Do you ever get bored of going out to the same stands year after year, making the same calls, looking for the same twitches of movement in the trees?
Different types of deer present different obstacles and require different strategies, for which understanding their behavior is key. Change things up this season and find new game that challenges you. Each species has something different and exciting to offer.
You might think there are only one or two kinds of deer to hunt, but there are actually numerous different species of deer located all across the United States and even the world.
Where to find them
Whitetail deer are a widely distributed species of deer native to the Americas. Their range extends from Canada to as far south as the Peruvian Andes mountains, though their numbers are the highest in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. They are the most populous deer species in North America.
How to spot them
The most distinctive feature of the Whitetail is, of course, its white tail. The top of the tail is the same reddish-brown as the rest of the deer’s coat, but the underside is a bright white, which the deer can flash to signal danger or alarm to the rest of the herd. The babies are called “fawns” and usually have white spots that they lose in adulthood.
Because they have such a wide range, they also vary significantly in size. The females, also called “does,” can be as small as 55 pounds near the equator, while males, called “bucks,” in the northern reaches of the US and Canada can exceed 400 pounds. The average across all populations is 100 pounds for females and 150 for males.
Buck whitetail deer make great hunting trophies because of their antlers, which they shed and regrow every year. The antlers begin to grow in the late spring and are first covered by a soft tissue called velvet that comes off later in the year. Normally older bucks have larger antlers, but age is not the only factor, and antler size and shape varies considerably from single spikes to symmetrical branches with many points. The “spread,” or distance between the two widest points of the antlers can range from 3-25 inches.
Their unique personality
Whitetail deer usually mate in the fall. This allows the babies, or “fawns,” to be born in the spring when they’ll have the best chance of surviving. After the mating season, or “rut,” the bucks lose their antlers.
Whitetail deer are a genetically diverse and incredibly adaptable species, which is why they have such a wide range. Though they seem to prefer deciduous forests such as those of the eastern United States, they also adapt easily to prairies and savannahs. They have more difficulty in high-altitude coniferous forests where they tend to replaced by larger, more robust species. As a result, they tend to bed down in well-covered forest areas and only come into open grassy fields to feed at dusk and dawn.
Where, when and how to hunt
People hunt the whitetail species throughout its range for trophies, subsistence and population control. In the United States, the hunting season begins in the fall and extends to the winter. They are one of the most popular game animals, and people hunt them with longbows, recurve bows, compound bows and crossbows, the seasons for which tend to be somewhat longer. People also hunt them with both modern and antique rifles. Large antlers are prized as trophies, and the venison has been a staple of the American diet for generations.
Their special look
Mule deer are a medium-sized species of deer closely related to the whitetails. Whereas whitetails dominate the deciduous forests and grasslands of the eastern United States, mule deer find their home in the coniferous forests of the Rocky Mountains, reaching as far north as Alaska. Physically, they can be distinguished from whitetail deer by their ears, which are large compared to the size of their heads. Additionally, mule deer have different tails. Although counterintuitive, a mule deer’s tail is usually more noticeably white than a whitetail because it’s white on both sides, not just the bottom. Unlike whitetails, their tails also feature a black tip.
Mule deer are also larger than whitetail deer on average, reaching up to seven feet in length. The does average about 150 pounds while the bucks about 200. The antlers of the bucks are also significantly different. Instead of branching from a single beam, the antlers of the mule deer bucks repeatedly split in two. As they grow, each beam forks into two new beams which leads to more points and larger antlers in general.
A braver personality
Mule deer also behave differently than whitetails. Despite having to deal with more large predators, mule deer tend to be less cautious and skittish. They spend more time in the open and don’t run as easily. They are also less aggressive and don’t fight as much.
Game for the backwoodsman
Mule deer are popular for hunters as well, but the season for deer in mountain states tends to be a bit shorter, ending at the end of the fall. Bow season usually starts at the beginning of September and ends with the gun season at the end of November. The antlers make great trophies, often considered superior to the whitetails’, and people eat the venison as well. There’s not much different in taste, but sometimes mule deer can have a more one-dimensional diet owing to their mountain environment, and that can give their meat a stronger flavor.
Like the whitetail and mule deer, the axis deer is a medium-sized deer species. The upward weight range is 100 pounds for females and 165 pounds for males, though bucks weighing up to 250 pounds have been recorded. They are completely covered in white spots, even as adults. They are native to India, where they are known as Chitals, but they were introduced to Hawaii in the 1860s and to Texas in 1932. They have flourished in the south and central areas of Texas where the land is similar to their homeland in India.
