Rifling Around Craig

With plenty of public land nearby and an abundance of some of the largest deer herds in the Centennial State, Craig is at the center of one of Colorado's hottest deer-hunting areas.

The vast majority of the mule deer present during the hunting seasons arrive around Craig as part of their annual migration from high elevations to the more temperate desert, sage and rolling hill country. A barren and dry hillside will show little signs of life in early August but will be covered with deer sign in November. Photo courtesy of Royal Tine Images.

Colorado offers the dedicated deer hunter many opportunities to harvest a deer to fill the freezer or decorate a wall. One month of archery hunting, one week of muzzleloader hunting, and four distinct rifle hunting seasons give the big-game sportsman almost three months of combined deer hunting opportunities.

Arguably, some of the best opportunities to harvest that buck or doe occur during rifle seasons in and around the town of Craig. With the amount of public land nearby, the readily available deer tags over the counter, and the sheer numbers of deer, Craig is at the center of one of Colorado's hottest deer-hunting areas.

FACTS AND FIGURES
Before you hunt any area, whether you simply pick a new spot from the map or you have just read about one in an outdoors magazine, it is important to review the location/regional hunting statistics, the deer harvest reports and the availability of deer tags for that area. Let's begin with some basic demographics.

According to the Craig Chamber of Commerce, Moffat County has a full-time population of slightly under 14,000 people. These 14,000 live on more than 3 million acres of land, of which about 1.7 million is public land. You can do the math if you like, but the bottom line is there is a whole mess of land for you to hunt on in and around Craig in Moffat County.

Moffat County also carries part or all of 11 game management units within its boundaries, but we'll focus on the seven -- GMUs 003, 004, 301, 441, 013, 012, and 211 -- that surround Craig. In any case, there is plenty of room for deer hunters to hunt just about anywhere they choose in the county.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife's hunting statistics reveal the benefits of deer hunting around Craig. In 2009 some 7,000 area deer hunters harvested 3,814 deer on the Craig area GMUs. Collectively, hunter success on the seven GMUs is about 54 percent, almost 11 percent higher than the statewide hunter-success average.

Those harvest numbers include all manners of legal deer hunting, but the majority of deer harvested were taken during the rifle season. The total deer kill among the GMUs is strong, but the number is fairly low when considering the harvest numbers compiled over the past 10 years or so. Warm and mild winters always result in lower numbers of deer down, and the Craig area has seen unusually mild winters the last several years. More on that later.

In 2009, the CDOW estimated the post-hunting populations of deer to be very high in the Craig area. While the Craig-area GMUs are not found in any one particular Data Analysis Unit (DUA), the DUAs that contain the areas in question both hold tens of thousands of deer. The statistics provided tell a very simple tale: If you hunt around Craig, you are likely to fill your freezer!

Determining that any hunting area features good land access and holds good numbers of deer is one thing. Making sure you can draw a deer tag for that area can be an entirely different story. For both local and out-of-state deer hunters in the Craig area, deer tags are nearly no issue. For example, 985 hunters in 2009 applied for a buck tag in GMU 004 for the second rifle season; 100 percent of those hunters received their tags. During the same sample period, 566 hunters applied for buck tags in GMU 003, and a slightly lower percent of hunters -- 99 percent to be exact --received their tags.

Generally speaking, the buck and doe draws are very similar for every GMU near Craig. Many of the units also come in under the CDOW's license goals, so leftover tags are always available over the counter to individuals after the normal draw. In these cases, a hunter could pick up a buck tag during the draw, and a doe tag as a leftover. Not all areas will have tags available, and not all areas and hunting seasons offer so many leftover tags; but one can see nearly every hunter who wants one holds a high likelihood of obtaining a deer tag for the GMUs around Craig.

The only thing that pushes deer out of their summer range is the difficulty in getting there or to food. High alpine fields get covered with snow and ice, and the effort required to maintain those vital calories increases. Consequently, the deer (and elk, too) move lower where less severe weather has left more accessible food. Photo by Ken Archer.

HUNTING SEASONS AND TIMING
Hunting for deer in Colorado means sportsmen must choose between bowhunting, using a muzzleloader to tag your deer, or general rifle hunting. Making your choice (or combination of choices) means you can start deer hunting at the end of August using a bow, stoke up your favorite muzzleloader in the middle of September, and/or go after deer during three seasons (depending upon your specific deer tag) of rifle hunting from October through November. (Author's note: Colorado has four rifle seasons, but only the last three are available for deer hunters. The first rifle season, is a limited draw, elk only season.)

Combining your choice of firearms hunting can extend your season, too. For example, applying for a buck tag for the muzzleloader loader season can be combined with picking up an over-the-counter doe tag for the rifle season. If you want to add more adventure into your hunting portfolio, apply for a rifle tag and hunt it with your bow. You will need to wear blaze orange, but you can always use a "lesser" firearm than what you actually have "in" your tag (bow during muzzleloader, muzzleloader during rifle, etc).

Timing counts a lot with hunting, of course, and even more for hunting the Craig-area GMUs. Almost all the land across these hunting units is affected by deer migration during the late fall and early winter months. Whitetail hunters may find this a foreign subject, but this is mule deer country and mule deer move.

Good numbers of mulies remain in and around Craig during the entire year. Some hide along river vegetation, in farm fields and close to natural springs. But the vast majority of the mule deer present during the hunting seasons arrive a

s part of their annual migration from high elevations to the more temperate desert, sage and rolling hill country. A barren and dry hillside will show little signs of life in early August but will be covered with deer sign in November.

