Ground Zero: Rocky Mountain's Record Bucks
February 13, 2019
Let’s be honest. There’s not a Western hunter around who doesn’t dream about wrapping their tag around a Boone & Crockett buck. Even those from the “can’t eat the horns” crowd secretly relish the idea of stumbling across a heavy-racked buck.
“Booner” bucks don’t live in every Western basin, and more times than not, if you choose to match wits with these monarchs of the West, you’ll go home with only the memories of the hunt. But you have to start somewhere, and if there is one way to zero-in on locations that seem to spit out Booner bucks, look no farther than the record books. Among the Rocky Mountain states, Colorado is always at the top of the list, but don’t discount Idaho and Arizona. When you add to this the ample supply of public hunting land these locations offer, finding an opportunity to begin your quest for a B&C buck is a real possibility.
Without question, the Centennial State leads the pack when it comes to Boone & Crockett record-book entries — 94 such entries across the last five years alone. And while whitetails along Colorado’s eastern plains are surging into trophy stats in recent years, it’s the mule deer population that hunters tend to focus on. Among those 94 bucks, 35 percent of them came from five counties.
Eagle, Garfield, Rio Blanco, Mesa and Delta counties are located along the western edge of the state and largely encompass more than 15 game-management units along the Interstate 70 corridor. This region forms a continuous block of both prime summer and winter range habitat and carries huge chunks of federal tracts — national forest land and lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management — that hold the bulk of the mule deer across this region.
According to the latest deer hunting data from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the hunter success rate across this region averaged just more than 50 percent last season and nearly 55 percent in 2016. And while Colorado certainly offers great mule-deer hunting across the West, this particular region holds some of the best.
Access is the key to any good hunting area. For the public-land hunter, it’s hard to beat what this region holds. With parts of four national forests to choose from — White River, Uncompahgre, Grand Mesa and Gunnison — as well as countless acres of BLM ground to roam and numerous state-operated wildlife management areas, no shortage of opportunities stretches across the region. Topography ranges from high desert to sub-alpine and everything in-between, offering something to meet the taste of any Western hunter.
Virtually all of Colorado’s deer hunting opportunities are based on a preference-point system that produces your tag, so you have to plan to hunt this region in advance. It can take just a year or two to draw a tag, or as many as 10 years for some of the rut hunts. That being said, virtually any unit across this region can produce a “gagger” B&C buck. Some of the more notable areas are units 21, 30 and 40, from Gateway north to Rangely, which saw overall hunter success rates that range from 81 to 66 percent, as well as units 31 and 32 in central to eastern Garfield County that averaged slightly less than 60 percent. And in Unit 61, which stretches along the western front of the Uncompahgre National Forest, deer hunters carried a 50 percent success rate.
Outfitter Steve Biggerstaff of Biggerstaff Guides & Outfitters in Glade Park says mature bucks are increasing around the Grand Junction area, along with more deer in total across unit 40, the heart of Mesa County, where his team exclusively guides on both public and private land. Because he is the only permitted unit-wide outfitter in unit 40, he has the flexibility to move with the mule deer as they migrate. His high success rate hunts offer bucks scoring 160 to 180 B&C points with a few 190-plus bucks taken each year.
Hunts with Biggerstaff Guides & Outfitters varies across terrain from 6,000 to 9,500 feet elevation. Call for pricing of the typical five-day hunt.
The Gem State is a sleeper when it comes to B&C record bucks, but Idaho quickly made my “short list” after the past few seasons. Thirty-one bucks have been entered into the record book from 2013-17, and 35 percent of those came from central Idaho. Adams, Washington, Boise, Custer, Lemhi and Valley counties encompass this region, which largely includes more than 10 game management units.
Public land is king across this vast region of the Gem State, making it ideal for the public-land do-it-yourself deer hunter or anyone looking to hire the expertise of a quality guide. The scenic Salmon River Mountains hold some of the most beautiful real estate I have ever hunted and is home to the Boise, Salmon-Challis and Peyette national forests, as well as the infamous Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
Unlike Colorado, Idaho has a first-come-first-serve system of managing its deer hunts, as well as a controlled-hunt draw without a point system. Like it or not, luck of the draw is the name of the game in Idaho, and all of the units in this region fall into the controlled-hunt category.
That being said, unlimited tags are available for a few units — 20A, 21A, 26 and 27 across much of the Payette and Salmon national forests— but you must apply during the application period to receive one. Success rates averaged from 25 to 35 percent in these areas during the any-weapon season in 2017, and a few of these deer were solid bucks. About half of the deer killed in Unit 21A included 4x4 bucks, and big, mature bucks totaled more than 70 percent of the harvest in other units. Controlled hunts take place in units 19A, 21, 23, 25 and 28 (generally, from McCall to Salmon), and while your chances of drawing a tag in these units are very low, success rates and the number of bucks in the harvest that measure 4x4 or better is similar.
For a unique adventure, McCall Aviation air service in McCall operates on several air strips within the wilderness. For just $525 they will fly a hunter round-trip with up to 150 pounds of gear to guided hunts (additional cost with a licensed outfitter) or simply a drop-camp service that provides a remote opportunity to hunt in these high-success areas.
Check out this video to learn how to manage your small track of land to bag your trophy buck.
Don’t overlook the trophy-deer potential of the Grand Canyon State. The desert Southwest may not sound like a sweet spot for big bucks, but it produces toads — whitetails and mule deer — each season.
The record book shows 68 Booners were entered from 2013-17; 40 percent of those coming from southern Cochise, Pima and Santa Cruz counties in southern Arizona. Of the 15 or so units from this region, the later season hunts for both mule deer and whitetails fare significantly better than their early season counterparts. Units 29, 30, 31 and 33 post success rates from 60 to 80 percent for both mule deer and whitetail, while the remaining units produced solid harvest numbers that hovered between 30 and 40 percent. Buck-to-doe ratios are also solid, averaging around 30-to-100. These counties offer both BLM and national forest lands, and there is plenty of it to go around.
There also is no shortage of public dirt in Gila County, where representative bucks total 24 percent of our 68 B&C qualifiers. For the public-land deer hunter, about half of Gila County consists of the Tonto National Forest and largely covers units 22 and 23, north to south from Mogollon to Lordsburg, and east to west from U.S. Highway 180 to the California border.
Getting a deer tag is also fairly easy in these units. About 1,200 tags are issued to rifle hunters annually, while archery hunters can grab one over the counter. With buck-to-doe ratios around 27-to-100 in Unit 22 and 17-to-100 in Unit 23, seeing a quality buck is a real possibility.
Several years of drought have impacted overall mule deer numbers, but Dan Adler, owner of Diamond Outfitters in Prescott, says they are recovering well. Adler says whitetails, too, are in excellent shape across the region, and hunter success proves it. Last season more than 50 percent of the region’s hunters in Unit 23 connected with a whitetail buck during the late season; more than 75 percent of late-season hunters did the same in Unit 22. Mule deer success was much lower, ranging from 25 to 35 percent.
A trophy hunt with Diamond Outfitters is an all-inclusive deal — guides, lodging, meals, USFS and/or BLM permits, private-land access and trespass fees (if applicable), all trophy fees, taxes, trophy prep for taxidermist and butcher. Outings vary for mule deer, whitetails and Coues deer, with costs running upward of $4,750 for a seven-day hunt mule-deer hunt, plus your Arizona hunting license. Most of the tags applied to these hunts are bought over the counter, but the Diamond Outfitters team does all the paperwork for you when you choose to apply for a draw hunt.