Rocky Mountain Mule Deer in California

Here's a mature mule deer buck photographed near Tule Lake.


When dreaming mule deer bucks,  you may picture themselves in the Colorado/ Wyoming mountains or the Utah/Arizona canyon country. But if you’ve hunted California’s eastern-slope mule deer, you know that our State can provide excellent hunting for respectable mule deer in a remote and picturesque setting. 

With a variety of habitat types and bioregions, California is home to a variety of mule deer subspecies. Resources list between seven and eleven mule and blacktail deer subspecies in North America. The California Department of Fish and Game recognizes six subspecies in California. The most populous are the California mule deer and the Columbia black-tailed deer. The third most populous is the Rocky Mountain mule deer while smaller populations of Inyo, southern and burro mule deer make up the remainder. According to one source, A Sportsman’s Guide to Improving Deer Habitat in California, Inyo mule deer may be another form of Rocky Mountain mule deer and not a distinct subspecies. For the sake of discussion we will consider them in our discussion of Rocky Mountain mule deer in California. 

Of the eight bioregions in California, four of them are the main, but not exclusive, source of Rocky Mountain mule deer hunting in California. They are the Northern Cascade/Great Basin region in Northeastern California, the North Sierra Nevada/Cascade region located between Alturas and Lake Tahoe, the South Sierra from Tahoe to Mono Lake and the Inyo region along the Nevada border east of the South Sierra region. In addition some Rocky Mountain mule deer migrate west to the western slopes of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada Mountains where they winter alongside and interbreed with Columbia black-tailed deer and California mule deer, clouding deer-management decisions. 

It is difficult to isolate California’s Rocky Mountain mule deer management from management of other mule and black-tailed deer subspecies. A discussion of mule deer management in California is never perfect due to commingling of information about California deer. 

Although the most reliable sources of trophy-sized Rocky Mountain mule deer are on the eastern slopes, an occasional whopper is killed on the western slopes. Most of California’s largest mule deer are eastern-slope deer that summer in California and winter in Nevada, but some of California’s larger bucks actually summer in Oregon and winter in California. 

This is the largest mule deer buck I've taken in California.



Human populations have had dramatic impacts upon mule deer in California. The massive disturbance of habitat that occurred during the Gold Rush era had many impacts upon deer populations. In the short run, market hunting reduced deer populations, but  the human impact upon habitat had long-term benefits as well. 

Because mule deer thrive in early succession habitat that produces young and nutritious food plants, the massive disturbance of habitat created by humans set the stage for an eventual boom in deer populations. The resulting boom did not occur until the early 20th century when evolving game harvest regulations reduced the previously uncontrolled take of deer. 

Institutionalism of fire fighting and urbanization also impacted deer habitat, but it was many years before these negative factors overcame the positive influence to deer habitat created by other human activities.. 

During and after World War II, demand for timber would open up huge blocks of habitat supporting a rapidly expanding deer population.  But before two decades would pass, the negative impacts of fire suppression, over grazing and too many deer would combine to bring an end to California’s most productive period of deer hunting. 

A dramatic change in the availability of mule deer to California hunters resulted in an uproar from sportsmen and caused major changes to deer management. Since 1976, Rocky Mountain mule deer in California have been managed closely with tight control over tag availability, season length and timing. Although the opportunity to hunt Rocky Mountain mule deer in California has been dramatically limited, those who do have the opportunity to hunt, have access to healthy populations of bucks in all age classes. 

With a coastal Columbia blacktail herd that could withstand hunting pressure and a mule deer herd that couldn’t, hunters were required to choose where to use their first deer tag. During the seventies, hunters were required to dedicate their first deer tag to either the mule deer zones or blacktail zones. Second deer tags were for the blacktail zones only. 

As hunting pressure in mule deer zones increased, managers attempted to reduce the hunting impact with three-point-or better regulations. The three-point-or-better program failed when the hunting pressure landed hard on the most mature deer leaving forked-horn bucks to breed the does. According to Ken Mayer, former Deer Program Coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) three to five thousand deer hunters where hunting the zone currently known as X5b where only 150 rifle tags were issued in 2002. 

In 1978, the CDFG held meetings to obtain public input before instigating dramatic changes to the way deer would be managed in years to come. Using scientific data, public input and gut instincts, the biologists created deer zones to reflect the 79 deer herds inhabiting California’s varied terrain. The result was a program that managed California deer for maximum sustained harvest with a few trophy programs set in place to allow some hunters to pursue deer during trophy opportunity limited-draw hunts. 

