Understanding Mule Deer
Infinite volumes have been written about whitetailed deer. From their reclusive nature to their sex lives, virtually every aspect of their lives has been dissected. But, for those of us intrigued with variety, far less is written about their counterpart, the mule deer.
Nothing beats still hunting river bottom mule deer on a cool, crisp October morning. I'll never forget the events of a recent mule deer hunt.
Gingerly placing one foot in front of the other, each step was made with calculated precision. Each stride followed by a two-minute pause. Inching my way through clearings and over ridges, it was a half hour after sunrise when I picked up movement about 100 yards down the valley. Grazing nonchalantly, two muley bucks were oblivious to my presence. One was a four-by-four and the other a fork horn. Remaining motionless, I stood statuesque for several minutes observing through field glasses. Almost as soon as I raised my binoculars I caught the unmistakable black body of a moose disappearing over a knoll.
No sooner had I lowered my glasses, when 45 yards ahead I saw antler tips bobbing up and down - and they were moving in my direction! With bow in hand, I cautiously slid my hand down to pry an arrow from my hip quiver. Still unaware of any danger, the big bodied buck boasted a respectable four-by-four rack and was incidentally the largest of the three visible deer. My heart raced in anticipation.
Over the next five minutes, the buck paused to chew on some thistles and finally, at 28 yards, turned broadside, slightly quartering toward me. Totally camouflaged, I knew he was still not aware of my presence. From many past interactions with mule deer, I knew it was then or never. With my arrow already nocked, I eased my bow upward and in one smooth motion went to full-draw. At the same time, he raised his head to peer in my direction. Gazing in disbelief, the buck appeared to be frozen in place. Releasing my arrow it flew straight and true, penetrating and passing through the buck's massive chest. Sprinting a short distance, he collapsed on top of a small ridge, bringing about a nice ending to perhaps one of the most spectacular morning hunts I've ever enjoyed.
Knowing a little of where mule deer live, what they feed on and how they react, played a big part in putting me in front of that deer. Being at the right place at the right time, for the right reasons are all important parts of the hunting puzzle when it comes to targeting mule deer.
Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), are unique members of the deer family. They look different, move different and prefer very specific habitats. From their characteristic bouncing stride to their classic white rump with black tipped tail and their distinctly forked antlers, mule deer are fascinating animals.
While a variety of sub-species reside in diverse ecosystems, they share a few commonalities with other members of the deer family. Whether you find them in the high country of the Rocky Mountains, in the sand hills or coulees of prairie grassland states or provinces, in mixed forests of the north country or river valleys running through farmlands, mulies adapt well to their habitat; relying heavily on visual perception and olfactory senses as first lines of defense. Regardless of where you find them, they will often bed on the leeward side of slopes, ridges and riverbanks. Carefully selecting strategic perches atop elevated and sometimes protruding topography, mule deer have an uncanny knack for eluding predators, including man.
Although they favor open habitats associated with more rugged terrain, mule deer also take advantage of any cover providing both a buffer from human presence and thermal protection, regardless of how scant it may be. Wary and alert, mule deer are always ready to escape to the refuge of cover if necessary. Although not an exact science, if I were to advise on how to maximize time afield looking for mule deer in contoured areas, I'd suggest narrowing the search to south-facing slopes of major drainages and coulees.
Nomadic by Nature
Mule deer, like most ungulates migrate within a given home range throughout the year. Where they winter is typically quite different from where they spend their summer months. In many instances, mule deer migrate to specific breeding grounds during their annual rut cycle. In my experience, particularly when it comes to coulee, river valley and agricultural herds, mule deer undergo a circular migration trend. At the first hint of spring, when snows quickly melt, mule deer move to most accessible natural food sources. As the months progress, with weather changing from long, warm summer days with plenty of food to the shorter, cooler days of autumn, their annual migration moves resident mule deer to increasingly limited, but accessible feed not yet covered by snow. Then with the arrival of winter, mule deer most often yard up at the most accessible food source. This can vary from human harvested cereal crops to thermal cover with indigenous food sources readily available.
While utilizing many of the same forage as other ungulates, mule deer feed on variable vegetation throughout the year. Cow parsnip, thistle, willows, saskatoon and chokecherry are just a few of the more common food sources mule deer capitalize on in the fall and early winter. When snows are deep and the formerly lush, green vegetation no longer available throughout winter months, Douglas fir, aspen and chokecherry are common forage. In forest/farmland transition zones where mule deer have easy access to cereal crops, nutrient rich food sources like peas, alfalfa, winter wheat, fall rye and oats attract resident herds.
Annual Rut Cycle
With all the hype over the sex life of whitetails, for some reason mulies are often neglected. Few hunters invest the time and energy required to outsmart big mule deer by taking advantage of the rut. Again somewhat variable, a good rule of thumb for mule deer is that their biological cycle tends to follow a relative two-week delay from that of whitetails. The breeding season for mule deer in western Canada for instance, occurs during the approximate four week period from mid-November to mid-December, peaking during the last week of November. By definition, this peak period refers to the 48 -72 hour timeframe in which most does go into estrus. While it is commonly understood that whitetails undergo this rut period throughout the month of November in most northern states and provinces, it is offset by two weeks for mule deer. Many hunters fail to capitalize on this magical period. Particularly vulnerable at this time of year, large bucks become more mobile and visible. Dominant bucks zero in on resident does and remain close by, constantly checking for their state of readiness for breeding. It is not uncommon to see them bedded in open areas during daylight hours exhibiting little concern for anything other than their female counterparts.
