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?