Record Book Research: Utah, Arizona, Montana and Nevada Mule Deer

Send by email Printer-friendly version Share this

So, for the final installment on mule deer record book research, we’re going to take a look at Nevada, Arizona, Montana and Utah.   The order of recent submissions also seems to mirror the all time rankings of these four states, with Utah on top of Arizona, which is ahead of Montana, and Nevada bringing up the rear.  I know I’ll be leaving out California, Oregon and Washington, but mule deer aren’t even the most numerous deer species in those states.

Utah is one of those states that usually comes to mind when thinking about mule deer hunting, but if you’ve read many of my past articles, you’ll know that I’m not a huge fan of the state of Utah's deer hunting outside of the 2 main trophy areas: the Paunsaugunt and the Henry Mountains. My feelings are somewhat verified with Utah only having 22 recent entries in the 27th Boone and Crockett Big Awards book, which puts them behind Wyoming, New Mexico, Idaho, and way behind Colorado.

Utah’s mule deer entries are much more widely distributed than say, New Mexico or Arizona’s (get to that in a minute), so it’s somewhat difficult to really single an individual county to talk about.  Utah County came in first, but only had 4 entries.  David Long’s Public Land Mulies singles out Kane County with 18 entries since 1985, but I’ve got Kane tied for second with just 3 recent entries alongside Garfield County.  Other counties you might want to look into at some point include Uintah, San Juan, and Washington, but I’m just going to cover Kane, Utah and Garfield Counties here.

It should come as no surprise that those three counties are in Central Utah, as opposed to the high deserts in eastern and western Utah.  The mountains, foothills and plateaus of Central Utah tent to support a much higher deer density than the deserts, and as with most states, the regions with the most deer often produce the most B&C entries.  An exception here is that most of Kane County is a more arid area than the Central and Northern Wasatch Range and Uintahs.

Now, Kane and Garfield County neighbor each other and split the Paunsaugunt Plateau, and Utah’s famed Henry Mountains are also in Garfield County.  So this is seriously big muley country in South-Central Utah.  Here, it is not a byproduct of high deer density, but tight management.  Of note, the Excalante Mountains are in between the Paunsaugunt Plateau and Henry Mountains, in Garfield County as the Plateau, Boulder/Kaiparowits unit for 2012.

The loose management, or “maximum opportunity” management throughout the Wasatch Range makes those Utah County entries all the more interesting to me because it is easier to get a license.  However, much of the foothill “deer country” looks to be private land around Utah Lake and Provo.  There is plenty of public land in the mountains, and some of it does descend to lower elevations, but I’m going to chalk these deer entries up to either freak occurrences or individual ranch management.  So, unless you’re really in it for the long haul with the Paunsaugunt or Henry Mountains, I think this research really only exposed the Escalante Mountains as a possible suggestion for good deer hunting without 20 years of applications.

And speaking of long application periods, we now come to Arizona.  Unfortunately for those looking for great deer hunting outside of Coconino and Mohave Counties, we don’t even have a B&C single entry in the 27th Big Game Awards with which expand our horizons.  Coconino and Mohave combined for 20 entries in the most recent Awards book, which is just behind Utah, yet still significantly ahead of Nevada and Montana’s 13 entries each. Most of these two counties encompass the Kaibab Plateau and the Arizona Strip, which represent some of the most famous deer country in the nation.  Unfortunately, this also means you’ll be looking at steep odds to draw.  Units 13A and 13B are the most tightly managed, but 12A and 12B are up there too.  In the recent past there have been as many as 5500 applicants for just 75 licenses in unit 13B, but that has since dwindled to just 2700 applicants for 55 licenses (2% chance of drawing, not including bonus points).  The odds are similar for the Kaibab units of 12A and 12B.  I have yet to start building points for Arizona, as the draw odds seem so daunting, but I know I need to start soon if I want to have any shot at a deer there before my hunting days are done.  However, that $140 “application fee” known as a hunting license pretty well discourages me from bothering.

Though Montana and Nevada are tied, I’ll start with Montana, as that state has more historical entries.  With just 13 entries to peruse over 8 counties, it’s tough to narrow things down in a way that will help the DIY hunter find good public land hunting.  Case in point:  Rosebud County had 3 of the 13 entries from the 27th Big Game Awards, but that County is severely lacking in public land.  You have BLM checkerboards in some badlands and a small piece of the Custer National Forest near the Tongue River.  I’d say it’s safe to say that you need to look elsewhere for good public land deer hunting.

