LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
Half frozen atop a ridge in the Rocky Mountains, something got my attention through the binoculars. Five-hundred yards away, across a thousand-foot deep gully, what I had waited three long, cold hours for grazed in an open patch on a timbered east-face slope. Mule deer.
The morning’s raw, jagged sunlight lanced overhead and burst upon the defile’s far side. Deer hide and antlers shone brilliant against the patchy snow and pine needles as if dressed in reflective safety vests. The sun warmed the beasts who had endured another ten degrees below zero high-country night, and it made my job tougher yet. I had shivered for hours with field glasses welded to forehead for just this moment. I had a decision to make. Should I slither down into the gulley and then up the opposite slope to close the distance in hopes my quarry wouldn’t move before I got there, or settle my stiff body behind my pack for a long, cross valley shot?
This is mule deer hunting. It’s methodical, physically punishing, and beyond exciting once you find these western denizens. The North American mule deer (Odocoileus Hemionus) is the more common whitetail deer’s cousin who inhabits “fly-over country.” For those used to hanging all day in a tree stand for an eastern whitetail to show up on a manicured food plot so you can perforate it with a lever-action .30-30, it is often difficult to grasp the mulie’s world and just how wonderful they are to hunt. Here’s what you need to know about these magnificent cud-chewers and how to put them in the freezer.
Mule deer live in North America’s western third, from south-western Alaska, down the Cascade, Pacific, and Canadian and American Rocky mountain ranges, and on into central Mexico and Baja. East as far as the Dakotas and Nebraska, and west to the Pacific. They are divided into four sub-species. White settlers on the western frontier gave them their name based on the deer's enormous ears.
Mulies tend to hang out in more open areas, but can adapt to thick forest. Although, the arboreal ones are more comfortable near clear cuts and old burn scars. In the desert south-west, they tend to stay high in the hills as long as they can find food there. As winter approaches, mulies will gravitate down-slope in an annual semi-migration as the snow piles up, but this not a hard and fast rule. I’ve found many a mulie on high ridges in knee-deep snow during late-season hunts. So, take what the biologists say with some salt. The biggest factors which influence their relocation are food supply and hunting pressure.
Mule deer are browsers, not preferential grazers such as elk. They have a varied diet which shifts with the seasons. They will eat most any plant material from cultivated hay and alfalfa to deciduous shrubs, pine needles, tree bark, and sage brush.
Guns for Mule Deer
What’s the best mulie gun? The short answer is any centerfire rifle you can shoot well. While any decent rifle and load will drop a mulie if the shot is placed right, there are some choices which are better than others.
If you’re an eastern whitetail hunter headed west for your first mule deer hunt, don’t worry, you won’t need some super-duper magic gun. All the traditional whitetail guns and cartridges (.30-30, .243, .308, .30-06, etc.) will do just fine in mulie country—if you stay within your load’s range envelope. Trouble is, mulie country is much more open, on average, and shots tend to run on the long side. If you’re brand new to hunting in general, and live in the west, you can save some time and money with a more focused set up.
There are two major considerations for a mule deer gun: long-range accuracy and downrange power. Mule deer have an annoying habit. They often hang out on ridges or plateaus several hundred yards away across steep defiles or in open, rolling terrain. This makes for many a frustrated mulie hunter. It pays to have a gun and the skill to reach out 300, 400, or more yards with some bad news for old Mr. Mulie. Keep in mind, you may not need to take such a shot (I’ve yet to shoot a mulie past 225 yards), but it’s nice to have the ability should the situation warrant.
In addition to accuracy, the bullet you fire should get to the target with at least 1200 ft-lbs. energy to ensure a quick kill. Mule deer are bigger than whitetails. It’s not uncommon to encounter a 250 – 300+ pound buck in Montana or Alberta, Canada, for example, so bring enough gun. There are many ballistic calculators out there which will show you how much energy your particular load will deliver at the ranges you anticipate for your hunt.
While other rifle action types are used for mule deer, by far the most popular is the bolt-action due to its accuracy and reliability in harsh western weather conditions. Although, many AR-platform rifles now rival the bolt-action in the accuracy department. If you hunt the thick timber in western Montana, northern Idaho, or British Columbia though, a lever-gun, pump-action, or more conventional semi-auto are fine choices as well.
Loads for Mule Deer
Here are some recomended mulie cartridges. The list is by no means all-inclusive.
