Ask any serious deer hunter in Utah where he would hunt deer if given a choice, and the name of this southwestern plateau will roll off his lips without hesitation. (December 2005)
Photo by Michael Mauro
Ask hunters in Utah where they would go to hunt trophy-caliber mule deer and you will hear one answer almost exclusively: the Paunsaugunt. Perhaps the most impressive part of their answer will be that this funny word will simply roll off their lips as if they have been saying it since they could first talk, and for many deer hunters in the Beehive State, that wouldn't be an exaggeration.
Utah's Paunsaugunt Plateau, which is in the southwest corner of the state, has attributes that will make any serious deer hunter salivate, not the least of which is that a lucky hunter who draws a permit to hunt there is virtually guaranteed a shot at a mule deer buck whose rack sports a 24-inch spread. The really lucky ones find bucks with spreads of 30 or more inches.
And there are even bigger bucks. Clients of big-game guide Wade Ovard have taken mule deer with 37-inch spreads.
More of the area's attributes include mule deer with the right genetics and a management philosophy to make record-book dreams come true. With an overall estimated population of 3,700 mulies whose average age is between 4 and 5 years, the Paunsaugunt Unit draws the attention of far more hunters who want a hunting tag to go there each year than it has tags available. Why? Because those who do draw tags will have no problem finding deer. "You see a lot of deer -- typical and non-typical both," said Ovard.
"It's a pretty well sought-after unit to hunt," said Neil Sorenson, a big-game manager of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
The Paunsaugunt and the Henry Mountain units are what the DWR defines as premium wildlife management units. Permits are limited and deer are managed so as to provide trophy animals. (Continued)
Utah DWR biologist Adam Bronson says the ideal post-season buck-to-doe ratio for this unit is 35 bucks per every 100 does. The latest counts, taken while Paunsaugunt deer were on winter range for the last three or four years, have ranged between 34-to-100 and 37-to-100. "To put everything in perspective, most of our general-season units are averaging 12 to 18 bucks per 100 does," said Bronson. "We manage for bucks 5 years old or better. We actually take teeth, incisors that hunters submit. We have them aged accurately to the exact year by cross sectioning the tooth so they will match that of the 4- or 5-year-old deer."
The cross section of a deer's tooth is similar to looking at the cross section of a tree, counting the rings to determine the age. Mule deer have rings in their teeth that they accumulate each year they live. "The last several years our average has been about 4.4 and 4.7, so we are still slightly under what we would like to have," Bronson added.
Hunting the Paunsaugunt is a microcosm of hunting opportunities. Here a hunter can experience a summer archery season on the plateau. In October as the weather changes, the rifle hunter hunts the deer as they migrate toward wintering grounds. In the muzzle loading season mule deer can be hunted in high desert conditions -- one of the best of hunting times if you are lucky enough to draw a coveted permit.
"The deer summer up on the high plateau," said Ovard. "A lot of the deer are still in bachelor herds, where they all still are buddy-buddy. They stay there pretty much until they get hard horned. Once they get hard horned they will start moving down into some of the canyons. The first real cold spell of the year, (which occurs from) the first of October to the middle of October, when you get that first cold storm of the year, they head south. We call them wimpy deer; they don't like the weather."
HUNTING THE PAUNSAUGUNT
There is basically one main road that runs right down the plateau. Many of the people drive that road. "You see a lot of deer right off the main road, but it's no different from anywhere else," continued Ovard. "The further away you get from the main road, the better the hunting. A big deer doesn't get big by living alongside the main road. There are many offshoots. The country is fairly accessible by ATV or truck. More or less it is just a matter of covering country."
The Paunsaugunt is a combination of BLM and Forest Service federal holdings as well as a large section of private land.
"We do a lot of spot stalking during the archery season," said Ovard. "We spend a lot of time glassing, covering a lot of country. Water holes are always productive if you can find one they are using. We have radios, GPS, a lot of things to assist in leading the hunter to the location of the deer.
"As guides, we stay on spot with binoculars and try to lead him on in where that buck is. The best spot-and-stalk time is early to late mid afternoon after the deer have fed all day and have settled in and have fallen asleep. That's the best time to do it."
A good archery hunter might pull off one or two good stalks out of 10, according to Ovard. "Mule deer are no different from any other deer," he said. "With those big ears they can hear very well. With their noses they can smell very well. It's a good challenge that's a lot different from your eastern whitetail hunters who are in the tree stand and let the deer come to them. Trying to sneak up on him is a completely different world. You hope to get anywhere from 20 to 40 yards. Most people's maximum range would 40 to 50 yards."
All Paunsaugunt hunts are good, but the archery season seems to stand out above the others. "If somebody knows what they are doing, they have hunted deer in the past and shoot well, they can get a buck," said Ovard. "Those deer are a little more tolerant of people at that time of the year. They see campers all year long; they see people going to the reservoirs fishing. You definitely have to be close and be patient." The maximum shot is about 40 yards for archers.
The rifle hunt, which begins in October, is very weather dependent. "If you have (bad) weather the week prior to the rifle hunt," said Bronson, the biologist, "the deer move early and it can be a very good rifle hunt. Generally you don't get snow until the end of October, the first part of November.
"If it's really hot and dry, the deer move at a slow pace. There is a lot of in-between country from the summer range and the winter range." Sagebrush and juniper vegetation communities dominate the latter. It's not wide-open country, and hunters will encounter lots of cliff-type contours of broken, rough, rocky terrain.
