Utah Mule Deer Hunting: The Southeastern Region
And now to conclude this five part series on Utah’s deer hunting, with what most people regard as the top region: the Southeastern Region. Southeast Utah is as far as one can get from the largest population centers in the state. In fact, there’s a fair amount of country in this region that could put a hunter 100 miles from the nearest gas station. This is the least disturbed, and most rugged of all of Utah, but the weather here is generally mild and winterkill isn’t a major issue. Droughts and predation are really the only thing most deer here have to worry about outside of hunting season.
Within the Southeast Region are one limited draw unit and two limited subunits. The Henry Mountains are a totally limited unit, and one of the top deer hotspots in the country. San Juan, Elk Ridge and La Sal, Dolores Triangle are the two limited subunits with a more mixed reputation, though they seem to be producing well as of late. Just as importantly, we have the general units: La Sal, San Juan, Nine Mile and San Rafael.
The San Rafael unit covers the San Rafael Swell, and then some. It’s some pretty amazing country, and almost entirely BLM. As with almost all the medium elevations of Southern Utah, pinyon-juniper is the dominant vegetation. Much of this region is essentially a plateau, with severe cliffs at the edges, and canyons bisecting the reef. As you’d expect, deer density across the whole unit is quite low, about two-tenths of a deer per square mile, but the unit includes a lot of desert that is practically devoid of deer. Thankfully, hunter densities are just as low.
The high success rate is indicative of the good visibility, limited deer habitat, water dependence and good access throughout the region. Success averages around 33%, but unfortunately that’s a bit high for the limited number of deer here. Few bucks make it past one or two years old, as close to 60% are harvested each year and the sex ratio is just 17 bucks per 100 does. In order to consider hunting here, you have to be honest with yourself and your goals. If you’re truly ok with shooting a young buck, and aren’t looking for too much of a physical hunt, then this can be a good option for you. Conversely, if you’re just going to complain about seeing little bucks, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The Nine Mile unit sports a similar success rate, but with 10 times the deer density (still just 2 per square mile) as the San Rafael, bucks survive to an older age. The sex ratio is well above the management objective with 30 bucks per 100 does, and the whole unit is lightly hunted with about half a hunter per square mile of public land.
One downside to the Nine Mile unit is that the private lands near Price make it a little bit tougher to get access to the most deer-dense country. The public lands can get pretty rugged here too; Desolation Canyon is 5,000 feet deep alongside the Uinta and Ouray Indian Reservation. Other canyons, such as Nine Mile and Flat Canyons coming off the Tavaputs Plateau aren’t exactly a walk in the park either. More manageable hills and minor canyons exist in the Ashley National Forest. Road access is pretty good there. It’s a good unit and well worth checking out with a general tag.
La Sal is a pretty famous region for deer hunting, but most of the reputation is due to the La Sal, Dolores Triangle limited subunit. The La Sal mountains are pretty impressive, jutting out from the desert and extending up over 12,000 feet. The top deer densities in the Southeast Region occur here (about 4 per square mile), but the bucks get beat up a little bit in the La Sal Mountains. The sex ratio in the general area is usually in the high teens, whereas The Triangle country is back up to around 40 bucks per 100 does after the reputation was hammered by several major publications. As a nonresident, I have no hopes of actually drawing that tag. The lone rifle tag last year was issued randomly despite their being 13 and 14 bonus point applicants. The odds of being that lucky recipient was just 1 in 400. Instead, if you’re looking for a solid option with a Utah general license in some scenic country it’s tough to do much better than the La Sal Mountains.
The La Sal area is bested by San Juan in most major categories. The sex ratio and trophy potential is better in the general regions, so is the success rate and hunter density. There are more deer in the La Sals though. The limited San Juan, Elk Ridge subunit takes up much of the Manti-La Sal National Forest outside of Monticello, but not all of. It does contain the Dark Canyon Wilderness, but not the Abajo Mountains or Montezuma Canyon, which you’re free to hunt with the general license. Averaging 44% success for the past five years, with a solid chance at three and four year old bucks, and having your choice of mountain country or canyon country to hunt, it really is tough to beat this option on a general tag. By way of comparison, San Juan, Elk Ridge averages around 90% success. The San Juan, Elk Ridge hunt also feels less impossible to draw. Right now it’s a 13 year wait to guarantee the tag, and a 1 in 55 chance of drawing the tag randomly. I can live with those odds, which are just a little steeper than the Book Cliffs.
And now The Henry Mountains….Yeah, you can shoot a 190-200 inch mule deer here on public land. Just like the Paunsaugunt, it’s an awesome area, where hunters kill barely 5% of the available bucks, the sex ratio is an astounding 68 bucks per 100 does, and the success rate is about 100%. The Paunsaugunt has a lot more deer on it, but there may be better deer in the Henries, and the average age of a harvested buck is slightly higher. But what’s it gonna take to get that dang license? Well, it’s 10 times tougher to draw than the Paunsaugunt. Last year, your random odds were 1 in 1372 for the rifle license, but a guy with just two points drew the random license, and the lone 17 point applicant got the other tag. 14 people had 16 points, 15 had 15 points, 21 had 14 points, and 31 had 13 points. Basically, it will be 50 years before you catch those top point holders or they die or quit hunting. You’re going to have to bank on drawing the license randomly if you’re just getting started, but your odds are 10 times better in the Paunsaugunt for a similar caliber of deer.
So, that’s Utah’s deer hunting in a couple of nutshells. My preference is the Southeast Region as a whole, but you can certainly make an argument for a few units in the Southern and Northeast Regions too. I do like the idea of hunting the border country in northeast Utah in the North Slope Unit, but the La Sals and San Juan are excellent options too. These are all pretty arid areas, with low deer densities, so if you’re after a more target rich environment, consider the Southern Region. I’d avoid the Central and Northern Regions, but as a reminder, your only option for a combo hunt is that Northern Region buck/bull license.