Mule Deer Hunting: Beginners Guide

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If you have never gone mule deer hunting, then be ready for your life’s greatest hunting experience. Not that hunting is a simple affair, but mule deer are among the most challenging big game animals you can choose to hunt. In most parts of Northern America, mule deer hunting is a favorite pastime outdoor activity that gets hunters eagerly waiting for the open season every year. 

Bagging a 300-pound world record mule deer and heading home for any beginner and even experienced hunters is a task that will need you to prepare well. There is a lot of information about mule deer that makes them a worthy hunting adversary. If you are spoiling for an extreme hunting adventure, and want a trophy antler for your effort, this article is a positive step towards understanding mule deer hunting. 

Most beginners cannot tell the difference between a whitetail deer and a mule deer as one can easily pass for the other. But some distinguishable factors can make you pinpoint with accuracy what animal you are hunting. Despite their close association, they both have different behavior and characteristics. It is this difference that determines the various methods of hunting you will use. 

What is the Difference between Mule Deer and Whitetail Deer?

If you are hunting for deer in North America, there is a higher chance that you will hunt for two popular kinds of deer, and it’s either a whitetail or mule deer. Both species are densely populated, and wildlife professionals’ estimates record over 30 million deer in the United States. Therefore, hunting deer is among the many ways of maintaining a balance of the country’s ecosystem.

Size and Shape of the Ears

It is the first distinguishing factor that coins the name mule deer. The shape and size of the ears are broad and big to resemble the mule’s ears leading to the name Mule deer. The mule deer has pointed and long ears compared to the whitetail deer that has somewhat stout and round-shaped ears. 

Despite the mule deer having pointy and broad ears, both these deer have excellent hearing that aids them to hear predators that are very far away. It is a survival instinct and an advantage that makes them protect themselves before any looming danger grows further. 

The size of the ears is not enough to ascertain the deer you are hunting, especially if you are at a distance. And in their adolescent years, you can hardly tell them apart. 

Size and Color of the Tail

Similar to the mule deer, the whitetail deer also derives its name from the color of its tail. But this can also be quite misleading for the novice hunter. The mule deer also has a white tail yet with a speck of black at the tail-end, which is hardly noticeable.

The name whitetail deer comes from the use of its tail. The outer coloring is, in fact, reddish-brown, and you can only see the white inside of the tail once the deer lifts it up. When the whitetail deer senses danger, its tail will instinctively dart upwards, revealing its contrasting white inner side. It is an indication of the possibility of a nearby danger and a warning to the other deer to stay alert or take to their heels. 

Lifting of the tail to show the inner whitetail is also a message to would-be predators that the deer are aware of their presence and dissuade them from an effortless chase. 

Growth and Formation of the Antlers

Mature deer all have antlers, and from a distance, you cannot tell if it is a whitetail or mule deer. But if you get closer, you sense a predictable pattern. The mule deer has antlers that fork out, and each fork also divides into two. 

Though nature has a lot of variations, this pattern is entirely consistent. It contrasts heavily with the growth pattern of whitetail antlers. The whitetail antlers have their antlers growing from one single beam, and tines grow from the single beam on each side of the head. 

Though not a telling factor, the rack and antler size of a mature mule deer is slightly taller and broader than that of the whitetail deer. Both the species shed their antlers in different seasons of the same year. The whitetail shed between January and February while the mule deer shed theirs from February or March. 

Facial Difference

The coat on the mule deer faces is whiter than the coat on their body. Their faces have more white compared to whitetails. Also, Mule deer will have darker foreheads than whitetail deer. As for whitetails, their faces usually have some traces of brownish tint and some white rings on the eyes and nose. 

The Colors of the Coat

There are so many variances in subspecies of both the mule deer and whitetail deer. But the coats of the Whitetail deer are generally reddish-brown contrasting with the greyish-brown coat of mule deer. During winter, the layer of whitetail deer overlaps and tends to become more grey. Coat color difference is, therefore, not as reliable as the other differences. 

Location

Location is vital in telling the difference between these two breeds of deer. People that come from the states that border the Atlantic Ocean, especially on the East Coast, can be certain that they do not hunt the mule deer. 

Hunters from Florida to Maine are sure of bagging a whitetail deer as their presence is dense in these terrains. So few if any mule deer can be found in this area. For mule deer, you should head towards the West Coast down the Missouri river, especially in parts like California and Nevada, where you can hardly spot any whitetail deer. 

Reproduction

The variations in the reproduction cycle are not significant. The whitetails have a slight biological advantage, as you will see. They reach the breeding age earlier and have shorter gestation periods. 

