Colorado is a top North American hunting destination for more reasons than one. Many hunters dream of bugling bull elk when they think of Colorado. High on the list, too, is hunting elusive mature mule deer — the “gray ghost” — from drop-camps, sites where many of my early childhood memories of big mule deer originated. In fact, mule-deer hunting is in my blood, following a long line of family members who have pursued Colorado mule deer for generations.
My great-grandfather, also known as Papá, used to travel to the Chimney Rock area to deer hunt. The family would load up in the car and trek to southwest Colorado to pitch a camp, then hunt for the beautiful bucks. Back in those days, Papá, great uncles and my grandmother hunted as a means of putting meat on the table. Antlers were not of great importance. I assure you, they tagged some bucks that would’ve made the record books, but the big-bodied deer were more important for putting a lot of meat for meals in the freezer, as well as for making tasty jerky or summer sausage.
While many people hunt for food, there is satisfaction in the challenge of trying to tag a “monster muley.” Mature bucks have the mass, length and width in their antlers to score high in the record books. Persistent hunters reap those rewards. While the big ones Papá used to bag are said to be more difficult to find these days, Colorado still has many bucks that carry antlers that measure more than 180 inches. You can pursue these trophy mule deer on your own (DIY) or with the help of a guide. You can also enlist guides to provide only the site — a “drop camp” — from where you will hunt on your own.
BOOKING A DROP CAMP HUNT
It’s not unusual for many Colorado hunting guides to be booked years in advance. Start planning now and ask what is included. Some outfitters call their drop camps “hop and drop” — that is, when they pack your camp in and drop it off. But a true drop-camp is where you use an outfitter’s camp that is already set up but bring your own gear.
Some outfitters take your gear via horseback while you hike to the camp. Others carry you and your gear on their horses. Find out if they’ll be taking you and your gear to camp, how you’re going to get there, and how much you’re allowed to bring. There may be a weight limit, but some camps are reached by vehicle, too, where you drive right up to a camp and unload your gear. If this is the case, find out if 4-WD is required.
HOW TO LOCATE YOUR DROP CAMP
Colorado has multiple deer hunting seasons, which vary depending on the area of the state you hunt. Archery hunters start things off with nearly of month of early season hunting, while rifle seasons vary from five to nine days and take place during the months of October, November and December.
The first order of business is to contact outfitters early on in the area you intend to hunt prior to submitting your hunt application. You can find licensed outfitters via the Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) online at Colorado.gov/pacific/dora/Outfitters. Investigate the dates of your preferred hunting season and ask the guide how many days they’ll allow you to occupy their drop-camp.
Next, you’ll need a hunting license. In most areas of Colorado, the mule-deer hunting license is obtained only via a draw process. You can obtain a copy of the state’s hunting regulations and submit your hunting license application online at CPWshop.com/licensing.page. All applications must be submitted by the second Tuesday in April. If you didn’t get your license in the draw, it doesn’t eliminate your opportunity to hunt. Left-over licenses are listed in mid-summer, and some land owners also receive mule deer tags and offer hunts. For example, Hodiak Outfitters offers these hunts, from a drop-camp set up on private land adjacent to the public land where my Papá used to take the family to hunt.
5 KEYS FOR A SUCCESSFUL MULE DEER DROP CAMP
- Determine your method of take.
- Contact outfitters and ask lots of questions.
- Apply for the draw.
- Get the appropriate gear.
- Work hard and be patient and persistent.
WHERE TO LOCATE YOUR DROP CAMP
When I interviewed multiple outfitters to learn where most of Colorado’s trophy bucks are found, many were leading me toward areas other than their own. These outfits were pushing me toward areas of other guides, and I certainly wondered why they would do this. Most public land in Colorado is tough terrain to hunt but dealing with other hunters in your honey holes is an obstacle no one wants to deal with. Those outfitters didn’t want me to tell you where their secret spots are. They don’t want you to have to compete with the rest of the readers out there.
So, I decided to look to the record books and contacted the Pope & Young Club and Safari Club International to get the facts. After tabulating the numbers, and creating bar graphs, even I am amazed at the areas of the state where big deer are killed. Both record books show that bucks measuring more than 180 inches come from all over Colorado! The key to choosing your area can be narrowed by determining your method of take. Archery hunters seem to be most successful in certain areas, while rifle hunters often hunt at other sites.
If you’re not familiar with Colorado, you should know that there is vastly more public land on the West Slope (west of the Continental Divide) than on the East Slope/Front Range.
