Poor Man's Guide: DIY Over-The-Counter Mule Deer Hunts

Below is the third article of the Poor Man’s Hunting Guide Series. It contains the best decoys to pack plus how and where to use them. You are going to spend a lot of time getting to where you need to hunt, so you best be sure you're packing the right gear and using the right decoy setups to make the trip worthwhile.

Best Over-The-Counter Mule Deer States

Mule Deer hot spots

Western hunters once cut their teeth hunting mule deer. In previous decades, tags were easy to get over the counter while populations thrived. Whether it is because coyotes, wolves, harsh winters or the oil and gas companies’ development, mule deer hunting isn’t what it used to be. In fact, very few states offer over-the-counter licenses for the archery seasons while elk hunting opportunities for the DIY hunter are increasing. The mule deer reports are not all doom and gloom, though. While mule deer numbers have been taking it on the chin, antler size is trending up, perhaps due to fewer hunters and recently mild winters.

Research, scouting and an understanding of mule deer behavior and tactics are keys to a successful DIY mule deer hunt. Here is a guide that will point you in the right direction when it comes to the best OTC states for mule deer, the best OTC mule deer units and the best mule deer decoy tactics. Preparation and determination will create luck for any mule deer bowhunter looking to overcome struggles in the field.

Arizona Over-The-Counter Mule Deer Hunts

Buying an OTC mule deer tag in Arizona gives a bowhunter the opportunity to hunt earlier and more often than those who draw tags. While the units do not present as much trophy mule deer potential, there are trophy bucks harvested in these units regularly. Arizona’s Archery-Only Nonpermit Tag seasons offer good mule deer hunting opportunities, especially when you compare it to other states. Having said that, putting a little forethought into applying for a tag goes a long way. The difference in hunt quality from an Arizona OTC Mule Deer hunt and a controlled unit hunt that's easy to draw a tag for is usually vast. But, if you are itching to hunt mule deer this fall and winter and did not apply for a tag, there are some OTC units that will offer a decent chance of tagging an Arizona mule deer.

The early season provides spot-and-stalk opportunities on bedded mule deer hiding in the shade, and there's the option for waterhole hunts. The late season, when mule deer will be rutting in Arizona, allows for more aggressive tactics, such as calling and ratting and, of course, decoying. Buy a tag in a unit that is open for both the early and late season, or, at least the late season. Persistence and luck is needed to successfully harvest an Arizona mule deer in OTC units. You provide the persistence, and the rut may provide the luck. We spent a lot of time researching success rates, previous hunting reports and maps identifying the best Arizona OTC deer tag units.  

South Dakota Over-The-Counter Mule Deer Hunts

South Dakota isn’t a true blue OTC mule deer tag state, but it’s easy to get a tag. South Dakota non-resident archery mule deer hunters must apply for a license and once the application is processed, it will be mailed to them. The 2017 archery deer season in South Dakota is September 23 - December 31, but only unfilled antlerless tags are valid January 1-15, 2018. Bowhunters should hunt the early season Walk-in Areas (WIA) or state-owned land before gun season for the best chance of harvesting a big South Dakota mule deer.

The majority of the public access property available to DIY South Dakota mule deer hunters is in the western portion of the state near the Black Hills. Be willing to move and work harder than the majority of other hunters and you will find opportunities to spot-and-stalk early season mule deer. Some particular counties to focus your research on are Butte, Lawrence and Harding Counties. There is a mass of public land and plenty of cover to stalk towards a big mule deer, and although there is access to 1.3 million acres of public land, it doesn’t hurt to knock on a few landowner doors, either.

If you’re time is limited, try to hunt around the rut, which peaks during early or mid-November. Find the does, and stake a Muley Doe decoy around them. It wouldn’t hurt to try to call to the rut-crazed bucks either.

Be sure to research all of South Dakota’s deer hunting regulations, public land areas and past harvest statistics.

Idaho Over-The-Counter Mule Deer Hunts

The southeast corner of Idaho is often overlooked for its mule deer hunting, but there are some archery OTC units wore looking at. True, Idaho’s mule deer numbers are down, but it still remains a big buck haven. There are not mule deer around every bend of the ridge like the old days, but if you are willing to go off the beaten path, you can succeed.

Unit 76 has its fair-share of crowded hunting areas, but there are enough public land access and wilderness areas to evade the packs of hunters. Thirty four percent of mule deer hunters in Unit 76 were successful last season. They harvested 731 mule deer and 40 percent of the bucks killed sported four points or better. Get up above the ATV trails and leave the mule deer call in the pack. The deer in Unit 76 are extremely call shy – due to hunting pressure and predation – but this has made them more visual creatures. A Muley Doe decoy is a must in Unit 76.