Whitetail Deer

Have a gestation period of only 6 ½ months and start breeding when they are six months old. The mating season is between late November and early December. 

Mule Deer

They have a gestation period that spans seven months and usually starts breeding when they are over six months old. Their mating season lasts between mid-November to late November.

Both of these species will deliver a single fawn on their first delivery and produce two or sometimes up to four fawns in subsequent gestation periods. Fawns are born between May and June. 

Aggression and Movement

Mule deer seem to be a lot more composed than whitetails, which spook easily. Whitetail deer are not as tolerant of commotion and noise as mule deer.  Even though they will both scamper off when facing immediate danger, mule deer tend to linger around longer. 

Besides aggression, there is a movement that tells them apart. Whitetails have some hop high in the air when they flee from danger while mule deer will gallop away. When hunting both species, be careful to conceal your scent. Mule deer are best bagged by spot and stalking, while whitetail deer, it is best to use a tree stand or ground blind hunting. 

What are the Types of Mule Deer?

The difference in subspecies of the mule deer was a report of the general observation of its characteristics. Experts are yet to find a way that will definitely tell the subspecies apart. There are only 11 subspecies of the mule deer. 

  • Rocky Mountain Mule Deer 
  • Sitka Black-Tailed Deer 
  • Bura Mule Deer 
  • California Mule Deer 
  • Southern Mule Deer 
  • Inyo Mule Deer 
  • Desert Mule Deer 
  • Cedros Island Mule Deer 
  • Peninsula Mule Deer 
  • Tiburon Island Mule Deer 
  • Columbian Black-Tailed Deer 

From this list, two of the subspecies differ in genetics and physical appearance from the rest of the big mule deer. These are the Columbian and Sitka mule deer. 

A Guide to Hunting Mule Deer

Unlike the whitetail deer, hunting the mule deer is a daunting and tasking physical experience. The natural habitat of mules is not as conducive as that of whitetail deer. There are lots of mountains and hilly areas to traverse that will burn your lungs and take the energy from your legs. 

Before going mule deer hunting, you must prepare well. The preparations include:

Gear and Equipment

Any hunting expedition requires the correct gear to have a successful hunt. Mule deer hunting demands the same. Among the critical equipment, you need scent elimination. The moment a mule deer catches your whiff, they are gone. The scent you choose depends entirely on you, but it should be undetectable to the deer. 

Proper Hunting Clothes

You are going on harsh terrain, so it makes sense to carry protective clothing. The color of your hunting clothes should also match the environment you are hunting in. Camouflage tactical hunting clothes will enable you to blend and disappear quickly from the deer’s scope range. 

Hunting clothes need to be comfortable and should include socks and some extra set of clean underwear if you plan to hunt for days. Boots and rain gear jackets will also help you in case you encounter a change of weather. 

Other Essential Hunting Gear

You will need tactical gears like binoculars and headlamps as well. A hunting knife to accompany your hunter’s bow or the rifle will also complete the necessary items you need to bag your mule deer. Injuries can happen when hunting and having a first aid kit is not a luxury item. 

Be in Shape

Hunting mule deer requires miles of trekking to spot and stalk them. You will need to be at your physical best if you want to be able to maintain tree stands for long hours as you wait on a mule deer to come your way. ` 

You should also have boots that fit you well because of all the trekking involved. A general rule of preparation entails you build your physical strength perhaps 3-6 months before the open hunting season. 

You Must Be Patient

Whether you are using a rifle or a bow for hunting mule deer, you must have patience. You must always be on high alert and avoid drifting in space or sleep while on a stand. Since the mule deer love staying in the shade when the sun is up, all you may have is one chance an entire day, and you should be ready to take it. 

Hunting mule deer requires spending lots of time and energy walking and waiting for a single opening. Investing in a good scope may assist you with the tracking and eventually get a good aim during slow hunting periods. See our buyer’s guide on the best hunting scopes.

Learn to Hunt off the Road

Times have changed, and mule deer have adapted to constant hunting. The days when you could hunt from your truck are long gone. Successful hunting requires that you leave your vehicle at a safe distance and maneuver the terrain on foot. Trucks scare away the deer before you start the hunt. 

Mule deer will not make it easy for you to hunt them, so you must follow them where they are. Usually, getting in and out of these places is never easy, especially if you manage to bag your prize. 

Learn How to Play the Wind

Scent elimination will mask your presence from the mule deer, but you never know for sure. To be on the safe side, you must also know the direction the wind is blowing and steer away from it. Wind may carry your scent and watch your mule deer scamper away to safety before you get the chance to aim it.  