Hunters who want to hunt in eastern Colorado might discover the opportunity to land a drop-camp can be slim, because many outfitters utilize small town hotels and bunk-houses to accommodate hunters. Weather out here during archery season can be scorching hot, and come rifle season a hunter may battle snow, wind, sleet and hail. Most of the terrain is fairly flat plains but some areas may contain canyon lands. When you interview outfitters ask what the terrain is going to be like and request a gear list along with a sample contract.
The public land of the West Slope affords you the opportunity of booking a drop-camp on public or private land. You may hunt high-desert bluffs, mesas, sage-brush flats, rolling hills, or high-country timberline. The gear required will vary as much as the list of terrain.
GEAR FOR THE DROP CAMP
The temperatures will vary in any Colorado drop-camp site, so plan on wearing layers of clothing. Some favorite pieces include Merino wool base layers and HEATR gear from WSI Sports. Add to that a set of the ever-essential rain gear. If you have the room, bring two pairs of boots, so you don’t have to hike around in wet boots in the event it rains or snows.
I like a light hiker/hunting boot that has deep lugs for traction. You may have to cross canyons or climb rocks when you’re stalking. Another feature to consider is ankle support on uneven terrain. A requirement I also want in a boot is for it to be waterproof. You never know when you’ll end up crossing a stream to get to a trophy buck.
Wet socks can cause blisters if they bunch up in your boots. A well-fitting wool blend sock tends to keep its place on your foot. Look for something like Farm to Feet hunting socks. These natural blend socks help hold in warmth even when they get wet.
Gloves and Hats
You need to keep your trigger finger warm. Choose well-fitting gloves and hats. Choose items that fit you, so you’re not making unnecessary movements while adjusting them, which the keen-eyed deer will see.
There’s a plethora of hunting wear on the market for men and women. Look for a camouflage pattern to match the area you’ll be hunting, but the primary goal of camo is to break up your silhouette. Wear gear that has articulated seams (allowing you free range of motion) and is durable and quiet for walking or crawling through brush. Durable clothing is important because oak brush and cactus can shred your apparel like a cheese grater. If you’re hunting during the monsoon season, you’ll want to carry raingear that doesn’t have holes and will keep you dry and comfortable. Also, there is nothing worse than being busted by a buck during a stalk because you’re hung up in the oak brush, where you’ve snagged your pants!
Take a lightweight day pack on your hunt. A good hunting pack will be one that fits your shoulders and body length. I include survival items, such as a small first-aid kit, water, knives, snacks, paracord, lighter, emergency paper and extra ammunition (and Allen wrenches for archery). I also carry a Jetboil and a Mountain House meal. You never know when you’ll be out more than an hour or two. Be prepared.
PATIENCE: THE KEY TO A SUCCESSFUL HUNT
Years ago, a friend embarked on his first elk during the nine-day, fourth rifle-season. In Colorado you never know what the weather is going to bring. During that hunt he’d dealt with minus-20-degree temperatures, steep terrain and other hunters pushing the animals. He gave in to frustration and left before season ended.
Later he shared another fourth rifle-season mule-deer hunt with me. He already knew he needed good gear, but now he had to learn the patience factor. He loaded up on the horse with hopes of seeing monster mulies. The end-of-day report only included tales of seeing a plethora of does. He didn’t see a single buck.
On day two we decided to try another valley. The next day, we looked farther yet. I told him not to worry. We saw a lot of does, and where there are does, there must be bucks. We hunted on. The season ticked down, but I told our novice mule-deer hunter not to despair.
We rode the horses, we hiked, and we glassed. Finally, we saw bucks, but they were immature — too young to shoot. After lunch, we headed back down a ridge, pausing to glass as we meandered. We discovered large buck tracks in the snow, crossing our foot tracks from earlier that morning. Our eyes lit as we laughed at how mature deer are so smart. We immediately dismounted from the horses, I pulled my Swarovski Optik binoculars up to my eye and I saw him. There at the edge of the field, just inside the oak brush, stood a great buck!
Our hunter pulled his gun from the scabbard on his horse and slowly lay on the ground. The horses watched in anticipation. They’ve been through this scenario before. They knew what the rifle meant. Suddenly the shot rang out. The horses flinched but stood still. The buck was hit good, but it leaped and ran into the thick brush.
We stood and waited but kept our anxieties reigned in. We knew the shot had hit its mark. We tended to the horses, grabbed our packs and donned additional layers. It was close to dark and time for some work to be done. After a short search, we located the buck, and I watchedhis look of surprise as he admired his first mule deer, and what a trophy buck it was!
Not every deer hunter is successful on every hunt. It can take years of hunting to find trophy mulies. But you can ease your stress and organize a good, budget-friendly deer hunt when you plan your outing with the help of an outfitter’s drop camp.