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Arizona New Mexico Southwest

The Best Southwest Mule Deer Hunting

by John E. Phillips   |  October 23rd, 2017 0

These mule deer hunting locations in Arizona and New Mexico are among the top areas for filling a tag. 

Hunters across the Southwest should have little problem finding productive mule deer hunting areas, with some locations offering a good shot at a trophy.

What follows are some of the better options for hunters in Arizona and New Mexico, along with insight from local experts that know what it takes to tag out.

mule deer

There’s no shortage of great public-land hunting options for tagging your buck. Game & Fish staff photo.

ARIZONA

Dustin Darveau, Arizona big game specialist, noted: “To summarize mule deer hunting statewide, we’re expecting about the same harvest numbers this year as last year with a slight increase.”

Darveau’s statewide perspective on mule deer population and antler growth means he knows the best places to try for a tag.

“I’d put in for the Kaibab Plateau or more commonly what’s known as The Strip with Game Management Units 12A, 13A and 13B where you’ll find the biggest mule deer in Arizona,” he noted.

If you’ve ever hunted mule deer in Arizona, you’ve either heard about or dreamed about hunting The Strip on the north side of the Grand Canyon, an area where dream bucks that score over 200 inches are found for both the archer and the gun hunter.

Some mule deer hunters may have to wait 10 or 20 years to draw one of those tags, with Darveau trying for the last 6 years with no success. An in-state or out-of-state hunter’s best bet is to draw an archery tag for The Strip.

The State of Arizona has more requests for mule deer tags than it possibly can fill, with a mule deer population statewide of 110,000-120,000. 

“The Strip gets some snow and rainfall and features gentle terrain and numbers of aspen trees,” Darveau mentioned. “With numerous water sources, the Kaibab Plateau is one of the highest producing mule deer places and contains four top units — 12A east, 12A west, 13A and 13B.” 

Going south of the Kaibab, is more arid, desert type terrain, that has experienced severe drought conditions this past decade.

As Darveau mentioned, Arizona “doesn’t have a huge density of mule deer in other places like we do in The Strip.” 

When asked about mule deer hunting tactics, Darveau laughed and advised: “Wear out the seat of your pants before you wear out the soles of your boots. Optics are key to taking Arizona mule deer. Find high points where you can sit and glass a lot of territory.”        

Darveau suggested placing spotting scopes and binoculars on tripods to hold them steady. He offered a few more of his top hunting location picks as well.

“Since I can put in for three deer tags, 12A east and 12A west are my first two choices, and my third choice is 13B on the Arizona/Utah state line where there’s a lot of deer movement during November and December, if Utah has a heavy snowfall,” he advised.

Darveau also suggests hunting mule deer in Unit 22 with its 20 percent success rate.

“A nonresident generally can draw a rifle tag in this unit every 2 to 3 years. Region III has productive mule deer units too near Kingman in western Arizona,” he noted.

Hunters can apply for mule deer or whitetail tags. For more information about mule deer hunting in Arizona, go to the wildlife department website to the Where to Hunt section that gives a general breakdown of each game management unit, and highlights for where to start hunting.  

For a mule deer that will score 200 inches or more on Boone and Crockett, hunt the Kaibab Plateau — The Strip. David Pereda and partner Travis McClendon own and have operated Arizona Strip Guides (ASG) since the early 1990s.

“The mulies in The Strip basically have the best genetics found anywhere in the world,” McClendon explained.

The Strip, which is larger than Rhode Island, is where hunters take the highest scoring mule deer in Arizona.

McClendon’s and Pereda’s guiding group produced a mule deer buck that scored 252 inches and was taken by the winner of the Arizona Big Game Super Raffle in 2015.

“Most of The Strip is accessible by 4-wd trucks or ATVs,” McClendon noted. “Our rifle hunters’ shots at The Strip may be as close as 100 out to 1,000 yards, with the average shot about 300 yards,” he advised.

The average Strip bowhunter shot will be 50 yards when spotting and stalking or perhaps 30 yards, if you’re sitting in a blind or over a water hole.

The ASG guides use the best optics available to locate 200-inch or more mule deer as soon as the bucks put on antlers.

“Each year, we’ll usually find at least 10 mule deer bucks that will score 200 inches or more,” Pereda noted. “A 200-inch mule deer is what most hunters are looking for when they draw a Strip tag. A couple of archers bag their trophy mulies at 100 yards plus, but we try to avoid those long shots.”

Rifle Strip hunts usually are for a 10-day season, with archery ones for 21 days.

As Pereda reported, “The Strip is one of the few places in this country where a hunter can drive 100 miles on a dirt road and never encounter any type of civilization, crossroad grocery store, gas station or other conveniences.”

NEW MEXICO

Michael Clifton, with Triple C Outfitters, knows New Mexico mule deer hunting.

