Southwest Deer Forecast for 2016
December 07, 2016
To find an overlooked Southwestern buck you'll need a quality pair of hiking boots, a frame pack to get your animal out, detailed maps, and patience. Plan to go to the most difficult spots to reach and to walk each day from one to five miles from your base camp to hunt. Other recommendations from local hunters we've consulted include being extremely accurate with archery gear out to 80 yards and hunting with a buddy.
Amber Munig, big game project management program supervisor for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, advised: "Arizona has Coues whitetails and mule deer. Search for woodland areas deep into the game management units, well away from roads for Coues in the southeastern section of the state. The units along the Arizona/Mexico border have good populations of Coues deer, including Units 29, 30A, 30B, 34A, 34B, 35A, 35B, 36A, 36B and 36C. You can apply to hunt Coues and mule deer, but when you draw a tag, the tag only will be good for either species."
Fewer populations of Coues whitetails live above the Mogollon Rim that runs from the northwest to the east/central section of Arizona. All Arizona deer hunts are draw hunts, except for archery. Most of the archery deer hunts in any unit are for any antlered buck during August, September and the latter half of December and January. Check the regulations for each unit you plan to hunt, and make sure you only take a buck that's legal in that unit. All of the regulations by units are on the department website.
Munig mentioned that archery hunting success for over the counter tags is only about 9 percent statewide, compared to a firearms hunt where the success ratio is about 20 to 25 percent. Generally that's due to archery shots of 50 to 100 yards, with many variables that can affect the arrow's flight. These factor include wind, uphill or downhill shooting and misjudging the distance.
The more southern regions where hunting for Coues deer is more popular — primarily Units 1-8 — may offer you better opportunities for bigger Coues.
"Archery hunting for deer crosses over into to our quail season," Munig explained. "Consider hunting Units 22 and 23 with their good whitetail populations and plenty of places available to hike deeper into the units away from the roads to harvest a really nice Coues buck."
For overlooked mule deer, follow Munig's Coues hunt plan. Hunt well away from any established roads and plan to venture deeper into the unit than most hunters.
"Some of our desert mule deer units like Units 39-45 are limited tag units and have low density mule deer populations. But once deep in those units, you'll have a better than average chance of harvesting a very nice mule deer buck."
Two of the most popular places for mule deer are the Kaibab units, including north Kaibab units 12A and 12B, north of the Colorado River. Arizona Strip units 13A and 13B primarily home trophy mule deer. The demand for tags for the units far exceeds the supply of tags available. To draw those units requires the maximum number of bonus points, about 19. The first part of the draw is for the maximum point hunters, and the remaining 80 percent of those tags go into a lottery.
As Munig mentions, "Even archery hunters have to apply for a tag to hunt these four units. But in most of the state, you can purchase over the counter tags for mule deer archery."
If you're an archery hunter with an over the counter archery tag, Munig suggests Unit 1 in central/eastern Arizona, close to the New Mexico border, for an overlooked buck.
"We had a fire that went through this unit about 4-5 years ago, and the habitat opened up in that unit, allowing the mule deer population to grow quickly. If you're willing to hike in well past the roads, you may find a pocket of land that's holding mature mule deer."
Rocky Mountain Game & Fish contacted avid deer hunters in New Mexico and asked, "Where would you go if you wanted to find and take a nice overlooked Coues whitetail buck or a mature mule deer buck in New Mexico's Game Management Units?"
Troy Grogan, of Farmington, N.M., said: "Locating an overlooked trophy deer in New Mexico is difficult. I hunt the trophy units, and to get a tag, I have to go through the draw, which sometimes may take 12 years. I also put in for archery tags in areas not considered good places to hunt — often with smaller populations of deer."
Grogan recommends that you apply for a tag where not many mule deer live, because these spots probably require more hunting skills and longer hunts than most hunters want to do. Archery tags are easier to get than firearms tags, but your chances for taking a buck may be reduced when bowhunting.
"Most of the hunters I know of use as a general rule of thumb to locate big mule deer by drawing a tag where the numbers of mule deer are very sparse and plan to hunt with archery tackle," Grogan explains. "In those units, more skill as a hunter and as an archer often are required to take a buck than is required in the units that have high deer densities and heavy hunting pressure. I try to draw units 2B and 2C, which home some mature mule deer. I prefer to hunt these units with a gun, although getting an archery tag there is easier."
