Nevada Mule Deer Hunting Overview
With just a few days left before the end of Nevada’s application period, I figured an article on Nevada’s mule deer offerings seemed in order. To me, Nevada is one of those totally underrated mule deer states. Sure, you hear about Arizona and Utah, Colorado to some degree, a fair bit about Wyoming and Montana, but Nevada is rarely on the tip of hunter’s tongue. I’m not sure why that is, maybe it’s because few people get off of the two main interstates going across Nevada. Maybe it’s just that legalized prostitution and gambling makes more headlines. Regardless, Nevada offers some excellent mule deer hunting, and is one of the cheapest states to apply to if you only want to throw your hat into the draw.
Let’s start with a little geography: the country you may have seen around Las Vegas does not represent much of Nevada. Many people refer to the state as a desert, which I don’t think is accurate at all. It is certainly arid, but so is much of Utah, New Mexcio, Arizona and Western Colorado and all of those states offer some excellent hunting. The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest owns over 5.7 million acres of some of the more mountainous country in Nevada. But it’s the BLM that controls an astonishing 48 million acres of public land here. Much of those lands are certainly arid, desert scrub land, with very little big game, but those same low elevation lands butt up to irrigated fields and other farm lands along the major drainages of the state. But it’s not just low elevation lands that the BLM controls here, they own nearly every mountain range that the Department of Defense and National Forests do not own.
As with Wyoming, the I80 highway corridor is part of a checkerboard landownership pattern, where every other square mile is BLM or private land. Gaining access along that corridor can certainly be frustrating, but outside of that, the BLM controls some truly vast, rarely broken lands.
There is not a ton of variation in the habitats, but there’s enough to be worth mentioning. Your classic tall timbered pine forests do exist in small parts of Nevada at higher elevations, but for the most part, you’ll be hunting pinyon-juniper and sagebrush country. Many people manage to forget about how mountainous Nevada can be, as regions like the Great Basin, Mojave Desert, Death Valley or the Desert National Wildlife Refuge may be all you’ve ever heard of. In fact, by one measure, Nevada is the most mountainous state in the Lower 48 (in number of peaks over 2,000 feet above the nearest saddle). There are several peaks over 13,000 feet high, and bird hunters should have at least heard of the Ruby Mountains near Elko, as that is the only place where you can hunt Himalayan Snowcock.
Ok, enough of that, on to the deer. The overall population of 100,000 mule deer isn’t going to raise any eyebrows, but the tight management of those deer is what brings hunters in the know into the state. There’s two ways to try to draw a deer tag in Nevada. I try to draw using the cheap method, where I just pay my application fee of $16 and then cross my fingers on all five choices. The reason I do that is because my hunting budget is usually tapped out after Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and occasionally New Mexico’s application periods. If you wanted to get a little more serious, you’d buy the hunting license in Nevada for $142, then apply for everything, just paying an application fee for each species unless you draw. Of course you’d be out a lot more money, but you can also gain bonus points this way, which you can’t do without buying the general hunting license. If you draw, then the deer tag is another $240, so in reality it’s $380, which is about on par with most states, especially when you include additional license fees. The elk tag is a ghastly $1,200. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to justify that.
While there are a handful of areas where deer populations are about on par with some of Utah’s or Wyoming’s better units, those 7-12 deer per square mile are merely average in Colorado. But unlike Utah and Wyoming, and like Colorado, Nevada strictly manages their deer harvest. Much of Utah has been managed for about 15 bucks per 100 does after the hunting seasons, whereas Colorado typically has closer to 30 bucks per 100 does. The same holds true in Nevada, where the average across all units is 30 bucks per 100 does after the season. When you have a sex ratio this high, you’re going to find older bucks. You’ll struggle to find deer older than 2.5 years old in many of the overharvested units in Utah, California or Oregon, but mature 4 point (western count) bucks are about the norm in Nevada. 45% of the deer harvested in the state are 4 points or better on one side. This is the whole state, not just a few select trophy units. A couple of units have averaged better than 60% of the harvested bucks being 4 points or better on a side over the past 10 years.
Let me throw a few places out there for you to think about if you’re trying to get your application in by Monday, April 18th. As measured by the percentage of 4 point or better bucks coming out of a unit over the past 10 years, units 241-245 are the top units in the state. Believe it or not, these units aren’t very far from Las Vegas. About the only private lands in these units are some irrigated ag fields in Rainbow Canyon and the Meadow Valley Wash. Some big bucks have come from the Delamar and Clover Mountains, including at least one I can remember that was featured in Eastman’s. Road hunting will be difficult here, as most of the mountainous country is designated wilderness. The deer density here is extremely low, less than 1 per square mile, but the few bucks that are running around out there tend to get some age on them.
If you’re looking for the top deer density in the state, that’s units 101 through 108 between Elko and Ely. More than 20% of the states mule deer population is in the Ruby and surrounding mountain ranges. The trophy quality here isn’t spectacular, as the Nevada Division of Wildlife issues a lot of tags. About a third of the harvest bucks here will be over 4 points and there are some access issues, with private lands butting up to the mountains, blocking access in few spots. For the early season hunt, your draw odds are pretty decent at 4:1.
A better combination of good deer density and excellent trophy potential exists up in the northwestern corner of the state. For the past two years, my first choice has been the extremely difficult to draw unit 14. The deer density is around 7 per square mile, with less than 20% of the available bucks being harvested each year and 53% of the bucks for the last ten years being at least a 4 point. The only mountain range in the unit is the Granite Mountains north of Gerlach, and less than 5% of the whole unit is private land.
Another oddball unit that gets very little mention is unit 272, just south of Mesquite in the Virgin Mountains. There are very few deer here, but they are also poorly surveyed due to being an interstate herd. That other state though is Arizona, and the famous Arizona Strip country. This is a totally overlooked unit, where nonresident draw odds are just 8 to 1 (but only two tags were issued last year).
There are numerous other interesting areas to hunt throughout the state. I tend to look for areas with a decent mix of deer density and trophy potential, like unit 14. But those desert units, with very few deer seem to produce an extraordinarily high percentage of older bucks. Nevada also has the advantage of bordering nearly every states trophy deer areas. So, trying to draw a tag along some of the border country of a state you may have already been applying to for years may be another tactic worth considering. No matter how you look it, you need to stop overlooking Nevada’s mule deer hunting.