Mule deer can catch a hunter’s scent even when a mile away, therefore the best way to beat this is by staying downwind on the hunt. 

Scout the Hunting Area 

Hunting mule deer are about beating the clock as it is only for the early riser. Most hunters know this all too well; hence to get an edge over your competition, scouting makes you more profound to what to expect. 

It is a challenging bit as it demands you wake up early. Probably at the crack of dawn and walk for miles to find a perfect stand before loud hunters join the hunt as the open season starts. 

What is Glassing?

Going Mule deer hunting without binoculars or spotting scope has minimal chances of success. Advanced hunters usually perch on hilltops before sunrise, awaiting the mule bucks to appear in the morning. 

Mule deer can’t see colors well, and hence you should avoid sudden movements when you spot one. They are not reluctant to await danger and will bolt the moment they sense movement. After you locate a mule deer, try to hide behind the trees and freeze each time the mule deer looks your way.  

Always Play it Safe

It includes taking care of all the safety precautions demanded of you. Having a hunting license and obtaining a permit is equally as important. You will also need to know the proper guidelines for carrying and using your firearm. Avoid keeping your hand on the trigger and only take a shot once you have aimed at your game. 

What are the Different Types of Mule Deer Hunting Techniques

High Country Hunting

The hunter who glasses from a high vantage point has more chances of bagging a mule deer than one who does not. The process is simple; all you do is wait for the mule deer to feed while in the meadows and see where they will bed down. It is an effective process because mule deer hardly look uphill when feeding. The mule deer are vulnerable on their backside and will always bed with a rock or vegetation on their backside. It is an advantage for the hunter, but you need stealth to avoid spooking the deer as it is overly sensitive to anything coming from its blindside. 

Hunt the Rut

During the rut peak, hunting becomes straightforward. All you have to do is locate where the does are and wait. Mule deer will stay active during the rut for more extended periods, so it is not necessary to stick to the dawn and dusk hunting periods. 

You can hunt for the entire day as mule deer bucks are usually rut-crazed during this season. You can stalk aggressively as the male deer bucks become easy to approach as long as you stay downwind and never catch your scent.  

It is not easy to approach beyond 200 yards, though, but you can successfully bag a male deer buck at this range.

Still-Hunting

Mule deer tend to be curious, and this makes them the perfect candidate for still hunting. Unlike the whitetails, that bolt, mule deer may pause a while to see if the danger has been averted. Even when spooked, they may run and stop to assess if you are still following it. Advanced hunters will maximize on such rare opportunities. 

 The edges between the feeding and bedding areas are usually the mule deer’s blindspot. On any topography, mule deer will always bed on the leeward side. If you have this in mind, you will also know the pockets of space that do not carry the wind. These are the places you should set up your still hunting. 

Ambush Hunting

Ambush locations for mule deer are near water sources, travel routes leading to food patches, and the food patches. The idea is to locate a patch of food that attracts mule deer and set up an ambush spot within rifle range. 

Ambush hunting for bowhunting mule deer is a little challenging as it requires you to be in close range. Novice bowhunters should position themselves near feeding patches as mule deer beds close to where they feed. 

Calling and Driving on the Mule Deer

Using this tactic is not as efficient on mule deer as it is for the whitetail deer. It is challenging to flash out the mule deer by tricking it into believing in the sound of rustling antlers mimicking mule deer sounds. It makes it much harder for you to predict the escape route of the mule deer. 

How to Field Judge Your Mule Deer Score Sheet

After every successful hunt, all hunters rush to know only one thing, the size of the antlers. Some sense of pride enthralls the hunter to know what their score is. Advanced hunters are better at field judging and can make close estimates. There are Boone and crockett mule deer scoring. 

Width

It is natural to measure the outside spread of your mule deer antlers, but in reality, it is the inside spread that makes the measurements. You can determine the spread of your mule deer by estimating the width from one ear-tip to the other ear-tip. It is usually 20-inches, but mature mule backs can have spread up to 30-inches. 

Tine Length

Tine length adds more value to your score than everything else on the antlers of the mule deer. Even though the mule deer’s brow tine lengths are shorter than the whitetail deer, they still bear significance to the hunter. 

One characteristic of a good brow tine length, though not always, is 4-inches or longer. After establishing the tine length, you should measure the depth of your mule deer back forks.  These should be at least 12-inches. You can judge the value of the tines with the quality of the back and front forks. 

If a mule deer has perfect forks, it symbolizes maturity, which is a good score in every hunter’s book. 

