Holy Grail Muleys
By Brian Barney
I have been a diehard muley guy for years now, paying my dues looking for the “Holy Grail” of mule deer. The Holy Grail to me is a buck that grosses over 200”, and is over 30” wide. In 2007, I was fortunate enough to take one of these bucks, and the desire to harvest another has consumed me. I know that sounds a bit greedy, but mountaineers climb Everest and don’t just stop there. They go back and do it again or find a different challenging climb. It’s the same with all sports, Kobe Bryant or Tom Brady did not stop at one championship, they wanted to continue to work hard and make it to the top of the heap again. Same with me, once I unlocked the secrets to find incredible bucks, I wanted to prove to myself I could do it again. For me the fun is being in the hunt, in the backcountry matching wits with muley bucks.
I find myself in 2013, like most years I am studying up with my good buddy Dan on where we will be headed come muley season. We decided on one of our favorite backcountry spots in Colorado, but unfortunately the Colorado tag selection did not see it our way. Seems every year tag odds get tougher and tougher, and this year we blanked in Colorado. The good thing is we selected a backup plan putting in for an easy draw tag in Utah. The tag is archery only but allows us to hunt August, then come back and hunt the rut during November.
If you are one of the diehard muley guys out there you should really look at multi weapon opportunities. Muzzleloader and archery tags are a lot easier to come by than a good general rifle tag. Now I get that the rifle gives you an advantage having good odds of harvesting a buck you locate. Why not take advantage of rifle season, and add some archery or muzzleloading. You stand to gain more opportunity and more knowledge hunting different seasons. Most of the timing of these hunts does not overlap too bad, and some tags will let you hunt multiple seasons. This can be a great advantage hunting during a bow season, using it partially as scouting. Then come back during the rifle season knowing exactly where the bucks like to hang out.
I can tell you from experience the early season and late rut hunts are your best times to locate monster bucks. I have gone the last seven years in a row harvesting a 180+ buck with my bow during these seasons, so the opportunity is there. I find with rifle hunting you spend a lot of time trying to locate the buck you want. During archery seasons I still have to locate good bucks, but I spend more of my time trying to hunt the buck I want. I will forewarn you, sneaking within a stone’s through of a giant muley is a tall order. It can be frustrating at times being so close, and coming up short. This is part of the fun though, to take on the ultimate challenge, and then be successful. The more trials and tribulation you overcome, the more your trophy and hunt will mean to you. If you are an adrenaline junky, you will definitely enjoy the challenge of archery. Your excitement and adrenaline will be off the Richter scale being in bow range of one of these monsters.
We all know that the rut is the Achilles’ heel of big muley bucks. Bucks drop their guard and move to the does to breed. This is one of the best times of the year to hunt a big buck. The problem is most quality rifle rut hunts are tough draws. If a guy is willing to pick up a muzzleloader or archery gear, he can hunt these same high demand areas with half or a quarter of the wait. Even though it is a tougher challenge to harvest a big one with these limited weapons, you get to hunt the units multiple times. In a 10 year period you may be able to hunt a quality unit five times. The more you hunt a unit the better you get at it, and the better your odds of closing on a big one.
If you choose to pick up archery gear for mule deer the early season is a huge advantage. Mule deer gravitate toward high country basins, then group up in bachelor herds with other bucks. Huge muley bucks are unpressured in the summer, giving them a lax attitude. They will be out late in the morning, early in the evening, and even get up periodically throughout the day. They feed in open alpine basins and bed in open cover. If you choose to hunt the backcountry, and can find where the bucks like, it can be insane hunting action. Every year I am able to find those huge Holy Grail bucks, then it’s just a matter of outsmarting them. If big mule deer are what you dream about, you should definitely look into early season high country hunting.
So you have decided you are interested in taking advantage of multi-weapon seasons. I do not have a lot of experience in muzzleloader hunting, but I do think it gives you better seasons, and still some moderate ranges. These muzzleloaders nowadays are fairly accurate, and guys with practice are shooting up to 200 yards. If I was going to pick up muzzleloading, I would find someone that has some experience and get some information on gear and loads. I would also do my own research on the internet to learn as much as I can about my new weapon. Then, don’t forget, the more time you spend with your weapon the better you will get. So put in your time at the range and get proficient with your weapon. As far as stalking you have to get a different mindset. Your stalks have to be undetected and a bit more precise than rifle stalks. You are going to have to play it more cautious and calculated to make it inside muzzleloading range. The best advice I can give is slow down, patience kills bucks.
If archery muley hunting sounds like something you are interested in, it’s time to start gathering information. First things first, you have to figure out a gear set up that fits your size and performance needs. It’s always nice to have a buddy help get you started, or stop by your local pro shop and start asking questions. I write full time for EBJ along with some other good archers, and I would definitely recommend getting a subscription. EBJ has specialized archery articles that are full of information. If you are new to EBJ, Eastmans’ TagHub has additional resources for research on tags and hunting articles to get you started. I believe Eastmans’ Hunting and Bowhunting Journals along with TagHub, have the best, next level, public land, western bowhunting information out there.
