Excelling At Eastern Plains Deer Hunting

Excelling At Eastern Plains Deer Hunting

Want to bag a whitetail and mule deer on Colorado's plains? Here are your very best options. (December 2008)

Having a late-season Eastern Plains deer tag is pure torture!

Chris Madden shows the kind of whitetail bucks that inhabit the Eastern Plains.
Photo by Ralph Zimmerman.

Last summer, December seemed like light years away. And to make matters worse, your hunting buddies keep inundating you with their trophy tales. Snapshots of monster bucks downed in previous months pour into the local sporting-goods store. It's all but impossible to turn on the television without seeing a wide rack.

But December, as well as it hid itself, has finally rolled around. Now it's your turn to attach that tag to a heavy-horned brute.

To help stack the odds in your favor, it's important to be savvy to the habits of both the whitetails and the mule deer that call the Plains home.

WHITETAILS
"Change" is the word that best sums up what hunters must do to capitalize on a late-season whitetail trophy.

Those days of wide-eyed wallhangers chasing hot does around the clock have come and gone. Rut-worn warriors are now running on a depleted fat supply and will be hitting the groceries hard. During the hours when they're not feeding, they'll take up residence in thick, nasty cover close to their food source. That gives you several options to explore.

Option 1: Field-Hunting
For rifle hunters, this very well may be the very best way to punch a tag on a December buck.

Deer quickly establish a feeding routine and, if left undisturbed, will continue in this pattern.

Your job is to pinpoint where deer are entering to find food, play the wind correctly, and set up a blind or tree stand within 150 yards.

When I'm field-hunting, I typically stick to evening ventures. Deer feed throughout the night. Embarking on a morning hunt greatly increases the risk of bumping deer, and that could change their pattern. (Continued)

Ralph Zimmerman has been chasing Eastern Plains deer for two decades and has 10 Pope and Young deer to his credit. He said that using a ground blind along a field edge -- if you do it properly -- is a great way to bag a late-season buck.

"The biggest mistake I see people make is popping up a blind and not taking the time to properly brush it in," said Zimmerman.

"You're hunting at eye level, and this changes things drastically. Plains deer are keen to any change."

Option 2: Trails, Transitions
During midday, pull on some rubber boots, spray yourself down with scent killer and follow a couple of trails off field edges, back into the timber. Look for areas where multiple trails intersect one another. Periodically throughout the day and night, deer will amble though them.

Many times, the buck that pops into the field just as shooting light fades is the same one you could have killed 20 minutes earlier, back in the woods.

When you're hunting in deep, a trail cam can be your best friend.

Zimmerman said that after the rut, the real monsters will slip right back into their nocturnal mode.

Option 3: Hit The Hay
If you hunt the bedding area, slip in under stealth mode and get into your stand under the cover of darkness. Now it's time to settle in and keep excess movements and noise to a minimum.

You have rolled the dice and entered the deer's domain. You will be hunting in tight quarters, and visibility will be limited, but he'll have no problem picking you out -- bedroom bucks miss nothing!

It may take hours for a big buck to meander from the field to his bed. Every fifteen minutes, let out a series of estrus bleats and buck grunts.

In most cases, the buck will appear suddenly, like a ghost. Stay focused and ready to capitalize on any split-second opportunity.

MULE DEER
Hunting these big-eared beasts requires a different approach. For starters, move out of the agricultural lands and into the sand-sage and canyon country. There may be a few mulies lingering around those fields and woodlots, but not many.

Trent Verquer, CDOW biologist for the southeastern region, said that post-season inventory flights showed fewer than 100 mule deer residing along hundreds of miles of the Arkansas River bottom.

And this seems to be the case across the rest of the Plains as well.

Option 1: Glassing, Stalking
Big mulies inhabit big country, and it's not uncommon to spend hours peering through a spotting scope or a quality pair of binoculars.

Be patient and dissect the country piece by piece. Once you've spotted a worthy animal, don't rush. Evaluate your options and pick out several distinguishable landmarks between you and your quarry.

If the situation allows, let the buck bed. This ups your odds of success.

Option 2: Calling
The idea of calling in mature bucks falls outside the norms of mule deer hunting. However, it can produce results.

Three CDOW biologists we interviewed agreed that on the Eastern Plains, the mule deer's rut seems to fire up during the last week of November and run strong through the first 10 to 14 days of December.

The bucks will be chasing does and fighting off rivals.

PUBLIC LAND HOTSPOTS
Here are a few late-season beauties to help kick-start your research. If you decide to explore one of these areas, make sure that it falls within the game management unit where your license is valid.

Southeast

  • Comanche National Grasslands: These huge grasslands run from the tiny town of Delhi to the Oklahoma state line. Here you can find large and small parcels of huntable acres, crawling with both whitetails and mule deer.