The situation in Unit 76 is representative of several OTC mule deer units in Idaho. There are good bucks, you just have to go far to find them and get away from the roads. Other units with good success rates and trophy potential include Unit 21A and Unit 28. One thing’s for sure, when you head to Idaho for a mule deer hunt, be sure to pack a camera with plenty of memory. The landscape is truly picturesque.

Mule Deer Gear to Pack

Preparation and determination will create luck for any mule deer bowhunter looking to overcome struggles in the field. Be sure to pack the mule deer decoys and calls:

Miss Muley Decoy

Stalking with a mule deer decoy

Mule Deer Call

mule deer hunting call

Mule Deer Decoy Tactics

It makes sense to use a decoy when hunting mule deer just like you would when hunting elk, antelope or moose. They are visual animals that roam the wide open country and are social in the early season and during the rut. However, it is still considered an “outside the box” tactic.

“I think the perception of hunting styles for mule deer have made some hesitant to try it,” said Rusty Hall, head guide of Western Lands and publisher of Trophy Hunter Magazine. “Many are used to hunting with a rifle and taking shots over 500 yards is not uncommon. But, I see no reason it wouldn’t work for hunters getting close to muleys with a muzzleloader or bow.”

Montana Decoy created the Muley Doe in response to the outbreak of hunters realizing that decoying mule deer is becoming a great way to successfully attract mule deer into bow range.

“We hunt tons and tons of mule deer every year,” said Hall. “There are some general things about them. They like the open spaces so you are always trying to close the distance. The majority of hunting that is done for muleys is spot-and-stalk. Anytime you can get their attention on something else when you are trying to get closer to mule deer that are in open country helps.”

Before using mule deer decoys, Hall would actually use himself as a distraction.

“I would send a hunter in there crawling, and I may show myself to them within their comfort zone,” said Hall. “Maybe I am out there 300 yards. They see me, whether I am walking or driving a truck in some cases. But a lot times they see a guy walking, and that freaks them out because it is not something familiar. So in spot-and-stalk situations, the purpose of using a decoy is to give you a better shot at closing that distance.”

Decoying Mule Deer in the Early Season

Patterning mule deer can be pretty easy in the early season once you find a group. They are often found in groups feeding in open areas. Their alertness around food sources can be challenging for a bowhunter trying to get into shooting range. Using a muley decoy can help.

“When they are bunched like they are in the early season, you are trying to stalk them with a whole bunch of eyes,” said Hall. “Typically, if you try to approach while they are feeding, you have too many eyes watching you, and somebody is going to bust you. If you can put their eyes on a decoy while you approach and not have them get alarmed, that is awesome.”

In early season situations, the mobility of portable decoys is a huge advantage when hunting mule deer.

“Sometimes you have to belly crawl to get close, and you will need to be moving with the decoy,” said Hall. “Unless you have a hayfield or some kind of agricultural area that are bringing the animals in and you know where they are coming through and coming into it and maybe you can set up a decoy on the edge to get them to come to it and ambush them, you will have to be mobile.”

Decoying Mule Deer during the Rut

Once mule deer strip their velvet, they turn into a whole different animal. The bucks turn solitary. As time progresses and the rut nears, they start bunching up and does and fawns will get in big groups. The mature bucks will be on the prowl for does ready to be bred. The rut is another time the Muley Doe decoy can be effective.

“If you find a buck that is traveling during the rut and has not found a group of does yet and you show him one, he is going to come to you if he is looking for does,” said Hall. “They are pretty similar to whitetails in that aspect, but they are in a lot more open country. They typically depend on their sight a lot.”

A mule deer buck’s territory and range is much larger than a whitetail. They keep looking for does until they find them, and if they don’t find a hot doe in the bunch, they will keep moving and cover a lot of ground. Getting close to these roaming bucks and showing them a doe decoy can be the catalyst for a successful hunt. But even if bucks are grouped up with does, a decoy can lure them away.

“Other species – moose, antelope, and elk – are super aggressive during the rut,” said Hall. “They will come a long way to chase off another male or check out a doe. Mule deer will too, especially if they see does. I’ve watched them. They will be traveling and tracking the group of does just like a whitetail and if they see a doe they go right to it.”

Hall recommends glassing to find a group of does that has a mature buck with it, figure out what way they are heading, and getting close to set up a decoy. A little mule doe-in-heat scent and some calling can add realism to the decoy setup.

“During the rut, dominate bucks will run off smaller bucks and single out does,” said Hall. “So if you had a decoy, you can try to get close to a group tended by a buck. He will come to check out the doe, especially if you are grunting at him.”

If you haven’t tried it, this season is a great time and there are no excuses because the Muley Doe is what you need. Try it and see for yourself why this decoying tactic is taking the West by storm.

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