Hunting Highway 50
October 04, 2010
From the rolling Eastern Plains to the renowned Gunnison Basin, Highway 50 will lead you to some of central Colorado's best hunting for trophy mule deer. (October 2008)
I remember my first trip in search of mule deer down Colorado's Highway 50. I was 14 and so excited that I hadn't slept well for a week.
Along Highway 50, the Arkansas River herd, the Cripple Creek herd, the Grape Creek herd and the Gunnison Basin herd are a few of the most noteworthy.
Photo by Danny Farris.
On that trip, I took my first buck. It felt like a rite of passage, and I celebrated it with my dad and grandpa at my side. It sparked my lifelong passion for hunting these magnificent gray ghosts of the West.
This central Colorado byway is one of two main corridors stretching the entire width of the Centennial State from east to west. By far the less traveled of the two, it offers fantastic views as it winds through diverse landscapes, going from 3,500 to more than 12,000 feet above sea level.
ARKANSAS RIVER HERD
On Highway 50's eastern end, you'll begin at Colorado's lowest elevation -- about 3,500 feet. You'll climb gradually as you drive west through seemingly endless prairie grasslands. This wide-open country is home to Colorado's Arkansas River deer herd. Game Management Units 122, 125, 126, 127, 130, 132, 137, 138, 139 and 146 offer some of the country's best mule deer hunting.
In 2007, draw odds for primitive-weapons hunters in these units were excellent, with 100 percent of both resident and non-resident bowhunters with no preference points drawing either-sex tags. Resident muzzleloader hunters also usually draw with zero points, while last year, non-resident muzzleloaders needed only 2 points to be in the running.
In most of these Colorado Eastern Plains units, two rifle seasons are offered -- one early and one late. As a general rule, the late seasons are more difficult to draw and require up to 5 points for residents and 7 points for non-residents. But many can still be drawn with little or even no preference points, especially during the earlier rifle seasons.
When draw results are announced each June, spending a little time on the statistics page of the Colorado Division of Wildlife's Web site will pay dividends. Check it out at //www.wildlife.state.co.us/Hunting/BigGame/Statistics
I've hunted the Arkansas River deer herd on many occasions, with terrific success. My last trip down this portion of Highway 50 was on a bowhunt that paid off with a wide-racked 160-class mulie with awesome kickers decorating both sides of his 5x5 typical frame.
I spotted that buck late one afternoon. Though I couldn't make out the details of his rack, I could tell that he was a buck that I'd be proud to take with my bow. Closing the distance quickly, reaching the 100-yard mark, I glimpsed movement through the grass and yuccas. A doe bounced directly toward me. The next thing I knew, the buck was in hot pursuit.
The doe bounded past me at 25 yards with the buck in tow. Just as I was about to try and stop him with a grunt, he inexplicably stopped broadside, offering me the kind of shot that a bowhunter's dreams are made of.
Seconds later, the wide-racked buck expired as the sun set on one of my favorite mule deer adventures.
If you're interested in hunting these eastern Highway 50 units, you'll need to keep in mind that the vast majority of the land is private. Gaining access from landowners will improve your odds of success.
However, more and more public hunting opportunities are opening up.
In 2007, the CDOW piloted a new Big Game Access Program in southeastern units. Get detailed information about the program at //www.wildlife.state.co.us/Hunting/BigGame/AccessProgram
CDOW biologist Trent Verquer based in Lamar, said the program's first year proved to be a big success.
"The CDOW has leased nearly 100,000 acres of private big-game habitat that public hunters can access after purchasing a $40 program permit," he said. "The pilot program will be tested in southeastern Colorado through the 2009 big-game seasons. So far, we've had very positive feedback from participating hunters."
Verquer reports a positive 2008 forecast for the Arkansas River herd:
"Our mule deer herd has remained stable and healthy in recent years."
The post-hunt buck-to-doe ratios in 2007 averaged around 55-to-100, with a good number of bucks over the 3 1/2-year age-class.
In addition, the crucial spring precipitation levels were good.
Just as I was about to try and stop him with a grunt, he inexplicably stopped broadside, offering me the kind of shot that a bowhunter's dreams are made of.
"If the trend continues, our mule deer hunting should be very promising in 2008," Verquer said.
CRIPPLE CREEK,GRAPE CREEK HERDS
Traveling west along Highway 50, you will climb the front range of the Rocky Mountains near the town of Canon City. From there, the elevation begins to rise rapidly as Highway 50 follows the Arkansas River through rough, rocky canyon country toward the mountain town of Salida.
Here cottonwood trees line many of the lower drainages, while the steep cactus-covered hillsides are dotted with piÃ±on and juniper. It's rugged and surprisingly dry country that promises plenty of challenges.
Along the north side of this stretch of Highway 50, you will find GMUs 57, 58, 581 and 59. These units are home to Colorado's Cripple Creek deer herd. To the south, GMUs 69, 691 and 86 hold the Grape Creek deer herd. Both herds are sleepers.
CDOW biologist Jack Vayhinger said that these deer herds have been growing in recent years, along with their buck-to-doe ratios.
For the Cripple Creek herd in the units along the north side this portion of the Highway 50 corridor, the draw odds are fantastic. Both resident and non-resident muzzleloader hunters needed only 1 preference point to get t
heir names in the hat in 2007.
All other hunters had a good chance of getting drawing without a single point.