    The Delhi/Timpas area has mixed terrain that ranges from sage-covered prairie to deep canyons. Farther east towards the towns of Pritchett and Campo, hunters will encounter a combination of CRP fields and vast expanses of open rangeland.

    To get there

    , take Highway 109 south of La Junta to prime country. Thirteen miles down 109, take a right on CR 802, and continue for eight miles to CR 25. Turn left on CR 25 and proceed six miles to the Picket Wire Corrals.

    To access other areas of the grasslands, call the Timpas Office at (719) 384-2181 to obtain a detailed map.

  • Oxbow SWA: This small 700-acre tract offers great late-season possibilities. Verquer pointed out that the property receives a lot of early-season pressure, which tapers off substantially later in the winter.

    "The property sits in a great location bordering Bents Fort land and private acres. A lot of good deer in the area pass through the SWA. We removed tons of tamaracks, which might deter some of the whitetails, especially along the river. But it opens things up for the mule deer," said Verquer.

    Archery hunters typically do well here, and some rifle hunters have reported success in the fields just south of the river.

    Head east out of La Junta on Highway 50 for about seven miles. A sign clearly marks the SWA, which lies north of the highway.

  • John Martin Reservoir SWA: Decreasing water levels on this reservoir have allowed numerous cottonwoods and tamaracks to shoot up. That has added to the already excellent habitat on this 22,325-acre wildlife area, which boasts a healthy population of both species of deer.

    "The dense cover is more conducive to whitetails, and there seems to be more of them," Verquer said. "But along the south side, west of the trestle, we have several acres of sand sage where mule deer roam."

    He recommended that hunters check out Rural Creek, the Keller Tract, the south shoreline and the State Trust Parcel.

    From the town of Las Animas, drive 20 miles east on Highway 50 to Hasty. In Hasty, turn right on School Street and proceed two miles to the SWA.

  • Granada SWA is a 3,672-acre whitetail paradise! Here, the heavily timbered Arkansas River bottom gives way to both dry land and irrigated agricultural fields.

    Recent flight surveys showed 396 whitetails residing in the area.

    There are also some new agricultural plans on the SWA.

    "In the past, we planted a lot of hay grazer," Verquer said, "but we're now incorporating more wheat, corn and milo. These provide substantial food sources for the deer and hold them in the area during the cold winter months when food is scarce."

    From Granada, go north on Highway 385. Turn east on Half Street and go 1.7 miles to the wildlife area.

Central

  • Flagler SWA is a 400-acre youth-only area, but don't let its size deter you. Near the headwaters of the South Republican River, a good stand of cottonwoods holds a healthy population of whitetails. A few mule deer linger in the area as well.

    Senior terrestrial biologist Brian Dreher said that because the tract is restricted to youths, it receives very little pressure.

    "Youths and their mentors typically have great experiences in the area and find plenty of deer," he said.

    Take Road U, five miles east out of Flagler to the SWA.

  • Bonny SWA: Its 10,000 acres swallow up nearly all the river bottom property in GMU 103, making it a worthwhile destination.

    Dreher said that the landscape is more whitetail-friendly, but there are some mule deer as well.

    "I believe it to be one of the top areas in the state to hunt. But because it's so large and the terrain is so rough, hunters can expect to put in some hard work," he said.

    "If they do, they should experience success and have a great hunt."

    If you're looking to hunt here in the future, know that it takes several points to draw a rifle or bow tag.

    Go north on Highway 385 out of Burlington past the Yuma County line. There are plenty of signs pointing to the SWA, which lies on the east side of 385.Northeastern

    This area of the state is home to a plethora of wildlife areas. But terrestrial biologist Marty Stratman has narrowed the search.

  • Bravo SWA: Its 1,082 acres corral nearly six miles of the South Platte River. Travel is restricted to good old-fashioned manual horsepower. According to Stratman, hunters should have no problem finding deer and solitude.

    "For its size, it just doesn't get much pressure," he said. "Guys who do some work and get off the beaten path usually have great success.

    "The area is surrounded by privately owned agricultural fields, and we have food plots planted inside the SWA. The deer love it!"

    As far as the whitetail-to-mulie ratio goes, hunters can expect whitetails 99 percent of the time. There are also a few rogue mule deer that hang in the bottoms.

    From Sterling, travel half a mile west on Highway 6 to CR 370, then proceed 1.7 miles northeast to the SWA.

  • Sandy Bluffs SWA spans a couple of miles along the Arikaree River. Here, hunters have a good chance of running into a mix of whitetail and mule deer.

    "Sandy Bluffs has plenty of both species, and we have a lot of agriculture in the area," said biologist Stratman. "Most of the fields are State Trust Land, which can be hunted and are great during the late season.

    "We even have some big irrigated circles that put out a lot of feed for the deer. Mix that with good cover along the Arikaree and you have a solid deer recipe."

    From Idalia, take CR Double D north for 8 1/2 miles to the wildlife area.

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