Mule deer are the "other" deer; they don’t get nearly as much attention as their whitetail cousins. They don’t get the food plots and research with intensive management programs. Mule deer are left to their own devices, roaming their habitat that stretches from Mexico to Canada sprawling dozens of ecosystems. Tackling one of these hunts is a rough under taking, though veterans are happy to share mule deer hunting tips.
Mule deer populations are in decline in almost all western states. High wolf populations were introduced and went unmanaged in the north which have taken their toll. Expanding oil extraction and agriculture operations in the west have fractured habitat and cut off winter migration routes. All these problems have spelled a drought in tags and opportunity. Any chance to bag a mature mule deer should be regarded as a true trophy of the west.
Here are 19 mule deer hunting tips, tactics, and tricks to get you started:
1. Spend Time Choosing Your Area
Not All States are created equal and not every GMU or hunt area is the same so be sure to choose your tag based on the hunt you want. If you’re after a representative animal and not a trophy, then you can be assured that you’ll have an opportunity to hunt almost every year. Hunts with limited access and little public land can have plenty of tags but sometimes literally nowhere to hunt legally.
Conversely the coveted areas with plenty of trophy animals and ample access for hunters will have many applicants and long draw waits. Be careful where you buy your tag and be sure to buy the tag for the hunt you want.
2. Bring the Right Friends
Not everyone lives with mule deer in their backyard and the unluckiest people travel from thousands of miles away. Make sure you bring the right friends with you. Hunters who like to sit in a tree stand might not like the long spot and stalks that is common in the west. Other problems like vacation time, costs and what kind of amenities they prefer while out can ruin a hunt before it even starts.
Make sure you communicate up front what kind of hunt you want, get your itinerary in writing and you’ll have a good time.
3. You Don't Need New Equipment
Everything you use for whitetail hunting you can use for mule deer hunting. Mule deer can be as much as 20-30% heavier than most whitetails but that doesn’t mean you need a new bow or rifle. Plenty of mule deer fall every year from a standard .308 Winchester or 300fps bow. Optics can make or break a hunt but many binoculars will work well for mule deer and not every GMU has wide open vistas.
Concentrate on using the gear you have well instead of trying to cram in new gear and skyrocketing the budget.
4. Start Budgeting ASAP
Set a realistic goal of how much money you’ll need for the trip and start saving earlier than you think you need to. Forget flying and renting a car, many rentals won’t allow off road use anyway. If you drive in shifts you can make surprisingly good time. Don’t be tempted by restaurants and expensive hotels, they leech money. Try pitching a tent and packing a cooler paired with a camp stove.
Here are some more tips on budgeting for the hunt:
5. Make Sure You Know Where You're At!
New mapping software makes it easier to avoid trespassing but there are still some steps to keep in mind:
- In all western states you'll get a ticket for using a private road to reach public land
- In some western states you cannot access land that isn't adjacent. Even if the corners of the land touch, you cannot walk to it because the law sees it as trespassing on someone else's land
- Don't be run off by greedy ranchers or lying out of state hunters trying to protect their honey hole
- In some states you can use canals and rivers to legally reach islands of public land in blocks of private land and have the whole place to yourself. Just find a legal and secure place to park
6. Arrive Early and Go Where the Deer Aren't
Make sure to get to where you plan to hunt early. Too many people’s hunt is spoiled by their unwillingness to travel fast or take extra time off. Leave at least a full day before the hunt, preferably two or three, to prepare for it. This gives you time to relax and get rested for the hunt, gain information from the locals, replace any gear you forgot and have some camaraderie with your fellow hunters.
Especially if you aren’t going on a guided hunt this extra day gives you time to find a place to set up camp and find out where the deer aren’t. On public land the deer are going to seek refuge after the guns go off and you’ll know where they’re headed because you’ll have found these spots early. Look for the secluded ridges with everything a deer would need: food, water, and cover. If you find these three things but no deer sign, rest assured they’re on their way.