- .25-06 Remington
- The 6.5mm’s (Creedmoor, Swedish, Norma, and PRC)
- .270 Winchester
- 7mm-08 Remington
- .280 Remington
- .30-30 Winchester (close range)
- .308 Winchester
- .30-06 Springfield
- 8mm Mauser (European spec. loads)
- 9.3 x 62mm Mauser (close or medium range)
- .45-70 Government (close range)
- .257 Weatherby Magnum
- .264 Winchester Magnum
- 7mm Remington Magnum
- .300 Winchester Magnum
- .300 Weatherby Magnum
- .375 H&H Magnum
There are many more good rounds: Winchester Short Magnums, Remington Ultra Magnums and the new Noslers, to mention a few. All mule deer rounds will benefit from heavy for caliber, controlled expansion bullets such as Nosler’s Partition, AccuBond, and E-Tip; Sierra’s Game King; Hornady’s Interlock, Interbond, or GMX; Swift’s Scirocco; Federal’s Trophy Bonded Bear Claw; Norma’s Oryx; or Barnes’ TTSX. One bullet to avoid is Federal’s Fusion—I’ve had disastrous results (failure to expand) with it on several occasions.
Essential Mule Deer Gear
Mule deer hunting is both similar to, and different from, most other hunting. As usual, you need proper clothes for the climate, good boots, and basic survival equipment. There are a few other things which will help make you a more successful mulie hunter.
Quality binoculars are a must. Mulie country is vast and often open. A hunter will spend hour upon hour behind their binos, so they need good lenses which transmit as much light as possible to the hunter’s eye and don’t have any distortion. You’ll also spend hours on your feet as you climb up and down ridges so you’ll need binos which are light-weight. Best bet are compact roof prism 10 x 40 binoculars.
A compact, light-weight spotting scope is not perhaps essential, but it is good to have along if you can spare the cash and energy to lug it around. Once you spot a mulie herd with the binos, the spotting scope can help you sort out which animal to try for.
A laser range finder which works out to 800 or 1000 yards will give you precise measurements for longer shots which will improve your ability to make a fast, one-shot kill at distance.
Manual operation (non-electronic) fawn bleat calls are useful if you hunt either early in the season or are after does. Although, it can bring in a buck who has a protective streak. The fact spring fawns are almost mature by the fall doesn’t seem to matter to the deer. The call pushes their evolution programed buttons and they respond based on instinct. Keep in mind mulie country is also bear and mountain lion country. If you make fawn calls, prepare for uninvited guests to answer the dinner bell.
Many states and provinces with mule deer prohibit, or limit, electronic calls, baiting (food plots), and scent lures for big game hunting. Always check the regulations where you plan to hunt before you go into the field.
Mule Deer Tactics
As with all North American deer species, the prime time to put a mulie in the freezer is during the rut. While there are some local variations, the mule deer rut occurs from late October through early December and peaks in late November. Hormone stoked bucks get stupid during this time and will take massive risks to find does in estrus. A good ploy is to find a doe herd, then wait and watch. Most often a buck or two will trail them by 100 – 300 yards. The closer they get to the does, the more fixated they become and will ignore hunters who don’t attract attention to themselves.
Mulies also seem to have built-in range finders. They tend to ignore people beyond 400 yards, or so. This is why flat-shooting cartridges such as the .25-06, .270, and .300 Win. Mag. are popular among the mulie cognoscenti. With the right skills, a hunter can take a careful shot at a calm deer across a gully or canyon which the deer thought provided enough safety.
It’s much harder to bust a mule deer in the thick stuff than in more open country. Best bet, if you are stuck in the timber, is to stalk slow, smooth, and quiet with the wind in your face. Look as far away as you can. In many cases, you’ll jump a deer from its bed but you won’t see or hear it move off. Mulies will, however, hop about 50 – 100 yards away then stop and turn to see if whatever spooked them is following behind, whereas their whitetail cousins will make a break for the next county. If they stop in a less timbered patch, you can spot them and set up for a shot. Beware, though, if they still have your sent on the wind or can see you, they will not stand still for more than a few seconds.
Whitetail deer have wide, tan-colored flaps for tails which cover their rumps unless they flag and run away, so it’s difficult to spot them just by their hide quarters. Not so Mulies. They have large white or cream-colored rumps and a thin, ropey tail which makes their backsides almost glow in the dark. The best way to spot them at twilight is to use your peripheral vision and scan for white blotches. In most cases, the blotch is attached to a mule deer. Morning or late afternoon sun will also illuminate a mulie’s rear end and they will “pop” into your vision against the darker landscape. In snow, the opposite holds true. Their brown bodies stand out while their behinds blend in.
Armed with this information and some good scouting to determine movement areas and times, a hunter has a better than fair chance they will find America’s premier deer, the Mulie.
© 2019 LJ Bonham