If you gave your average hunter a pencil and asked them to draw their perfect trophy buck, nine times out of 10 they’re going to draw a mule deer buck.
Embodying all the rugged mysticism and unrestricted spirit of the American West, mule deer just have a way of standing out in the deer world. With crowns of deeply forked antlers that can often reach baffling proportions and body sizes that rival your average NFL lineman, mule deer bucks are truly the kings of the deer family. They leave a lasting impression with hunters. Whether they first see one skylined on a distant ridge, gliding like a shadow through the aspens, or leaping majestically across the great plains, hunters always remember the first time they see a giant muley.
Mule deer are the largest member of the Odocoileus genus, which includes whitetail and blacktail deer. With a name stemming from their large, mule-like ears, muleys came into being a few thousand years ago when environmental conditions separated them from their blacktail cousins.
Standing 40 to 45 inches tall at their shoulders and weighing in at an average of 200 pounds, they are often the largest big game animal in their territory. They range all across the American West, from northern Mexico all the way up to the southern edge of the Northwest Territories. This massive range of habitat make mulies incredibly adaptable animals. They can thrive in some of the most rugged landscapes and inhospitable environments on the planet. From the dry western deserts to the snow-capped Rockies, mule deer present a variety of opportunities for the western hunter.
Hunting mule deer is unlike hunting any other deer in North America. They have a massive range, and unlike the more common and often-favored whitetail, they are almost impossible to pattern. Their habit of unpredictability, combined with seemingly continuous travel, make them almost impossible to hunt from a blind or tree stand. So successful hunters are most often forced to pursue them by either spot-and-stalk, still-hunting, or by tracking in snow. All three methods put the hunter on the ground, challenging the muley on his home turf.
Living in a land of predators, where mountain lions, wolves, and grizzlies prey on them regularly, mule deer are incredibly wary animals. Those ludicrous-looking ears enable them to hear an approaching hunter from extraordinary distances, and they are quick to evade. While anyone who has ever seen a one run might find it comical—their bounding gate looks almost like the deer is mounted on four pogo sticks—they eat up ground quickly. Often that bounding run is the last thing a hunter sees as his trophy buck bounds away over the mountain.
Spot-and-stalk hunting is far and away the most popular and productive way to hunt mule deer. It’s best done by finding a high ridge in good muley territory. After that, it’s all about the optics. A good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope are absolutely essential for mule deer hunting. Glass brushy hillsides where their preferred forage of sage brush, willows, and other small shrubs can be found. Most hunters glassing these areas aren’t looking for a deer, as they are extremely well camouflaged and manage to blend in with their surroundings incredibly well.
When glassing, look in the brush for twitching ears, or straight muley backs, or even a whitish-colored rump. It takes a lot of time to train your eyes to go over every little clump of brush to make a muley buck appear. Once a buck is spotted, you need to plan your approach. Glass it out. Figure out how to come within range of that buck from a downwind side and make a careful stalk. One misstep, one broken twig, one rolling rock, and the buck will be gone.
One of the truly great things about mule deer is that they are a hunt for everyone. Their varied habitat makes them accessible to almost any hunter willing to walk. Most states sell tags over the counter and have a high enough population that they can be pursued on public land. With a little bit of research, mule deer hunting can make any hunter’s dreams come true. They are a true Western icon and a magnificent trophy, however and wherever you choose to pursue them.