The Great, Late Deer Seasons!

The Great, Late Deer Seasons!

It'll be harder to stay warm. It gets darker earlier. But Colorado deer hunters score best in the later seasons. (November 2007)

Try to get a late-season tag so you have a better chance of running into a few Colorado bucks like these.
Photo by Holger Jensen.

When I lived in Montana 20 years ago, we hunted our elk early and our deer late. Although there was a 45-day season for both species in those days, few locals went after deer before Thanksgiving weekend. By then, the rut was in full swing, and it was a lot easier to connect with a buck besotted by lust than one who still had all his wits about him.

The same holds true for Colorado. Although half the deer hunters in the Centennial State seem to prefer October, those who hunt the third and fourth rifle seasons in November are more successful. And those who apply for late-season hunts in December do better yet.

Take last year, for example. Elk hunters who drew tags for the limited first rifle season (which spans five days in mid-October and is not open to deer hunting) achieved an impressive 32 percent success rate. This was well above the statewide average of 24 percent for all elk seasons and all manners of take.

But elk hunters' success dropped to 22 percent in the second rifle season and 19 percent in the third season before climbing up again to 27 percent in the fourth season.

For deer hunters, exactly the opposite was true. Although hunter success averaged 51 percent in all rifle seasons open for deer, the breakdown tells a different story. Of the 78,802 hunters who hunted deer with rifles last year, nearly half -- 37,421, to be precise -- drew tags for the second rifle season in late October.

Although it's nearly twice as long as the other seasons, spanning nine days instead of five, it's least successful for deer hunters: Last year, they scored 45 percent on bucks and 41 percent on does. In contrast, the 27,912 hunters who drew third-season tags for early November scored much higher -- 56 percent on bucks and 46 percent on does. And in their mid-November hunt, fourth-season hunters (a tiny minority of 3,462) scored 49 percent on bucks and 40 percent on does.

Here it should be noted that very few tags are issued for the fourth rifle season, and even fewer for later special seasons that coincide with the rut. Also, buck hunters in Colorado are traditionally more successful than doe hunters, even though does outnumber bucks by more than three to one.

That's because three times as many buck licenses are issued as for does, and because buck hunters take their quarry more seriously. Many buck hunters will buy an extra doe tag -- additional, or List B, doe licenses are available in 94 of the state's 180 game management units -- with no intention of using it unless they don't get their buck. And many elk hunters buy doe tags as an afterthought. "If I run across one, I'll shoot it," they tell themselves, with no real intentions of hunting female deer.

That said, hunters bagged 44,784 deer last year -- about 3,000 more than in 2005. That reflects a steady increase in the deer population and harvests set by the Colorado Wildlife Commission. Buck-doe ratios have also increased, from an average of 15 per 100 to 30 per 100 statewide.

In 64 of the GMUs, they average even higher than that: as high as 60 bucks per 100 does in some units. And buck quality is such that every hunter stands a chance of bagging a decent 4-pointer.

Said the DOW's Tyler Baskfield, "You can't go wrong with a deer tag anywhere in this state. And hunters should be selective. Don't shoot the first horns you see, because you're bound to find some better."

In other words, forget about those so-called "trophy units" that require large numbers of preference points -- one for every year of waiting -- before you stand a chance of getting a tag. In Colorado, every GMU is a potential trophy unit. Two examples:

Last year, Rob Wright, a duck-hunting buddy, shot a 10x7 mulie that scored 195 1/8. It was the first day of his first-ever deer hunt. That is, he was very inexperienced, and the unit where he hunted -- GMU 82 at the top end of the San Luis Valley -- was hardly considered a trophy area.

Nor is GMU 38, where I live, in the mountains an hour's drive from Colorado's capital. "My" unit covers parts of Jefferson, Boulder, Gilpin and Clear Creek counties, stretching from the foothills west of Denver up to the Continental Divide. Two years ago, I sacrificed two preference points for a December hunt in Jeffco's Centennial Cone Park. I saw four nice bucks in the first two hours, bagged a 7x5 within sight of the Denver skyline and was home by noon.

