Region by region, here's where hunters will find success this year among the river bottoms, desert, plateaus, broken timberlines, ridges and valleys of the Centennial State.
Despite the drought, wildfires and ruthless winter conditions that have plagued the Centennial State over the past few years, Colorado remains a deer hunter's paradise. From its awe-inspiring Rockies to its sage dappled plains, deer hunters find excellent populations of both mule deer and whitetail deer for magnificent public-land hunting opportunities.
This great mule deer was harvested in southeast Colorado during the plains early rifle season. Productive units in the southeast include GMUs 128, 133, 134 and 135. All these units carry stellar populations of mule deer, but there are plenty of whitetails haunting these cedar-lined canyons, creek bottoms and sage-dotted hills. Photograph by Jay Waring/Purgatoire Outfitters.
One of the state's biggest hunting stories is its emergence as a whitetail powerhouse. Whitetail populations are growing rapidly in the southeast and northeast regions of the state. Hunters are harvesting some real bruisers each year!
That being said, let's journey to southeast Colorado and review some impressive hunting statistics and information.
Rivers to Timberline
The vast southeast corner of Colorado offers a diverse and appealing landscape to many deer hunters. Some choose to chase velvetine mule deer above timberline; others slip through cedar-lined canyons or hang tree stands along the mighty Arkansas River.
According to Trent Verquer, who works as a terrestrial biologist for the Colorado Department of Wildlife, this variety of habitat and landscape is what makes this part of the state so special.
"The habitat is excellent for both whitetail and mule deer in this part of the state, meaning that trophy potential is good to excellent, especially for whitetails," Verquer said.
Verquer also told Rocky Mountain Game & Fish magazine that on recent observation flights, he put his binoculars on some Booner whitetails. He said the big record-class whitetails are a product of the dense habitat along the Arkansas River.
"Don't get me wrong. We have loads of good mule deer in the southeast, but I have been overly impressed with the whitetails. These bucks have access to excellent food and thick cover," Verquer added.
Some of the premier state-designated game management units that offer whitetail hunting along the Arkansas River include GMUs 124, 125, 126, 127, 129, 130, 132 and 146.
Following Verquer's 2009 post-hunt observation flights, he further calculated 46.4 bucks to every 100 does, and 60.9 fawns to every 100 does. These are impressive numbers that allude to a very bright future for deer hunting along the Arkansas River.
However, much of the hunting land in these units lies behind private-property lines. Much of it is leased or requires a hefty trespass fee to gain access. However, hunters who do their homework will find many designated state wildlife areas suitable for good deer hunting. Among these are the 506-acre Deadman SWA in GMU 132; and the 5,501-acre Granada SWA, also located in GMU 132.
Both Deadman and Granada SWAs are managed to meet the needs of wildlife. Food sources such as corn, milo and winter wheat are plentiful.
Another option for deer hunters in southeast Colorado is to take full advantage of the state's Big Game Access Program. This amazing program is in its fourth year and gives hunters access to around 100,000 huntable acres of private property, which is leased by the CDOW. In a section of the state where private property is so prevalent, these properties have been a welcomed site to many hunters.
Other productive units in the southeast include GMUs 128, 133, 134 and 135. These units harbor stellar populations of mule deer, but there are plenty of whitetails haunting these cedar-lined canyons, creek bottoms and sage-dotted hills. There is also no shortage of public land, thanks in part to the federally controlled Comanche National Grasslands. Thousands of public acres abound in this region, and hunters will find plenty of room to get away from the crowds.
Verquer pointed out that this section boasted a solid buck-to-doe ratio. Post 2009 data showed 50.7 bucks to 100 does, and 50.6 fawns to every 100 does.
The mountain region of southeast Colorado is made up of units 140,851 and 85. The area features plenty of national forest land for hunters to seek out the mule deer of their dreams. The monstrous 30,358-acre Bosque Del Oso SWA also reaches across the area.
"We see a dip in the buck-to-doe ratio in these units, at 32.6-to-100, but that shouldn't discourage hunters," Verquer said. "There are some great mule deer in these areas, and there is a ton of public property."
