August 25, 2022
Mule deer country starts in the Great Plains, continues over the Rockies and Sierra Nevada, and eventually bumps into the territory of the smaller blacktail along the Pacific Coast. There are also whitetails in much of the mule deer's range today, plus Coues deer in desert mule deer country.
However, the muley is the primary quarry for most Western hunters, pursued annually and avidly. It stands to reason, then, that Westerners know their deer, just as Eastern deer hunters are the real experts on whitetails.
Many whitetail hunters journey to mule deer country every fall, and others dream of a trip out West. With millions of acres of public land, hunting mule deer is a doable deal, but hunters from elsewhere are going into new country after unfamiliar deer. Research is essential.
There’s good stuff out there, but much of what is commonly believed about mule deer and mule deer hunting is outdated … or just plain wrong!
Whether mule deer live in your back yard or occupy a spot on your bucket list, having solid info on the species pays off when it comes time to hunt them. Let's set the record straight on some of the muley's habits and characteristics so there are no surprises, and so that you're prepared to make the most of every opportunity.
Myth No. 1: Mule Deer Bucks Always Stop to Look Back
This has been bandied about since I was a kid. Maybe they once did, but if so, it must have been before my time. The inference is that mule deer are more trusting, or dumber, than whitetails. Youngsters, maybe, but when they've seen the orange-clad army advancing up their hillsides, survivors learn their lessons.
I've shot a lot of mule deer bucks but never because I waited for that last backward glance. I've also seen a lot of them bound over ridges, wanting nothing to do with striking a head-turned pose. Long ago in some places, that pause may have been common, but don't count on it today. If you have a shot at a nice buck, take it. Don't expect a second chance.
Some mule deer are found in heavy timber or thick brush, but many good areas are shockingly open, without a tree in sight. Because water and food sources are more scattered, mule deer commute farther than whitetails and occupy larger ranges. They know their country and quickly recognize when something is out of place. They know how to pull a vanishing act, often without any obvious cover for escape.
One of the biggest mule deer I've ever seen was on the far side of a big eastern Montana hayfield at daybreak. There were several bucks, a couple dozen does and this one giant.
With the wind good, we commenced a long stalk, circling to the back side of the field, hidden in coulees the whole way. It seemed like a slam dunk, and I was imagining my hands on those antlers. When we got around, we were in easy range, and the deer were still there and feeding happily.
All except one, no doubt laughing at us from the safety of a sagebrush draw. We combed those draws all day and jumped a few deer, but we never got another glimpse of that monster. Maybe he stopped to look back as he exited the field, but I doubt it.
Those big ears serve a purpose, but mule deer also have sharp eyes and the keen noses of all deer. Since mule deer often live in open country, they place greater reliance on their eyes. The wind has to be right, but the most important key to a successful approach is keeping out of sight. If a mature buck sees you coming, don’t expect him to look twice.
Myth No. 2: America's Mule Deer Are In Decline
This is also old news, pounded into us for so long we still believe it. Truth is, most Western states are close to their management goals. The top five mule deer states by herd size (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming) collectively host 1.5 million mule deer; another half-dozen states have herds into the six figures. Sure, I could rattle off a dozen states that host more than a million whitetails, but the mule deer is not the same animal, and its Western habitat is much different. The mule deer is not a scarce resource, but it is fragile. Mule deer populations have significant fluctuations, based primarily on bad winters and drought.
For sure, there was a long downhill trend. In the two decades following World War II, many herds were at all-time highs. Old-timers call this the Golden Age of Mule Deer Hunting. (I wasn’t hunting yet, so I missed it, but maybe this was when bucks stopped to look back!) It wasn’t just that overall muley numbers were high. Hunting pressure was light, and mature bucks formed a higher percentage of the population than today. And then they went downhill.
The West is huge; both the peak and the decline happened at different times in different places. When a major population enters a protracted downward trend, multiple factors are usually at play. Tags were over-the-counter, and taking multiple bucks was common. The West’s human population grew rapidly with much development. Mining, settlement, tourism, roads—a lot of this impacted critical winter range. Sagebrush eradication was practiced in many areas, further impacting winter habitat. Predator control dropped. Trapping became less popular, and the use of poisons was curtailed. You can pick your favorite problem.
Meanwhile, again at different times in different places, elk herds exploded. When I was a kid, Colorado held a half-million mule deer but far fewer elk. Today, Colorado estimates 290,000 elk. While elk flourished, the state's mule deer population dropped way down and stayed down for years. Colorado's current mule deer herd is about 350,000, but it still goes up and down depending on winter and precipitation.
