October 04, 2010
Each Colorado mule deer season has its opportunities and challenges. Here's what to look for and tips for success. (October 2009)
Kelley Jones took a 170-inch Colorado plains archery buck during the 2008 late-season rifle hunt.
Photo courtesy of Kelley Jones.
If your wallet harbors a tag from any Western state, you can bank on an unforgettable adventure and the chance to down a true wallhanger.
However, most hunters would go to the grave defending their home turf, and I'm no different.
Mule deer hunting in Colorado is magical, and there are some interesting facts that make it tough to ignore.
The all-time typical mule deer in the Boone and Crockett record book was shot in Dolores County. The second is that both the typical and non-typical Pope and Young records come from Colorado as well.
The typical record was harvested in the White River National Forest and the non-typical -- a 274 7/8-inch beast -- was taken in Morgan County.
Let's take a journey through the state's various seasons, look at how to hunt them, and find out the top places to down a trophy.
For hunters toting a stick and string, this is a perfect time to find a trophy buck.
During the summer months, bucks congregate in bachelor herds, spending their time lazily grazing along alpine slopes and bedding among seas of buckbrush. This gives ambitious hunters the chance to scout and locate the buck of their dreams months before the season opener, which typically occurs during the last weekend of August.
Hunters who glass a few trophies on scouting missions usually return to find their quarry haunting the same area.
Downing one of these ghosts of the clouds is quite possibly one of the most challenging feats in all of bowhunting. Hunters will need to be in excellent physical condition and be patient enough to spend hours behind a good pair of optics waiting for a perfect opportunity.
This chance comes when the buck beds in a location where a hunter can get the wind right, play the shadows, and come in on the buck from above.
According to Hoyt pro staffer and mule deer guru Marc Smith, hunters looking to find a hotspot for a high country buck can't go wrong as long as they are along the Continental Divide.
"When it comes to archery hunting," Smith said, "there are truly no magic units. I have seen giants in every unit I have ever hunted, and that's a lot of them."
Smith said hunters should spend time scouting their unit and becoming familiar with the habits of the bucks they will be chasing. He also mentioned that a never-quit attitude and the willingness to go the extra mile pay big dividends in the hills.
"Sometimes it seems hunters spend countless years waiting to draw a long-odds unit, but I like to hunt and want to have a tag in my pocket every year. I have killed monster bucks in units that most hunters ignore," Smith said.
A few units where hunters can start prospecting, and are known for their trophy potential in the northwest includes GMUs 12, 21, 22, 30, 31 and 40. Along the Western Slope and the rest of the southwest, many archery trophies fall in units 53, 54, 55, 551, 61, 66, 67, 71, 76, 77, 711 and 751.
Smokepole hunters take to the peaks in the middle part of September. Like archery hunters, they will find plenty of bucks above timberline across the state. During this phase of the year, bucks will be stripping their velvet and leaving sign on buckbrush, aspens and small pine saplings.
A muzzleloader hunter's approach to killing a buck is very similar to the techniques of archery hunters. The major difference is that muzzleloader hunters have extended range and can poke a buck from farther away. This allows hunters to get more aggressive and press in on bucks.
Bill Seamans, one of the savviest hunters I have ever had the privilege of hunting with, recommends GMUs 66, 67 and 76.
"Colorado has big bucks everywhere, but I'm mighty partial to the La Garita, Weminuche and South San Juan Wilderness areas," Seamans said. "These wildernesses have some colossal peaks, and hunters can really get away from the crowds and find some magnum bucks."
Once inside the boundaries of these wilderness areas or any high country destination, hunters should locate saddles and drainages that bucks will use when going to and from bedding areas.
Water is also a hot commodity in the high country. If you can find water, you'll find deer. After locating some prime spots, move to high points and spend time behind the glasses. Other productive muzzleloader areas include GMUs 43, 47, 48, 53, 54, 55 and 551.