It was from this process that the basis for the current quota system took roots. The largest impact was upon the X zone herds that harbored the majority of California’s Rocky Mountain mule deer. Today these zones are numbered one through Twelve and run from the Oregon border to Mono Lake. 

Since 1978, prospective deer hunters have entered  into a drawing for Rocky Mountain mule deer tags. Bending to pressure from hunters who felt that the drawing process was unfair, in 2002, the CDFG created a modified preference point system so that hunters  who have waited the longest receive a clear advantage in the tag application/drawing process. 

Hunting Rocky Mountain mule deer


Hunting mule deer in California is much the same as hunting in any of the great-basin or rocky mountain states. The habitat is varied from open sage flats to dense timber or bolder-strewn granite ridges, but a mule buck’s behavior is most likely the same as one will find anywhere where they live. 

One of the major drawing cards for the X Zones is the fact that almost all the habitat is public land managed by either the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. Access is often restricted by land management agencies, but most of the travel restrictions benefit deer and often the deer hunter as well. 

Logging roads and highways provide the hunter with access to much of the country while trails provide access on foot or by horseback. In many areas off-road vehicles and ATVs can be utilized as directed in travel plans and road signs. 

Camping is generally allowed in designated camp sites or in remote areas alongside access roads. Water and shelter are often limiting factors – in the early season as protection from the sun and late season protection from cold weather and storms. Especially when hunting at high elevation, weather can be spectacularly beautiful or crippling. Late season hunters should be prepared to handle snow and cold. Early season hunters must understand the limitations of their equipment when roads turn from dust to mud in thunderstorms. 

The traditional methods of take for mule deer in California are archery and rifle California deer tags are method specific, in other words, the method of take is limited to firearm or bow. Special seasons for archery hunters take place in late August and early September. Rifle seasons tend to start one or two weeks following the archery season and a few limited quota hunts occur late in the fall, providing hunters with a trophy opportunity. 

California also provides junior hunters with several limited quota hunts with an extra chance to bag an exceptional trophy, but these hunts are few and only a handful of hunters receive these chance-of-a-lifetime tags. 

Techniques used by archers are primarily spot and stalk. Early season mule bucks, mostly in the velvet and living in open county, are vulnerable to hunters who select good vantage points and glass with quality optics. 

Open country deer tend to feed at night, early morning or late evening and seek the protection of cover during the day. Cover protects them from the draining midday heat and sun while also limiting their exposure to hunters. The archer who finds a good vantage point overlooking prime deer habitat is likely to spot bucks returning to bed after a night of nipping snowberry buds and sampling spring water. 

Deer will work their way to beds during the cool morning hours, often arriving at their resting point between eight and nine AM. Often bucks will bed at first light and then move to a new bed as the sun rises to its zenith. 

However, don’t give up if you haven’t spotted a buck by 10:00 AM. Bucks will often rise and feed briefly during the day, stretching their legs and giving the dedicated archer opportunities to locate a buck during the midday slack. 

Once a buck’s bedding site is located, archers using recurve or compound bows can use midday or afternoon thermal winds to remain undetected and approach the buck’s bed within the range of modern equipment. Some archers choose to spook bucks from their bed using calls or tossing pebbles, while others wait patiently for the buck to rise for an afternoon stretch before attempting to place a broadhead-tipped arrow through its vitals. 

Rifle hunters can use the same techniques as archers, but generally take their game at longer range. Late fall hunts find bucks in heavier cover and less likely to be found in open country. During rifle season bucks tend to bed earlier in the day and return to feed late. For these reasons rifle hunters may attempt to drive deer from cover into the open where they can be shot as they attempt to escape. 

Hunting pressure may also force the hunter to seek out areas with less competition. Wilderness areas, rugged mountains and remove desert county in Rocky Mountain mule deer country is attractive to many hunters for that reason. While much habitat is readily accessible by vehicle, many areas are roadless and offer the energetic hunter a chance to make overnight trips on foot or employ a packer to transport them into remote country.  

The successful deer hunter is always looking for a way to find good mule buck habitat that hasn’t been found by other hunters. My brother and I were approached, while archery hunting, by a rifle hunter gathering information to help him decide where he would hunt during the upcoming rifle season. What better way to scout than employ a bevy of archers. We were pretty free with our information about bucks we had seen. That hunter had been successful on a four by four buck the previous season, but was hoping to find an even-larger buck in 2002. 


This young X12 buck was taken during the ’08 rifle season at more than 11,000 feet elevation. California has some big mountains.

2 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain Mule Deer in California

  1. Thanks for the great article, I was fortunate enough to draw a tag for X 3b for 2013 and
    I’m looking for all the information I can find.
    Again Thanks

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