Teton, Ravalli and Lincoln Counties had 2 recent entries each, while Missoula, Flathead and Madison County also show up as top producers all-time.  Of these 6 counties, there are plenty of public hunting options.  Montana doesn’t make things easy when researching their hunting stats, but since there are only a few limited deer areas, and they don’t really do much for population estimates, let’s start by narrowing down where the majority of the deer harvest is coming from and see if we can correlate it with these counties in any way.

According to the most recently available stats (2008!?!), hunters killed 124,000 deer, 64,000 of which were mule deer.  Only 1,500 mule deer came out of Region 1 in Northwest Montana, less than 3,000 from North Central Montana in Region 2, 10,000 in Region 3 of Southwest Montana, 15,000 in Region 4, 9,000 in Region 5, 8,800 in Region 6 and over 16,000 in Region 7.  Rosebud County would be in Region 7, as units 701 and 702, but like I mentioned earlier, your public options are pretty limited.  Ravalli and Missoula Counties are both in Region 2, Lincoln and Flathead Counties are in Region 1, Madison County is in Region 3, Teton County is mostly Region 4.

Given the small number of mule deer harvested out of Northwest and North Central Montana, it’s surprising to see Ravalli, Lincoln, Flathead and Missoula Counties show up here, as these are primarily whitetail areas.  Region 1 killed 12,500 whitetails, while Region 2 killed almost 9,000 whitetails compared 1,500 mulies and 3,000 mulies respectively.

So, looking at just Lincoln and Flathead Counties in Region 1, we are looking at units 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 109, 110, 120, 132, 140, 150, 151 and 170.  Most of the mule deer in Region 1 come from units 100, 103 and 122(the only units with over 100 mule deer kills, and all three were in the 150 to 170 range).  122 is primarily Sanders County, which is much lower on our list of B&C entries and didn’t show up at all in recent research.  100 and 103 are mostly in Lincoln County, so that would seem like a good place to focus, except that 100 killed 10 times as many whitetails as it did mule deer, and 103 killed 5 times as many.  No matter how you look at it, there’s going to be a lot more whitetails than mule deer, but if you’re determined to kill a mule deer in Northwest Montana, than I’d say focus on 103.

Going to Region 2 and just staying in Missoula and Ravalli Counties, once again we have bordering counties in what is mostly whitetail country producing the good mule deer (Flathead and Lincoln border each other).  Units 203, 204, 240, 250, 261, 270, 283, and 292, are the main focus here.  Units 270 and 292 produced far and away the most mule deer amongst these units at 345 and 348, whereas none of the other units mentioned even approached 200 mule deer.  Of those two units, 270 has far more public land to hunt, but it is one of the few draw only areas for deer in Montana (nonresidents must first draw the general license to be able to apply for the limited areas).

In Region 3, let’s take a look at the Madison County units of 320, 322, 323, 324, 326, 327, 333, 340, 360, and 362.  Of these, 333 is the leader in mule deer kills, is one of the top mule deer producing units in Southwest Montana, and is available to hunt with a general license.  This area does not have a ton of public land outside of the rugged Tobacco Roots to hunt, so may not be the best choice for one looking for a good DIY deer hunt.  Unit 340 has better middle and low elevation options but kills about 15% fewer deer.  But if you’re just looking for the top mule deer producing unit in Southwest Montana, unit 380 stands head and shoulders above the rest, killing over 700 mule deer in 2008.  However, this is a draw only area with unlimited permits (basically just restricting you to hunting the one unit).  It’s about a 50:50 split public to private, so you do have options, including some BLM areas that are lower than the Elkhorn Mountains.

Now to further slice and dice the numbers:   380 is a huge unit, and therefore those 750 kills need to be put into better perspective, as there are just 0.66 mule deer kills per square mile.  Unit 333’s 480 kills is closer to 0.9 kills per square mile and unit 340’s 418 kills are at just 0.49 kills per square mile.  So, maybe the Tobacco Roots are worth another look, especially if you’re hunting in October instead of late November.

In Region 4, when focusing Teton County, we have units 404, 441, 442, 444 and 450.  404 is easily the highest producing of all these units, with just over 1,100 kills.  However, as with 380, it’s also a huge unit at over 2200 square miles, so half a deer kill per square mile really doesn’t impress me much when just south of Teton County in 425 there were 117 deer kills, it the unit is just 144 square miles (0.81 kpm).  If using kills per square mile as a way to narrow down our selections, unfortunately 404, 441, 444, and 450 are all between .5 and .6 mule deer kills per square mile.  To make matters worse, the unit with the lowest kills per square mile is the unit with the most public land in 442.  So, I’m going to chalk Teton County up to a private land hunting proposition, and not really well suited to the DIY hunter after all.

