Get In Line For Your Dream Mule Deer Hunt

Get In Line For Your Dream Mule Deer Hunt

Love 'em or hate 'em, permit-only hunts are a way of life among those who seek to hunt trophy mule deer. Here are some of our top units in Washington and Oregon.

Photo by Gary

Pacific Northwest mule deer hunters differ in their views concerning permit hunts. Some don't like them one bit, while others not only embrace the concept but they give due diligence to making the process work for them.

Those who dislike permit hunts don't hesitate to share their feelings with game agencies and fish and wildlife commissions. They insist that they should be able to hunt in any area of the state they want, and that any attempt to limit that freedom is an infringement on Washington tradition and their rights. They also point out that it is both strange and unfair that hunters who live within the boundaries of permit hunt areas may seldom, if ever, be allowed to hunt deer in the places where they know most intimately if it is a high-odds unit.

On the other hand, many other hunters welcome the annual permit hunt application season eagerly. They carefully study the harvest rates and application-to-tag ratios in a number of units before choosing the hunts they will try to draw. They think controlling the number of hunters in some areas is a valuable and responsible management tool, and believe that although they may not be able to hunt exactly where they want every season, they will enjoy a much higher quality hunt when they finally do draw a tag for their preferred unit.

Whichever way you come down on the issue of controlled hunts, there is one indisputable fact: They have much higher success rates than open entry areas. General season areas in Washington where mule deer are available and which the state manages as unlimited entry hunts average around a 20 percent success rate. In Oregon, which has managed all eastern mule deer units as controlled hunts since the 1980s, has an average 45 percent success rate. Evergreen State hunters who drew tags for controlled mule deer units averaged more than 50 percent harvest rates.

Neither Washington nor Oregon has the resources to measure the size of the animals or antlers in either open entry or controlled hunts. However, anyone who has spent any time surveying Boone and Crockett record books will also tell you that trophy mulies tend to come from either permit hunt areas or units that are very difficult to hunt. This isn't very hard to understand. In unlimited entry areas, most deer are harvested as 2 1/2 to 3 1/2-year-olds. They may have branched antlers, but they are not even considered adult deer by biologists. The age structure and buck-to-doe ratios in these units are typically much younger and much less diverse than in areas managed as controlled hunts. Bucks older than 4 years are much more common in permit areas as well as those whose terrain, wilderness classification or other features discourage hunters.

Of course, it takes more than limited pressure to produce truly trophy-class mule deer. Even small numbers of hunters can keep the average buck age low in areas that are easy to hunt. More than any other deer, trophy mule deer prefer remote, lightly populated areas, and the places that routinely produce the biggest mulies usually present access difficulties. In addition, some areas just seem to produce bigger deer or deer with impressive racks as a result of nutrients or trace minerals in the water or forage. I remember the first time I saw the bucks that hang around northeast Oregon's Wallowa Lake State Park. I was returning from fishing at twilight, and at first glance I thought they were elk. They had dramatic, high, sweeping racks, the kind that most hunters only see in outdoor shows, magazines and in their dreams.

When all of these factors -- limited hunters, difficult hunting, and the intangibles of diet and chemistry -- come together in one location, you end up with mule deer hunting at its most impressive. As with good steelhead holes or grouse coverts, these places are usually not secrets. Indeed, many of the most passionate mule deer hunters know the names of places like the Trout Creek Mountains and the Desert Unit. They may have never seen them, and likely never will, but they most certainly know of them for their reputation as big-deer factories.

Hunters who are willing to participate in permit hunts and who build up preference points actually have a pretty good chance of eventually drawing a tag in a premier unit. When they do, the hunt of a lifetime awaits them. Here are some of those units.


Whitehorse and Trout Creek Mountains

Anyone over the age of 50 has probably spent a fair amount of time as a child watching Hollywood westerns that were filmed in the southeast corner of Oregon. This sprawling region of expansive vistas, rugged mountain ranges, buttes, canyons, cold desert rivers and seasonal creeks is tailor-made for cinematographers. Ironically, those same features that inspired cinematographers are the same characteristics that make Oregon's Whitehorse Unit and Trout Creek Mountains one of the legendary mule deer areas in the West.