This is the most disputed season in Colorado. Most hunters either love the first season or hate it. Those who love it cling to the fact that the muzzleloaders and archers don't put a lot of pressure on the deer, and love being the first guys in with the big guns. Another feature to those smitten with the first season is that foul weather typically isn't a major factor and the bucks are still high and visible. (Continued)
Deloy Cook of Big Gulch Ranching for Wildlife said that the first season could be a great time to be in the field.
"In my experience, you can still find the bucks in bachelor herds, and they are not nearly as skittish as they are during the second season," Cook said.
Andy Holland, a CDOW biologist, also pointed out that in popular southwest units, like 70, 71, 74, 75, 77, 78, 711, 751 and 771, the first season is great because most of the bucks are still high and on public ground.
"During the later seasons, the deer bail out of the high country and are found more on private tracts," said Holland.
On the other end of the spectrum are the hunters who hate the first season. The biggest reason for this is that weather can destroy a hunt real quick. A few wicked storms from Mother Nature and this season can be ruined. Bucks will dive into the dark timber and can be darn near impossible to find. Plus the rut has yet to kick in, so bucks won't be up chasing does.
The best bet for an early rifle hunt is
to apply in trophy units where there is a healthy mixture of high and low public access. Such areas include 3, 301, 11, 12, 22, 23, 211, 53, 54, 55, 66 and 67. All have big-buck potential and reasonable draw odds.
Second season usually occurs during the last few days of October and then into November. This season is popular among hunters.
The big bucks are starting some pre-rut harems and becoming more concerned with the ladies than danger. Smaller bucks carrying shattered headgear and trees that have been ripped to sheds are common sights during the second split.
Like the seasons before it, success during this phase of the game depends on weather. Experienced second-season hunters anticipate and expect snow and cooler temperatures. This brings many of the big bucks down from the high country and into more visible terrain. Cooler weather also keeps the deer out of their beds and up on their feet for longer periods of time.
Savvy hunters use the buddy system to locate big brutes. Guys armed with high-dollar glass will spread across the chosen unit and watch monsters travel into dense bedding areas. Then fleets of orange vests arrive and start pushing through thickets hoping to move the alarmed buck past a waiting hunter. Other top methods for this season include spot-and-stalk and waiting at pre-planned ambush sites.
Top second choice units include 12, 21, 22, 30, 43, 53, 54, 55, 61, 66, 67 and 76.
I doubt there is a more coveted rifle tag than a little blue tri-fold that reads "third season." The instant hunters see their good fortune on the CDOW Web site, visions of 30-inch racks start dancing in their heads. The reason for this, according to mule deer guru Grafton Singer, is the rut.
"You just see so many more trophies tailing does, and since nine times out of 10 we will have had some weather, bucks are down out of tree line," Singer said. "Most bucks are totally in love, making getting within rifle range of these old battlers a little easier."
Cook, of Big Gulch Ranching for Wildlife, backed up Singer's thoughts by saying that the third season is also a great time in the northwest.
"The snow is on the ground and the bucks are getting into the rut!" he said. "How can you get a better combination than that?"
The trick to success during third season is finding the ladies and spending plenty of time in the field.
This season can be stressful since it is typically only about five days long. Two days into the hunt, guys get nervous about filling their tags. They go ahead and pop an average deer.
Be in the field as much as possible -- glass, spot-and-stalk, ambush, grunt, rattle, snort-wheeze, do a deer drive, hang a tree stand -- whatever it takes. If you don't kill a trophy don't let it be from lack of effort.
A third-season hunter will also want to make sure that his unit has some lowland public tracts.
Another option, especially if you've waited years to draw the tag, is to hire a guide or pay a trespass fee. I've listened to many sad stories from guys who drew the tag of their dreams, showed up to hunt, and found a 40-acre public tract was their only option. In some cases, especially for non-residents, these tags can be once in a lifetime. Be sure to set yourself up for success.
Many of the top third-season units were mentioned with the second season picks. They're popular and productive: 21, 30, 43, 53, 54, 55, 61, 66, 67 and 551.
