The Cervidae, or deer, family includes several of North America’s best-known animals such as elk, moose, caribou, mule deer, white-tailed deer and black-tailed deer. These critters live in every habitat type imaginable, and each offers unique experiences and challenges for bowhunters. Three of the species — whitetails, mule deer and blacktails — are among the most popular big-game animals in the world, and definitely worth the attention of new and experienced bowhunters alike.
Whitetails are the most common hoofed mammal (ungulate) in North America, and certainly the most common deer species. Their range covers most of North America, except for Alaska, Hawaii and parts of the Southwest. Although fully mature bucks can top 300 pounds, most bucks weigh 150 to 175 pounds, while adult does weigh around 100 pounds on average.
Whitetails have dark brown coats and a white tail that stands tall when they detect danger. Although whitetail antlers vary in size and shape, most typical racks sport 8- or 10-point frames. Sometimes the racks of mature bucks have kickers and split tines protruding from the antler bases. Long hunting seasons and wide distribution of the species allow more hunters to target white-tailed deer than any other Cervidae member, with seasons starting in mid-August and ending in late February, depending on where you live.
Whitetail habitat includes everything from eastern mountain ranges and vast northern forests to wide-open grasslands, rolling woodlots in farm country and dense southern swamps. Most bowhunters use treestands and ground blinds to ambush whitetails, usually at 30 yards or less, but spot-and-stalk hunting is possible in vast areas with few trees.
Depending on where you bowhunt, strategies for arrowing whitetails vary greatly. Bowhunters can locate and harvest them throughout the season by identifying feeding and bedding areas and intercepting them somewhere in between, or right on the food source. However, many bowhunters fill their tags during the breeding season, called the rut, which is when bucks often let down their guard in daylight while chasing or searching for does.
Most bowhunters use compound bows and crossbows to hunt whitetails, and research has shown the average shot distance is 16 to 17 yards. For such close-quarters action, shoot a setup that lets you pull your bow smoothly to full draw, and then practice so you can consistently shoot arrows into softball-sized groups at 30 yards. Do that, and you’ll be ready to bowhunt whitetails in any situation.
Mule deer inhabit every state west of a line from North Dakota to Texas. They’re larger than whitetails, and have large ears that look much like a mule’s. Mature bucks can weigh around 350 pounds but average 180 to 280 pounds. Their antlers feature deep forks and short or no brow tines. Although its coat is lighter than the whitetail’s and its tail resembles a short black rope, the muley’s most distinctive trait is its bounding escape, which is called “stotting.” A stotting muley looks as though it’s fleeing on a pogo stick.
Mule deer prefer rugged, remote habitats that include Nebraska’s Sandhills region, the desert Southwest, and the Rocky Mountains. Generally speaking, they eat sage, conifers and other brush. While you’ll certainly find them pouring into an alfalfa field on private land, access to these locations can be nearly impossible to obtain. With that in mind, apply the same tactics you’d consider for pressured whitetails and seek remote country that offers plenty of cover, food, and water. A wise mule deer hunter once told me, “look for an area out of the wind and in the sun, and a big mule deer will be nearby.”
Because of the open country mule deer prefer, bowhunters should buy quality hiking boots and leave their treestands at home. Most hunting is done by spotting and stalking. Bowhunters spend hours using binoculars and spotting scopes to glass areas where mule deer eat and bed. When they find a worthy buck, they pinpoint nearby landmarks and then use brush and terrain features to sneak to within bow range from downwind. This tactic works well in the early part of the season when mule deer spend the majority of daytime hours bedded, but also applies to pre-rut and rutting bucks locked onto a group of does.
It helps to be able to shoot accurately at longer distances. Some situations make it impossible to get closer. Prepare for those long shots by shooting a finely tuned bow at extended ranges during the offseason. Stretch your practice regimen beyond distances you’d comfortably shoot at a deer. Doing so will add tremendous confidence when you draw back on an unsuspecting mule deer as you wait to release your arrow 40-yards away.
Western hunters must be ready for harsh elements, which means wearing lightweight layers of performance clothing to stay warm and dry. Layers are important because your body temperature can change drastically when you’re sitting and glassing for hours followed by intense hiking in rugged terrain to pursue an animal.
Blacktails inhabit the Pacific Coast, from Oregon to Alaska. They’re smaller in body size and antler characteristics than mule deer and whitetails, averaging 100 to 150 pounds. Black-tailed deer have darker coats than mule deer, something that’s especially obvious in their face and black tail.
When bowhunting black-tailed deer, you must have quality rain gear. The Pacific Coast is notorious for wet, windy conditions, so rainwear must keep you dry, warm and comfortable for hours. Much as with mule deer, hunting blacktails often means spotting and stalking. That means covering lots of ground to locate these reclusive animals, although some bowhunters occasionally find good ambush sites for treestands. The coastal rainforests that blacktails inhabit are extremely steep, which requires sturdy, comfortable boots. Break in your boots long before you go hunting, or painful blisters will torment your feet and ruin your hunt.
Bowhunters must be pinpoint shooters to arrow black-tailed deer consistently. Their small bodies mean smaller targets, and they live in thick cover that requires bowhunters to thread arrows through tight spots. Practice shooting at extreme angles up and down to simulate Pacific Coast hunting scenarios. Hone in on timber cuts in steep country, which offers an ideal mix of bedding cover close to food sources.
Bow season is a marathon that can stretch from late-August and into February, depending where you hunt. Whether you’re chasing whitetails in farm country, muleys in the mountains, or blacktails in coastal mists, you’ll be challenged at every step.