The Difference Between Mule and Whitetail Deer


Nebraska has made a big change to 2012 deer permits issued in the following regions:

  • Buffalo MDCA
  • Calamus East
  • Calamus West
  • Frenchman MDCA
  • Keya Paha
  • Loup East
  • Loup West
  • Missouri
  • Platte MDCA

In these regions, including Calamus West where our group will be hunting, antlerless mule deer will be off limits. This means you can hunt any bucks you find in these regions (mule or whitetail), and whitetail does. You’ll have to be able to reliably identify antlerless mule deer, so that you don’t fire on them by mistake.

This is critical; it means the difference between a rewarding, legal kill vs being charged as a poacher.

Antlered vs Antlerless

It’s very important to know the difference between a mule deer and a whitetail, and we’ll get to that in a minute.  But first, I want to clarify that Nebraska doesn’t strictly go by gender.  Notice above, it’s not Mule Does that are off limits.  It’s Antlerless Mules, and even that is a bit misleading. While the ultimate goal is to save more does for breeding and repopulation, hunters can’t be expected to get a reliable peek at a deer’s nethers from hundreds of yards away.

Instead of going by gender, Nebraska says that a deer has to have antlers that measure six inches or more in length to qualify as “antlered”, and anything else is “antlerless”.  Why the six inch rule? First, at some angles short antlers can be hidden by the ears.  It would be unfair to blame hunters with an antlerless-only tag who mistakenly shot  a buck with 2-inch nubs (even though Kansas does this).  Second, it gives young bucks a chance to mature before becoming “fair game” as officially antlered.  Third, on very rare occasions a doe will grow antlers!  You’ll be freaked out enough as it is, you don’t need the game warden breathing down your neck.

To recap, you can only take a mule deer in the above regions this year if it has antlers over six inches in length. All whitetails are fair game.  Now let’s figure out how to tell the difference.

Mule Deer vs. Whitetail Deer

Here is what a mule deer looks like:

And here is what a whitetail deer looks like:

First, notice the faces. The mule deer face is mostly white from the nose to the eyes, but the whitetail’s face is mostly brown like the rest of their fur.  The whitetail only has white rings around its eyes and nose.  If you do a google image search for mule deer and whitetail deer, you’ll start to recognize this pattern pretty quickly.  My first couple years of deer hunting, I’m sorry to say I wasn’t great at telling the difference.  I didn’t have to be, legally, and my dad told me what hole to punch on my permit (mule or whitetail) after the fact.  But after looking at a few dozen photos of each, I can’t imagine getting confused.

Next, examine these ladies’ backsides.  It’s okay, this is for science.  To me, the name “whitetail” is a bit of a misnomer, because you see more “white” on the back of a mule deer.  Notice the mule’s rump has a very large patch of white, only partly covered by a thin, white tail with a black tip.  You can always see plenty of white on the back of a mule deer, whether the tail is up or down.  A whitetail, on the other hand, covers most of its narrow white patch with a thick, dark tail.  This makes sense, since whitetails alert each other of danger by raising their tails.  The difference between “calm” and “freaked out” has to be as big as possible.

These differences apply to bucks as well as does, but for the purposes of this article I wanted to be sure everybody can tell the does apart.

Unreliable Differences

There are a number of differences between mules and whitetails that  you’ll read about, but shouldn’t rely on if it means risking an illegal shot.  If you’ve seen a lot of deer, these differences may stand out, but they’re definitely more subtle.

  • Ear size: mule deer have large mule-like ears, which is where they got their name.  But at 100+ yards, I usually can’t tell the diffeence.
  • Fur color: mule deer also have more greyish-brown fur, where whitetail fur is usually more reddish-brown.  However, whitetails get more greyish in the winter, so this is also unreliable during the very season it matters the most!
  • Body size: mules weigh in a little heavier, but obviously there’s a lot of overlap, and age/nutrition play a big role in determining a specific deer’s size.
  • Antler shape: the points on a mule buck’s antlers will split in two directions, grow, split again, and so forth.  A whitetail buck’s antler points will all grow off of one main “stem”.  But this only works for mature males with several points, and verifying point structure at great distances is error prone.

Quiz Yourself

Whether you’re in a restricted region or not, do yourself a favor and spend 10 minutes learning to tell the difference between whitetails and mule deer.  Impress your friends, and avoid costly fines!

Decide if each picture below is of a mule deer, or a whitetail.  Then hover over the picture with your mouse to reveal the answer.

This is a Mule Doe.

This is a mule buck.

This is a whitetail doe.

This is a whitetail doe with her fawn.

This is a mule doe.

This is a whitetail buck.

This is a mule doe.

This is a whitetail doe.

This is a mule doe.

This is a mule buck.

This is a whitetail buck.

This is a whitetail buck.

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  1. I am not a hunter but thanks for teaching me the difference.

    1. 11.5 Months out of the year, neither am I! But I love spotting and watching these creatures year-round. They really are my favorite animal, and nothing makes my day like spotting a deer along a corn field’s tree line on my drive home at night.

      I used to live near a large lake/park where hunting wasn’t allowed, and I could often stalk within 50 yards of whole herds. I’d take photos, or just observe. It was good hunting practice/learning, but very enjoyable in and of itself.

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