It's estimated that the combined population of whitetail and mule deer is around 36 million in the United States. With that large of a population there is bound to be some overlap in habitat. And with the ease of modern-day travel, it is quite easy to be able to hunt both species regularly.
But what are the differences between hunting mule deer versus whitetail? Learning the subtleties of each species can provide a huge advantage to hunters.
Habitat and Population
It is pretty safe to say that whitetail populations are high, which also leads to their large geographic location. On the other hand, mule deer possess a more confined habitat and their population is notably fewer. There are certain areas where these two species coexist, but for the most part their populations, geographic distribution, and habitat preferences are quite different.
Whitetail Population and Habitat
Whitetails are now scattered across almost the entirety of the continental United States with their territorial boundaries constantly extending. They possess an incredible ability for adaptation that allows them to thrive in nearly any type of environment. It has even allowed them to continue to thrive alongside human development.
Agriculture and forest thinning has been particularly beneficial for whitetails. Areas adjacent to crop fields such as corn, wheat, and soybeans, particularly young forests and riparian corridors, constitute some of the most fertile habitats for whitetails.
A whitetail can comfortably spend its entire lifespan within a single square mile, rarely straying more than a few miles from its birthplace. With abundant food sources and tolerable winters, lowland whitetails have little need to traverse great distances for survival.
Mule Deer Population and Habitat
Mule deer, while having a more restricted habitat than whitetails, can be found from the Mexican deserts in the south all the way up to the remote mountains of British Columbia and Yukon Territory in the north. The greatest concentration of mule deer is typically found on either side of the Continental Divide, with smaller populations extending into the central plains.
Mule deer fare best in areas where human impact has been minimal, which may be why they prefer areas of higher altitude. In regions where mountains, foothills, plains, and deserts remain largely pristine, one can find the healthiest populations of mule deer.
Mule deer often spend their summers in high-altitude alpine environments above the treeline, where the most nutrient-rich food sources are available. Yet, unmanageable snow levels during winter drive mule deer to migrate downhill towards river valleys and low-altitude sagebrush habitats for accessible food. The journey between these points can span well over a hundred miles. In fact, recent findings indicate that mule deer hold the record for the longest migration of any terrestrial animal in the lower 48 states.
Mule Deer Versus Whitetail Behavior
Both mule deer and whitetails are primarily browsers rather than grazers and are known to consume wide variety of vegetation. Their favored natural diet includes an assortment of forbs and shrubs as opposed to grass, although they do favor fresh green grass in the spring.
During fall and winter, whitetails subsist on waste grain, man-made food plots, acorns, and young saplings, while mule deer show a preference for mountain mahogany, aspen shoots, and sagebrush.
Deer Feeding Patterns
Like many large game animals, mule deer and whitetails are crepuscular, meaning they are most active around dawn and dusk. During midday, they take rest and ruminate in their beds. In hunting seasons, whitetails favor dense, brushy bedding areas, whereas mule deer often select shaded spots near ridge tops for better surveillance of potential threats. If you want more information on this be sure to read our planting food plots blog!
Both deer species possess highly sophisticated sensory systems that aid in their evasion of predators and hunters. Both species are adept at detecting movement thanks to their sharp vision and hearing.
Mule deer generally rely more on their eyesight than whitetails, most an adaptation likely due to their preferred habitat. And given their larger ears, they may also have a slight auditory edge over whitetails as well.
Responding to Threats
It's been noticed that oftentimes an alarmed mule deer will take longer than a whitetail to verify a threat before reacting - a particularly beneficial habit for hunters. This could be due to them wanting to avoid exhausting precious energy fleeing through their rugged terrain unnecessarily. Whereas whitetails can quickly and effortlessly disappear into the denser brush.
When it comes to flight, whitetails and mule deer exhibit different techniques. Whitetails sprint swiftly, often with a bounding leap to outrun predators.
Mule deer trot or gallop at a slower pace when threatened and resort to "stotting" for escape. Unique to mule deer, stotting is a stiff-legged, high-bouncing stride that enables them to traverse steep uphill or downhill terrains and swiftly change directions on uneven ground.
Hunting Mule Deer Vs Whitetail
Even though there are some key differences between mule deer versus whitetail hunting tactics, there are some general practices that are similar across the board.
Both deer species rely heavily on their noses, often responding to olfactory cues even when their vision and hearing do not register a threat. This makes scent control a must for both whitetail and mule deer hunters. Here are some common proper scent control practices that any hunter should use:
- Avoid wearing your hunting clothing anywhere but out in the field
- Store your hunting clothing in a separate bag from other clothing
- Avoid eating in your hunting clothing
- Invest in quality scent control products
Even though the actual scouting tactics are going to be different depending on the species you are hunting, you have to get out in the woods and hills and spend time scouting. It is the only way that you are going to be able to know where the deer are, when they like to move, and how they like to travel. Without scouting, you are sure to have a hard time filling your tag.
