Even after nearly two decades, the events of the first Colorado buck I took on that early November morning are still burned deep into my memory. The sight, smells and sounds still echo in my mind. I can still feel the thick, fresh powder under foot as I made my way up the trail under the half-moon light. With each step the grade steepened and after 30 minutes of battling the snow and uneven terrain, I was relieved to finally make it to my destination.
As I settled in for the morning hunt, the golden light spilled across the scenic Collegiate Mountains like honey, bringing the once fuzzy landscape clearly into view. The rock outcropping I was perched on gave me an excellent view of a saddle that led into what I hoped was a deer-bedding area. By the sign I had located in there the previous week, it appeared to hold promise.
As if I had written the script myself, my first visitors appeared a short time later. As the three does popped over the saddle, the anticipation of what might be trailing them caused me to grip my 7mm a little tighter. Since it was early November and I had already witnessed some rut activity, I knew a buck might be bringing up the rear. Sure enough, as the does disappeared into the dense cover, a short time later a nice 4X4 came into view like a bird dog following a familiar scent. As he crested the saddle, he stood motionless, intently looking for the does he knew had just come through the area.
Without hesitation, I shouldered my rifle and filled the scope with his vitals. My heart thumped as I tried to settle the crosshairs on his chest, and as the report of the rifle echoed through the valley, the mortally wounded buck turned and went back the way he had come. After composing myself I took up the track, and a short time later I was standing over my handsome Colorado prize. As I packed him out, beneath the Collegiate mountains, I replayed the morning’s events over in my mind, and I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
Without question, Colorado is a deer hunting mecca for the western hunting enthusiast. Regardless of whether it’s on the plains of the east, the grand vistas to the west or somewhere in between, every season countless hunters travel to the Centennial State in hopes of an encounter with one of these western hat-racks. With an ample supply of deer in virtually every region of the state, it’s hard for hunters to go wrong no matter where they choose set up camp. However, if your dreams are to wrap your hands around a heavy-racked buck beneath one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the west, you should seriously consider the bucks that roam central Colorado’s Collegiate Mountains of the Sawatch Range.
Encompassing some 980 square miles, this region is home to game management units 48, 481, 56 and 561. These four units descend sharply from the top of the Sawatch Range to the west and down to the broad Arkansas River. Elevations range from Colorado’s highest point of 14,433 feet in elevation (Mt. Elbert), to 6,800 feet near the town of Salida. It’s within these rugged units the Cottonwood Creek deer herd roams, and the last count shows their numbers to be hovering around 6,000 strong. Although these numbers are slightly below the 7,000 objective, the herd is growing and all indications show the herd to be in good shape.
Similar to other regions of the state, the heyday of deer hunting in Colorado was in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and at that time the Cottonwood Creek herd numbered around 10,000. However, in the early 1990s, Colorado experienced a population crash and this region of the state was not spared these woes. In fact, it was estimated that deer numbers across this region fell to less than 50 percent of those “good ol’ day” averages.
However, in the late 1990s, Colorado implemented a buck-only draw system and since that time deer numbers across the state have steadily increased. Although numbers aren’t where they were, most biologists feel that because of human encroachment, development and competition with Colorado’s elk and livestock herds, they never will be. In fact, many feel deer numbers across Colorado as a whole, and the Collegiate region in particular, are close to sustainable social and biological levels.
Buck numbers have also bounced back across the region, and are currently hovering around 25 bucks to every 100 does. All indicators show those numbers are trending upwards as well, towards the 30-35/100 buck/doe ratio range, and with numbers like this you can see why this region can be an optimal place to locate branch-antlered bucks.
Even though buck numbers are in good shape across the region, finding them in the steep, rugged terrain can be a daunting task. In fact, this might be one of the most rugged regions in Colorado. With the Collegiate Mountains of Yale, Harvard and Columbia being over 14,000 feet in elevation, and an endless numbers of jagged peaks in the 13,000-foot range, this region is not for the weak-kneed. However, hunters who are willing to scout, do their homework and hunt hard have a good chance of lowering the crosshairs on a good buck.
Straddling both Lake and Chaffee counties, GMU 48 in located in the northern part of this region. Comprised of 85 percent public land, and only 15 percent private land, unit 48 might be the get-away the public land hunter is looking for. Its intimidating topography is filled with out-of-the-way spots in which the willing hunter could find a buck hiding.