Across the highway, the draw odds are even better, with both residents and non-residents having a good shot at drawing with zero preference points. That's right -- last year, every hunt in these units promised a decent shot drawing with no points!
There are also great public-land hunting opportunities to be found along this portion of Highway 50.
In my teens and early 20s, I bowhunted many of these units extensively, but I hadn't experience them much since. Then in 2007, my brother Kory and I had an opportunity to hunt along this portion Highway 50 during the third rifle season.
After a blown stalk on opening morning, Kory and I -- together with my three young sons Austin, Lane and Casey -- made our way to a point to do some glassing.
Before long, we spotted movement in a crater-like divot atop a high-rising knob. I couldn't make out the details of the rack. But after one look at the distant body's blocky build, I knew it was a mature buck.
A few hours later, as the buck stood up from his bed to stretch, I shot him with my Browning A-Bolt.
My excited sons helped Kory and me pack the 170-class 4x4 off the mountainside.
The next day, Kory and I spotted a wide-racked buck slowly heading up a rocky, juniper-covered canyon to bed down for the day. We knew that soon we would lose sight of him, so we hurried to catch up before he got too far into the junipers.
Out of breath, we crested a rock outcropping to find the buck 150 yards away, looking in our direction.
Kory quickly hit the ground and rested his .300 Winchester Magnum. After seeing him move, the buck bounded 30 or 40 yards before stopping to take one final look. Kory placed the shot perfectly, and the 29-inch-wide 3x3 didn't go far.
Both of these awesome Highway 50 bucks were taken on public land, with little scouting. Mule deer hunting simply doesn't get much better.
Traveling westward over Monarch Pass, Highway 50 crosses the continental divide at 11,312 feet before dropping into the Gunnison Basin. This vast basin is home to the much-publicized Gunnison deer herd.
Some of my earliest hunting memories were formed in the Gunnison Basin. In fact, my first buck was taken there. For years, that first trip down Highway 50 has remained my favorite hunting memory.
Then in 2007, just a stone's throw away from where I took that first special Gunnison buck, I had another mule deer hunt with my dad that now tops my list of hunting adventures.
Dad had saved up preference points and decided to trade them in for a Gunnison Basin rifle tag.
My dad and I are not trophy hunters. We shoot good bucks whenever we have the chance, especially on public land. But this year, we felt as though Dad had a chance at taking a really nice buck. Over the years, we had watched an older age-class of bucks grow to healthy numbers.
On the first two days of his hunt, he let walk bucks that usually, we never would have passed on. We hunted hard and glassed for hours on end, searching for the kind of buck that Dad was after.
On the morning of the third day, we glassed up what we were looking for -- two bucks that were feeding atop a snow-covered sage flat, a mile and a half away. Even from that distance, their tall, heavy frames were very visible.
After watching the bucks disappear over the other side of the flat, we drove to the nearest access point, then struck out on foot until we saw their tracks in the freshly fallen snow.
Slowly, we followed the tracks toward a lonely rock outcropping where we figured they stopped to bed. With our binoculars, Dad and I scoured the wind-hidden southern side of that rock outcropping, but never spotted the bucks.
After deciding that they had bedded on the other side, we began making our way toward the rocks to try to peek over the top.
Suddenly there he was, staring at us like an oversized decal that any Western hunter would love to put on the back of his truck.
He was simply majestic.
The bucks had bedded in a slight crevice, out of sight, with the wind at their backs.
I scrambled for words as I stepped out of Dad's way. I stuttered, "Shoot. Shoot him now!"
He calmly pulled the rifle from his shoulder, rested it on his tripod and took aim.
For my entire life, my dad has let me shoot first. He's put me in the best spots and set me up for the big shot. For years he toted me around and was always there when I took my best trophies. His turn was long overdue, and I was proud to be there with him when he took it.
The buck never took another step. His chest hit the ground first, and it was over. As I jumped around in celebration, the second buck stood from his bed and dashed off for parts unknown.
Dad's awesome 5x6 later scored just under 190 inches, but I doubt the score matters much to either of us. That buck was fantastic. At that moment, Dad and I were both kids again.
The Gunnison Basin is a stretch of Highway 50 that's obviously very special to me. It's comprised of GMUs 54, 55, 551, 66 and 67.
The CDOW limited the number of deer tags in the basin almost a decade ago, and since then, the Gunnison herd has begun to produce some really nice bucks.
Following the 2007 hunting season, Gunnison was hit with record snowfalls, followed by extremely cold temperatures. On a daily basis, the state delivered more than 600 bags of feed weighing 50 pounds each to more than 100 feeding sites.
The feeding helped reduce mortality rates, but Gunnison-based CDOW biologist Brandon Diamond said that they won't know population until after the 2008 post-hunt counts.
"Certainly there's a chance that the deer numbers might come out better than initially anticipated," he said.
"Still, the CDOW has taken steps to protect the population by reducing the number of deer licenses in 2008 by about half." License allotments for 2009 would then be adjusted according to 2008 post-season counts.
What this means to you and me is that in the near future, tags will be harder to come by in the Gunnison Basin. Coveted late-season tags will require double-digit preference
points for residents and non-residents alike.
Diamond said that we shouldn't interpret all of this as gloom and doom for Gunnison's deer herd.
"Sometimes we don't give these animals enough credit," said Diamond. "I'm confident that the deer population will bounce back, and that the Gunnison Basin will continue to provide outstanding mule-deer hunting opportunities in the future."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Danny Farris is associate publisher at Petersen's Bowhunting magazine.