Mule Deer: Those Western Deer

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It was clearly the peak of the rut and, in the narrow draw below me, a doe pranced coquettishly through the brittle cottonwoods, keeping well out of reach of the husky buck that dogged her trail. Though confident that her magic scent would draw him on, she stopped every 50 meters or so to gaze intently down her back trail, evidently impatient for the buck to catch up.

I'd spotted the pair just minutes after taking my stand behind tangle of wild rose cane along the upper flank of the draw and, for the better part of a half hour, I watched the doe lead her beau up through the cottonwood stand and out into the scattered patches of scrub now bathed in the first warmth of the November sun. They'd materialized like gray ghosts from behind the screen of branches and early morning frost. One moment the draw had been devoid of life and out of nowhere the doe appeared, standing stock-still and gazing intently along her back trail, her grayness blending into the morning half-light.

Her behavior was that of a doe in heat. Seconds later, the buck stepped out into the open, gray, stocky high racked. There was no need to see the white rump patch nor the black-tipped tail to know this was a mule deer buck. Trouble was, to be legal in the area of Alberta I was hunting, a buck needed to have at least four points or better on at least one side, brow points not included, and while the buck below me sported a relatively high and wide rack, it failed to meet that minimum requirement. The best I could do was watch and learn from unfolding tryst.

I've hunted mule deer in high mountain ridges, in the verdant lodgepole pine forests of the foothills and from atop haystacks in the open plains but no matter where they live, these animals are easily recognizable in the soot grey coloration, their stocky appearance, their oversized ears and their characteristic four-legged bouncing gait. In the dim light of early day a mulie buck might sometimes be mistaken for a big whitetail buck at first glance, but out in the open the differences become readily apparent.

As a species, mule deer likely evolved in Eurasia and made their way to North America by way of the land bridge across the Bering Sea some two million years ago, and, judging by fossil remains, exist now largely unchanged. However, their new habitat, it appears, suited them better than their original range since mule deer eventually disappeared in Eurasia. They found a perfect niche in the rumpled spine of North America, thriving in the western plains, the montane meadows of the Rocky Mountains and in the temperate coastal redwood forests of the Pacific Rim, a range they likely had to themselves until the relatively recent westward whitetail expansion.

Today, there is considerable overlap in the range of mulies and whitetails, especially in areas like western Saskatchewan, Alberta and eastern British Columbia. While whitetails favor second growth forest cover and mulies seem to prefer the more open shrub brush, I've hunted areas in Alberta where both species are present in equal numbers and, because mule deer permits are awarded by random draw, it was necessary to positively identify the buck before setting the cross hairs.

In the mountainous parts of their range, mule deer migrate down out of the
high country to the timbered lowlands once the first heavy snows blanket the land.

Not only do the ranges of whitetails and mule deer overlap, but both seem to follow similar rhythms. Among other things, the females of both species tend to come into heat at about the same time in mid November and a certain degree of crossbreeding does occur, though usually the more aggressive whitetail buck fertilizes the mule deer doe. The resultant hybrid, as a rule, resembles a whitetail though the mule deer parentage is evident in the length and coloration of the tail, the nature of the tarsal glands of the hind legs and often in the tendency of the antlers to bifurcate or fork.

Yet, despite the ability of the two species to interbreed, mule deer have nevertheless managed to hold their own against the incursions of the whitetails. At the same time, biologists consider mule deer to be a species in evolution, a theory they support on the basis of regional diversity between the animals. In some cases, these diversities have been sufficient to actually prompt establishment of as many as eleven subspecies of mule deer scattered throughout western North America. That list has been pared back in recent years and the currently accepted list includes only seven. Of these, the Rocky Mountain mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus hemionus) is best known and most widespread, ranging from the Great Plains across the foothills of the Rockies as far west as the Pacific coast and from the borders of Alaska south to Texas.

The Rocky Mountain mule deer is also the largest of all varieties, weighing an average of 190 pounds though mature bucks can weigh twice that on the hoof and stands as much as a three feet at the shoulder. Typically, the antlers of mule deer bucks fork rather than having tines off a main beam as is the case of the whitetail; a trophy mule deer buck might have a spread of three feet measure 30 inches along the outside curve of the beam. Brow points are frequently absent.

Four additional races of mule deer are also recognized - the desert mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus crooki) which favors the arid areas of southwestern North America, southern mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus fuliginatus), California mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus californicus) and the peninsula mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus peninsulae). The differences between these is essentially one of geographical and habitat distribution rather than readily apparent variations in appearance.