"Once that first gun goe
s off, the mulies get smart in a hurry," said Ovard. "The deer start moving and become hard to find. Locations used by deer during the archery hunt may be entirely different a month later during the rifle hunts, which can be the toughest time to hunt deer there. They move down into those deep dark canyons, some red rock canyons at mid elevations." Hunting switches from pine trees to piÃ±on and juniper trees -- definitely country that challenges the deer-finding abilities of hunters.
"You spend a lot of time with binoculars," Ovard says. "The unit itself is huge, but the deer traditionally go to certain spots as they move south. Over the course of years we have come to know a couple of the spots, but the majority is the same type of hunting as with archery. Just spread out and do a lot of glassing."
Bronson says the entire unit is fairly accessible by roads but the biggest obstacle to public hunting during the rifle season is private land situated in the area through which deer pass. If you come off the western side of the unit, you run into private land for a sizeable long stretch of country, perhaps 25 percent to 30 percent of which is private land. Roughly 45,000 acres of that private land is known as the Alton Cooperative Wildlife Management Unit. Alton receives about 20 hunting permits each year, which it sells. An additional five permits are available through the public drawing held by the DWR.
On the north end you run into Bryce Canyon. South is definitely the area to hunt during the muzzle-loading season. You have a lot more public land. People start out hunting high and keep moving south until they find the deer. Once you find a few deer, the rest are somewhere close. There are always a few stragglers, but most of the deer will be centrally located.
One of southwestern Utah's limiting factors for deer and all wildlife is water. "If you can find water, you will find a good congregation of deer," Ovard insists. "They will hold up and might spend a week before they will move on, depending on the weather."
GOT BLACK POWDER?
The muzzle-loading season, the last hunting season each year on the Paunsaugunt, takes place when most of the deer have migrated into the extreme southern quarter of the unit, where they will spend the winter, November through April, with some of the herd crossing into Arizona. "Approximately 25 to 35 percent of the deer winter in Arizona," said Bronson. "They are very concentrated at the time of the year during the muzzleloader season, plus the rut is taking place during this time frame." Muzzle-loading hunting season runs Nov. 1-10.
"The muzzleloader season the past few years has produced some of the bigger bucks," said Ovard. "Everybody pretty much concentrates on the south end of the unit. Some of the deer will move into Arizona, but a lot of them will hole up right there on the south end of the unit. It is just a matter of finding the particular buck you are looking for. You might see 20 to 30 bucks a day during the hunt. It's just a matter of which one of those 30 you are after."
As with any of the Paunsaugunt season, spot-and-stalk hunting reigns supreme during the black powder season. The deer are moving and little more visible at this time of the year than others, and they tend to stay out in the open longer, having to work to find food.
THE MAGIC OF WATER
"Glass, glass and glass -- that's the key to locating and hunting deer in the Paunsaugunt Unit," Ovard emphasized. "Water is always a big issue even in the lower areas. Once the bucks get in the rut, they don't eat a lot, but they will drink. Look for water.
"You could set a ground blind in the area where deer are coming in to drink. This works during the archery hunt, but not during the rifle or muzzleloader seasons, when you have better luck pounding the pavement. There are quite a few water sources. The odds aren't very good if you are trying to get that one buck to come to the one water source you are sitting at.
"During the summer they will go to the same water hole quite consistently. During November they won't do that. They are out roaming looking for does. Once they find a hot doe they will stick around, but until they find that doe they will cover a lot of country.
Water is crucial to a successful hunt. A prolonged drought that hung around for four or five years has affected the water sources and forage in the unit. How much has it affected the deer?
"We are coming out of the drought now," said Nile Sorenson. "We had a really wet year this last winter. We had record amounts of moisture at higher elevations and we are still getting some rain now and then, so there should be good forage. Fawn production has been improving for two years. Region wide in 2002 it was 42, in 2003 it was 53, and in 2004 it was 62 fawns per 100 does. It is not as good as it could be, but it's improving." The target for fawn production is up in the 70s.
The number of hunting permits has been reduced. "Over the last four years we've had a 50 percent reduction in permits in the unit in response to declining older age bucks," said Bronson. "We cut the number of permits issued in half. However, our fawn production has been up considerably from where it was the last two years. Hopefully, we are turning the table."
Bronson estimates it's going to take three or four more years before the lag effect in doe production is felt. "Remember we are talking about the Paunsaugunt Unit, not the state as a whole," he said. "In 2002 fawn protection was only 30 fawns for 100 does compared to between 60 and 80 per 100 does fawns over a 10-year average. Those fawns born in 2002 will not be 5- or 6-year-old deer until 2007. The years 2007 and 2008 are probably where we are going to see the full effects of the depressed fawn production. However, the good news is that in the last couple of years we have been over 60 fawns for 100 does."
January is the time to apply for hunting the Paunsaugunt. Thirty archery permits, 30 rifle permits, and 30 muzzle-loading permits will be awarded to the lucky hunters who registered and put their name in the hat. A bonus point is awarded each year a hunter's name is not drawn.
"The way Utah conducts the draw for hunting in the Paunsaugunt Unit, 50 percent of the limited-entry permits are available to hunters with accumulated bonus points," said Bronson. The other 50 percent are randomly drawn by the public."
On the average it takes six years to draw an archery permit. It might take 10 years to draw a rifle or muzzle-loading hunting permit.
The wait is worth the time for a hunt at the Paunsaugunt Unit. The chances are excellent you will have the mule deer hunt of a lifetime. Taking a mule deer with a 36-inch spread is not guaranteed, but the chances are very good most hunters will at least see the buck of a lifetime. Get off the beaten patch and "glass, glass, and glass" as Ovard recommends. Water is the key no matter whether you draw in the archery, rifle or muzzleloader season.