The ability to properly identify your target species is part of being an ethical and lawful bowhunter. Identification is especially important in regions where hunters come across species that look similar. White-tailed deer and mule deer are prime examples. While they are closely related, there are many distinct differences between the two species. Why would a hunter choose one over the other? It often comes down to laws, location and preference. Here’s a look at how these very close cousins differ.
White-tailed deer are the most abundant big-game animal in North America. They’re found in nearly every continental U.S. state and Canadian province, which is one of the many reasons why they’re the most popular big game to hunt in North America. Whitetails seem to live just about anywhere. While abundant, they’re also sneaky, which makes getting any kind of exact population estimate impossible. But more than 20 million whitetails live in the continental U.S., according to the National Deer Association.
Mule deer are found exclusively in the western half of North America. Their range stretches from the easternmost part of Alaska down through Baja, Mexico. Roughly 3.5 million muleys live in North America, according to the “2020 Range-Wide Status of Black-tailed and Mule Deer” report.
I recently spotted a herd of mule deer feeding less than a quarter-mile away from a group of whitetails, and they have been known to overlap within their range. But in general, the two species have different habitat preferences.
Whitetails are found just about everywhere because they’re an incredibly adaptable species that can survive just about anywhere. They inhabit the swamps of Florida and the mountains of Montana. Whitetails thrive with food and water and thick cover to hide them from predators. Most spend their lives within a home range of roughly 700 acres. Bucks might venture out during the rut in search of does but return home once it’s over.
Mule deer, on the other hand, tend to be migratory. They spend the summer in higher elevations before migrating to lower elevations for the winter months. These migration routes can cover over 100 miles. Mule deer are often found in more open, mountainous terrain and are better adapted to arid, desert habitat than whitetails.
Size: Differences here must be described in generalities because mule deer and whitetails can vary in size based on geographic location, but a typical mule deer buck averages around 200 pounds, while a mule deer doe weighs around 150 pounds. Whitetail bucks average about 150 pounds, while does weigh around 100 pounds.
Face: Mule deer have more contrast in their face than whitetails. Mule deer have a white face that leads to a darker forehead. Mule deer also have bigger ears. Their long ears resemble those of a mule, which is how they got their name.
Tail: Whitetails are named for their white tails, which are longer than mule deer tails and bright white on the undersides. They use the white tail to signal danger to other deer — and it’s a signal that just about every whitetail hunter is familiar with seeing. Mule deer tails are smaller, with various shades of tan and a black tip.
Gait: Hunters never want to see their quarry running away but if it happens, you’ll be able to distinguish easily between whitetails, which gallop with their white flags raised; and mule deer, which bound with a hopping-type movement called stotting.
Antlers: Antlers can be an easy way to tell the difference between whitetail and muley bucks. Whitetail antlers typically grow a main beam, with single points coming off of it, and they usually have prominent brow tines. Mule deer antlers frequently have short brow tines or none at all, and the first tines off the main beam typically fork into two points.
Spend some time glassing mule deer and whitetails, and you’ll pick up on several behavioral differences. Whitetails are more elusive. They tend to be jittery and spook easily. They prefer to remain hidden in cover as often as possible. When sensing danger like hunters or predators, whitetails don’t stick around. They raise their white flags and get out of there. Mule deer are more chill than their cousins. While still wary of hunters, mule deer will sometimes run a short distance after being spooked, and then stop to look back.
Bowhunting both species is extremely fun, and each presents unique opportunities. Whitetails are wary. Any scent, sound or sight they don’t like sends them running. That’s why the majority of bowhunting for whitetails is done out of a treestand or ground blind. This gives hunters an edge in remaining undetected. It’s also important to keep the wind right. Many whitetail hunters use scent control products.
Because of whitetails’ small home ranges, many hunters use trail cameras to scout and pattern whitetail movements. They can give important insight that will help determine where to hang treestands or set ground blinds, what deer are in the area and when they’re moving.
Bowhunting for mule deer is often done spot-and-stalk style. Because these deer are found in more open areas, bowhunters often spend hours glassing. One popular tactic is to glass in the early morning to find deer when they’re up and feeding, then plan stalks after they bed down later in the morning. It’s important to watch a target deer carefully, then find landmarks that will help guide you to the animal during the stalk. Move in slowly, quietly and with the wind in your favor. Once you’re in range, wait for the deer to stand before making a shot.
As with many skills in bowhunting it’s important to “know before you go.” The ability to easily distinguish between mule deer and whitetails in the field is important, especially if you’re hunting states that hold both. Understanding the unique differences in their behavior and habitats will make you a more versatile and effective bowhunter.