingly well to a bit of nurturing; the average Texas mule deer buck today is bigger than you might expect, and monsters are turning up every year. The same can be said of desert mule deer on managed lands in Coahuila and Chihuahua. Considering the great difficulty in finding a “really good” muley in the Rocky Mountain West today, the desert mule deer should not be overlooked.

Blistering hot in the long summer, desert mule deer country is mild and pleasant in late fall and winter. The country is spectacular, encompassing rocky buttes and ridges, ocotillo forests, and plenty of cactus. For me, the most common hunting methodology is perfect: glassing and stalking. There are usually ranch roads to glass from, so the hunting is as physical as you want to make it. I like hiking and climbing from one vantage point to another. Desert mule deer are thin on the ground, so don’t expect to see big numbers. However, put in the time and you’ll see more deer than you expect.

There are two additional hunting techniques. I like one of them; the other I don’t. Both are mostly peculiar to the Sonoran Desert. Here, perhaps because there’s more browse in the valleys than up in the rocks, deer are far more likely to be seen on the desert floor than up in the hills. This is problematic because although dry it’s very much a living desert, blanketed by brush too tall for effective glassing. So one technique employed a lot in Sonora, unfortunately, is “high-racking,” cruising ranch roads in a vehicle with an elevated platform. This allows you to see over the brush, at least for a few hundred yards. It works, but it’s not my thing.


The other Sonoran technique is tracking. It’s famous and should be. African trackers are legendary, but the Mexican cowboys who track mule deer (and not all can) are the best trackers I’ve ever seen. You won’t find a good track every day, but when you do, these guys can tell if it’s a buck or a doe—and if it’s a buck, whether it’s worth following. This says nothing about antlers, but if they want to follow a track, it’s worth a look. If the wind holds, they can follow a track to the end of the earth. Sonoran mule deer hunts have gotten kind of pricey, but if you seek (and insist on) a tracking hunt, it’s worth the money just to see a great tracker at work.

Success is not guaranteed. The big ones—muy grande—are not plentiful. I figure the odds are much the same as, say, a hunt for a big northern whitetail in Alberta or Saskatchewan. It depends on the year and you must do your homework carefully. but when it happens, what an amazing experience. Two of the desert mule deer I took down there were shot in their beds, both after several hours of tracking. You think it’s a put-on as they follow faint marks you can’t see. In soft sand it’s easy, but these guys follow across gravel tailings and hard-baked ground. Trust me, they will see the buck long before you do.

Recommended for You

Check out these top choices for building out your reloading bench. Ammo

Roll Your Own: Best Reloading Supplies

David Draper - April 19, 2019

Check out these top choices for building out your reloading bench.

Here are our top choices for hunting this fall! Guns

Top Precision Rifles for Hunting in 2019

Joseph Von Benedikt - April 22, 2019

Here are our top choices for hunting this fall!

Whether you're pursuing black bears, moose or whitetails, Quebec will put you on the right track. North America

Big-Game Adventure Beckons in Quebec

Lynn Burkhead

Whether you're pursuing black bears, moose or whitetails, Quebec will put you on the right...

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Cheeseburger Poppers

Cheeseburger Poppers

David Draper shares his recipe for making delicious cheeseburger poppers with wild game in this edition of "Fare Game."

2018 Petersen

2018 Petersen's Hunting Episode 12: High Plains Elk

David Draper teams up with Fred Eichler to hunt elk on the high plains of southern Colorado.

2018 Petersen

2018 Petersen's Hunting Episode 7: Beginner's Luck

Host Kali Parmley takes first-time hunter Danae Hale of CZ-USA to Wyoming for a mule deer hunt. After covering all the basics with Danae, the girls head into the field and what happens next goes way beyond either of their expectations!

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

Are predators really to blame for declining deer numbers? The answer might surprise you. Conservation

Do Coyotes Really Affect the Whitetail Herd?

Jeff Johnston

Are predators really to blame for declining deer numbers? The answer might surprise you.

These rounds have proven themselves most worthy in the field. Ammo

America's Top 10 Big Game Cartridges

Joseph von Benedikt

These rounds have proven themselves most worthy in the field.

Dream of a job in the hunting industry? Here's the inside scoop on some of the most coveted positions in the outdoors. Stories

17 Dream Jobs in the Outdoor Industry

Kali Parmley

Dream of a job in the hunting industry? Here's the inside scoop on some of the most coveted...

See More Stories

More North America Big Game

While the overall caribou population has declined, opportunities still exist for hunters to pursue these animals. North America Big Game

The Decline in Caribou Numbers and Hunting Opportunity

Craig Boddington - September 12, 2018

While the overall caribou population has declined, opportunities still exist for hunters to...

Shooting a big muley takes time. In fact, if you're looking for a true trophy, you'll need to be okay with holding out and being selective. North America Big Game

Play The Waiting Game to Tag a Giant Mule Deer

Joseph von Benedikt

Shooting a big muley takes time. In fact, if you're looking for a true trophy, you'll need to...

Take care of your feet and you'll find more big-game success. Clothing

Multi-Purpose Footwear For Advanced Bowhunting

Tony J. Peterson

Take care of your feet and you'll find more big-game success.

See More North America Big Game

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save.

Temporary Price Reduction.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.