Mule Deer

mule deer

After its big ears, the second thing most new mule deer hunters notice is the deer’s fleeing gate, known as “stotting.” Stotting has been de-scribed as bounding, hopping, even pogoing. At lust it’s a funny sight, until you realize that this goofy-looking jump puts a mountain of steep, obstacle-filled terrain between hunter and hunted in a hurry. Luckily for you, after the mule deer reaches relative safety, it will often stop and take a look at its pursuer, sometimes providing a shot opportunity.

Just don’t expect this behavior from the big bucks of the species; with old age, they commonly adopt a trick used by their whitetail cousins, which is to get clear of trouble in a hurry by heading immediately for escape cover without looking back. Hunters are often drawn to mule deer hunting because it’s a great western experience that can be done on the cheap—at least relative to other western big game. Even novice hunters can expect to see loads of mule deer if they do an adequate job of research before the hunt. And the smaller body size of mule deer means that one hunter can manage packing the carcass out of a backcountry location without needing to enlist pack stock or an army of buddies. And mule deer hunting is action-packed. On an average whitetail hunt, you spend day upon day in suspended animation in a blind or tree stand. But when it comes to mule deer, you can do as much roaming as you’d like.

BARROOM BANTER: The end of the Pleistocene epoch ushered in mass extinctions of large-bodied North American mammals, such as woolly mammoths, short-faced bears, giant ground sloths, and the Amer-ican camel, but it wasn’t all bad news for big game. Around that time, the mule deer began to evolve along the Rocky Mountain Front as a hybridized species created by female whitetail deer from the East being bred by male blacktail deer from the West. Thus, mule deer are one of the “newest” species on the continent—a truly North American creation.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: Brownish gray in color, with white rump patch and a small white tail that is tipped black. Large, mulelike ears. Mule deer antlers are bifurcated, meaning they fork as they grow. Mule deer stand about 31/2 to 41/2 feet tall at the shoulder. Mature bucks weigh up to 300 pounds; does average around 150.

HABITAT: Mule deer occupy many types of habitats in the western United States, Canada, and Mexico, including grasslands, forests, des-erts, and mountainous terrain ranging from foothills to the alpine zone.

TELLTALE SIGN: Rubs, trails, beds.

DIET: Primarily browsers of woody vegetation and forbs, with preferences varying according to location and season. They typically eat relatively little grass, though they are often drawn to crop fields where available.

LIFE AND DEATH: Typical life span of nine to eleven years. The mule deer’s top predators are wolves and mountain lions. Bobcats, coyotes, wolverines, black bears, grizzlies, and golden eagles all prey on mule deer as well, usually targeting fawns. Loss of habitat, particularly win-tering grounds, and blockage of migratory routes by highways and game fences are the leading long-term threats to mule deer.

BREEDING AND REPRODUCTION: Mule deer mate from late November to mid-December. Birthing occurs in May or June. It is common for does to drop twin fawns.
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EDIBILITY: Due to the animal’s preference for shrubs, including sage, mule deer meat is often condemned as being sagey or gamy. On the flip side, this flavor can be described as highly aromatic and herbal. Good for any red meat application.

 

map location mule deer

HUNTING OPPORTUNITIES: Sixteen western states have made deer seasons. Almost all mule deer tags are distributed through some kind of a lottery that must be applied for. This is especially true for nonresidents. Still, tags are widely available for those who are willing to file their applications on time.

HUNTING METHODS: Spot-and-stalk hunting is one of the most productive and thrilling ways to pursue mule deer. Whether you’re spotting from a hard-to-reach mountain peak or a pickup truck parked along a ranch road, plan on treating your binoculars as though they are glued to your face. Mule deer can be hard to pick out from their sur-roundings, and good optics are an invaluable tool for finding them. In snow-free terrain, you’ll often locate mule deer by seeing their whitish rumps. With snow on the ground, you’ll find them by looking for their brown bodies. In intermediate conditions, when you’ve got dry ground intermixed with patches of snow, finding the deer can be extremely difficult. This is when having a well-trained game eye really comes in handy. Mule deer love brushy hillsides because that is where their preferred foods are found, so focus much of your glassing attention on areas with willows, shrubs, and other browse. Muleys tend to bed not far from a food source, so after a quick scan, make sure to give every hillside a second pass, this time telling your brain to look for only the heads and necks of bedded deer. Without the bright white rump showing, a whole herd of bedded deer can easily disappear in sagebrush no more than 2 feet tall. As much as mule deer are associated with sagebrush habitat, in the early season they are often found up in high-country basins, where they can enjoy cooler temperatures and high-nutrition feed. Most of the high-country hunts are offered early in the season and are reserved for bowhunting. (Rifle opportunities do exist for these hunts, though the best units require a few bonus points in order to draw them.) A typical high-country archery strategy is to use glassing techniques to find the deer in the morning while they are feeding in meadows and on open avalanche slides. Then you watch the deer to see where they’re going to bed down in the late morning. Once they’ve settled in, it’s time to plan your stalk and make an attempt.