So, where does that leave us in Montana?  Regions 1 and 2 are poor mule deer areas, but unit 270, as a draw unit looks like a little diamond in the rough.  Region 4’s top county is really best left to private land hunters.   This leaves Region 3, where I’m not super high on the Tobacco Roots in 333 as a mule deer area.  I hunted Region 3 and Madison County for many years, and I know there’s plenty of deer and plenty of public land, so let’s go back to drawing board with the deer kills per square mile, and forget about the total number of kills.  Doing that brings up another unit with .98 kills per square mile in unit 326 and the kind of versatile landownersip pattern that I’m looking for.  Also, when looking over the rules for a general season tag in 326, you’ll find that the tag is valid for either sex mule deer in the first half of the season, which makes it seem like this is probably a very high density deer area.  Finally, a unit I can get excited about!

Now, to bring up there rear with Nevada.  Lincoln and Elko County are where it’s at here, both of which are in Eastern Nevada.  Lincoln is tops with 5 recent entries, Elk has 4, but Elk is easily the top county in Nevada in terms of all time Boone and Crockett entries.  Public land is rarely an issue in Nevada, but deer density certainly is.  Units 101-108 in Elko County make up 20 percent of the entire state’s deer herd, and is the only herd to reach double digit densities (about 12 per square mile).  Here it is mostly a numbers game, where you should have the opportunity to look over a lot of deer, and nearly 40% of the harvested bucks are 4 points or better on one side.  Unit 102 easily produces the most deer here, but also produces one of the highest percentages of 4 point or better bucks at roughly 42%.

Down in Lincoln County, you won’t find nearly the number of deer as up around Elko.  231 would be my pick here, as you’re still going to be in the deer with over 6 per square mile, and an incredible 69% were 4+ points or better in 2009.  Though units 241-245 also have an excellent reputation and produce nearly as high a % of 4 pointers, those units just don’t have nearly the deer density and produce barely ¼ the bucks that 231 produces as there is less than 1 deer per square mile.

So, I know this was a long article, but I owed you guys a detailed one as I hadn’t been able to get any articles up last week.  Hopefully between this article and the last two, you mule deer fanatics will be able to put some ideas to work next year.


Retired2hunt's picture

A Fantastic Finish!


A fantastic finish to a great series on western trophy muley bucks!  The amount of information provided is great and definitely a resource to come back to every year when making my hunting plans.  The learning curve you have provided in this series is tremendous and allows for greater pinpointing of hunting efforts.  Living in Colorado already I will keep my focus here for now and will definitely be trying my efforts on an area you highlighted and I am familiar with.  Thanks for the series as it was very detailed and surely a great deal of research involved for sharing.



cantgetdrawn's picture

Great Series

Living in New Mexico I was under the impression that Utah had surpassed Colorado for quality mule deer.

I also had the impression that other areas in New Mexico had surpassed Rio Arriba county for producing the "big ones."  I seem to hear about "big ones" taken around the 4 corners area around Shiprock and Farmington, this anecdotal evidence seemed to confirm my impression of Utah. 

I of course never really looked at the record books as you do.  As they say "the proof is in the pudding."

Good series of articles.



hunter25's picture

This has been a great series

This has been a great series and I have enjoyed reading all of them. I have only applied in one other state other than Colorado with that being Utah. I'm fortunate in living in Colorado as I'm right  in the middle of the best state of all for mulies. I would love to gather points and hunt all the states mentioned but money won't go that far and many of the hunts would interfere with my regular hunts with my family here at home. I may look into others as a long range plan but am very happy with what I have going right here where I live.

Thanks for these articles and all the other good ones you write to help us out. They are all great and usefull.

COMeatHunter's picture

Thanks a lot for a great

Thanks a lot for a great series of articles on trophy mulies.  I'd say everyone with an inclination to hunt ina western state for mulies would get a pretty good start by reading your 3 articles.  In fact, I think I'm going to go back and re-read all of these to begin planning on how to spend my deer points in the near future for a couple of great hunts.

Ca_Vermonster's picture

As usual, lots of great

As usual, lots of great information!  Definately covers 4 big buck states.  Some of the best hunting in the west can be found there.  Whether the Kaibab, Gila, or some lesser known stud producing areas of Nevada, it's all good!

Thanks for another great article!