If you’ve hunted muleys before, you know the attraction. If you’re a whitetail fan, you owe yourself a mule deer hunt. Whether you explore mountain meadows, aspen forests, dark timber, sagebrush basins, open prairie, crop fields or the desert, mule deer will take you to wild and wide-open spaces you will remember forever.
Mule deer hunting can be hard work, and finding that breathtaking buck of your dreams is a challenge. But he’s out there. However, because of changes in habitat, reduced access to good hunting grounds, and increased hunting pressure taking a trophy-class mule deer buck has gone from one of the most assured North American hunting pursuits to one of the most difficult. Enlisting the services of a highly-rated mule deer outfitter is by far your best bet for bringing home a mule deer buck for the wall.
Mule Deer Facts
While taxonomists divide mule deer into two subspecies – the Rocky Mountain and desert varieties – the Boone and Crockett Club groups mule deer into one record book category. A muley from Alberta benchlands is classified the same as one from a Colorado wheat field, the South Dakota prairie, a Montana mountainside, Wyoming sagebrush, West Texas scrub or the deserts of Old Mexico.
Mule deer antlers are beautiful, with double-forking beams. The technical term for this is “bifurcation.” A 30-inch-wide rack seems to be a holy grail among mule deer hunters, but the dimension is increasingly rare. Antler mass, beam length and deep forks offer more inches of antler in the Boone and Crockett scoring system, yet it’s truly impressive to see a buck with a wide, dark rack. In places like Sonora, Mexico bucks with 40-inch spreads are still taken each season.
During most rifle hunting seasons, mule deer sport their gray winter coats. Due to the extra arid surroundings, desert mule deer are lighter-colored than their Rocky Mountain cousins. The rump is creamy white, and serves as a beacon to watch for when glassing for animals. The short, rope-like tail is tipped in black.
Mule deer prefer more open and arid terrain than whitetails, and muleys feel most at ease when they can see a long way. Big bucks like to lay right against some cover with the wind at their backs, so they can use their excellent noses to smell what’s coming from behind, and use their eyes to see what’s approaching out front. Mule deer have very good eyesight, and are especially adept at picking up movement at long distances.
Mule deer get their name from their oversized ears, which swivel and rotate independently of each other to pinpoint sounds. If a mule deer doesn’t smell you or see you, he will almost certainly hear you.
It’s interesting to note the mule deer’s stocky, well-muscled and compact build. Mule deer were designed for traversing steep terrain easily. That explains muleys’ hop-hop-hop form of locomotion, called stotting. This movement pattern covers steep ground with less effort, clears obstacles and confounds predators. In places where mule deer and whitetails inhabit the same territory, seeing two animals running side by side will leave a lasting impression of the difference in the gaits of the two species.
Mule deer bucks grow big. Young bucks on good range will weigh from 150 to 200 pounds, and 250-plus pounders are common where forage is good. Does normally weigh 120 to 150 pounds. The farther north you go, the larger mule deer grow. Mule deer browse on buds and leaves of shrubs, raid crop fields, feed in grasslands on tender shoots and forbs, and often rely on sagebrush, cedar, willow or bitterbrush in winter.
Mule Deer Hunting
Decades ago, big muley bucks seemed common, and mule deer hunting was relatively easy. Those days are gone, but with some work you can still find a trophy mule deer. While mule deer aren’t as nervous and high-strung as whitetails, muleys have their own laid-back approach for avoiding trouble. At the first hint of danger — a wisp of scent on the breeze, something heard or a movement seen — a muley buck will get up and sneak away before having to deal with the issue.
Because mule deer country is often open, steep, or sometimes both, you can view expansive vistas. So glass-and-stalk hunting is a good approach. Get to a good vantage point before first light, or by mid-afternoon if you’re hunting the other end of day, put the sun at your back, and glass for feeding or moving deer. Plan a stalk using available terrain and cover. Bowhunters can stalk mule deer effectively too: Stay out of sight, keep the wind blowing from them to you, get into bow range and wait for the deer to stand up on its own for your shot. For bowhunters, a number of states and provinces offer seasons early enough to afford the unique opportunity to hunt and harvest a buck in the velvet.
Stand hunting works, at times, too. One good plan is to situate yourself between feeding and bedding areas before dawn or in late afternoon. Saddles in ridges also make good stand spots, because mule deer will use these dips in the terrain to travel from one drainage to another with the least effort.
You can still-hunt for mule deer in timber, much like you would hunt for a whitetail. This is a good technique when rifle season is on and pressured deer are holed up in the thick stuff. When pushed, mule deer have another evasion tactic, and that is to go where hunters don’t — out into wide-open expanses of sagebrush, or miles from any kind of traditional cover out on the prairie.
Back in the “old days,” spooked mule deer used to always stop for a look back, offering a shot opportunity. Today’s mule deer is less likely to do that, but it’s still worth getting ready for a quick, but steady shot in case a buck pauses before going over the next rise.