The High Country region has a positive outlook for the 2016 deer hunting seasons. In Montana, there's been good recovery for whitetails and mule deer, resulting in a more liberal antlerless harvest in 2016. Wyoming reports optimism for its mule deer and good fawn production for mulies and whitetails. Idaho is selling more tags in some places, with 2015 one of the best reports ever for mule deer.
Russ Lundvall has lived in Cody for 26 years and has hunted deer since he was 15 years old.
"I grew up hunting in Sunlight Basin, about 50 miles west of Cody, where my grandfather had a cabin. My uncle and I rode horses or mules into the mountains — sometimes for 2-3 hours — before we started hunting on U.S. Forest Service land in the Shoshone National Forest. We got as far away from other hunters as possible. If we only had a half-day to hunt, we'd use a spotting scope to see mule deer from the truck and then stalk them. Some of the better areas we hunted were Windy Mountain, Painter Gulch and Trail Creek."
Matt Elliott, of Powell, has been hunting deer for 40 years and guided for 15 years for Pennoyer Outfitting in the Owl Creek Mountains out of Thermopolis for mule deer, elk and bighorn sheep. Elliott's picks for the three best places to take a big mule deer on Wyoming's public lands include the Big Horn Basin and up the South Fork and the North Fork of the Shoshone River in the Shoshone National Forest — regions close to Yellowstone National Park.
"If you can find a season that runs from Nov. 1 to Nov. 15, that's usually the mule deer rut," Elliott explained. "The mule deer have learned that if they don't come over the Divide before the snow falls heavily, they'll get blocked in Yellowstone, due to 5-foot-deep passes. As the snow builds up in the North Fork and the South Fork, the mule deer will move down into the creek bottoms to milder weather and less snow."
Elliott recommends hunting the Big Horn Mountains, about 125 miles to the east of the two forks of the Shoshone River, to take early season mule deer where the land's more accessible, and the terrain isn't nearly as rugged. For a big whitetail in the Big Horn Basin, go south toward Thermopolis to hunt the lowland creek bottoms.
"However, the best whitetail habitat is generally on deeded (private) lands, and landowner access can be a problem," Elliott reported. "Other productive regions for big whitetails are the Wood River and the Greybull River out of Meeteetse, about 50 miles south of Cody. If you see a buck coming off private lands onto some of those public hunting areas, you can take a nice whitetail."
Jeff Obrecht, of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said, "We're very optimistic about Wyoming's 2016 deer season, because there should be a good crop of 2-year-olds as well as fork horns available. We've had very good fawn production for the last two years with mild winters, wet springs and very good nutrition for both fawn recruitment and antler growth for mule deer and whitetails. In 2016, good spring rains and another mild winter have occurred, except in the Baggs area of south/central Wyoming on the Colorado River."
Obrecht names Region G in west/central Wyoming along the Idaho border as legendary for mule deer hunting, including Deer Hunt Areas 144, 145, 143 and 135 with good habitat and escape cover.
"The Baggs area, which includes Deer Hunt Area 82, also has been a historical hotspot for mature mule deer and is probably where you'll see the most," he noted. "However, hunters had to apply for this area by the end of May, 2016. The Bridger-Teton National Forest is my suggestion for the best possibility for non-residents to take a trophy mulie buck. Wyoming's 2015 estimated mule deer harvest was 28,316 with 49,859 hunters."
Obrecht names the Black Hills National Forest as where you'll find the most whitetails.
"That's Region A, and our Deer Hunt Areas found there are Deer Hunt Areas 1-6," Obrecht advised. "The Black Hills National Forest, where the eastern biome and the western biome collide, is primarily Ponderosa pine habitat, but also contains a good understory of oak and hawthorn, creating good whitetail habitat. Deer Hunt Area 2 is made up primarily of the Black Hills and is where the majority of the whitetail deer on public lands are harvested. The total estimated whitetail harvest was 16,662 in 2015 with 25,716 hunters."
For many years Chad Shearer, of Belt., Mont., owned Central Montana Outfitters, guiding for mule deer and whitetails on private lands.
"Physical conditioning plays a major role in your success for mule deer," Schearer advised. "If a hunter isn't conditioned to reach a buck we spot, I'll search with my binoculars for a buck we can get close to quickly by using the road systems. Then, I check the wind direction needed to approach that buck and the terrain we'll have to cross."