Deer Hunting Weapons
Whether you prefer rifle, muzzleloader, or archery, you are able to use any type of weapon for whitetail and mule deer hunting. Typically the type of weapon you are allowed to hunt with depends on the season you are hunting and the type of tag you put in for if you are hunting in a lottery area.
High End Hunting Clothing
Both whitetail and mule deer also rely heavily on their vision and hearing to help keep them safe from predators. This is where having high quality hunting gear comes into play. When you are choosing your hunting clothing, consider the following features:
When you are looking at hunting clothing, it is critical that you choose items that are quiet in order to avoid being heard. And this goes with any animal you are hunting - not just whitetail or mule deer.
Another factor of being perfectly concealed is choosing the right camo pattern.
This is going to be affected by the habitat you are hunting, as well as the season. Even though deer are color blind, wearing snow white camo in the forest is going to cause you to stick out like a sore thumb.
Being able to tag out on a monster muley or a trophy whitetail is going to require a lot of time in the field. You want to make sure that your gear is comfortable enough to allow you to make those long sits required for whitetail success without fidgeting or to be able to close the distance between you and the mule deer without rashes or discomfort.
Needless to say you need to have gear that is going to stand the test of time and mother nature. This is why it is important to make sure you are investing in high quality hunting gear instead of just choosing the cheapest option.
How to Hunt Whitetail
Because of the vast population of whitetail across the country, whitetail is generally open to both residents and nonresidents in most states that have whitetail. Some states even allow for multiple animals to be taken during one season. Just make sure to check local laws and regulations so that you are well informed.
A lot of whitetail hunting takes place on private land, which can help make pre-season scouting a little easier. If you have permission from a property owner to hunt their land, they are going to have a pretty good idea of where the whitetail deer are on that said property. But that doesn’t completely negate the necessity of scouting. Be on the lookout for the following things during your pre-season scouting:
Feed Opportunities: Make yourself aware of the different feed opportunities. Just because there is an agriculture field nearby, doesn’t mean the deer are going to be there. Their diets adjust with the season.
Bedding: Whitetail deer like to bed in thickets. Thickets are thick areas of different types of vegetation and are valuable areas for whitetail to hide from predators. Because bedding areas don’t change like the feed does for whitetail, you need to
be careful not to disturb or spook the whitetail from these areas. Otherwise they may abandon the area all together.
Travel Corridors: Being familiar with the layout of the land can help you identify travel corridors that whitetail deer will frequent. Some features you want to watch for are ridges, streams, agriculture fields, clearings, valleys, etc. Look at the terrain and see if you can identify how the whitetail are moving through the area.
Hunters will also frequently use trail cameras to help gather more information on what deer are in a specific area, the direction of travel, feeding patterns, and travel behavior.
Whitetail Hunting Methods
Tree Stand/Ambush Hunting
This is widely recognized as the most effective approach in regions like the Midwest, Northeast, and South, where dense woods and agricultural food sources
tempt the deer into the open. Hunters will commonly utilize tree stands or hunting saddles to get an overhead advantage of a hunting area.
It is also largely combined with using deer feeders to help lure the whitetail to a very specific spot to ensure the best shot placement for hunters. If you need more detail on what to bring with you on your hunt, check out
Deer drives, which flush whitetails from dense underbrush toward awaiting hunters, remain popular across whitetail territories. But it is important to realize that this could be a dangerous method for those flushing the deer.
Calling Whitetail Deer
Because the ambush hunting is the predominant method for whitetail hunting, having a solid calling strategy in place is critical. Depending on the season, you can utilize a variety of calls to lure the bucks to you.
The bleat call imitates the sound of a doe or fawn and is used primarily in 2 ways: 1- to target a buck and make him think a different buck is pursuing one of his does, or 2- to attract does to an area. Where the does are, bucks will follow.
The grunt is highly favored among deer hunters as it can be heard throughout every stage of the rut. If a buck charges into the field, a grunt might pique his interest as it communicates an assertion of dominance over another whitetail.
This type of call is created by rattling antlers and is intended to mimic the sounds of when two bucks are fighting. This can potentially pique another bucks interest.
This sound is very rarely made by bucks, so it is critical that you don’t overuse this call. It is a pretty aggressive call by a large buck to signal dominance. Find more about calling whitetails in our Whitetail Calling Strategy blog post.
How to Hunt Mule Deer
Mule deer hunting is available in 16 of the Western states. Because the mule deer population is not nearly as predominate as whitetail, nearly all tags are distributed via a lottery. Hunters will apply to hunt a specific “unit” or area within a state and with a specific weapon. Then they wait to see if the luck of the draw is on their side.
As we mentioned before, mule deer have a much wider territory than whitetail do. This means that scouting your area is absolutely crucial to ensure that you can niche down your hunting unit to the area that the mule deer actually are. You can gather information from hunters who have hunted the unit before or even look at Google Maps to see what areas you want to try and scout during pre-season.