Alpine basins like this one are ideal summer habitat for mule deer.

Bowhunters who insist on approaching from above execute a high 210 percentage of the successful high-country archery stalks. There are several good reasons for this. First off, deer naturally face downhill when they bed. And although they might turn their heads and scan uphill every so often, the majority of the time the deer’s heads and eyes are pointed down or across the hill. By starting the stalk above the deer, the hunter is at a huge advantage for this reason alone. Second, high-country basins have a fairly predictable mid- to late morning thermal that causes the wind to move up the hillsides. So after the hunter has watched the deer bed, he typically has a two-to-four-hour window to perform a stalk with the wind in his face. However, clouds and incoming weather will quickly kill a sustained wind direction. If major weather is imminent, it’s best to back out and waft for a better scenario. Since the bedded deer are blind to their backside and can’t smell what’s above them, they will often bed with a rock, cliff, or clump of vegetation to their backs. This bit of protection can serve to give the hunter a much-needed bit of cover to use while approaching the deer on the final leg of a stalk. Beware, though, because the deer will be highly sensitive to any noise that comes from its blind side. Serious bowhunters will shed their boots on the final portion of an archery stalk and proceed in stocking feet or wearing a pair of soft-soled stalking slippers. If the morning plan doesn’t pan out, you can set up an afternoon ambush near the same food source that the deer was using in the morning. Or you can wait for the next morning in order to make another attempt. Either way, use extreme caution when hunting high-country basins. If you spook deer from these hideouts—especially mature bucks —they are likely to move into entirely new country.

STEVEN REID, A COLORADO HUNTER AND GUIDE, WEIGHS IN ON GLASSING FOR MULE DEER

“Spending time behind your optics can greatly increase your odds of harvesting a buck. There are three main factors that I focus on to maximize my glassing efforts: good vantage points, good optics, and patience. “Whether I’m hunting sage-covered hills or high alpine basins, I always find a vantage point clear of vegetation, where I can efficiently glass the surrounding landscape. It’s simple: the more country you can look over, the more deer you are going to find. Ideally, I like to be on a high ridge glassing across a valley or sage flat to areas where I think I will find deer. Within my hunting area I’ll have three or four of these lookouts that I can use to find a decent buck. Once I find a promising buck, I start looking at how I am going to hunt him. The same vantage point that I use to find the deer will also serve as a vantage from which to study the buck’s habits as well as the terrain he is using. 

“When I’m glassing, I insist on getting set up well before first light. I don’t want to miss any deer movement during peak activity. And when I’m glassing a large area, I break it up into smaller sections by using landmarks such as distinct logs or rocks to set the boundaries. This ensures that I take my time and study every square inch of the terrain, and it helps me to avoid spending too much time looking at the same exact patch of ground. As I examine each small section, my glassing move-ment resembles that of a typewriter. I will scan horizontally across the top of a section, drop down to the next level, and scan horizontally again. I repeat this until I have finished scanning the whole section. When I do spot deer, I switch to my spotting scope to identify the presence of a decent buck. If I am having trouble finding deer with my binoculars, I will use the same methods with my spotting scope. All the while, I keep the weather in mind. If the sun is out, I focus my glassing on the shady pockets of trees, rocks, bushes, et cetera. If it is windy or there is precipitation, I glass the areas where deer can limit their exposure to these elements. “As for patience, it kills! When picking apart mule deer country, you cannot be in a rush. Sometimes I will glass a particular area all day, constantly reminding myself to take my time. This is a must if I’m going to spot an ear twitching or an antler shining in the sun. I also take a little break now and then to rest my eyes and keep my brain focused on slow, steady glassing. “In short, finding mule deer comes down to sitting high, glassing with purpose, and exercising patience.”