Then there are the blacktailed deer. Once considered North America's third deer species, these animals were reclassified as mule deer subspecies because the differences simply did not merit a separate classification. Their range is largely along the Pacific Rim, thriving in the rain forests on the west slopes of the Coastal Range and on the offshore islands. Most widespread are the Columbia blacktails (Odocoileus hemionus colombianus) which thrive from California to River's Inlet, about halfway up the coast of British Columbia.

Technically, blacktails are considered as mule deer even though they look like
a cross between a mulie and a whitetail. Note the brown tail and forked antlers on this buck.

On average, blacktails are small deer weighing about 150 pounds and life in the coastal redwood forests has darkened their winter coat to a deep brownish grey. A distinguishing characteristic of all blacktails is the fairly small white rump patch and the dark tail; in the case of the Columbia blacktail, the upper half of the tail is brown and the lower half is black.

The Sitka blacktail (Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis) is about 15 per cent smaller and tends to be even darker than the Columbia blacktail. The easiest way to identify these animals is by the tail -- the lower one third is black as is the case with most mule deer, but the remaining two thirds is brown rather than white. Sitkas originally inhabited the northern coast of British Columbia and the Alaska Panhandle, but at the turn of the century these animals were also introduced to the Queen Charlotte Islands where they've since become so numerous that hunters are permitted to take a total of five deer.

The burro mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus eremicus) of southwestern Arizona, southeastern California and neighboring Mexico as well as the Inyo mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus inyoensis) of eastern California and Nevada were found to be so much like desert mule deer that they are generally no longer considered a separate subspecies. The same fate befell the Tiburon mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus sheldoni) of Tiburon Island off the coast of Mexico and the Cedros mulies (Odocoileus hemionus cerrosensis) found on Cedros Island off the west coast of California's Baja Peninsula.

As a general rule, the home range of mule deer, no matter what the subspecies nor the terrain in which they flourish, is fairly small covering little more than 250 hectares. In November, however, the bucks range considerable distances in search of receptive does. I've come across one young Albertan buck with a distinctive antler anomaly that had traveled well over four miles from the spot where I'd seen him the evening prior and he was still on the move.

While the mule deer rut coincides with that of the whitetail, these animals have a slightly different breeding strategy and as such, hunters have developed somewhat different hunting techniques. First, mule deer do not, as a rule, establish scrapes lines as do whitetails, though they do on occasion scrape the ground with their forefeet while horning overhanging bushes. Because they favor fairly open country, mulies can rely on visibility, sound and scent to maintain contact when the peak of the breeding season draws near.

As is the case with whitetails, the bucks shed the velvet from their antlers in early September, then spend much of their time feeding to accumulate heavy fat reserves. During this time, they travel only as much as they absolutely need to and the hunting can be somewhat difficult during late September and through most of October. However, starting at the end of October, the bucks undertake the serious business of establishing breeding dominance.

They challenge other bucks by intensely horning bushes; a buck typically sets a course through an area stopping every 100 to 200 yards to thrash some bushes and then watch and listen for an incoming challenger. When another buck does respond, the encounter is most frequently one of dominance posturing and threats and actual antler clashes are relatively rare compared to that of rutting whitetail bucks. For this reason, rattling is a technique not extensively used by mule deer hunters.

By the time mid-November rolls around and the does come into heat, the strongest bucks have established their breeding dominance and, while the boss mulie might allow a lesser bucks to run a doe that's about to come into estrus, he will move in to do the actual breeding when the time comes. With this in mind, it often pays to pass up a shot at a small mulie buck hot on the trail of a doe, gambling that the dominant trophy buck may not be far behind.

Since mulies are generally found in rather open country, the most effective technique is to simply cover as much territory as possible, stopping regularly to glass sun-washed slopes for feeding or bedded deer. In areas where the hunting pressure is light, mule deer are generally only mildly perturbed by the approach of a hunter and, if you do get too close, they bounce away for 30 to 50 yards before stopping to look back.

A mature mulie buck in heavily hunted areas, on the other hand, can be every bit as elusive as a whitetail under the same circumstances. The animal spends the better part of the day bedded in thick scrub, venturing forth to feed only after the sun has set; the bedding area is often on a vantage point where potential danger can be detected from considerable distance. Whatever you do, never underestimate the visual acumen of an alert mule deer; I'm convinced that these animals have far better eyes and rely on this sense far more than any whitetail.

In mountainous regions, mule deer frequently migrate from the high country to the timbered lowlands to avoid November blizzards and glassing the natural migration corridors is an effective hunting technique. In flat country, mule deer often congregate around farmers' feed lots, overstaying their welcome by feeding heavily on hay and grain from November on; usually the deer move into the feed lots after dark and spend the day in brush patches within a mile or two. This is a good place to look for bucks in November since they're attracted by the concentration of does.