Grogan recommends you look for cedar trees and thick brush, since archery hunters prefer to see mule deer at great distances and then spot and stalk them. Units 2B and 2C have numbers of roads that lead to natural gas pumps. Mature mule deer like to hide in thick cover from the hunting pressure. Grogan mentions that the best Coues deer hunting is in the southern part of the state, and he seldom hunts that area.
Brian Moseley of Bloomfield, N.M., primarily hunts mule deer. But the noted that he also tries to hunt Coues deer as often as possible.
"Most of the local hunters talk about Unit 2 as being the best to hunt mule deer, but I've found this unit is only very good in January, Moseley reported. "I hunt mule deer in the Gila National Forest units 15-17 and in the southwestern part of New Mexico in units 23 and 24."
Unit 2 becomes good for taking mule deer when the snow from Colorado drives deer into New Mexico. The chances of taking a mature mule deer buck are best in the snow and cold, but fewer bowhunters hunt then. Moseley's convinced that January mule deer hunting means less mule deer hunting pressure, more places to find overlooked areas and greater chances of taking a big mulie buck in Unit 2.
"The mule deer in the Gila units aren't as migratory as the deer in Unit 2," Moseley explained. "The challenge there is to outhunt the hunters by going in deeper, staying longer and looking for places away from the crowd to hunt. These units are also some of the most productive places for hunting elk in New Mexico."
Two other units where you may find overlooked places to hunt mule deer include units 34 and 37 in the east/central part of New Mexico. These river bottom units have mule deer that come into them from the mountains. Mule deer hunters in the northern part of the state — both bowhunters and gun hunters — spot and stalk mule deer. However, in a tree stand, you'll have many more shots at 10 to 40 yards.
Units 23 and 24 are two of Moseley's favorite regions to hunt, since they home mule deer and Coues deer. Moseley advised that Unit 23 is the best area for taking a nice Coues deer in the state. He also noted Unit 27 as a good location.
"This unit was closed for several years to allow the Coues deer population to increase," Moseley reported. "Today, it's one of the state's top Coues areas. Unit 2B seems to be the most popular for Coues deer, with Unit 2C touted as a trophy unit. The state's southern units home good Coues deer populations and mule deer populations too."
Rocky Mountain Game & Fish asked Moseley, "If you hunted Coues deer exclusively and didn't want to hunt in a crowd, what unit would you choose and why?"
"I'd pick units 24 and 27," Moseley explained. "Unit 27 was closed for a long time and has private and public lands. Unless you know the public land boundaries well, you may be trespassing. A hunter must know where the public land property lines are, and where there is private land intrusion. This problem is one of the reasons this section doesn't receive much hunting pressure. Unit 24 is a mountainous area. Unit 23 is probably the top Coues deer unit in New Mexico and is where everyone wants to hunt. Once the hunting pressure on 23 builds up, those whitetails generally will move to Unit 24."
Two other units to consider are units 15 and 16 that often are overlooked for Coues deer, because they're labeled as outstanding elk units.
The Coues deer is one of the smartest deer in the U.S. They're extremely wary, difficult to get close to and almost have a sixth sense for dodging hunters. If you're a bowhunter coming to New Mexico to hunt Coues deer, Moseley strongly advises you to practice and become efficient and accurate out to 80 yards. The Coues deer is an elusive deer, and Moseley mainly takes Coues deer hunting from a tree stand over trails, rather than by hunting and stalking. To learn more about hunting opportunities across the state, visit the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish website.
More about Coues and Mule Deer
Whether you're hunting Coues whitetails or mule deer in Arizona or New Mexico, the real secret is not to focus so much on the deer, but rather search for places where you can outhunt the other hunters. If you walk farther than most hunters walk, if you stay deeper in a unit than most hunters will go, if you'll spend more than one day and camp out, you can pinpoint those overlooked regions where your chances for success are the best for Coues and mule deer.
Coues whitetails live in small groups and stand about 28-32 inches high. A large mature male weighs 125 pounds. These deer live in Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and northern Mexico. Mule deer are in high demand for hunting and are named for their ears, which resemble the shape of a mule's ears. They differ from whitetails due to their black-tipped tails, the configuration of their antlers and their larger body sizes.
Now that we've taken a look at some locations to consider in Arizona and New Mexico and have gathered some expert advice, it's time for you to start planning your next Southwest deer hunt.