Without a doubt, the greatest time to hunt mule deer is during the rut —or as close to the rut as your particular state allows you to hunt. You might sit on a glassing knob on October 20 and see two bucks, then return on November 20, during the peak rut, and see twenty. At this time of year, the tactic is fairly straightforward: find the does and wait. Cruising bucks wander between groups of does, so sitting on one group of does two days in a row can produce two or more different bucks. It’s smart to glass large expanses of sagebrush at this time of year, especially in areas where the sagebrush is bordered by aspens. These places can become mule deer magnets. And don’t limit your hunting times to the standard dawn and dusk routines. During the rut, mule deer tend to stay active until very late into the morning, and they are often up and moving in the early afternoon. If you’re looking for a mule deer buck, especially a big one, it’s highly advisable to hunt all day long during the rut. And when you find what you’re after, don’t be afraid to pull off an aggressive stalk. Mule deer, particularly rut-crazed bucks, are not that hard to approach. If you can stay downwind and not get too close to the deer—preferably you will never get closer than 200 yards—you have a strong chance of securing the animal as long as it doesn’t wander off.

REMI WARREN, A NEVADA AND MONTANA HUNTER, WEIGHS IN WITH TEN MULE DEER HUNTING TIPS

1. “The key to mule deer hunting is covering ground. Out west we have a saying, ‘Let your eyes do the walking.’ This does not mean you won’t have to put in some footwork. but the most successful mule deer hunters are the ones who know how to glass. When looking for mule deer, I get steady and do an initial scan for the ones that stand out. I am generally looking for white butts. This is the easiest thing for the eye to pick up. After that I look closer, picking the hill apart for anything that looks out of place. This is where I am searching for just a piece of the deer: the lateral shape of the back, an ear, a tine, or the gray of their coat.

2. “Look for magpies. Mule deer and magpies have an interesting relationship. Often you will see magpies landing on mule deer in order to pick ticks and deer lice off them. When hunting tall sagebrush I will focus in on areas where I see a congregation of magpies. They will often sit on the tops of the sage, jump down to pick food from a bedded deer, and then jump back up. I have found a lot of deer that I would have otherwise missed by homing in on these highly visible birds.

3. “Mule deer have extremely acute hearing. Their large ears allow them to pick up sounds that other species of big game would miss. This means that you have to be extra quiet. Unnatural noise is like an air raid siren to mule deer. Wear quiet clothes and refrain from talking above a whisper. If you plan on sneaking into bow range, it is best to stalk in socks or barefoot. Mule deer can pick up even the slightest sound of your foot hitting the ground. 4. “Mule deer live in broken terrain. After spotting one, you have to be able to navigate to the exact place where the deer was. This can be tricky for many people, because as you get closer everything looks different. Before you leave from where you spotted the deer, pick out four unique landmarks and consciously go over them in your head. I also like to pull out my digital camera and take a picture of my view from where I spotted the deer, in order to use it as a reference while I stalk in. 5. “During the rut mule deer can be grunted and even rattled like a whitetail. Although they are less responsive than other deer species, it still works! I have used this trick when visibility is low or the cover is heavy. Another great trick is using a fawn bleat or even a distress call. This one works best on does, but I have had bucks literally come sprinting in to see what was going on. 6. “Just because you blew a stalk does not mean the game is over. Veteran mule deer hunters are always ready to give a fleeing buck a loud whistle or grunt. This often piques their curiosity and gets them to stop just long enough for a shot. 7. “Before you squeeze the trigger or release an arrow, try to anticipate if the deer is going to move. If so, wait. Mule deer often flick their tails right before making a movement or taking a step. In open country, where long shots are the norm, a single step can mean the difference between a perfect shot and a miss or a nonlethal wound. 8. “Just because a mule deer sees you does not mean the gig is up. Lie down or hold perfectly still. They might stare you clown and burn holes through you, but if you don’t move they will often go back to their regular business. One time I had a deer stare me clown for well over an hour. I lay there, unmoving, until it finally decided to walk off and bed down. I then gave it some time before stalking in for a shot. That clay I killed the biggest buck of my life. 9. You can fool their eyes, you may fool their ears, but you will never fool a mule deer’s nose. The most important factor in planning a mule deer stalk is keeping the wind right. Always be mobile, and never be afraid to put in a little extra effort to keep the wind in your favor. Scent control products rarely work in this type of hunting because you are always hiking and constantly sweating. You need to play the wind, or else stay home) 10. “Mule deer are pocket animals, meaning 80 percent of the deer live on about 10 percent of the land. Find where the deer like to be and focus on those areas.” 