“Our guides hunt the entire state of New Mexico, but only two units — 2B and 2C — in the northwestern part of the state consistently produce 180-plus class mule deer each year,” he advised. “Those tags are some of the hardest in the western United States to draw. In New Mexico, all our big game tags, except mountain lions and bears, are on the draw system. Landowners can offer private land tags for mule deer, and some ranches throughout the state may have those tags.”

Triple C offers an application service and applies for over 700-800 mule deer tags for units all over the state, since different hunters like to hunt various sections.

Hunters choose the regions depending on the type of terrain they want to hunt and their physical conditions.

If you’re lucky enough to draw either Units 2B or 2C, you’ll have to hike and get off the beaten path to locate a very nice mule deer.

As Clifton mentioned, “Some guys aren’t looking for that kind of hunt and will apply for the best of the state’s 80 Wildlife Units — Units 29, 30, 31, 17 and 13.

There, they’ll have about an 85 percent opportunity for a shot with a rifle and about a 70 percent chance of taking a 120- to 140-inch mule deer.

Your shooting opportunity with a bow will be 50 percent, with 50 percent of those harvesting a mule deer.

“For elk, we average drawing 10 to 15 percent, because we only take our elk hunters into quality trophy units. Our mule deer draw is somewhat higher than that outside of Units 2B and 2C where probably only 1 percent of the mule deer applications we submit get drawn. The better the unit that you apply for, the more difficult that tag will be to draw.”

If you’re lucky enough to draw Units 2B or 2C, your best chance of taking a nice mule deer scoring 180-plus inches is the January archery tag, when most of the mulies have migrated from southern Colorado when the snow starts piling-up there.

For the last 10 years, this region has had fairly-mild winters, and the big mule deer haven’t shown up until about December, when the rifle hunts have ended. 

“A tag for Unit 2C is pretty much a once in a lifetime tag,” Clifton explained. “Now, Unit 2B is somewhat different. If Colorado doesn’t have snow, you’ll be trying to take a deer that’ll score from 140 to 170. But if you draw a January archery tag, that mule deer buck may score from 180- to 200-plus points in Unit 2B.”

D. L. Gruben, the owner of American Wildlife Taxidermy in Albuquerque, N.M., reported: “The biggest deer to come into our taxidermy shop are from the Jicarilla Reservation in north New Mexico. Almost all the mule deer tags at the Jicarilla are bought up by people who have hunted there before,” he noted. “I’ve even heard of a hunter paying $2,500 for a tag, plus paying a guide fee,” added.

“When hunting mule deer and elk in New Mexico, the Jicarilla Reservation does an outstanding job of managing wildlife and hunters to produce trophy animals every season,” Gruben noted. “The reservation limits the number of hunters they take so, older-age-class animals are always available for harvest every year.”

But also consider hunting some other New Mexico public land areas.

As Gruben mentioned, “Hunting on either side of the Jicarilla in the northwestern section of the state, you’ll find some public lands and private lands with good mule deer populations in the Santa Fe and the Cibola national forests that benefit from the game management program of the Jicarilla. There’s also some Bureau of land Management land on both sides of the Jicarilla.”

As you move farther to the south in New Mexico, Gruben explained there are numbers of good mule deer bucks that are smaller than the bucks in the northwestern part of the state.

“A mulie buck that scores more than 160 points in southern New Mexico will be considered a nice buck,” he advised. “The Lincoln, the Apache-Sitgreaves and the Gila national forests are there, as well as state lands and BLM lands.” 

The best mule deer buck that Gruben has mounted from public lands was a non-typical buck, scoring 260 inches.

“We’re hoping in 2017 for about the same type of mule deer season that we had last year,” Gruben emphasized. “New Mexico has a very stable mule deer population that doesn’t seem to change much from season to season.”

Paul Barboa is a taxidermist who works with Gruben at American Wildlife Taxidermy and has hunted extensively all over the state.

“If I wanted to take a big mule deer on public lands, I’d try to draw a tag in Units 2C or 2B. The rifle hunts in Unit 2C only offer about 25 tags on this land that’s managed very well for big mule deer,” he explained. “Unit 2B generally includes numbers of mule deer that have migrated from Colorado during heavy snowfall. Also some local mule deer live in Unit 2B that are considered more than respectable, but they’re harder to find than the migratory Colorado bucks. Every year or two, we hear of one or two mule deer harvested in Unit 2B that will score 200 inches or more each.”

Barboa mentioned that the Sandia Mountains close to Albuquerque in the Cibola National Forest home some nice mule deer bucks.

That area only can be hunted by bowhunters. Unit 10 in the Zuni Mountains also has produced good mule deer bucks.

“This land has been producing nice mule deer bucks due to the private lands there that the bucks can use for sanctuary when hunting pressure becomes really heavy,” Barboa noted. “More than likely, you won’t see a lot of mule deer there, but you’ll see some nice shooter bucks. Don’t overlook Unit 37 either.” 

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