Whitetail Deer vs. Mule Deer vs. Elk Hunting: Notes from an Arizona Hunter


Elk hunting vs. whitetail deer hunting vs. mule deer hunting…what are the big differences between all of them? We get a lot of hunting questions here, but Jon was the main hunter from the two of us and he was pheasant and whitetail deer.

So we brought in an expert! Preferring to go by the penname of Masterthehunt, this Arizona hunter is also a fantastic writer. Having hunted all three of these animals in the mountains of Arizona, we decided this was the right person to talk about their experiences.

So without any further wait, here’s the first person point of view on these three great hunting season via both bow and rifle in Arizona!

Despite deer and elk being very similar, both species present very different challenges and experiences to the hunters who pursue them. Even when it comes to both whitetail and mule deer, each separate species is very different from one another.

While one is not necessarily more difficult than another, the challenge they all present can help you successfully hone your skills to be a successful hunter no matter what species you are after.

Elk and deer collage

Elk Hunting

Let’s start with elk hunting. While elk are much bigger and stronger than both whitetail and mule deer, you can easily use the exact same archery equipment to hunt them that you would use for deer. Most states have minimum stipulations on an archery setup, and it is more than enough to use for deer as well as the bigger elk.

While some hunters might argue that you should shoot heavier poundage, heavier arrow, or only fixed bladed broadheads, a reliable setup that has killed a whitetail or mule deer will kill an elk.

When it comes to rifle hunting, however, I will choose a different weapon when elk hunting than my trusty deer rifle. I have seen bull elk soak up a lot of lead, and will always opt for a heavier bullet or bigger rifle caliber when given the option.

Unlike archery, rifle hunting involves killing an animal by high impact energy that delivers crushing and shocking force to the vital organs, as compared to an arrow that is relatively low impact that kills by slicing and cutting the same organs. Larger caliber hunting rifles are preferred because a bigger bullet or bigger cartridge helps put down a big bull elk much more quickly and effectively.

Elk hunting also differs in the fact that you are chasing them high in the mountains, unlike whitetail or most mule deer hunting. While there are mule deer in the high country as well, elk hunting is generally much more physical than any deer hunting you can do.

elk in the woods
Elk will make you work for it, that’s for sure!

Not only is the country they live in much rougher and more demanding, but “chasing bugles” or hiking until you hear or find them can easily put miles on your boots.

Elk are much more vocal at all times of the year than deer and can be hunted using your ears just as much as your eyes.

Mule Deer

mule deer

Mule deer are very similar to elk in the fact that they live in many of the same areas, as well as many more. Mule deer were the first animals I learned to hunt, as we considered them the “easiest” animal to hunt.

Mule deer love to live in the gentle rolling hills that are easy to hike and hunt in, and when spooked, many muleys will jump away a few hundred yards and then stop and turnaround to see what scared them, giving a hunter the perfect shot.

While a big, mature muley might truly be one of the hardest animals in the world to kill, younger bucks are generally easier to kill than a bull elk or whitetail buck, as they are usually not as cautious or careful.

Whitetail Deer

So where do whitetail deer fit into all of this? Much like mule deer, whitetail presents much less physicality than elk. That’s not to say they are easy or it is a physically easy hunt though.

Whitetail are actually, in my opinion, a lot harder to kill with archery equipment than the other two because they are much more cautious and always on edge.

Many people will tell you that when archery elk hunting, you do not need to be as quiet as elk are used to hearing other elk walking and making a lot of sound in the woods.

This seems to hold true for me, as many times I have stumbled into herds of elk while not being quiet in the least bit. The same cannot be said for whitetail.

whitetail deer

Step on one small leaf or twig, and you will send any whitetail deer in the area running!

What are the major differences between mule deer and whitetail deer? This article from Realtree does a great job of comparing and contrasting the two of them.

Mule Deer vs. Whitetail Deer vs. Elk Hunting

So is there a better species to pursue? I wouldn’t say one is better than another, only that they are all different in their own ways. Because of this, a lot of hunters do have a preference as to their favorite species to pursue.

Others, like myself, love them all and would be heartbroken if I had to choose to only hunt one of them. Here are a few of my favorite things about each species!

I love elk hunting because of the country they live in. The mountains and forests that elk call home are worth the trip itself, and there is something truly special about them when you are hunting elk in September during the rut.

During this time, their bugles can be heard from every mountain peak, and having a big, mature bull elk within yards of you is both scary and amazing at the same time. Elk are giant animals and bringing one down truly pushes you to your physical and mental limits.

Mule deer hunting is great because they can be found just about everywhere out here in the west. While I said killing a mule deer buck is “easy”, killing a giant mule deer buck is one of the hardest hunting accomplishments a person can achieve.

This challenge, plus getting to see so many cool and unusual places that the mule deer can live in and call home, is what draws me to hunt them every single year.

Whitetail are what I spend the most amount of time preparing for and thinking about every year. The great thing about whitetail hunting is that they are the most abundant of the three, and usually the easiest to get tags for.

I also love whitetail for the challenge they bring, as they are very skittish and you must bring your A-game in order to kill a big mature whitetail buck.

In Conclusion

Elk, mule deer, and whitetail all have their own unique characteristics that make them so much fun to hunt, and if you haven’t already, I highly suggest trying to hunt all three of them at least once.

Even if you already have a favorite, you never know what kind of adventures each one of these amazing animals could give you!

Other Hunting Articles of Interest

Big Alaska Dayton

I've always loved the outdoors and have heard the call of the wild, so to speak, since a young age. Big-time camping, hiking, backpacking, and traveling enthusiast, I'm always up for another adventure or another activity that gets me away from the desk and out to enjoy the world. An Eagle Scout with an incurable case of outdoor wanderlust, this blog was a natural labor of love and personal expertise. Hope you enjoy it!

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