I could just title this article, “why Colorado is the best overall state for mule deer hunting," but since that won’t apply to trophy research for elk in future articles, let’s just go with Record Book Research. It had been a while since I last picked up a Boone and Crockett Record book, as my last edition was dated 1996 (Records of North American Elk and Mule Deer, 2nd edition). I was obviously way overdue, and looking at 50 year old records from the heyday of mule deer hunting just doesn’t really apply any more. Anyway, I did finally pick up the soon to be outdated 27th Big Game Awards book (2007-2009), which has the latest deer and elk entries, and wanted to share some of my findings and assumptions with you.
I do realize that not everyone enters their trophies into the record books, and that a Boone and Crockett class animal is such an exceptional specimen, that it’s almost a freak of nature. However, there are areas that consistently produce more and better trophies than other areas, and there’s usually a reason why. I’m not actually concerned with killing a record book animal, but I’m looking for areas that offer quality hunting, especially lesser known places that I can draw a little more routinely.
Park County muley photo by Amanda Morrison
Although I’ve been touting Colorado’s deer management for a while using sex ratios, deer densities, my own trophy potential indices and success rates as some of my rationale, I hadn’t really paid attention to the number of Boone and Crockett entries until recently. By my count, there are 120 new entries for Colorado in the 27th Big Game Awards book. Now, only 90 of those are newer entries from about 2003 onward (Colorado ditched the OTC deer tag system in 1999), but that still blows away the combined totals of the next three states in Idaho, New Mexico and Wyoming. And if you excluded the older entries from those states the way I did for Colorado, the difference would be even greater.
So, the fact that Colorado won, wasn’t a huge surprise, but the degree to which it placed ahead of other states was. Also, I had assumed Montana, Utah and Arizona would be higher on these lists. Montana was probably the most shocking with just 13 recent entries, which is the same number as Nevada. Utah, with just 22 entries and Arizona with 20 entries surprised me too, but their reputation for big deer is based on just a couple of units within the state, not a statewide commitment to better deer hunting.
Positive surprises to me included Idaho and New Mexico. I never really paid much attention to how New Mexico’s deer hunting stacks up against others and figured that if the state didn’t have any idea of how many deer they had, then they probably couldn’t manage it well (though that hasn’t stopped me from buying two of their deer tags). I still stand by that feeling, you can’t argue with New Mexico’s 26 entries, 18 of which come from one county (by contrast, Colorado’s top county had only 12 entries). Idaho, as another state with general tags, but also a good mix of controlled areas is a place that surprises me with how well it has maintained its trophy deer quality.
Now let’s go into a little more detail on where these trophies are coming from within these states, and how that may apply to your hunting. In Colorado, the top county has always been Eagle County, however, this may change in the future if that deer population doesn’t rebound. Unit 44 is the trophy managed unit in Eagle County, and the fact that it only takes 2 preference points to draw (though likely to continue creeping) the 2nd season hunt there still makes it an excellent value option, compared to units like 2, or 201. Once you start considering those later season hunts, 44 gets much harder to draw, but a 3 year wait for a quality rifle hunt isn’t a terrible thing. Like I hinted at earlier though, unit 44 has seen better days. The sex ratio is still quite high and there are still older bucks to be had, but since 2007 that unit has lost an astounding 80% of its deer herd (from over 10,000 to just under 2,000 now). Despite practically no doe hunting, the herd is still declining, while in surrounding units like 444, 34 or 35, the herd is showing signs of recovery.
But Colorado’s deer hunting isn’t just about Eagle County, as the book entries are widely distributed and the whole state is under a fairly conservative management philosophy. With all the talk of Eastern Colorado’s excellent deer hunting, I had expected more good deer to come from the plains too, but in reality, just a handful came from there, and most were from Yuma County, an area almost devoid of public land.
Though Montezuma, Mesa, Garfield, Rio Blanco, Delta, Montrose and La Plata Counties are well known, it was Custer County’s 5 entries that were most interesting to me. That’s primarily units 69, 84 and 86, all of which have a fair amount of public land, mostly the San Isabel National Forest. These units do not require a particularly high number of points to draw (often 0 to 1), and might be a solid option for someone looking to cash in with just one preference point.
One last point to bring up about Colorado’s record book entries: I was surprised at the low number of entries from Moffat County, much of which has been trophy managed for many years. Units 1, 2, 3, 10, 11, 211 and 201 are all completely or partially enclosed in Moffat, and have a reputation for quality deer hunting, yet there were only 3 recent entries. I have to believe this is partially to mostly to blame for the lower deer densities these areas now have compared to their not too distant past. Most of these units are well below even unit 44’s deer density, and below their population objectives.
I’ll get into other assumptions and inferences about the state of deer and elk hunting in other places in future articles here. I’m in the middle of doing some last minute preparations for Katie’s deer and elk combo hunt, and it looks like we’re going to have to brave a storm that will be dumping enough snow on us to significantly alter our plans, so I’ve got to get going. All for now.