The bucks grow and lose their antlers every year, and they are especially prized because the antlers are very long, growing over three feet in length. A behavior unique to this species is that the bucks can deposit their sent using two glands near their eyes. They often stand on their hind legs and rub their scent on the high branches of trees. Like mule deer and whitetails, the axis bucks tend to leave their herds and fight aggressively in the rut.
Always in the rut
Axis deer can form large herds, normally of does with their fawns. Unlike many other deer, axis deer don’t have a specific mating season. The does have regular three-week estrus cycles, and whichever bucks currently have fully grown antlers are dominant, so they can breed.
The axis deer is hunted for its large antlers and for its meat. Because of excessive hunting for food in India and Bangladesh, it’s been placed on a protected wildlife schedule in both countries. In Hawaii the deer has no predators, and the population has grown so much that it’s become destructive to the native ecosystem. The state has several hunts for bows and modern and antique guns at the end of winter and in the spring. In Texas and other states of the South, large ranches boast herds of axis deer that you can hunt year round. Prices can be expensive, but enthusiastic hunters pay because of the beauty and size of the bucks’ antlers.
Sika deer are native to Japan and other parts of East Asia, but they have been introduced to numerous places across the world including the United States where they’ve established large wild populations. Like the axis deer, they have white spots that they keep into adulthood. They are also medium sized. The largest sika are found in Manchuria where the females reach 110 pounds and males 350. In the US they are smaller, ranging from 70-90 pounds.
The male sika, or “stags,” are especially impressive in this species. The males grow large, stout antlers of a rich beige, and during the mating season they also grow thick manes. The rut occurs in early fall and can last into the winter. During this time the males secure large territories and guard the females within them, often fighting aggressively with other males.
They’re a challenge
In Japan the sika deer have long been considered particularly prized hunting game, and it’s the same in the areas where they’ve been recently introduced. The deer use strategies different from other species that make them more difficult to kill. For example, startled sika may squat and hide in tall grass rather than running. In the wild they are active all day, but near human population centers, they tend to be nocturnal. The stags make excellent trophies, and the venison, though not as common as other species, is often used in culinary delicacies. For generations, the Chinese have also used the velvetted antlers for medicinal purposes.
The Old World option
The red deer species originated near the Caspian Sea in West Asia and have spread across Europe, Central Asia and North Africa. They are usually larger than American and East Asian deer species. The males are called “stags” and can reach 530 pounds. The females are called “hinds” and can reach 370 pounds. Like their name suggests, they have thick red coats. The fawns have spots, but these disappear in adulthood. The stags have antlers that begin growing in the spring and fall off in the winter. These antlers can grow up to 45 inches long and weigh up to 11 pounds, making this species especially valued as trophies. Like the sika, the red deer stags also grow manes.
Similar to other deer species, the red deer hinds go into estrus in the fall and have their babies in the spring. The stags are more aggressive during the rut and compete to build harems of hinds in estrus. Unique to this species, rival stags make a roaring sound that has been adapted to travel well through their forested environment.
Plan an adventure
Europeans have hunted red deer since the times of cavemen, and stags have a prominent place in cave art and ancient legend. In the 19th Century, their numbers dropped dramatically, but thanks to preservation efforts, their populations are currently stronger than ever. Each European country has different seasons and laws, but the season usually covers the rut in early fall when the deer are most active. Some countries have become popular destinations for hunters, such as the Czech Republic that boasts a season from August 15-January 31 during which hunters can come stay at a plethora of private hunting chateaus. It’s common to hunt red deer with both modern and antique guns, or you can do like our cave-dwelling ancestors and stalk your stag with a bow and arrow.
Most people are familiar with eight particularly famous reindeer, but this species actually numbers in the millions. You’ve probably never seen one, though, because they are isolated to the polar tundra and arctic regions of Eurasia and North America. Also called caribou in America, they used to extend as far south as the continental US, but due to human activity, they are now functionally extinct south of the Canadian border.
A different kind of female
Reindeer are the only species of deer in which the females also grow antlers. The males, called “bulls,” grow larger antlers that reach up to 53 inches in length and 39 inches in width. Because they shed their antlers each year, this means they grow incredibly quickly. A nub of velvet in March can grow more than three feet by August. This gives reindeer the second largest set of antlers after the moose and the largest relative to their size. Females reach up to 260 pounds. Males don’t usually exceed 400 pounds, but a 700-pound specimen has been recorded.
