Skip to main content

Hunting Desert Mule Deer

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

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.

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

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Top Ten Hunts

Top Ten Hunts

Here at Petersen's Hunting we have compiled the 10 best hunts caught on camera from the last 2 years of Petersen's Hunting TV. Enjoy!

B&C Typical Mule Deer

B&C Typical Mule Deer

Doug Burris Jr's typical mule deer taken in 1969, could just be one record that will never be broken.

Sighting In the CZ .557 Carbine

Sighting In the CZ .557 Carbine

Kevin Steele sights in his CZ .557 carbine rifle that he plans to use on a Colorado elk hunt.

Camp Chef at SHOT Show: Elk Venison Slider Burgers Recipe

Camp Chef at SHOT Show: Elk Venison Slider Burgers Recipe

Have a freezer full of ground elk venison from your fall hunting trips? Never fear, the folks at Camp Chef have a great SHOT Show recipe that is lean and mean, easy to prepare, and a crowd-pleasing favorite!

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Perfection takes practice, a little skill and the understanding that not all steaks are created equal. How to Properly Grill Venison Steak Recipes

How to Properly Grill Venison Steak

Hank Shaw

Perfection takes practice, a little skill and the understanding that not all steaks are...

The famous gunmaker – Springfield Armory – stakes its first flag in the hunting world with the new, feature-packed Model 2020 Waypoint bolt-action rifle.New Springfield Model 2020 Waypoint Rifle is a Must-See Guns

New Springfield Model 2020 Waypoint Rifle is a Must-See

Petersen's Hunting Staff - September 29, 2020

The famous gunmaker – Springfield Armory – stakes its first flag in the hunting world with the...

These are our favorite new products of the year for the archery crowd.Best New Bowhunting Gear for 2020 Bowhunting

Best New Bowhunting Gear for 2020

Petersen's Hunting Editors - May 21, 2020

These are our favorite new products of the year for the archery crowd.

Are predators really to blame for declining deer numbers? The answer might surprise you.Do Coyotes Really Affect the Whitetail Herd? Conservation

Do Coyotes Really Affect the Whitetail Herd?

Jeff Johnston

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

See More Trending Articles

More North America Big Game

Here's the down and dirty on where, how, and when to hunt the western pronghorn.DIY Guide to Hunting Pronghorn Antelope North America Big Game

DIY Guide to Hunting Pronghorn Antelope

Kali Parmley

Here's the down and dirty on where, how, and when to hunt the western pronghorn.

Icons of the Mountain West, wapiti are coming home to ALL the lands they once roamed.Eastern Elk Conservation Efforts Mean More Hunting Opportunities Conservation

Eastern Elk Conservation Efforts Mean More Hunting Opportunities

David Hart

Icons of the Mountain West, wapiti are coming home to ALL the lands they once roamed.

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. Play The Waiting Game to Tag a Giant Mule Deer 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...

This hunt gave one woman the chance to take her first big-game animal.First Blood: A Women's-Only Wyoming Pronghorn Hunt North America Big Game

First Blood: A Women's-Only Wyoming Pronghorn Hunt

Jodi Stemler

This hunt gave one woman the chance to take her first big-game animal.

See More North America Big Game

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save.

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Petersen's Hunting App

Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

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

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Petersen's Hunting subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now