This is where timing (and weather) plays a critical role. Mild winters can mean lower harvest numbers for deer, as Craig-area deer hunters of recent seasons will attest. In most cases, the only thing that pushes deer and elk out of their summer range is the difficulty in getting to either summer range or food. High alpine fields get covered with snow and ice, and the effort required to maintain those vital calories increases. Consequently, animals move lower where less severe weather has left more accessible food. However, when winter is mild and food is available, there is little reason for the deer to move to lower ground.

The good news for deer hunters in Craig is that the CDOW has extended and moved some of the rifle seasons. The second rifle season now covers two weekends, spanning Oct. 23-31. This pushes the third rifle season into mid-November -- a week later than in previous years and more into the actual "winter season."

GREAT DESTINATIONS
With so much public land at a deer hunter's disposal around Craig, a lifetime of hunting trips can pass before visiting the same draw, canyon or valley floor twice. Here are couple of the best local destinations

County Road 7
County Road 7, heading northwest from the town of Craig, takes you to the centers of GMUs 003 and 301. Dozens and dozens of two-wheel tracks and 4x4 trails leave CR 7, heading up countless valleys, gulches, springs, draws and mini mountains covered with pinion pines.

If the winters are mild, hunters are faced with very little snow in this area, and the key to taking a deer here are the water resources. With many natural springs, and run-off from the Snake and Yampa rivers, this shouldn't be a problem.

On the other side of the coin, you could drive up the day prior to your hunting season and face extremely cold temperatures and several inches of snow. In that case, cover and food resources will lead you to your deer. Look for high-density pinion pine groves. These thick evergreens provide deer with shelter from the wind and cover in which to hide from hunters.

The good news for deer hunters in Craig is that the CDOW has extended and moved some of the rifle seasons. The second rifle season now covers two weekends, spanning Oct. 23-31. This pushes the third rifle season into mid-November -- a week later than in previous years and more into the actual "winter season." Photo by Mike Blair.

Axial Basin
Located south of the Yampa River and halfway between Craig and Meeker, the Axial Basin is a huge swath of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. It holds impressive numbers of large bucks.

Traveling between the private sections of land along the Yampa River and the Danforth Hills areas to the south, deer move and move often throughout this area. Three state wildlife areas serve as good starting points, but with consistent hunting pressure, the more you walk away from roads the better your odds will be for getting your deer.

SCOUTING
Scouting an area is the best way to learn the lay of the land and track the movement of game animals. When you're planning a hunt to the Craig area, the best time to scout is late November or early December, after the last of the big-game hunting seasons.

That's right. You want to scout after the last of the seasons to help determine what you'll do the next season. The deer and elk at the higher elevations around Craig only come down to the lower elevations in the fall and winter. Visiting the winter migration routes and discovering how the natural topography channels deer travel is best seen with live animals and fresh sign. Scouting this area in the spring will give a poor impression of the potential for game because all the animals are gone and all the sign will be old.

HOW TO HUNT CRAIG DEER
There are, indeed, a lot of deer in the vicinity of Craig. So, there's a bunch of deer hunters, as well. Unfortunately, some hunters will hunt from running cars or use ATVs to chase after deer. Others intentionally attempt to "train" every deer they encounter to avoid people in blaze orange.

For these reasons, the best hunting advice I can give to deer hunters around Craig is to get off the roads and put some miles into your boots. While there are many dirt roads and 4x4 paths crisscrossing the county, vast sections of raw land lie in wait of your footfalls. Yep, a good pair of boots can lead you into some awfully good-looking deer country. Put in some time looking at maps, find some hidden pockets, and you'll soon be onto the deer you've come to chase.

Since we have established that most of the deer you will see in and around Craig have already seen and/or heard other hunters, a fine hunting strategy is to plan an ambush. Deer migration paths and daily travel routes are fairly well established and very easy to identify in the field. Position yourself at an elevated vantage point -- say, on a bluff or at the top of a rolling hill -- and glass the several hundred yards below you. You'll easily see a lot more deer in this way than if you were to simply just hike through the country.

All the deer I have killed in the Craig area over the past five years were taken only after I decided to just simply sit and wait for the deer to come to me. I have had friends shoot deer after waking from a nap. Many times, deer have walked within 50 yards of me while I'm field dressing a deer shot just moments earlier.

Believe me, if you can hoof-it into the field early and park yourself, you will see deer. Don't forget the binoculars for glassing and the shooting sticks for support on long shots.

IMPORTANT REMINDERS
Carrying up-to-date topography and BLM maps is critical when deer hunting the areas around Craig.

Mixed in with thousands of acres of public property are scattered sections of government leases and private lands. Most of the time, these parcels are not clearly marked, if marked at all. Several government and private sections also are leased out to outfitters during hunting season.

With good maps on hand, you're one step closer to finding find those hidden nuggets of land, especially those sections of state-trust lands or BLM tracts that are mostly surrounded by private property.

Call ahead of your hunt and get maps, directions and hours of operation of the local meat processors and taxidermists. With the number of deer in this area, chances are good you will need that information. With these resources already in your truck, you'll not waste time trying to find a phone book or a cell signal a

t 10 pm with a deer in the back of the pickup.

The land around the town of Craig seems to defy the traditional deer hunting rules. Hunting pressure is high, yet the deer come back to the same fields and draws every night and every morning. If you're looking for the surest way to fill a deer tag in Colorado this season, look no farther than Craig. It could be the deer-hunting capital of Colorado.

Good luck and good hunting.

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.