Time is a hunter's best friend, and when you draw a plains archery permit, you can count on plenty of it. Plains units that don't have a late rifle season allow hunters roughly 80 days to spend chasing deer. Those with a late-rifle season still offer bowhunters around 65 days of hunting enjoyment. This is wonderful for many reasons, but the biggest has to be the opportunity to hunt all phases of the whitetail and mule deer rut.
Look for early-season success in trophy units like 103, 109, 116, 117, 122, 125, 126, 127, 128, 129, 135, 136 and 142.
Patterning deer on early food sources and waiting them out in a ground blind or a tree stand is an important technique. Toward the middle to later part of October, the whitetails will start some pre-rutting activity. Calling from tree stands and blinds can be very effective. Mule deer will also start becoming more visible allowing more spot-and-stalk and ambush opportunities.
Cold November days will send the rut into overdrive and the once-cautious, nocturnal giants will turn into rut-crazed fools. The key during this phase of the rut is hunting from dawn to dark -- deer are on their feet and on the move.
After the rut, both bucks and does will want to replace depleted nutrients and rebuild their fat supply. Like the early season, food sources will be crucial, and whitetails and mule deer become more predictable. Doe bleats also work well at this time when big bucks search for those late cycling does.
Public land can be an issue along the plains, but many productive state wildlife areas, such as the South Republican (Bonny Reservoir) SWA in Unit 103, the Oxbow and Melon Valley SWAs in 125, Queens SWA in 127, John Martin Reservoir SWA in 146, and the Granada SWA in 132, offer great opportunity. Try and hit them during the middle of the week to avoid the crowds.
CDOW biologist Trent Verquer said that the Big Game Access Program has opened over 100,000 leased acres to hunters in eastern Colorado. This allows hunters access to areas once entirely private.
EARLY PLAINS RIFLE
Kicking off during the last week of October and running into the first week of November, the early Plains rifle season leaves hunters ample time to seek out a trophy. Whitetails, which inhabit nearly all eastern GMUs, are really getting into the seeking phase of the rut.
Mule deer bucks are starting to get wired up as well, and are gathering their ladies, but the onset of peak rut is several weeks away.
According to Jay Waring of Purgatory Outfitters, weather plays a big role in hunter success rates.
"Sometimes we will have an abnormally warm winter, which hinders deer movement," Waring said. "When the weather is warm, get a good vantage point in the mornings and evenings to catch deer moving to and from their bedroom."
If the weather is cold, Waring recommends covering lots of country and glassing often.
"Cooler temperatures," said Waring, "keep deer on their feet longer, which creates more opportunity for hunters to see and get on a trophy buck."
The Comanche National Grasslands in units 135, 136, 137, 139 and 144 sp
an 435,000 acres and offer prime big-buck habitat.
LATE PLAINS RIFLE
A highly sought-after tag such as this means a waiting period, but it's worth all those rejection letters once the tag is drawn and the hunt date sinks in.
Typically spanning the first 15 days of December, this tag puts hunters in the field with long-range weapons during the mule deer rut.
Once invisible trophies now roam snow-blanketed sage flats and cedar-lined hillsides.
Taking down a monster requires patience and lots of time behind a pair of glasses or spotting scope. The deer will be out and about, so hunters can expect to see plenty of deer each day. The trick is holding out for that once-in-a-lifetime trophy, and then executing a well-planned stalk.
Hunters can access WMAs, but this is one time when I truly recommend hiring a guide. This holds especially true for out-of-state hunters who have not had adequate time to scout.
Reputable guides like Waring have access to prime land and are constantly scouting their areas for massive bucks.
Hunters with a December tag who chose to seek out a whitetail should concentrate on food sources. Peak breeding is over and the deer will start congregating around winter food sources, such as corn, wheat and maize.
Regardless of where or what season you plan to track down a wallhanger buck, stay patient and diligent.
Plenty of giants call the Centennial State home. They could make trophy dreams come true.