Are you the type of person who’s always second-guessing your decisions? Should I quit my job? Should I invest in the stock market? Should I hunt whitetails or mule deer? I can’t help you with your career or tell you how to spend your money, but I do have some ideas for deer hunting. Try deer hunting where whitetails and mule deer overlap. You find this special zone from the Great Plains well into the intermountain West. Whitetail and mule deer habitats intersect in this area and oftentimes the two species share feeding zones on the valleys, and along riparian ribbons where agriculture is abundant.
Fortunately, a handful of states offer licenses that allow you to make that decision on the fly. Embrace it and you’ll have a winning hunting strategy. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve switched species in mid-hunt because a bruiser whitetail suddenly went nocturnal or a monster muley appeared on a distant ridge. With the right tag in your pocket, swapping plans is an option in many areas across the West. Consider a crossover hunting strategy on your next hunt. Follow these stellar strategies for hunting whitetails and mule deer—simultaneously.
The Playing Field
If this hunt sounds intriguing, you first need to research states where the licensing situation allows you to pull off this hunting option. Oftentimes, archery licenses are more liberal in this area due to the lower chance for success. State game and fish agencies figure dolling out either-or tags during bow season has little chance of upsetting the apple cart in terms of management. The same isn’t true of many firearm licenses, which often pigeon-hole hunters into hunting a specific species, or only allow hunting certain species at inopportune times. Wyoming is a good example. The state closes its mule deer season in many areas prior to the rut, yet allows whitetail hunting straight through November. Nevertheless, many units disperse tags that give you options to hunt mule deer or whitetails prior to the rut, thus giving you a Wyoming crossover advantage.
Two of my favorite states to hunt where whitetails and mule deer overlap are South Dakota and Montana. South Dakota has several tag options in the western half of the state, allowing you to switch and shoot either a muley or whitetail. Even so, you need to begin applying for permits early to garner such a tag, and don’t forget about the higher-priced “special buck” tag deadline in April.
If you’re lucky enough to draw a Montana deer tag, forget about any complications. It allows you to hunt either species throughout the season, including the rut. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon to be watching a hayfield for whitetails and suddenly be surrounded by hungry muleys trekking from nearby hills or river breaks.
Other states with opportunities for switcheroo hunts include Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska, Oregon and Washington. Begin your research now on your favorite state because you might have to wade through a bible of regulations to plan an either-or hunt—but the benefit far outweighs the research time.
Get in the Game
As you likely surmise, the bottomlands are the perfect ambush site for an either-or hunt. Whitetails associate with lush Western valleys, especially those blessed with abundant ribbons of timber from flowing water sources. In some instances, they retreat to surrounding uplands or river breaks for bedding cover. During the heat of the rut, bucks will even move with estrus does away from likely whitetail cover to sagebrush or mountain slopes to avoid buck competition altogether. Keep an eye open beyond the obvious when hunting crossover whitetails.
When I can’t find a whitetail on a river or creek-bottom, my next stops are the gullies and coulees above. One of the most memorable hikes I ever took was in eastern Montana on a November public-land hunt. I strapped on a pack and ascended a high mountain overlooking a lush valley several miles below. Upon summiting, I found abundant mule deer and also elk, and I had a brief encounter with a bruiser of a whitetail that I would have shot had he given me 3 seconds more to center my reticle.
Mule deer will spend more time in the hills, mountains and drainages leading to lush fields, but the valleys are often the target at meal time. Mature bucks rarely lollygag on the bottoms, and they tend to vacate them at dawn, only to return at dusk. Even so, these visits give you the clues you need to follow them into the hills for a later ambush. This works well from early season through the heat of the rut.
When the rut starts, you need to adjust your search and don’t forget to look right under your nose. Antisocial muley bucks with no interest in lounging on hayfields or meadows prior to November might suddenly be spending more time in these places due to the amount of does coming into estrus. More than once, I’ve driven by a meadow that harbors does year-round only to hit the brakes in astonishment at the sight of a mature buck enjoying the female company.
During one late-season hunt with my good friend, Levi Duncan, we were hunting open country in South Dakota with a big muley in mind. Halfway through the hunt, a whitetail appeared out of nowhere. I dropped to the ground, propped my .308 Win. on my backpack and sent a Hornady 150-grain SST downrange. My crossover hunt for a mule deer was over in an instant with a mature whitetail.