7. Talk to Locals
As soon as you get into some of the western hot spot hunting towns go in and have a meal at the local diners, visit the small outfitters and even try swinging by the police department or game warden’s office. These people in my experience are extremely helpful in pointing hunters towards success because their town depends on it.
Try and vet the information they get and double check it before you take it blindly because some locals don’t like out of town hunters and will try and thwart your attempts.
8. Pack a Good Bullet
Mule deer can be tough and penetration will be lacking if you use a standard deer bullet. Choose a bullet of adequate sectional density and construction. This doesn't mean shoot tough bullets designed for safari and large heavy boned game, but a stout bonded bullet or premium design like a Nosler Partition will serve you well.
Make sure you heed all game laws before you go out. In many parts of the west lead bullets are banned. Make sure you use a bullet that is either all copper or an alloy design with no banned materials.
9. Make Sure to Have Enough Magnification
Shooting out west isn’t like shooting in the east. Especially in most of mule deer country if you have the option to get a high powered scope you might want to. A 3-9x power scope should be replaced by a 4-12x power for good measure.
Likewise, binoculars of only 4x power or 8x power might be a little low for western glassing. Look for a clear 10x or 12x power binocular.
Finally, a spotting scope can be immensely helpful for judging trophy quality, from a mile away. The brighter and stronger the better here. A 30x power should be the minimum, just remember you have to carry it around.
10. Make Sure to Have a Good Rest
Get a tripod for your spotting scope and use it. Vibrations and shaky magnification give awful fatigue and headaches that’ll ruin your hunt. You need something as steady as a rock, but most rocks don’t adjust to your height nearly as well as a good tripod.
Choose a model that allows you to use it for shooting and glassing, isn’t too heavy and will allow you to adjust it for sitting. This makes sure you’re covered no matter what and you’ll have a toll for the job.
Alternatively, you could get a nicer, albeit heavier, model of tripod for glassing and bring along lightweight shooting sticks for making the shot. Leave the heavy tripod when you commence the stalk and you’ll have the best of both worlds.
11. Plan for the Weather
Weather can change quickly and ruin a hunt very fast. Plan for the weather and keep some guidelines in mind:
- Bring a sleeping bag for colder weather than you expect
- Always carry rain gear with you
- Make sure you have access to clean dry clothes quickly
- Take several different weights of socks because your feet swell at elevation and your boots can get tight
- Don't over exert in hot weather. Take frequent breaks and hydrate
- If thunderstorms are imminent look for an open field and get low
Weather is no joke and if you aren’t prepared you can get hurt very quickly. If the conditions are colder, or warmer than you expected consider leaving. No hunt is worth your life.
12. Hunt Uphill
If you have the option, it makes packing out an animal millions of times easier if the truck or camp is downhill. This isn’t really applicable if you’re hunting in the plains or in canyon country but if you have the option of pulling the truck around and hunting upward carrying out the meat and equipment is a breeze.
Especially if you choose to pack out the entire carcass, you can use a heavy duty tarp and pull rope to slide the deer downhill in a hurry. Even if it means that you have to walk an extra ½ mile going downhill it is much, much, easier than all but the shortest of uphill battles.
13. Follow the River
Finding an ambush point for a bow hunter can be a tall order in a seemingly endless prairie, rolling canyons or high country. I like to look for water to find a good stand.
Follow the water and look for: watering holes, outside river bends, peninsulas, dry creek beds, low crossing points, or aquatic plants they eat. These places can be deadly for lots of game. Deer will usually follow the river and these choke points make for great hunting. Don’t overlook the inside bend of a river either, they’re usually the bedding areas for does and during the rut they’ll be walking the river.
14. Ambush in a Dry Wash
A dry wash is a scar on the landscape formed by rushing water running down a slope. It’s kind of like a creek bed but it’s jagged and on a hill. These dry wash areas are much easier to walk up and down than the surrounding slope. Use this to your advantage. Check for tracks and sign at and near these features until you find an active one.