What about rubs and scrapes? Good question - while these tell-tale rut signs are more readable in the world of the whitetail, they are less so relative to mulies. In a similar fashion, mule deer begin their territorial marking early in the season. Near the end of September, shortly after the pealing of velvet, muley bucks rub their antlers on both coniferous and deciduous trees and shrubs. Much like whitetails make rubs and scrapes, mule deer do the same. These markers identify territorial boundaries and provide communication mediums for does and other bucks living in the area.
Rattling and Calling Can Work
Contrary to common thought, rattling antlers in the pre-rut and peak rut periods does work for mule deer. Certainly less reliable than with whitetails, I've drawn in several muley bucks and does with rattling. While I often hear the comment that mule deer don't respond to rattling, in my experience, this is not true. I along with a few other avid mule deer hunting friends of mine have proven this method effective time and again over many different seasons. Combining this with the use of a grunt tube can bring bucks running. An important fact about mulies is that they're curious creatures. Smart hunters will capitalize on this inquisitive nature whenever possible.
Mule Deer Management
Mule deer are a vulnerable species. Over the last century, their numbers have declined in many states and provinces, but over the last two decades, wildlife managers have implemented intense management programs to enhance numbers. Not only have these efforts been successful in bringing herd numbers back up, but trophy quality has benefited significantly as well. With minimum three- and four-point harvest restrictions in effect depending on the zones you're hunting, most mule deer herds were afforded excellent growing periods. Although some areas do allow an unrestricted harvest, it is rare.
Curious by Nature
A mule deer's defense is similar but different from that of a whitetail. When a whitetail buck feels pressure or perceives a dangerous situation, he'll run until he feels safe hidden by cover. With mule deer, responses can vary. Old mature bucks may do the same thing, but often a muley will bound off only a short distance, then stop and look back. Curiosity often tips the odds in the hunter's favor, giving enough time to aim and place a shot. A word of caution though - don't rely exclusively on this trait - big old bucks in the monarch category haven't grown big by being stupid. They know what it takes to survive and once underfoot, will sometimes put miles between themselves and the hunter particularly in the wide open prairie grassland habitats. For this reason, and the fact that mule deer commonly bed on open south and west facing slopes, they can make for a highly visible quarry.
Spot and Stalk
Spot and stalk hunting is my favorite for mule deer. This approach involves locating the animal, waiting until it beds down or stops moving and then planning the best and most concealed approach. Combining the use of high-powered optics with the stealth required to move into shooting range can produce excellent opportunities. This strategy works well in mountainous areas as well as on the prairie grasslands and coulees. Any habitat offering dramatic topographical variations provides great cover and vantage points for hunting mule deer. Mule deer periodically bed on open hillsides relying on their eyesight and sense of smell to detect predators long before they're in any danger. Again, savvy hunters will take care not to skyline themselves.
Still-hunting is also very effective on these deer, particularly when targeting focal points like river bottoms, coulees or other mountainous habitats with a combination of open ground and heavy cover. In its truest sense, this approach requires the hunter to become a part of their environment. If done properly, the hunter's presence will have little impact on nearby wildlife. During early morning and evening periods, still-hunters can often find themselves among moving deer. During mid-day bedding hours however, mule deer by nature, will often hold tight, particularly those taking refuge in cover. Preferring to rely on concealment when available, they'll often wait until a hunter is right on top of them before breaking for alternative cover. Extra care should be taken to work into the wind, keeping your senses on alert and constantly scan the horizon for antler tips that may be visible through holes in the trees, shrubs and grasses. The key with still-hunting is seeing them before they see you. Quiet footwear, camouflage and cover-up scents can help increase your odds.
Treestand and Ambush Hunting
Treestand and ambush hunting can be productive as well. Where whitetails are largely creatures of habitat, mule deer are less reliable in terms of daily movement. Nomadic by nature, they can be in one area one day and a couple miles away the next. While in agricultural areas, daily routines may appear more consistent due to localized food sources, in most instances movement varies from day to day. General areas usually remain the same, but precise trails traveled may vary significantly. In my experience the most consistent treestand hunting for mule deer is in riverbottoms where tree cover creates heavily used travel corridors and bottlenecks. To tip the odds in your favor when using treestands or relying on ambush sites, focus on natural funnels such as drainages, river bottom fringe country near cereal croplands and natural entrance/exit locations paralleling staging areas - these might include field corners, bays and peninsula shaped woodlots jutting out into cropped areas.
Regardless of location or what strategies you employ, mule deer are a lot of fun to hunt. With stringent management programs in place, some jurisdictions impose special license restrictions and minimum antler size limitations. Just remember, knowing as much as you can about mule deer and appropriately applying the right strategies to the terrain you're hunting will greatly increase your odds of taking a good buck.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com.
Member of OWAA & OWC.