Some problems can't be fixed, but now we are far more conscious of impact on winter range. With more people, and more hunters, harvests are managed with greater care.
Seasons are shorter and permits tighter. Arizona and Nevada, arid states with perhaps the most fragile populations, were among the first to draw all mule deer permits for firearm seasons. Other Western states followed, although several offer a combination of limited-opportunity drawings and over-the-counter permits in other areas. Antler-point restrictions are common. Some states have landowner permits, others do not.
Wildlife management has gotten ever more complicated. Some Western states have systems of "bonus" or "preference" points accrued with unsuccessful drawings, increasing odds in subsequent years. I believe in permit draws. One of the tenets of our North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is "democracy of hunting." Public drawings for limited hunting opportunities are a shining example of that democracy, but taking advantage requires planning.
A big mule deer is one of North America's toughest prizes. Mule deer are slower to mature than whitetails. It takes time, and older bucks comprise a small percentage of any herd. Nowhere are they common, even in the best areas. It's unlikely they will ever be plentiful again, but the big boys exist, and nice bucks are coming up behind them. Make your plans and establish goals. Want a giant mule deer? He's out there, but finding him isn't easy. Happy with a good, representative buck? He’s not uncommon in many places. Plan well and hunt hard.
Myth No. 3: Mule Deer Are Creatures of the High Country
Yep, he sure is, but he's also a creature of the plains, badlands, prairies and deserts around the big mountains. Raised in Kansas, I didn't have a whitetail season when I started hunting. My first deer was a Wyoming muley, taken 55 years ago in badlands north of Gillette. Since then, I've hunted various races of mule deer in a lot of places.
Because foothills and plains can be very high, I’ve shot mule deer at significant elevation. They exist and persist up high, at least until winter approaches, but I've never shot a mule deer anywhere near the tops. Oh, I did shoot at one once. When I was in college, Dad and I put in for an August "timberline" buck hunt in Colorado's Maroon Bell Wilderness. In still-summer August, the animals were near timberline in big basins, and I got a shot at a wonderful buck.
We were on top, looking down a long, grassy slope. Not yet understanding the uphill-downhill business, I shot right over him. Maybe he wasn't a giant, but to a kid he sure looked big. Some years would pass before I took a mule deer in that class.
That hunt was above 12,000 feet, the highest I've ever pursued mule deer. They were there in late summer, but by October they'd be much farther down. Most mule deer hunting I've done has been at lower elevations—like, a mile lower. Some very good muley country doesn't have tops at all. There are two problems with hunting in the big mountains. First, high ground is elk country, certainly summer range. More elk mean more competition for resources. Second, the higher the country, the more likely the deer population is to experience periodic winter losses.
Put it together, and there aren't as many mule deer in the high country as there were in the Golden Age.
Mule deer have adapted, expanded and increased in the badlands and prairies. The entire Rocky Mountain Front just east of the mountains is wonderful mule deer country today. The high plains of westernmost Kansas produce awesome mule deer, though hunting them is pretty much a residents-only deal. Eastern Colorado, Wyoming and Montana are excellent, and tags are not as scarce. The western third of Nebraska and the Dakotas are also good.
The other side of the Rockies has great mule deer hunting as well. Eastern Washington and Oregon have good herds. Arizona and Nevada produce big mule deer, but you’ll have to beat the odds to draw a good tag in one of those states.
Here's a sleeper: West and Far West Texas. Periodic drought changes the numbers, but in good years Texas may have a quarter-million mule deer. By herd size, that makes it one of our top mule deer states.
Let's not forget our neighbors to the north and south. In my own quest for one monster mule deer, I hunted three times in the near-treeless prairies of southern Alberta. Third time was the charm: On the first morning I took the buck of a lifetime. First morning or last, when you see a truly fine mule deer, take the shot.
Northern Mexico also has excellent mule deer, the same desert subspecies found in Texas, southern Arizona and New Mexico. They are smaller in body, but a big mule deer is, well, a big mule deer. Western Coahuila and Chihuahua have good mule deer hunting, but the giants come from the Sonoran Desert. Part of the reason is the high protein content in the desert browse.
