Colorado Mule Deer Hunting

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While Colorado is well known for its elk hunting, its mule deer hunting is totally underrated.  Utah and Arizona seem to come to mind for most folks when they are thinking about trophy deer hunts, but there are only a few select units in those states that have the kind of quality deer hunting that attracts national attention. Wyoming attracts some attention because of the Eastmans, and Montana produces some great deer on occasion. But on a statewide basis, Colorado is tough to beat. 

Colorado used to have over the counter tags for many of its deer units, but the entire state went to a draw system after 1999.  It upset a lot of folks at the time, but a quick look at the sex ratios from '99 can give you a glimpse into what kind of an improvement the DOW has made in just a little over 10 years.   Some of the most popular areas had buck: doe ratios in the single digits and low teens.  In the entire state, there is presently only one unit with less than 20 bucks per 100 does.  Utah certainly can’t claim that.  In fact, of the 55 deer Data Analysis Units (most which comprise several Game Management Units), 34 are presently over 30 bucks:100 does.  In most states, the units that are managed for those ratios receive special trophy designation. 

Another great aspect of the deer hunting in Colorado is the actual deer densities.  The average for all of Western Colorado is 8 mule deer per square mile, but several areas have deer densities pushing hard on 20 per square mile.  Just a few years ago, those numbers were even better than they are now, but the winter of 2007-2008 really took a toll on the state.  In some areas, the populations have continued to decline since that winter.  The Gunnison Basin received most of the publicity, but unit 44, a traditional trophy area has been devastated.   In 2006, the population was estimated at 10,160.  The 2009 estimate showed just 1,950 deer, an 81% decline! 

That’s an extreme example, but a real one, so make sure you do your homework when shopping for a deer unit.  Hotspots don’t always stay hot.  But part of what I’m getting at is that for the last couple of years, deer tags have been much harder to come by.  Fewer and fewer units are making it to leftovers, and fewer tags are being given out.  But that doesn’t mean you need to accumulate 10 years worth of preference points to have a quality mule deer hunt in an area with good amounts of public land. 

Good deer hunting is well distributed on public lands west of the continental divide.  I receive a lot of questions about Eastern Colorado deer hunting.  Yes there are some great deer to be had, but because you’re going to need some private land access to get at them, I really don’t follow those units very closely.   East of the divide and west of I-25,  most of the decent deer hunting is on private lands.   There are a lot of deer in the foothills, including some fantastic bucks, but there just isn’t a lot of public land to hunt them on.  The large private ranches along the foothills are being turned into public open space parks, but very few of those allow any hunting on them.

It’s seriously tough to go wrong with most of the West Slope but instead of talking about where not to go, let’s focus on two of the unsung areas that are ripe for some good hunting and take no preference points to draw, even for nonresidents.

Unit 444, the Basalt Mountain herd:  This unit also took a tremendous whack during that 2007 winter.  But the losses weren’t near as bad as those to the north in unit 44.  This unit isn’t known as a traditional hotspot.  In fact, 2nd and 3rd season deer tags can sometimes be draw with a 2nd choice.  What’s interesting to note about this unit, and why it caught my eye, is that the buck tags have been pinched off severely since 2007.  You might say that the DOW overreacted by cutting the tags in half, and in doing so the sex ratio has shot up to 37 and 38 bucks per 100 does the last two years.  The objective is 30 bucks per 100 does, but even in 2010 there was no corresponding increase in the number of buck tags.  I was playing with some population models the other day and I’m predicting just 10% of the available bucks being harvested based on the typical success rates and the number of buck tags issued.  That’s going to leave a lot of older bucks available for next year.  I’ve got to imagine there will be a tag increase this year, and that will make the tags easier to draw with a 2nd choice.  This can be a great sleeper deer unit for the next couple of years, and you can combine it with some good elk hunting.

Unit 33, The Rifle Creek Herd.  2nd season tags here have gone to leftovers the past several years, and 3rd season went to 3rd choice last year.  This unit is traditionally one of the top deer densities in the state (around 20 per square mile), and the elk herd is part of the huge White River herd.  Unit 33 hardly suffered any of the losses associated with the 2007 winter, and there have been no major adjustments to the tag quotas.  However, the herd is considerably above the sex ratio objective of 32 bucks per 100 does, and has been since 2001.  So, you’ve got an extremely high density deer herd with a lot of older bucks in a guaranteed draw area.  What more could you want?