The curious nature of the mule deer makes them a near-perfect animal for still-hunting. Mule deer are much more likely than whitetails to pause for a few moments after they’ve been alerted to your presence. And even when they bolt, there’s a good chance that they’ll stop before vanishing in order to assess whether or not they’re being followed. So even when you feel like you completely blew an opportunity on a still-hunt, it’s smart to be prepared for a shot and to quickly move toward an area where you can see in the direction that the deer was headed. Big, mature bucks are generally an exception to this rule, as they have an annoying tendency to vanish almost immediately without ever looking back.

What we all hope for: a pause and a look from a four-point buck before he crests the ridge.

When still-hunting mule deer, focus on edges between bedding and feeding areas. Mule deer often bed down on the leeward side of any roll in the topography, so keep this in mind as you move across the land. Always ask yourself, “Where is the pocket of terrain that is not affected by the wind right now?” When you find this pocket, be sure to hunt it. More open bedding areas, such as coulees or ridges with sparse cover-ings of pine and juniper, are also good. The openness of these areas gives you a chance to see deer after you’ve bumped them from their beds. When hunting coulees, walk the upwind side and watch for deer that have smelled you and are sneaking or bounding away up the opposite side. The steep wall of a coulee might slow the deer down enough to make a shot. If not, try whistling or blowing a fawn bleat to get the animal to pause. Failing that, watch for that signature mule deer look-back as he crests the next ridge and pauses before vanishing. Typical mule deer ambush locations are food patches, travel routes leading to food patches, and, in dry climates, water sources. If you find a patch of mule deer food that’s attracting deer, you can set up within rifle range of the location and then wait for the animals to appear. If it’s an expansive area, bowhunters should try to position themselves along the approach route to the feeding area in order that they might get within close range of the animals. Since mule deer will often bed quite close to where they feed, wind direction should be monitored when approaching your stand. You don’t want to spook the deer before they even get out of their beds. For those hunters with access to western agricultural lands, setting up between crop fields and bedding cover such as creek bottoms and sagebrush hillsides can be very productive. In dry areas, setting stands near watering holes works exceptionally well. Careful scouting will tell you which water sources to focus on; when you find the right one, be patient. It might take a deer several days to return to any given water source. Calling and driving are two tactics that aren’t typically used by mule deer hunters, though there are situations when each strategy might be put to use. Mule deer are not nearly as likely as whitetails to approach the sound of rattling antlers—used to simulate the noise created by fighting bucks—but if you’ve lost track of a buck while stalking in thick cover, you might just make him show himself by employing this trick. As for drives, the general openness of mule deer country makes it hard to reliably predict their escape routes. But if you have intimate knowledge of how mule deer respond to threats in your particular hunting area, you might have luck posting standers along preferred escape routes and then sending pushers into bedding areas to spook the deer out. More often than not, though, you’ll find that the mule deer do not cooperate with your plans as agreeably as whitetails.

BRODY HENDERSON, A COLORADO GUIDE AND HUNTER, WEIGHS IN ON THE IMPORTANCE OF MULE DEER HABITAT

hunter

“I’m fortunate to live in the epicenter of the country’s best mule deer hunting. Central Colorado has high numbers of my favorite big game animal and has long been known for producing trophy-quality bucks that, despite some misinformed detractors, are very good table fare. Colorado has the perfect blend of productive alpine summer range, large aspen groves, and sage-covered winter range. As a do-it-yourself public land hunter, I believe consistently scoring on a nice mule deer buck depends more on your ability to find productive habitat than on any other factor. 