For a mule deer, conserving energy is a way of life and they’ll gravitate to these dry wash areas. If you’re a rifle hunter, move back 100 yards or so because they can come from any angle and they’re on high alert as they come down. If you’re a bow hunter, consider an ambush at the bottom of the wash. There’s usually more cover and debris and your scent will stay low.
15. Think Like an Antelope Hunter
Sometimes it pays to sit around all day. Waiting in a blind or tree stand for quarry that is usually shot after a lengthy stalk can be asking a lot. Waiting is a good bet in some landscapes. Mule deer sometimes have to travel far and have much bigger home ranges than whitetails. It can take time for them to get past you close enough for a shot. If you’re in good habitat in a good location, it’s only a matter of time.
16. Plan for the Trip Back
When you’re successful you now have been charged with taking care of that animal’s remains and making sure to use the meat. If you’re on a road trip or flying out to your hunt, there’s some strategies to taking care of the meat:
If you're driving:
- Freeze your meat solid before you leave for the road. This can be done with dry ice.
- Don't leave your cooler sitting in the sun during the trip home. It'll melt the ice and ruin the meat
- Ratchets can damage coolers, so don't over tighten them
- Consider taking a chest freezer. Use an inverter with a booster to freeze it up periodically along the road home. Just make sure to do it while the truck is running or you'll ruin your battery
If you're flying:
- Ship your pack home via the mail. It's cheaper than trying to mail home the meat or paying an extra fee for a checked bag with an airline
- Bone out all the meat to save weight
- Freeze your meat solid before you leave for the airport. This can be done with dry ice, just buy plenty of it. This reduces the amount of ice needed for the trip and is extra insurance for any delays
- You have to use dry ice to transport with an airline. Plan ahead for a source near your hunt
- Duct tape your cooler closed no matter what kind of cooler you have, this is extra insurance
- Remove the drain plug on your cooler. When dry ice evaporates it builds pressure and can damage the meat. A well-meaning baggage handler can ruin the hunt, or rip off the plug
17. Try the Gutless Method
The gutless method of quartering game is normally used to getting the quarters off big game like elk quickly. It’s a cleaner way to get the usable meat off an animal when you don’t have a gambrel for processing, especially if you need to pack the animal out and you don’t want to get your arm covered in blood and guts cutting the jugular.
See it in action:
18. Telling a Mule Deer From a Whitetail
Mule deer and whitetail deer coexist in many parts of their home ranges. While there has been reports of inter breeding, they are two separate species of deer. If you accidently shoot a mule deer with a whitetail tag, you’ll still get a fine from the warden. Moreover, mule deer populations are on the decline while whitetail deer numbers are still climbing. Be sure of what you shoot because you may hurt the populations.
The 4 easiest ways to tell a mule deer from a whitetail deer are: body size, ear size, antlers and coloration.
Mule deer have forked antlers, grey to dark brown fur, a black ringed tail and huge relative to their body size. This is where they get their name, their large ears resemble a mule’s. They’re also larger than whitetail and considerably heavier.
Whitetail deer are light brown to blonde, with a main beam antler sporting vertical points, a huge white tail and smaller ears. If the deer you’re looking at seems bigger than it should be, with funny looking ears and antler’s, it’s probably not a whitetail.
Click this image for more info on the differences between the two:
19. Enjoy the Whole Trip
Too many people look at the hunt as a mission. Hunters as a whole are very goal oriented people and the kill is the goal. The best thing you can do to enjoy your trip is to remember that you’re on vacation. I try to look at my time in the field as a walk in the woods. Slow down and enjoy the ride to your hunting grounds, take time to enjoy the food and camaraderie of your fellow hunters and you won’t go home empty handed.
Remember that the reason to hunt mule deer is because it’s difficult. Even if you come home without a deer you didn’t come home empty handed. Being able to chase these animals throughout their range is a uniquely American freedom and blessing no other country in the world enjoys. Take the memories you earn and get ready for next year to make more. After your hunt, you’ll learn your own mule deer hunting tips and tactics and will want to pass them on for the new hunters.