  Thank you Western Hunter


Thank you Western Hunter for the plug on my state, it may actually help ballance our states budget. I for one hope it encourages folks to hunt here its a beautiful state. There are also some really great youth hunting opportunites available in the state as well and they can be Very sucsessful "Hint Hint Dads" (check the Colorado D.O.W's website for more info.) I must also agree w/ hunter 25 I hate to hear one of my favorite spots mentioned, but it was a good article and these are not the only areas in the state that offer good Muley hunting. As every hunter should know it takes a lot of homework to find a good spot to hunt and even more to find a great one. I for one haven't seen a signifcant drop in buck to doe ratios in the unit I hunt. As a matter of fact the number of mature bucks compared to the number of  1-3 yr old's (which are still very plentiful) have actualy gone up I believe in my hunt unit . And so Hunters, you should not be discoured by the statistical numbers and ratios.

Thank you and keep on hunting.

hunter25's picture

This is a good report on my

This is a good report on my state but I have to say I hate to see my unit mentioned in a positive article. Always want to keep it just for me you know. Although the herd does seem down a little from the bad winter a couple of years ago like he said the rest of it just does not seem to line up with where I hunt. I have always drawn thos unit on second choice for the last 5 years even with the reductio of tags as I apply for preference point first. Now I'm a little scared because of this article and I have heard on the radio that they plan to decrease more this year not add to them as he seems to believe. It may be the doe tags they are going to cut though as they have only offered them for about the last 4 years. I have never seen the buck doe ratio mentioned but I hunt a relatively small portion of the unit. I would say I see about 20 bucks per 100 does with about half of those being 2 pointers.

I don't know what I will do if I don't draw my second choice this year but I still gotta go for my preference point first.

numbnutz's picture

Great stuff, thanks for

Great stuff, thanks for posting, I still cant wrap my head around that there is no OTC deer tags in CO. I have to ask how long does it take to draw a great deer tag? I'm in the same boat as CA_, If i ever get a chance to hunt in CO I would like to do a combo hunt and get more bang for my buck (no pun intended). Again thanks for sharing and Thanks for all you do.

WishIWasHunting's picture

Great article

I love hunting mule deer, and now I am trying to hunt them more often.  I have always hunted the same unit for deer.  This article makes me think I might have to be brave eventually and try out a new unit, especially if I can find some attractive options for a 2nd choice draw. 

Ca_Vermonster's picture

Very good article, and again,

Very good article, and again, thanks!

I am seriously considering doing a combo hunt instead of just and elk hunt.  Maybe double my chances at some meat. Wink

I was told that the way to do it is to apply for the deer tag, then get an OTC tag for the elk.

Definately on my list to do in the next year or so.

over1991's picture

That is exactly what I am

That is exactly what I am doing this year. I am getting an OTC elk tag accessing national forrest through private land, but I am applying for a mule deer tag that doesn't take a bunch of points. I really don't get excited about mulies but they say there are 30inchers up there. $300 you bout have a tag in your pocket just in case.

GooseHunter Jr's picture

That is a great read.  I have

That is a great read.  I have never been much of a deer hunter but in the last few years it has started to become really appealing.  I shot a nice buck on 2008 and since then I really do like to hunt them.  I have been building some preference point for some years now...I think I have 8...can't wait to try and fill that tag.  Also I can attest to that the deer are starting to make a good comeback as year after year I have started to see more and more.

jaybe's picture

 Yes Hunter25, I feel your

 Yes Hunter25, I feel your pain. Having your favorite hunting area publicized as being hot is about like having your favorite fishing spot on a weekly outdoors TV program. Years ago in Michigan, there was a TV host who did that every chance he got. He was a highly respected man for the work he did in the state and thousands of outdoors-minded people watched his program every week for good information and the quality of his program. But every time he gave a great fishing report and gave out the name of the lake, those who knew it and loved it also knew that it would be "standing room only" for the rest of the season.

  It sounds like western Colorado is really doing well with its mule deer herd. Maybe they have figured out some things that other states can learn from. Who knows, they may even have learned how to balance their budget - - now that would be unusual among our states! ;>)

The Western Hunter's picture

I struggled with whether or not to mention these units...

The good thing is the tags are limited, so while I may be able to affect demand, supply is still going to be the same.  But, let me ask you guys this:  would you rather I not mention any units at the risk of exposing "your" unit, or just speak in generalities?