Myth No. 4: Mule Deer Are Bigger, Tougher than Whitetails
I don't buy into this. The biggest mule deer and biggest whitetails are much the same; I've seen very rare bucks of both species that exceed 400 pounds. On average, mule deer are heavier, maybe 225 pounds for a mature buck. That's unusual for an Alabama whitetail, but below average for a Maine buck. Size, at least in weight, depends somewhat on age and where the buck came from. Mature Canadian bucks of both species are freakin' huge.
Tougher is a different subject. In my experience, few animals worldwide are as tenacious as a whitetail deer. Mule deer are simply not as tough. Hit a muley buck well, and my experience is the tracking job is shorter than with whitetails shot similarly. A whitetail buck will go the distance if he can. Doesn't mean the hit wasn't as good or that the buck is less dead when recovered. But absent a brain or spine shot, I expect to track a well-shot whitetail; I expect an equally well-hit mule deer to give it up more quickly.
Now, let's be careful with this. It doesn't mean you can be sloppy, or that it's a good idea to hunt mule deer with a less-powerful cartridge than a 200-plus-pound animal deserves. Also, keep the shooting in mind. In some areas, such as big agriculture fields, whitetails are often taken at distance, but for many of us, the average shot at a whitetail buck is from a stand at 100 yards or less. Mule deer are rarely hunted from stands, and the average shot is often twice as far.
We need to factor in not only greater range, but also less-steady field positions. I prefer margin, not minimum. This doesn't mean cannons. I’ve said it before and I'll say it again: There's little justification for magnum cartridges in American deer hunting. However, you probably don't want to hunt mule deer, especially big mule deer, with a .223 and perhaps not even a 6 mm. Ideal cartridges, to my thinking, run from flat-shooting .25s and 6.5 mms on up to .270s and 7 mms.
Whatever you choose, power is no substitute for shot placement. In 55 years of mule deer hunting, the only buck I ever lost was shot with an accurate 7 mm Rem. Mag. and a good bullet. The buck was quartering-to at some distance, and I wobbled, hitting him inside the off-shoulder. It was a bad shot … and I knew it. I ran out of blood 2 miles down a creek, and then it rained that night; game and hunt over. I stand firm that mule deer aren't as tough as whitetails, but you must hit them properly.
Myth No. 5: Big Mule Deer Have to be Wide
We hunters are weird. In the East, we speak of a whitetail as an "8-point" or "10-point," meaning the full count of typical points, including eyeguards. We usually speak of an elk as a "6-point or "5-by-6," meaning the fighting tines on one side or both antlers. Oddly, it's common to describe mule deer by outside antler width, the holy grail being a "30-inch" buck—a width even a giant whitetail is unlikely to achieve.
Problem is, antlers are complex, and width is just one feature. Most important, with any deer, is the number of points and point length. Then comes mass, the hardest quality to see and judge. Whitetails have strong, sometimes huge, brow points; mule deer typically have small eyeguards, and they are often missing, even on big bucks. Typically, the main beams split, and the first upward point splits again to form a bifurcated rack. So, a typical mule deer buck has four points on each side: three fighting tines plus the main beam tip, whether brow tines are present or absent. A typical mule deer by Western count is a "4-point" or "4-by-4," ignoring the brow tines. Anything extra, and there may be much extra, is non-typical.
In the 1990s I did a lot of mule deer hunting in Sonora. Down there, a big buck is described as muy grande, and "very big" means wide. Some of those Sonoran bucks grow to extreme spreads but are often missing points, as in 4-by-3. They are giants, but mismatched racks are common … if you care.
After four hours of amazing tracking, I was looking at my best Sonoran buck bedded and dead-to-rights at 60 yards. My Mexican guide said: "No es muy grande." Not big. Well, yes, the buck was not wide. But he was a clean, heavy 4-by-4 with deep forks and decent eyeguards. It's never a good idea to ignore your guide, but his standards weren’t the same as mine. I shot that buck in the back of the neck. He was 190 inches with a 28-inch spread, easily one of my best mule deer from anywhere. But not muy grande.
Wide antlers catch your eye, and first impressions are often pretty good. As Jack O’Connor said, "the big ones look big." Try to count points and determine if a buck is a 4-by-4. It's not the end of the world if he isn’t; just make an informed decision. The height of a buck's rack matters greatly, because this is point length. Mass matters, and though it’s hard to judge, you can see the difference between thick and pencil-horned. I like mass; maybe you prefer points or width. There are no wrong decisions, as long as you like the buck. Decide quickly, and don’t count on him to stop and look back.