Mass of the Mule Deer

Mass does not add much to the score, yet every hunter will still claim it. In many cases, some people let mule deer walk because weight can make the tines appear smaller. When the antlers are wet, the mass can be deceiving as they look amplified hence shorter. 

The average mass of a mule deer skull on the mature bucks is between 32-34-inches, while some have more than 40-inches. 

Main Beam

Before shooting a mule deer, consider making a field judgment on the size of the main beam. If the main beam is small, you should let the mule deer walk as it is yet to mature. The measurement of the main beam and the width is almost the same, and you can make a quick assessment using the width as well. 

It is challenging to tell the size of the main beam if you are looking at the mule deer head-on; hence you need to find another angle. 

Symmetry

It is also not easy to determine the symmetry of the mule deer when on the field. To score a balance on both sides of the mule deer rack is almost impossible. It is because the rack swoops from the back jutting forward and may just deceive your eyes. 

Most bucks on field judging will appear to have imbalanced antlers, but when you bag it, you find they are asymmetrical. When field judging, symmetry is your friend. If you see they are balanced, you make the measurements of one fork and estimate to be true of the other. 

Hard Antler vs. Velvet

During the season, when Mule antlers have velvet antlers, it is difficult to determine the size of the antlers. They will appear enormous, and this can be deceiving when making a field assessment. As a rule, you can always take away 5-inches from the estimates you have, and you can determine the size of the antlers. 

The only way to improve your field judging skills is by getting to do many of them. You can practice how to score antlers at your local vendor shop that sells antlers. It will also make you acquainted with the biggest antlers, and you will know what to go for when on a hunt. 

What is Shed Hunting?

Shed hunting refers to the hunt of antlers from fallen mule deer after the rut season. It is a useful method that helps hunters to keep an inventory of the male deer bucks that survived the hunting season. 

Fallen antlers are useful as home décor, make jewelry, adornments, and dogs chew toys. When shed hunting, you should follow the regulations as you can force mule deer bucks to look for new food pastures during a challenging time of the season. Plan your search area after winter and always glass an area before going shed hunting. 

Most states have different rules on shed hunting. In some states, it is illegal, while others give dates of when shed hunting is legal. In other states, there are zones that you can shed hunt and other areas where you should not venture. 

The reasons for shed hunting regulations vary as others want accurate statistics of fallen mule deer while others seek to protect the balance of the ecosystem. 

Shed Hunting Tips

To be successful at mule deer shed hunt, you must follow some basic guidelines. 

Know Where to Look

Mule deer move all the time looking for new shelters and food patches as the temperatures gradually drop through the winter season. By understanding the prime areas where mule deer bed, you will have an easy time collecting antlers. 

By walking into the footsteps of the animals, you get to learn about them. Many mule deer lose their antlers when crossing over fences, which is an excellent place to start your search. 

Food and Water Sources

Mule deer need to keep feeding to maintain the calories they burn to stay warm. As winter becomes harsh, deer focus on food areas, and these are the places you should target. Water sources also become scarce during winter, and it is among the first places you should base your search when shed hunting. 

Bring Along Your Hunting Dog

If you are a novice shed hunter, then chances are you need a dog that can track the scent of the antlers and make the search easy and faster than it could have been. There are many breeds of dog hunters that have a good nose and can follow a scent with much success. Labradors retrievers, German shorthair pointers, and Drahthaars rank high as scent dogs. 

Have the Right Shed Hunting Gear

Shed hunting is not a walk in the park. You should prepare to cover many walking miles of rough terrain that can be wet or bushy. Among the primary gears you need is a good pair of boots that fit well and are comfortable to walk in for miles. 

A backpack to carry your spy gear is vital. Shed hunting includes doing some glassing to identify the meadows where the mule deer are feeding or bedding. A good pair of binoculars should have high zoom power and clarity to see the small details. See our article on the best binoculars for hunting.

Technology also plays a part in a successful shed hunting expedition. Smartphones have accurate apps that give topography details, which can help you determine the movement of the mule deer. The information is vital in knowing the restricted zones, if any, and also helpful for accurate weather predictions. No one wants to be out during a storm. 

Other items you will find helpful are sunscreen items to protect your skin and snowshoes if you are shed hunting in the snow. You can also include snacks to replenish the energy you will expend on the shed hunt. 

Conclusion

Most people who follow mule deer hunting guidelines have more chances of bagging a big game mule deer. It is only through understanding the terrain and how the mule deer relates to its habitat that you can improve your numbers every hunting season. 

Novice hunters should trail advanced hunters if they want to pick skills that no one else can teach. Sometimes how you adapt to your environment determines your chances of success. 

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