Most any caliber you'd use for whitetails works well on mule deer, be it a 250-pound Rocky Mountain mule deer buck or a 120-pound Sitka blacktail. However, because most hunting is done in fairly open, sometime mountainous country, calibers such as the .30/30 Winchester are simply not versatile enough to perform over a variety of ranges. The .30-06 Springfield is a much better choice, but my own preferences lean towards the flat shooting, high velocity calibers starting with the .264 Winchester Magnum and including the .270 Winchester and the 7 mm Remington Magnum which require virtually no range adjustment from 50 to 300 yards.

Downloaded with 100 grain bullets, these calibers lend themselves well for the smaller blacktails and uploaded with 140 to 160-grain bullets they're more than adequate for big mulie bucks as well as other North American hoofed game.

I would not consider hunting mule deer without a quality scope to provide both accuracy at longer ranges and visibility in poor light conditions. A variable power model covers all short range situations and still has the ability to provide pinpoint shooting at a distant target; one of my favorites is a 2.5 to 8 power scope though I also like the 3 to 9 power variable. More powerful scopes, I find, are a liability since they are usually heavy and perform poorly at short range because the bottom end power is too high.

A good pair of binoculars are every bit as critical for mule deer hunting, especially if you hunt mountainous terrain. Leave the pocket binoculars at home since you'll be doing a lot of glassing and these models cause eye strain in no time at all. By the same token, the full size binoculars are far too heavy to have hanging around your neck all day long while you clamber up and down the slopes day after day.

Meticulously glassing the edges of cutblocks early and late in the day is a
highly effective method for spotting mule deer right through the season.

Invest in the best mid compacts you can afford preferably in eight to ten power. You'll need them to locate bedded deer and also to judge the racks since many states and provinces have minimum antler restrictions. For instance, in some of the areas I hunt, a buck must have a minimum of four points on at least one side, counting the brow point, which may or may not be present; without a good pair of binoculars I would have to make unnecessary stalks on distant bucks to determine whether or not the animals are legal since antler size and mass is not always an adequate indication.

A good pair of binoculars can also help determine the trophy potential of a distant mulie buck. To everyone a trophy can be different things; it can be the first buck of a lifetime, it can be the difficulty of the stalk or it can be a particularly good shot. But if antler size is the determining criterion, it's important to study the buck carefully before squeezing the trigger. Rocky Mountain mule deer can be deceptive because even a low-scoring rack can seem like a trophy while, in the case of a blacktail, a high scoring rack can appear deceptively small.

To score well a Rocky Mountain mulie needs height, width and mass - a book buck carries antlers equal in height to the distance from the ground to the top of the shoulders, the width should be better than the animal's body width and the tines should be easily discernable with the naked eye at over 200 yards. Blacktail racks that extend beyond the ears and show good height are trophy material.

Of course, not all of the two million mulies and half million blacktails taken every fall throughout western North America are record book trophies. In fact, many are antlerless animals taken by hunters for whom the venison is far more important than the antlers.

Not all mule deer taken qualify for the big game record books
but those high country bucks are trophies in their own right.

"You can't eat horns," they'll tell you, "but mule deer meat tastes mighty good, especially when it comes from a dry doe or a young spike buck."

And indeed it is excellent meat with the texture and taste of a cross between prime western beef and whitetail, though coastal blacktail venison has a slightly heavier taste, I find.

George Gruenefeld has been hunting big game for over four decades and his travels have taken him to several continents. Most of the time, though, he concentrates his efforts on the Prairies and mountains of Western Canada.


hunter25's picture

Now this is a very

Now this is a very interesting article. I've hunted mule deer for the majority of my life now and honestly did not know much at all about the various sub species. It is my goal to eventually go after a blacktail in either Oregon or Washington and then someday go to Alaska for a Sitka blacktail also.

I learned a lot from your article, Thanks for taking the time to write it.

arrowflipper's picture


Excellent, well written article on the mule deer.  I have hunted them for at least 45 years and have been fortunate enought to harvest a fair number.  They are a wonderful game animal to hunt as well as to eat.  Thanks for the great article and the time it took to write it.

gatorfan's picture

Thank you!


I have been chasing these "gray ghosts" since 1994 and therefore can agree and afirm with everything in your article!  Thank you for the very informative and descriptive write-up!  Other than the three times I was fortunate enough to hunt a friend's property in Southern Colorado, I typically can only relate to the "heavily hunted" areas in Southern California.

well said thanks for the read

well said thanks for the read