Deer hunters in Colorado still have opportunities available for filling a tag this season.
If you're fortunate enough to have a tag to hunt late-season deer in Colorado, one ingredient must be considered to successfully hunt a big mule deer or whitetail deer — the wildlife management system in place on the land you want to hunt.
Big bucks — whether mule deer or whitetails — must survive until they're at least a few years old to put on trophy racks.
Colorado has done an excellent job of managing its deer and elk on an almost plot-by-plot basis.
The seasons, bag limits and weapons that hunters can use help keep the herds balanced, while still giving hunters maximum opportunities to hunt where they choose with the weapons they prefer at a time of year and in the type of terrain they want to hunt.
Hunters must have tags, which are limited, to hunt Colorado's December deer.
Andy Holland, big game manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said Colorado expects to have a very good deer season in 2017, with about the same harvest numbers on the plains as in 2016.
"If you're planning on hunting deer in December in Colorado, you only have one choice of a place to hunt — east of I-25. All the hunting seasons west of I-25 — the mountainous areas — close in November," he advised.
LATE SEASON LOCATIONS
These closings can be good or bad news. On the positive side, the plains don't receive as much snowfall as the more mountainous Colorado regions and are more accessible.
"Colorado's plains have a mixture of mule deer and whitetails with some herds a 50-50 mix," Holland reported. "Herds in other areas only may have 5 or 10 percent whitetails. Some of the state's biggest mule deer in the state are taken on the plains," he added.
Plains land is primarily private. However, the National Grasslands, administered by the USDA Forest Service, as well as some Colorado WMAs, offer public hunting.
"For the 2017 season, Colorado has a brand new walk-in arrangement for hunters with deer licenses to hunt in the southeastern section on private property that's enrolled in our Walk-In Access program," Holland reported.
"To hunt deer in December, you need to already have applied for a deer tag — a process taking place at the first of April. All the properties available to hunt in the walk-in program and much of the public lands are small properties."
To learn where to hunt during December, Holland recommended you visit Colorado Parks and Wildlife Hunting Atlas on the agency website.
Click on the Big Game Hunting tab that shows all the game management units and the land ownership in those units.
Some over-the-counter whitetail-only licenses can be purchased for hunts in December.
You'll find a list of wildlife management units, mostly in the Colorado Springs and Pueblo units, in the Big Game Hunting Brochure.
The rest of the mule deer and whitetail licenses are limited access licenses. The over-the-counter either-sex whitetail license is good Dec.1 through 31.
"In the plains and sand hills, agriculture and river bottoms are where you can hunt for whitetails," Holland noted.
"Bowhunting season on the plains is Oct. 1 until Dec. 31 but is not continuous. Bowhunters aren't permitted to hunt during the rifle and muzzleloader seasons. Most units have three different bow season openings for deer."
So, which late-season areas seem to produce the most whitetails?
Holland explained: "Whitetail hunters may have the misconception that the whitetails only will be in the river bottoms or in the agricultural sites. However, we do have good whitetail populations in the sand hills."
Holland recommended hunters visit the Big Game Hunting Atlas online and click on Big Game Statistics.
You can pull up a Big Game Statistics page and then click on the deer hunting section. That tab shows you your chances for drawing a tag for each Colorado wildlife unit, and the harvest report by unit.
The statistics may vary between private lands and public property.
"Colorado's 2016 success rate on deer statewide, including all methods of hunting and taking both species of deer, was 45 percent," Holland noted. "For rifle hunters only, the success rate statewide was 51 percent, with the statewide archery success rate 26 percent."
Holland continued: "Usually you have to draw a license. In some units, you'll need several preference points to draw a license. Preference points are given when a hunter fails to draw the unit he's put in for that hunting season. So, if you want to hunt in a very popular unit, you may need two or three preference points to possibly draw that unit."
The only December over-the-counter deer licenses will be in the Colorado Springs and Pueblo areas, Holland reported.
"Colorado does offer a few whitetail-only licenses, but most of its deer licenses allow the hunter to take either a whitetail or a mule deer," he advised.
"If you choose an A list license, you only can take one deer, but you can take two deer if one of the units you put in for is on list B," he continued, noting that Page 19 in the Big Game Brochure has a table that explains all the buck licenses on lists A and B.
"On list B, you may find private-land-only doe tags that let you take one buck and one doe," he noted. "List C tells you how many bucks and does you can take, if you choose a license on list C, which usually is only for doe licenses."