All this is thanks to draw-hunting, instituted by the state Wildlife Commission in 1999 to reverse what had been a steady decline in deer numbers. Back in the winter of 1983-84, heavy snows killed numbers of adult deer and resulted in only 5 percent fawn survival.

Subsequent winterkills also took their toll, as did drought, Chronic Wasting Disease, predation by mountain lions, human encroachment on winter range and unlimited hunting. While fawns usually die of malnutrition or predation, hunting accounts for most adult buck and doe deaths.

To reverse the trend, the Wildlife Commission abolished over-the-counter buck licenses, reduced the annual allotment of doe tags and limited all deer hunting to a spring draw.

The results were not long in coming. As deer numbers rebounded, hunter success soared: from a low of 27 percent in 1998 to 46 percent in 2004 -- the highest in 26 years. Nearly 4,000 more bucks were harvested in 2004 than in 2003.

The number of trophies was so impressive that a deer license auctioned by the Colorado Mule Deer Association for the 2005 season went for $115,000 -- the highest price obtained for a deer tag in any Western state except Arizona.

For three years now, success rates for rifle hunters have hovered around 50 percent, meaning one in two hunters bagged a buck. Last year, for the first time in 20 years, the deer population exceeded minimum objectives set by the Division of Wildlife.

This year's post-hunt projection of 606,650 deer statewide is again over the DOW's minimum objective of 603,320, and not far below their long-range target of 614,020.

The area west of Interstate 25 harbors 95 percent of the Colorado's deer population. Most are mule deer, but the total population is estimated at 576,590.

In the

plains east of I-25, the mix of whitetails and mule deer is estimated at 32,260. This year again, as in three prior years, the Wildlife Commission has increased the number of deer hunting licenses.

West of the freeway, the allocation increased 1 percent more for bucks, 3 percent for either-sex tags and 7 percent for does. East of I-25, it went up 3 percent for bucks, 16 percent for either-sex and 6 percent for does.

The large increases in antlerless and either-sex tags reflect the division's desire to cut deer numbers in units where many licenses go unsold every year. Last year, for example, about 5,000 licenses went begging in the White River drainage.

If you opted for a statistical edge and less crowded hunting conditions, chances are you applied for one of two November rifle hunts. Virtually no preference points are needed for most mountain units in the third season, which this year runs Nov. 3 through 9. Points are needed for the much more limited fourth season, which runs Nov. 14 through 18. But even then, hunters can secure a hunt in some units with only one point.

SURVIVING THE LATE SEASONS

Snow is a sure bet on any November hunt in the mountains and a distinct possibility in the plains, where the late rifle season spans the first two weeks of December. So be prepared for weather.

High-country hunters, especially those who backpack into wilderness areas, need to choose an escape route before a campsite. If it starts snowing heavily -- say, a foot an hour -- it's time to flee. A backpacker's camp, lacking a wall tent and wood-burning stove, is no place to sit out a heavy snowstorm that may last for days.

And if it's snowing so hard the trail will become impassable in a few hours, don't even waste time breaking camp. Leave your stuff where it is and come back for it later.

Rule No. 1: Never go into a wilderness area by yourself. Unavoidable accidents do happen. Learn how to use a compass, take a map of the area and orient yourself before leaving camp. If you do plan to go hunting alone, tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return. If you change your general area, tell someone of that change.

Always carry a survival kit -- and know how to use it. (In the hands of someone who does not know how to use it, a "survival" kit can kill.)

Such a kit should include a knife, waterproof matches, compass, reflective survival blanket, high-energy food, water purification tablets, first aid kit, whistle and unbreakable signal mirror.

If you get lost, sit down, regain your composure and think for a few minutes. Many times, those who are lost can figure out where they went wrong and make it back to camp.

If you truly don't know where you are, stay put. You will be found if you followed Rule No. 1.