Montana deer hunters enjoy relatively long bow and rifle seasons. Schearer is convinced that the more time spent glassing, the more success a hunter will have. He also recommends identifying places where few other people will hunt due to steep terrain or the need to cross several mountains or long treks.
Schearer noted that it is most likely to encounter big whitetails in the western part of the state, often where people hunt elk, in low areas around agriculture and creek bottoms.
"I like to hunt public land whitetails during the rut and have learned the effectiveness of rattling and grunting for them," he said.
Schearer strongly recommended hunters take a hand-held GPS loaded with maps to show you where you are and to mark water sources and stand sites as waypoints. Schearer likes the Cabela's apps for a GPS receiver that identify public lands and their boundary lines, likes the onXmaps app.
At this writing, the harvest report for Montana isn't complete, but data should now be available on the wildlife department website.
"We're expecting the same type of season for 2016 that we had last year," Ron Aasheim, the administrator of Montana's Fish, Wildlife & Parks Communication and Education Division, said. "In 2011, Montana had a major die-off in whitetails, because of winter-kill and EHD," he noted. "But the deer have bounced back, particularly the mule deer in eastern and central Montana."
The biggest whitetails live in the areas where Montana has restricted opportunities. Bitterroot in southwestern Montana and the Rocky Mountains are productive regions for mature mule deer bucks and are probably the most difficult Wildlife Management Areas to draw.
"We don't have preference points like some states do for their lotteries," Aasheim explained. "Montana uses bonus points, and the more points you have, the better your opportunity to draw a permit."
The bigger populations of mule deer and whitetails are in central and eastern Montana in rolling foothills. The best WMAs there will be the 400, 500 and 600. For mature whitetails, look at Region 1 in northwest Montana in the Rocky Mountains, with its timbered, mountainous terrain.
"We take nice whitetails in all whitetail hunting areas; however, in Region 1, the hunting is tougher," Aasheim reported. "But there's not as much hunting pressure as in eastern and central Montana."
Due to the recovery of Montana's deer herds, the state plans to be somewhat more liberal with the antlerless deer harvest in 2016. Biologists saw a significant change in the spring deer herd survey. The number of fawns born and the doe-to-fawn ratio significantly increased, especially mule deer.
Aasheim explained that mule deer experience boom or bust reproductive years.
"Because Montana has so much agriculture, biologists want to get ahead of the cycle to decrease agricultural damage. Increasing the antlerless harvest hopefully will reduce the herd to more normal levels and offer more opportunities to take antlerless mule deer and whitetails than previously.
"If heavy snowfalls happen, the mule deer and the whitetails won't come out of Montana's backcountry, and most of our hunters won't go into those regions to find them," Aasheim said.
2015 was one of our highest harvest reports for mule deer ever," Bruce Ackerman, staff biologist for Idaho Department of Fish and Game, advised, "Biologists estimated 38,200 mule deer and 30,600 whitetails were harvested."
Idaho has had three very mild consecutive winters. But as Ackerman mentioned, "Mild winters are a mixed blessing. We'd like to have had more snow."
As a result of a good fawn crop and an increasing deer herd, Idaho is selling more deer tags in some places. All predictions are for another good mule deer season for 2016. The northern and central sections of the state have plenty of U.S. Forest Service Land that's public access. To provide the possibility for taking mature mule deer bucks, the Idaho Game and Fish Department offers a number of controlled hunting areas, where the harvest has been manipulated to possibly take a trophy animal. The state holds a raffle to draw tags, and you still have a chance to take a nice mule deer buck by obtaining an over-the-counter tag.
Game Management Unit 54, south of Twin Falls, and Units 45 and 52, north of Twin Falls, are draw areas that have produced some good mule deer bucks. Ackerman explained, "Out-of-state hunters can apply and go into the draw to hunt these places. Many of our hunters want a backcountry experience, and I suggest Unit 27, close to Challis, which is difficult to get into, and Unit 26, near Stanley — both with good populations of mule deer."
Ackerman suggested concentrating your hunting in the northern half of Idaho for whitetails, particularly Unit 1, in northern Idaho. Areas known for good bucks are located close to Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry. Last year the state instituted a two-year regulation program, which means hardly any changes in the hunting regulations.
The harvest report for Idaho's wildlife units wasn't available at this writing, but visit the wildlife department website for updated information as it becomes available.
For hunters across the High Country, the outlook is bright for both whitetails and mule deer. Whether you're hunting Idaho, Montana or Wyoming, there should be a productive hunting area not far from you that will offer good opportunities for a successful season.