Adapted for the arctic
Because of their frigid environment, reindeer have a number of unique adaptations. Their fur is their primary defense against the cold. They have two thick coats, the overcoat made of long, hollow hairs filled with air, and the undercoat made of dense, wooly hair. The coats range from light gray to white. They are the only mammal capable of eating lichen, which they dig up from under the snow using crescent-shaped hooves. They also have eyes adapted to seeing in dark and can see wavelengths considerably darker than humans can.
How to hunt the legend
Reindeer have played an important role in human life for many groups of people. Besides playing a pivotal role in Northern European and American Christmas traditions, reindeer have been a means of subsistence for the Uralic peoples of Scandinavia, Finland and Russia. They’ve been important for the indigenous people of North America as well. In fact, the Inuit calendar is based on the yearly stages of reindeer development.
The meat of the reindeer is especially good. Semi-nomadic peoples in Northern Europe herd the animals and sell their meat which is used in everything from jerky to hamburgers in Scandinavia and Finland. In Alaska hunting reindeer is by lottery in most areas, usually at the end of the summer. Nonresidents only have one option for general permit hunting: an open registration hunt in the White Mountains in which they can hunt one bull reindeer from August 15-September 30. (Caribou Hunting in Alaska)
Elk are a large deer species native to North America and East Asia that is closely related to the red deer of Europe. They can be found across the United States and Canada but are most populous in the Rocky Mountains. Female elk cows reach up to 530 pounds, and the male bulls reach up to 730 pounds. The bulls can reach five feet of height at the shoulder and eight feet of length. Like their red deer cousins, their fur has a reddish hue. They can be distinguished by their paler antlers, only found on the bulls, and their large white rumps.
Like most deer species, the bulls grow and shed their antlers every year. The antlers are enormous and can grow nearly four feet and weigh over 40 pounds. They use these antlers to fight during the fall rut and secure harems of cows. Bull elk are known for their bugling noise, which they use to challenge rivals. People consider it one of the more beautiful deer mating calls, and you can hear it across long distances. The bulls also urinate on the underside of their own body which creates a smell on their fur that attracts the cows.
Elk form large herds and participate in mass migrations. Elk near Yellowstone National Park form a herd of around 200,000 individuals each year and migrate south to Jackson, Wyoming for the winter.
People hunt elk for their impressive antlers as well as their meat. A single elk produces hundreds of pounds of delicious lean venison. Hunting laws vary greatly by state. Eastern states that have smaller populations often only have lottery permits for a short season in the fall, while Western states where the species is abundant have open season the same as whitetail or mule deer. Elk also attract more daring hunters. Hunts in states in North Dakota and Montana can often involve days of tracking a bull on horseback with nothing but a bow.
Moose are the largest of all deer species and one of the largest living land species in the world. On average, they are seven feet tall at the shoulder. The cows weigh over 1,000 pounds and the bulls over 1,500. The largest moose ever recorded weighed about 1,800 pounds. Their pelt ranges from golden brown to almost black. They live in Canada, the northern US, Northern Europe and Russia. The largest population of moose in the continental US is found in Maine.
The bulls grow antlers that can spread nearly 80 inches apart, which is five inches taller than yours truly. The antlers are significantly different from other deer species in that they form flat palms that look almost like butterfly wings. Pointed tines branch out from the palms. Like other deer, the bulls use the antlers as mating displays and to fight for cows in the fall rut. Cows are attracted to larger antlers.
One of a kind
In general, moose have markedly different behavior from other deer species. Most notably, they don’t form herds and are completely solitary, except for a mother and her calf. When they mate, a single male will seek out a single female and then leave to find another. They are not very skittish, unlike most deer, probably due to their large size. They are slow moving and sedentary, but they can become fast and aggressive if provoked. They are also distinctive in that they’re active during the day while most other species are nocturnal or active at twilight. In the spring and summer, they eat grasses and shrubbery like most deer species, and they can sometimes create a “hedgeline” in the forest about 6-8 feet tall by consistently eating anything above that point. In the fall and winter they have fewer option and have to eat the twigs of trees.
Where, when and how to hunt
Moose produce highly sought-after venison, and each individual can produce upwards of 500 pounds of meat. In fact, in Alaska alone, hunters harvest 3.5 million pounds of meat a year. (Moose Hunting in Alaska) Moose are not widely distributed across the US, but in the states where they are like Maine and Alaska, there are short hunting seasons in the early fall for both residents and nonresidents, usually by permit. People hunt moose with modern and antique guns, crossbows, compound bows, and, believe it or not, recurve and longbows. This isn’t for the faint of heart because an angry moose can quickly turn the tables on a hunter with poor aim.