The late "Papa Bear" Whitmore was a survival expert who taught Navy Seals, Green Berets and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police -- along with Colorado Hunter Education courses. He used to say that survival is 80 percent attitude, 10 percent equipment, and 10 percent skill. His most important advice: "The best survival tool is your head. Use it."

HUNTING THE LATE SEASONS

As for hunting the late seasons, concentrate on south-facing slopes. Snow melts here first, exposing food for deer. If it's snowing heavily, hunt creek bottoms and mountain hollows protected from the wind or heavily timbered slopes where deer will sit out the storms.

THIRD SEASON

If you didn't draw a tag for this year and are planning for next year, the third rifle season is your best bet.

1. It offers the largest allocation of deer hunting licenses for November,

2. Demands few, if any, preference points to access most game management units west of the Divide, and

3. Promises high hunter-success rates on bucks.

Last year, five GMUs in the northwest region boasted better than 80 percent hunter success, and none needed a preference point for either residents or non-residents. Of nearly 3,000 hunters who drew tags for those units, 84 percent bagged a buck in Unit 3, 93 percent in Unit 301, 87 percent in Unit 11, 81 percent in Unit 211 and 81 percent in Unit 22.

Far fewer deer licenses are issued for the fourth rifle season, which runs Nov. 14 through 18 this year and sometimes overlaps with the start of the mule deer rut.

Some game management units that were open in the third rifle season are closed in the fourth. Others that require no preference points in the third may demand several in the fourth.

For example, units 3, 301 and 22 jumped from zero points in the third season to 4 points for residents -- and 8 for non-residents -- in the fourth season. And out-of-state hunters needed up to 13 points to access popular units in the Gunnison Basin.

Nevertheless, first check out www.wildlife.state.co.us/Hunting/BigGame/Statistics, the DOW's Web page, for hunt recaps, preference points and stats. You'll see some units where you don't need a lot of points to draw a tag. Last year, hunters needed only one point to draw in eight mountain units where success rates ranged from 63 to 83 percent.

While Colorado has more early-season hunts than late-season hunts for deer, few allow bucks or does to be taken during the rut. The number of licenses issued for these hunts is very limited. Those hunting on Colorado's military reservations require additional permits from the Army or Air Force.

Currently, late-season buck hunts are offered in GMU 38 west of Denver, the U.S. Air Force Academy (GMU 512), the Army's Pinon Canyon maneuver site (GMU 142) and Fort Carson (GMU 591).

All require preference points for bucks, but they're well worth waiting for. Hunter-success rates, especially on the military reservations, can reach 100 percent.

Colorado also has 60 plains units where the regular rifle season runs later than in the mountains -- this year, from Oct. 27 through Nov. 6.

Most of these units also have a two-week late season, Dec. 1 through 14, which allows hunters to take advantage of the latter part of the rut.

And four have a whitetails-only late season in addition to hunts that allow the taking of either species.

Not many tags are issued on the eastern plains: fewer than 200 per unit for both rifle seasons, and some in the double digits only. Almost all the plains units require preference points, especially those that have State Wildlife Areas open to public hunting. Those that don't, usually cover private land where you should secure landowner permission before even applying for

a license.

However, some farms and ranches in southeast Colorado are being opened to hunting under a Big Game Access Pilot Program launched by the Division of Wildlife this year.

Modeled after the walk-in program for pheasant hunters -- which has opened up more than 10,000 acres of privately-owned farmland to bird hunters in the Eastern Plains -- the new big-game program allows deer and pronghorn hunters to enter specific properties with a $40 access permit sold by the DOW.

If the experiment is successful, more private property will be signed up in future years.

One last word of advice: If you're new to Colorado and want to explore a game unit before putting in for a buck tag, then apply for a doe license. They're easy to get, especially in the northwest region where deer are almost too plentiful. Doe hunting is a good way to get the lay of the land --not to mention putting meat in the freezer!

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