A Guide to Hunting Mule Deer

A Guide to Hunting Mule Deer

Aside from its big ears, the second thing most new mule deer hunters notice is the deer’s fleeing gate, known as “stotting.”  Stotting has been described as bounding, hopping, even “pogoing.”

At first 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 reaching relative safety, the mule deer 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 a adopt a trick used by their whitetail cousins, 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 pre-hunt research.

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 treestand. But when it comes to mule deer, you can do as much roaming as you’d like.

Scientific Name
Odocoileus hemionus


Bar Room Banter
The end of the Pleistocene epoch ushered in mass extinctions of large-bodied North American mammals, such as wooly mammoths, short faced bears, giant ground sloths, and the American 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 which is tipped black.  Large, mule-like ears.  Mule deer antlers are bifurcated, meaning they fork as they grow.  Mule deer stand about 3.5 to 4.5 feet tall at the shoulder. Mature bucks weigh up to 300 pounds; does average around 150.

Mule deer occupy many types of habitats in the Western U.S., Canada, and Mexico, including grasslands, forests, deserts, and mountainous terrain ranging from foothills to the alpine zone.

Telltale Sign

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 cropfields where available.

Life and Death
Typical lifespan of 9-11 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 wintering 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 May-June.  It is common for does to drop twin fawns.

Due to the animal’s preference for shrubs, including sage, mule deer meat is often condemned as being “sagey” or gamey.  On the flipside, this flavor can be described as highly aromatic and “herby.”  Good for any red meat application.

Hunting Opportunities
Mule deer are available to hunt in 16 Western states.  Almost all mule deer tags are distributed through some kind of a lottery that must be applied for.  This is especially true for non-residents. 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 surroundings, and good optics are an invaluable tool for finding them. In snow-free terrain, you’ll often locate mule deer by seeing their whitish-colored 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 two feet tall.

Bowhunting the Early Season
As much as mule deer are associated with sagebrush habitat, in the early season they are often found up in the 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.

This high alpine bowl is prime summer mule deer habitat.

Bowhunters who insist on approaching from above execute a high 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 are 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.

Secondly, high country basins have a fairly predictable mid-to late-morning thermal which 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 wait for a better scenario.

Since the bedded deer are blind to their backside and can’t smell what’s above them either, they will often bed with a rock, cliff or clump of vegetation to their backs. Often this bit of protection serves 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.

Hunting the Rut
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, peak rut and see 20. 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 that you hunt all day long during the rut. And when you find 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.

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.

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 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 coverings 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.

Ambush Hunting
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
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 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 in to 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.

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