3 Common Deer Species in North America … and How to Hunt Them
Bowhunters across North America pursue countless game species each year, but of all the hunting opportunities available, none is more popular than deer season.
The deer species — also known as the Cervidae family — include several well-known animals, including elk, moose, caribou, mule deer, white-tailed deer and black-tailed deer. These animals live in every habitat type imaginable, which means bowhunters must use several tactics to succeed. Likewise, bowhunting each species delivers unique experiences for those willing to tackle challenges beyond their backyard. Let’s look at the three smaller cervids: whitetails, muleys and blacktails.
White-tailed deer are the continent’s most common cervid. Their range covers most of North America, with the exception of Alaska, Hawaii and parts of the Southwest. Although fully mature males can weigh about 300 pounds, most males weigh 150 to 175 pounds, and females usually weigh around 100 pounds.
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 boast 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 the species wide distribution allow more hunters to target white-tailed deer than any other Cervidae member, with seasons starting in mid-August and ending in late February.
Whitetail habitat includes Eastern mountain ranges, vast Northern forests, wide-open grasslands, rolling woodlots in farm country, and everything in between. Most bowhunters use treestands and ground blinds to ambush whitetails, usually at 30 yards and less. However, some bowhunters spot and stalk whitetails 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 in between those sites or where they feed. 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. Research has found that shots taken at whitetails average 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. You’ll then 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 white-tailed deer, and have large ears that look much like a mule’s. Mature bucks can weigh around 350 pounds, but average 180 to 280 pounds. Its antlers feature deep forks and short or no brow tines. Although their coat is lighter than the whitetail’s, and their tail resembles a short black rope, the muley’s most distinctive trait is its bounding escape, which is called “stotting.” A stotting muley looks like 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. Although whitetails prefer crops, acorns and woody browse, mule deer eat sage, conifers and other brush.
To take on muleys, bowhunters should buy quality hiking boots and leave their treestand at home. Although some creek bottoms funnel muleys past standard treestand setups, most mule deer must be bowhunted by spotting and stalking. Bowhunters spend hours using binoculars and spotting scopes to glass areas where muleys eat and bed. When finding a worthy buck, they pinpoint nearby landmarks, and then use brush and terrain features to sneak within bow range from downwind.
Once in position, bowhunters should be able to shoot accurately 60 yards. 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. Most bowhunters use a single-pin sight that they dial to the exact yardage, while others use a sight with five or seven pins to help them shoot accurately to 70 or 90 yards.
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 sitting and glassing for hours, and then hiking intensely in steep, rugged terrain to pursue an animal.
Black-tailed deer inhabit the Pacific Coast from Oregon to Alaska. They’re smaller in body size and antler characteristics than muleys and whitetails, averaging 100 to 150 pounds. Black-tailed deer have darker coats than mule deer, which is 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 like mule deer, black-tailed deer often require bowhunters to spot and stalk them. That means covering lots of ground to locate this reclusive deer, although some bowhunters occasionally find good ambush sites for treestands. The coastal rainforests blacktails inhabit is 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 offer a smaller vitals, 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.
Although habitats and bowhunting tactics vary greatly by species and region, deer share at least one common trait: A venison-packed freezer makes many delicious meals. Whether they eat crops, acorns, sage, cedar or arboreal lichens, a deer’s venison backstraps taste delicious and make a great reward for a challenging hunt.
Deer seasons in many regions are unofficial holidays that bowhunters never miss. Whether you’re chasing whitetails in farm country, muleys in the mountains, or blacktails in coastal mists, you’ll be challenged at every step.
If you’re up for these ultimate challenges, take your deer season to places you’ve never before ventured. Each new site will heighten your respect for deer and deer hunting.