According to CDOW District Wildlife Manager Tom Martin, although the neighboring units to the south and east offer better deer habitat and opportunities, GMU 48 can have its share of buck-filled moments. The 33-year veteran of the unit says the unit does hold some quality bucks, especially during the early seasons; if a hunter is willing to work the basins and be patient, they should run into a good buck. Although Martin considers the habitat in GMU 48 to be more suitable for elk than deer, he feels that because of the increasing deer numbers across the unit, hunters with a tag should run into some bucks.
Out of the four units in this region, unit 48 does have the weakest harvest numbers. Last season rifle hunters had a success rate of 24 percent, but the previous season those numbers were a little better, at 26 percent. Archery hunters chasing bucks in those higher willow basins and drainages during the early season had a success rate of nearly 20 percent.
Martin states that unit 48 is better earlier than later as far as deer hunting is concerned, so hunters with an archery, muzzleloader and first combined rifle season tags should have a good opportunity if they work the higher basins. He also says the older class bucks tend to hang out in these areas. However, when the snow begins to fly, the deer move south towards GMU 481 pretty quickly.
Located to the south of unit 48 is unit 481, and similar to its neighbor to the north, over two-thirds of it is public national forest and BLM land. It is also comprised of high elevation deer hunting opportunities, as well as gentler rolling pinion-juniper country to the east.
Hunter success across 481 was pretty good last season with one out of two rifle hunters bringing home a buck for the den. The third rifle season showed the best success with 57 percent of hunters packing out a buck.
According to CDOW District Wildlife Manager Randy Hancock, GMU 481 is a pretty good deer hunting unit. Although he says the 30-inch brute isn’t the norm here, nevertheless, for the hunter looking for a good hunt and the opportunity to kill a 24- to 26-inch buck, this unit will suit most hunters just fine. In fact, last fall Hancock was able to squeak out a few days in the field for himself and ended up wrapping his hands around a 26-inch buck of his own.
Because the western portion of this unit is steep, rugged country, early season hunts can be very good. Hancock says the older age-class bucks tend to hang out in those high, willow-filled basins, and the hunter who is willing to do the legwork will see some nice bucks. He further indicated that if the weather is warm and mild there’s a good chance of finding some bucks in those places even into the first combined rifle season. Hunters who are willing to hunt those areas should focus their attention on the basins 11,000 feet and higher.
As the snow flies, deer start heading down to the lower reaches; if you’re there when the white stuff starts piling up, it’s a good idea to spend some time between those high and lower transition zones. Pick the right drainage and you might find the buck you’re after moving through.
Later in the season Hancock suggests hunters spend their energy in the rolling hills closer to the private ground in the lower elevations. By this time bucks from GMU 48 will start moving in, only increasing your chances. Careful attention should be paid to Frenchman Creek and Chalk Creek, as well as North, South and Middle Cottonwood creeks. Hancock says hunters who focus on the south-facing slopes in these areas should locate some bucks.
Units 56 & 561
Rounding out this Collegiate Mountains regional deer forecast are units 56 and 561, which are located farther south, near the town of Salida. Because these units were once one, and 561 is relatively small, it’s only fitting to have them together. Skirted on the west by the Continental Divide, both units offer high elevation, as well as lower pinion-juniper deer hunting opportunities and, according to CDOW District Wildlife Manager Ron Dobson, there are good numbers of deer living there. Although he acknowledges the deer hunting is not as good as it used to be, it is getting much better.
Combined, last season one out of three rifle hunters from both units packed some headbone out of the hills there. Topping the harvest last season was a success rate of 79 percent for the third season rifle hunters in unit 561, which is excellent when you consider most of these were public land hunters.
Dobson says although 30-inch bucks are rare, it seems that every season a hunter or two are able to bump into them. But he cautioned hunters about holding out for one of these few-and-far-between dream bucks. With bucks in the 20- to 24-inch range being the norm, it might not be a good idea to pass on one for one much bigger.
Similar to the other unit, early season opportunities can be good in the high reaches, but you will have to work to get up there. Bucks are usually found in those willow-choked drainages and basins. As the season progresses and the first combined rifle season arrives, bucks start heading down and are typically found in the aspen tickets and dark timber. Finding them can be difficult, but the hunter willing to hunt hard will run across them. Towards the third rifle season deer tend to be down closer to winter range, and with the rut beginning to start, hunting the lower rolling hills near private ground is always a good bet.