Even today, when much of the inter-mountain West has been transformed by development and outdoor recreation seekers, this rugged and remote corner of Oregon remains wide open and virtually unpopulated. That is just what mule deer want, and many of them live long enough here to grow into true trophy-class bucks.

One of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's largest units, the Whitehorse, sits in the southeast corner of the state extending from Idaho and Nevada to the Steens Mountain foothills on the west and north to the Owyhee Unit. Although it contains a smattering of working ranches (many of them more than a century old) and wind-blown communities, more than 90 percent of the unit is public land. It contains the Owyhee River and canyon, the Alvord Desert, and the Trout Creek and Sheephead mountain ranges.

The Trout Creek Mountains, in the southwest corner of the unit, are known for producing the largest deer in the unit. The ODFW operates a separate permit hunt for the Trout Creek Mountains.

Nearly all of the public land is held by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and is open to hunting. However, some ranchers lease public areas for grazing, and there are occasionally problems with gates and access. Always call the regional BLM office before planning a hunt.

The bad thing about setting your sights on the Trout Creek Mountains, of course, is that you will almost certainly have to wait a long time to draw a permit. During 2002, 1,834 hunters vied for 53 tags.

Your odds are considerably better in the East Whitehorse Hunt, which encompasses the rest of the hunt; only 776 hunters applied for 266 permits in 2002. Despite the Trout Creek Mountains' widely heralded reputation for turning out wall hanger racks, the success

rates of the E. Whitehorse hunts and Trout Creek Mountains haven't been that different in recent years. In 2000, for instance, 52 hunters killed 32 bucks in the Trout Creek Mountains for a 62 percent success rate. The same year, 235 hunters in the East Whitehorse tagged 135 deer, for a 57 percent rate. A hunter who is seriously interested in the Whitehorse Unit, therefore, can greatly increase his or her odds of drawing a tag without significantly decreasing the chance of killing a deer by choosing the East Whitehorse Hunt.

Snake River

The northeast corner of Oregon offers an entirely differently physical setting than the southern desert. There are more trees, for one thing, and more water. The Blue and Wallowa mountains are best known for elk hunting, but they also support good populations of mule deer, and some of them are among the most impressive bucks in the Northwest.

There is much less pressure for controlled hunt tags in the northeast than other eastern Oregon units, perhaps because of the widespread reputation of southern units such as the Whitehorse and others like the Steens, Malheur and Beulah. As a result, most units only receive around twice as many tags as applications. However, these mountainous reaches can be difficult to hunt, and hunter success rates often rival those of the more famous units. The difficulty of access also makes many of the mountainous reaches hard to hunt, which translates into deer like those I mistook for elk at Wallowa Lake.

No unit in Oregon is more rugged than the Snake River Unit, and that is the main reason it turns out a 66 percent harvest rate. Situated between the eastern flanks of the Wallowa Mountains and the Snake River, the unit is nearly entirely within the boundaries of the Hells Canyon Wilderness and Hell's Canyon National Recreation Area. Roads only penetrate the periphery of the unit, and the only effective way to hunt it is by horseback or by backpacking. There is very little flat land in this country, which is sharply cut by the Imnaha River drainage and the near-vertical walls of Hells Canyon that surrounds the Snake River. Around 330 permits have been issued for the unit in recent years, and around 600 hunters have made the unit their first choice.

Silvies in the High Desert

You will encounter more competition from hunters and less public land in the Silvies Unit than in either the Snake River or Whitehorse hunts. However, in recent years between 60 percent and 70 percent of hunters who draw a tag for it have killed deer.

The ODFW has offered around 1,500 buck permits annually in the Silvies, and nearly 5,000 hunters have selected the unit as their first choice.

About 68 percent of the unit is open to the public, most of it in national forest and BLM land where hunting is permitted. There seem to be fewer true trophies taken in the unit than units with more remote access, and most of the trophies are shot on private land. Overall, however, the Silvies Unit posts excellent overall success rates.