The mule deer’s predictable annual migration is my key to finding large bucks. Summer finds them in alpine high country, where food is plentiful. During fall, as snow begins piling up, does lead their fawns downhill through transitional habitat to find more accessible food sources, ultimately reaching flatter sage-covered wintering areas. Mature bucks take the same downward path as the does, driven along by their breeding urge. These bucks generally lag behind the does and young bucks by a matter of days or weeks. At the time of year when I like to hunt (Colorado’s third rifle season, in early November), 1 target these bucks by anticipat-ing where they 11 ultimately be headed and then trying to find them along their migration corridors. “Because I don’t use four wheelers or horses and I don’t have access to private ranches, I work hard to hunt areas that are underutilized by other hunters. Most publicly owned BLM or national forest land is easily identified on a map, so I look for parcels without roads that have impediments to reaching them. Many hunters drive past plenty of sweet country that they never hunt because it demands a long trek around private land or perhaps a short wade or paddle across a river. Once I’m in some country that I know will hold deer, finding them just requires a little time. At first, locating a solitary big buck may seem daunting, since mule deer move a lot throughout the fall and their preferred hangouts are constantly changing. For this reason, I don’t spend a lot of time scouting much more than a week prior to my mule deer hunt. It simply doesn’t do a hunter much good to pinpoint a buck three weeks before the season when he’ll be in a completely different location on opening day. Due to changing food sources or heavy snow, deer may move down to a completely different habitat during the season. It can happen fast—overnight in some cases—and a smart hunter needs to react accordingly. “In general, a good hunting strategy is to start higher than you expect to find deer and then work your way downhill until you begin to see a few does; the bucks will be nearby. I usually start the season by glassing south-facing aspen slopes but each year may find me eventually concentrating on a different habitat type that the deer are traveling through. For me, it’s helpful to think of my hunting area as having zones. The lowest zone consists of the sagebrush flats where deer spend the severest part of the winter. Above that you have the travel corridors, transitional oak brush, aspen, timber, and alpine zones. “One of my favorite types of terrain for late fall hunting are transitional zones found between the sagebrush wintering grounds and higher-elevation aspen groves. I seek out open feeding areas adjacent to thick bedding spots where shade lingers and deer stay on their feet later in the morning. Mule deer seem to gravitate toward shade. Once I’m dialed in and seeing good numbers of deer, I give an area plenty of time even if a mature buck hasn’t appeared yet. If I find a lot of does and young bucks in a particular zone. I’ll look a little bit higher up for larger bucks, dissecting the terrain carefully with optics. From there, it may simply be a matter of waiting for a big buck to move in; better yet, he might already be there. Last season, I glassed a group of ten does off and on all morning before I spotted a large buck that had been with them the whole time. I quickly planned my stalk based on wind direction and terrain, closed to within reasonable shooting range, and took my largest mule deer buck ever. “For someone hunting mule deer during the early fall in Wyoming or midfall in Montana, the situation might be completely different. However, the seasonal migrations of mule deer are pretty similar throughout their range, so mule deer bucks become easier to find if hunters understand the different habitat types in their hunting area and apply that knowledge to the time of year the hunt will take place. Speaking of mule deer habitat, people who love to hunt mule deer should understand that we are losing that habitat at an astonishing pace. The loss of wintering range in particular is probably the biggest single problem facing mule deer in the Rocky Mountains. We are losing sagebrush terrain thanks to fire sup-pression (this allows the encroachment of pinyon and juniper into sagebrush habi-tat), and we are losing it to energy, residential, and commercial development. To help mule deer and other western wildlife, hunters need to become involved. For example, throughout the West, there are plenty of volunteer opportunities for hunters looking to join a habitat improvement project that will result in better mule hunting for everyone. If we put a little effort into supporting conservation groups like the Mule Deer Foundation, big ol’ mule deer bucks can continue to challenge hunters throughout their range.”

This Colorado hunter found a pre—rut buck in the bottom of a valley. The deer were
seeking shelter from a blizzard.

Everythmg a mule deer needs: lots of sagebrush. a smattean of grasses and aspens, and plenty of rolling terrain broken by draws and ooulees.

In this area, there is a vast amount of bedding cover among the ponderosa pines. Below the pines, mule deer will feed among the sagebrush patches.