Bowhunting stalks are a work of art, where patience is a virtue. These stalks are slow and super precise. It may take you a half an hour to move ten yards. You will start each stalk by locating your target animal and watching and waiting for him to move to a stalkable position. You need everything to be right on a big buck, and it’s better to wait for a high percentage stalk. Once the odds are in your favor, it’s time to mark land marks and set off. I try to keep out of sight moving at a decent pace until I make it to a couple hundred yards. Make sure you are undetected or the game is over.
Once inside the red zone this is where the chess game really begins. Make sure you monitor the thermal and directional winds, for mule deer, this is number one. Next, try to move out of sight or in the shadows, no quick moves. If you think to yourself, he may see me here, he probably will, do not take any shortcuts. Creep in with wool socks or stalking shoes to keep sound to a minimum. Visually, mule deer catch movement before all else, so as you start getting into bow range, you need to move like the hands of a clock. Once in range don’t get too eager to make something happen, be cool and wait for a good opportunity. One of my mantras is “let the buck make the final mistake”. Wait for him to get out of his bed, or come out from behind some brush, don’t force it. Your adrenalin will be off the charts here, but you need to get ahold of yourself and pick a spot. It is a difficult challenge getting everything right, and I guarantee you are going to fail here and there. Key is to learn from it, evolve, and get better. When it does come together it will be one of the highest highs you will ever feel.
So fast forward to my 2013 season and the quest for the Holy Grail. I found myself with a Utah tag with the season starting in mid August. I made a couple scouting trips to the Utah high country and was able to find some incredible bucks, including one with a huge typical frame and a 6” flyer out his left side. He had it all, wide, tall, and heavy, a definite Holy Grail buck. Dan and I returned for the opener with days worth of gear loaded up. We headed way back in the high country. Most of the time we have it all to ourselves this deep in country, but because of the proximity to Salt Lake and the number of die hard muley guys there, we saw some other hunters. The bucks were obviously aware of the pressure as well, as they tightened up their lax summertime routines. They moved down out of the open alpine basins and into gnarly cliffed out faces with more cover.
The hunting pressure ended up not being a factor as the bucks were hard to find, and hunters soon lost interest. Dan and I stayed the course making it to our vantage points day in and day out. We would locate bucks daily and even got a couple of plays, but it was a lot of waiting trying to get them in a good spot. We located the Holy Grail buck once, then found him again on day six in a great spot, mid-afternoon, bedding close to a cliff face. Dan and I have a great hunting relationship and always find a way to even things out as far as opportunity and stalks are concerned. We are both great hunters and benefit from having a skilled hunting partner. So when the opportunity arose, Dan was the first to give me the nod on this epically big buck.
So I was off with Dan keeping an eye on the buck, and relaying hand signals.The climb down through the cliffs was challenging, but I was able to pick my way down to the buck. I found myself above the cliff the buck had bedded under without being detected. It was textbook so far, waiting for the buck to get up. I looked up at Dan and he was frantically telling me the buck was up, I just could not get the right angle to see him. Finally, the buck fed right underneath me without a care in the world. I got a range, almost straight down, of 36 with angle compensation, so probably 50 actual distance. It all happened fairly quick, but I drew and anchored like I have done a thousand times. The arrow hit its mark and dotted the buck tight to the shoulder. He ran out and stopped not knowing what had happened, and he caught another shot. I gave Dan the universal touch down sign and he quickly dropped the cliffy elevation to meet me. We have both seen and killed some great mule deer, but were in absolute awe of the awesome size of this buck. We boned the buck and made the long 2000’ climb out in the moonlight. What a buck, what an experience, for me there’s nothing better than chasing high country mule deer.
Advantages to being a multi weapon hunter
- You still get to hunt rifle season, but you add opportunity by hunting archery and muzzleloading seasons as well.
- Draw odds are better for quality units when you hunt limited weapons.
- You get to hunt later in the season with a lot of limited weapon seasons going deep into the rut or winter range habits.
- You get those prime, early season, high country, muley hunt dates. Big muleys have a lax attitude and are easier to locate this time of year.
- There is less hunting pressure in archery and muzzleloading seasons. This makes for a more enjoyable hunt, and gives you better odds of locating good ones.
- Hunting multiple seasons gives you more experience, which makes you a better hunter.
- Arrowing a trophy is the ultimate challenge, and in turn the greatest achievement.
Keys to start hunting limited weapons
- Talk with buddies to find out their preferences for set ups
- Spend time at local pro shops or on internet forums to get more information
- Get a subscription to Eastmans’ Bowhunting Journal & TagHub to read specialized archery articles about shooting, stalking, and hunting.
- Get familiar with your limited weapon putting in the work practicing.
- Slow down your stalks, patience kills bucks.