The areas where you can buy over-the-counter whitetail tags are not prime whitetail areas and mostly on the periphery of Colorado's whitetail range.
"In the plains areas where the department is trying to increase hunting pressure on whitetails, generally the licenses are whitetail only," Holland explained. "Usually whitetails can sustain heavier hunting pressure than the mule deer can. In the regions where the state is managing strictly for mule deer, there will be more whitetail-only permits available."
THE OUTFITTER OPTION
Jason VanderMeulen, of Colorado Springs, lives in the center of Colorado's late-season deer hunting and owns Timberline Taxidermy. He works on some big bucks.
"Late-season deer hunting east of I-25 has been great the last few years, although most of the land is private," he advised.
"Just about anywhere in Colorado that you can draw a tag to hunt the late season, you'll have the chance to take a big mule deer," VanderMeulen continued. "Recently, most of the good land that's producing the big bucks has been leased by outfitters."
VanderMeulen mentioned that in 2016, he drew a late-season tag and had 600 acres of state land to hunt.
"But when an outfitter gets a lease for private property, he applies for the landowner's tags — a number that may change yearly. Talk to an outfitter long before the season arrives to know which tags to put in for and to learn whether or not he has landowner tags."
Today landowners understand the value of a trophy buck, and some of the whitetail hunts sell for $1,200 to $1,500 in the Cheyenne Wells section of eastern Colorado along the Kansas border.
Colorado is producing so many trophy whitetail and mule deer because the landowners and the outfitters have become serious about intensively managing their lands to produce bigger bucks.
"We do a lot of taxidermy work for J&D Outfitters in Peyton, including four mule deer antler reproductions scoring over 200 inches each," VanderMeulen added. "This outfitter doesn't over-hunt the property and manages the lands to produce quality bucks."
VanderMeulen also recommended High Plains Adventures, operated by Brandon McCullough.
Colorado outfitters and landowners are managing their lands by putting on charity hunts to remove the 3-point mule deer bucks to increase the number of bigger, older bucks available to produce more big bucks.
"Sometimes we'll get a whitetail that scores 180 or 190, but usually the whitetails average 120 to 170," VanderMeulen reported.
VanderMeulen explained that a problem with Colorado's late hunting season is that most of the areas known for homing big bucks may require two or three preference points to hunt them.
"So, landowner tags may seem the best way to hunt, but generally there's not an abundance of landowner tags. Don't forget, too, that Colorado may have snow in December or 70-degree weather."
Scott Moore owns and operates Mountain Man Taxidermy, in Craig.
Moore recommended taking advantage of Colorado Parks and Wildlife's Ranching for Wildlife program.
He explained that, under this program, a rancher or an outfitter can enter into a partnership with the state to make improvements to their property that will benefit wildlife.
"The Division of Wildlife will make suggestions to increase the habitat of that land to make it more beneficial and accessible for wildlife," he advised.
In exchange for improving the habitat and the costs involved, the rancher receives extra permits for deer or elk and can sell them to hunters.
The landowner can permit hunting on his property for any continuous 90-day period from Aug. 15 through Jan. 15. Check the regulations for additional information.
"You can get a list from the Department of Wildlife of the landowners who participate in the Ranching for Wildlife program," Moore noted. "Since these lands are private, you may have a better opportunity to take either a December whitetail or mule deer there."
Although Mountain Man Taxidermy is two hours away from the eastern slope, Moore still receives both mule deer and whitetails to mount from that region.
Moore noted: "Don't overlook the late November hunts on private properties with Ranching for Wildlife tags, because this is often when the rut kicks in and continues until December."
"On the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, generally, your deer tag is good for either a mule deer or a whitetail. However, on the eastern slope, I think you have to choose either a whitetail tag or a mule deer tag," he continued. "The whitetails from the eastern slope usually will be 160-inches-plus, with mule deer 170- to 180-plus."
Kraig Shammo, of High Desert Taxidermy, in Fruita, said: "Although we're six hours away from the eastern plains, we still have hunters bringing mule deer and whitetails for us to mount from there. I've mounted one whitetail taken in the late season from the eastern plains that scored 190 points."
Shammo said there are a couple of additional things hunters should keep in mind if planning a Colorado deer hunt late in the season: "Be prepared for cold weather, and expect to do a lot of glassing to find the buck you want to hunt."