Scouting mule deer requires a solid set of binoculars and maybe even a spotting scope, so make sure that you have invested in quality optics beforehand. Choose a
good vantage point that will allow you to glass a large area and make sure to scan the area methodically. Mule deer can blend quite well into their background, so make sure you are checking brush, shade, and hillsides.
Along with getting familiar with the location, you’ll need to learn the habits of the specific deer that you are hunting. While mule deer may not follow the same exact patterns every day, they are still habitual creatures. They prefer to stick to the same general areas, drainages, and basins they are familiar with.
Mule Deer Hunting Methods
Spot and Stalk Hunting
Spot and stalk is a method of hunting is by far the most popular methods for hunting mule deer. It involves glassing (or spotting) a buck from a far distance and then stealthily making your way towards him (or stalking) without spooking him.
With spot and stalk, you have to make sure to move slowly once you close the distance between you and the mule deer, use the terrain to your advantage, and be aware of all external factors, such as the sun and wind.
Ambush hunting for mule deer is a popular method for areas that are less open and close to a food or water source. Pre-season scouting allows you to identify these areas and plan your positioning accordingly. Mule deer hunters can use blinds, tree stands, or even natural landscape to help hide during ambush hunting.
Mule Deer Versus Whitetail Physical Differences
Being able to identify a whitetail or a mule deer, especially in areas of overlapping population, is a critical skill for any deer hunter. Viewed from afar, their appearances may not be all that different. However, upon closer examination, you can easily identify some key differences. The three most common differentiators between whitetail and mule deer are their ear, antlers, and tails, however there are others as well.
The antlers of mule deer are typically larger than those of a whitetail, most likely due to their role as sexual display features, comparable to the tooth-filled type jaw of a male salmon or the mane of a male lion. Mule deer, which evolved in vast open spaces, would likely have benefited from larger antlers as a mechanism for attracting females from greater distances.
Whitetails, having evolved in dense forests and marshes with limited visibility, didn't need such prominent, large-scale attractors.
Another distinctive attribute is the arrangement of their antlers. For whitetails, individual tines emerge from a central beam, with the typical mature buck displaying four or five points, inclusive of the "eye guard" or brow tine, on each side.
Mule deer, on the other hand, exhibit "bifurcated" antlers, wherein the tines branch out above the main beam. The usual configuration for a mature mule deer buck consists of two forks and four points plus a brow tine on each side. However, antler arrangements can significantly vary among individual animals within both species.
Did you know that mule deer actually got their name from their ears? Founders related their conspicuously large ears to be similar to a Mule's ears.
The prevailing theory is that these oversized ears are an evolutionary adaptation that enables them to efficiently release body heat in scorching desert conditions. Additionally, these large ears may enhance the mule deer's ability to pick up sounds of potential threats in the expansive environments they inhabit. Even the slightest noise can be detected by these deer from hundreds of yards away on quiet days.
A memorable visual in hunting is the sight of a whitetail buck leaping away, its stark white tail prominently elevated. There are numerous hypotheses surrounding the evolution of this "flagging" behavior in whitetails. Some propose it serves as an
alert signal for other deer, while others conjecture it could act as a decoy to confuse predators. There's also a theory suggesting that does use this flagging technique to ensure their fawns can follow them swiftly when escaping threats. Regardless of the actual reason, for deer hunters, the sight of a white flag darting through the forest is always a cause for disappointment.
Mule deer do not possess the big, stark white tail that is characteristic of whitetails. Instead, they have a slender, short tail with a black tip. The stand out feature for mule deer's tail end is their large rump, which is considerably lighter than the rest of their body. Its function or potential use for display remains uncertain, but it undeniably makes them more visible on remote hillsides.
The body size of whitetails varies significantly across their geographical distribution, from the relatively petite deer in southern Texas to the colossal three-hundred-pound bucks found in Saskatchewan.
Whitetails inhabiting northern territories tend to be larger than their southern counterparts, a trend explained by Bergmann's principle. This rule, however, doesn't appear to exert as substantial an influence on the physical dimensions of mule deer.
On average, a mature whitetail buck from the Midwest tends to be smaller in size than a similarly aged mule deer buck from the Rocky Mountains. An average fully-grown whitetail buck in Illinois typically tips the scales at around 200 pounds, while mature mule deer bucks in Colorado frequently exceed 250 pounds.
When it comes to color patterns, mule deer and whitetails present subtle differences as they reach adulthood. During summer, both species boast a reddish-brown hue. However, as they develop their winter coats, a divergence in color becomes evident. Whitetails usually take on a tan shade, while mule deer transition towards a more gray tone.
There is always going to be controversy on hunting mule deer versus whitetail. But being able to participate in both mule deer and whitetail hunting is an amazing opportunity for the modern day deer hunter. Whichever species you are hoping to tag this season, we hope you capitalize on the knowledge in this article so you can make the most of that opportunity! And if you are in need of some high quality hunting clothing this year, check out Skre's mule deer bundle or whitetail bundles!