The Silvies Unit extends east of Burns into the height of the High Desert. It contains a mixture of habitats, including rocky buttes, hills flanked with Ponderosa and lodge pole pines, swamps, and riparian areas along the South Fork John Day, Twelve Mile, Silver and Silvies creeks, and their tributaries. The Ochoco and Malheur national forests control thousands of acres in the northern part of the unit, and the forests have networks of logging roads. BLM and private holdings dominate in the southern and western reaches of the Silvies, along with a handful of ODFW wildlife areas.


Desert Unit

It isn't hard to discover which is the Evergreen State's most sought mule deer permit hunt. All you have to do is look in last year's Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regulations pamphlet to see that during 2004 more than 4,500 hunters applied for a paltry 15 buck permits in this Columbia Basin unit.

The incredibly high success rate in the Desert Unit is its principal attraction. How high? Well, during most years between 90 and 100 percent of the lucky tag holders get their deer. The unit's mixture of agricultural holdings, isolated native shrub/steppe habitats and water produce a well-deserved reputation for turning out bucks that approach 300 pounds.

The Desert Unit is actually one of Washington's smaller units. Its northern and southern boundaries are, respectively, Interstate 90 and State Route 262, the road along the southern edge of Potholes Reservoir, and it reaches from Frenchman Hills on the west to State Route 17 on the east. This area encompasses a large percentage of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Southern Columbia Basin Wildlife Area complex, which contains portions of the 35,500-acre Potholes Wildlife Area and the 27,700-acre Desert WA. The unit is centered around Potholes Reservoir, and much of it is sandy and barren, which requires planning on the part of hunters. Most of the deer are concentrated near water sources.

Alta in the Okanogan

The Okanogan Highlands of north central Washington have traditionally supported the largest mule deer herd in the Pacific Northwest. For most of recent history, the Okanogan game management units have all been managed as open-entry hunts. However, the Alta Unit was the one exception. It was a permit-only hunt for much of the 1990s, and hunters, not surprisingly, achieved much higher success rates than in the corresponding general-season units. However, the Alta is now once again open to general-season hunting, yet the permit hunters still have much higher success rates. During the 2000 season, the Alta Unit's permit hunt had an 84 percent success rate, while the general-season rate was a much smaller 12 percent. This may seem confusing until you know that the permit hunts were in November, during the rut and after snow typically drove the deer into more accessible foothills and valleys, while the general season was held in mid-October. This is an example of how permit hunts and general seasons within a unit can also be structured to give entirely different results.

The Alta Unit extends south of the Twisp and Methow rivers, along the west bank of the Columbia, then west and north along the Sawtooth Ridge between Chelan and Okanogan counties. Much of the unit lies within Okanogan National Forest, but there are also extensive private holdings in the lowland where the deer congregate after the snow flies. However, the state manages several large low-elevation road closures in the unit as winter ranges and for non-motorized hunting access. They include several square miles along the south side of the lower Twisp River and foothills creek basins northwest of Carlton. Hunters who want to pursue these deer should be patient, because during 2004, 1,687 hunters applied for the five tags available.

Quilomene Mule Deer

The odds of obtaining a buck tag for the Quilomene Unit are better than in the Desert of Alta units -- but not by much. Two years ago, nearly 3,000 hunters vied for 75 permits.

The Quilomene isn't known necessarily for turning out record-class bucks, but it does have a consistently high success rate. The average success rate in the unit recently has been in the high 80 percent range. Unlike most good mule deer units, the Quilomene is better known for its elk than its mule deer. B

ut the unit's elk population has been low for a number of years, and this may have given the deer an opening to expand their range slightly. It also helps that controlled hunts are the only deer hunts allowed in the unit.

The Quilomene Unit is large, reaching from the Columbia River on the east and Interstate 90 on the south uphill toward Colockum Road. The northern boundary of the unit is the Tarpiscan Creek. It is typical Columbia River Basin habitat, with shrub/steppe and scattered timber and many canyons and gullies. It contains the 45,000-acre Quilomene WA and a large portion of the 92,000-acre Colockum WA.

As in the Alta Unit, the permit hunt opens in November, when the deer are more active and moving down toward the Columbia. The Quilomene Unit also offers permit hunts for muzzleloader, archery and senior hunts in November.


For Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife permit information, call (877) 945-3492 or go online to

For Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife information, visit online, or call 1-800-708-1782.

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