To close things out in the forecast for deer hunting in southeast Colorado, Verquer wanted hunters to know that much of the land once enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program is dwindling. As a result, the number of acres has been reduced in the region that long stood as premier habitat for big mule deer.
"Much of this habitat is 20-plus years old and going downhill. I don't want this to discourage anyone," Verquer pointed out, "but it definitely puts a question mark on our mule deer in some areas."
Another "hot topic" in the southeast is wildfire. Early in April much of the Melon Valley SWA near the town of Rocky Ford burned. Many of the cottonwoods were damaged. Hunters traveling to this destination should use extreme caution when hanging tree stands.
The Front Range
Last year the CDOW implemented a new management plan for the Poudre-Red Feather Deer herd in hopes to boost the population. Over the past few years this mule deer herd, which roams in GMUs 7, 8, 9, 19 and 191 has fallen to around 7,000 animals, with a buck-to-doe ratio of 29 to 100.
The good news, according to CDOW terrestrial biologist Mark Vieira, is that the mild winter of 2009 combined with solid deer management regimes, has brightened the region's deer-hunting outlook for 2010.
"We didn't see any winter mortality issues, and the new buck-to-doe ratio is 41 to 100, which is a good improvement. The fawn rate was also up a bit, at 68 fawns to every 100 does," Vieira added.
Vieira also pointed out plenty of public land l
ies in these units, where hunters will find good access in the Roosevelt and Arapahoe national forests. He said when hunters see a buck in these units, they better capitalize. Holding out for a trophy buck is not recommended, and hunters will have to hunt hard and long to be successful.
This area of the state, especially the foothills of the Front Range is highly publicized for its Chronic Wasting Disease, which is still a concern.
"We didn't really see a major shift up or down (in the spread of the disease)," Vieira said, "but these units still have one of the highest percentages of CWD in the entire state."
Moving toward the northeast portion of the region, the story once again becomes a combination of whitetails and mule deer. In Region D46 (South Republican), buck-to-doe ratios were amazing. A post-hunt population flight showed 80.5 bucks to every 100 does. This will create some stiff competition for the ladies, and hunters should have chances at multiple bucks if they put their time in. The fawn-to-doe ratio also was very positive, which should continue to help the already strong deer population. Hunters should look to areas like the 13,268-acre South Republican SWA and the 895-acre Sedgwick Bar SWA. Both have great deer numbers and deer-management programs in place.
This region of Colorado is legendary for its large populations and trophy potential. One specific section -- The Book Cliffs -- continues to raise the eyebrows and increase the heart rates of many mule-deer fanatics across the country.
According to public information officer Randy Hampton of the CDOW's Grand Junction office, the Book Cliffs, GMUs 21 and 30, offer the best trophy potential in not only northwest Colorado, but possibly the entire state.
"These units do take multiple preference points to draw a tag, but hunters can expect to see those 30-inch-wide bucks," Hampton said. "Both units keep getting bigger bucks, and the population is excellent. Oil and gas development in the Piceance area is pushing deer into GMU 21, which is adding genetic diversity and keeping the herd numbers strong," he added.
Most recent population estimates from the CDOW show the Book Cliff herd at 12,126 animals, carrying a buck-to-doe ratio of 41 to 100. With great numbers and abounding public land in the area, hunters who possess a coveted Book Cliffs tag should be in for a stellar 2010 season.
Gigantic Grand Mesa National Forest shares almost 3.2 million acres of public land with the Gunnison and Uncompahgre national forests. This leaves plenty of room to get away from the crowds and find a good buck.
The most current data from the CDOW indicates the North Grand Mesa herd in GMUs 41, 42 and 421 numbers 23,022 animals, carrying a buck-to-doe ratio of 21.9-to-100. The South Grand Mesa herd in GMUs 52, 411 and 521 harbors around 8,600 animals, with a buck-to-doe ratio of 22 to 100.
Last year the CDOW started utilizing some new modeling techniques and found that the deer herds on the Grand Mesa carried a lower total population than previously believed. Hunters can expect in 2011 that license numbers will be reduced to help combat this issue. On a positive note, winter 2009-2010 was very mild. Many of the older bucks are expected to have survived a lower-than-expected mortality rate.
"The Grand Mesa is a great place to go because of the diversity it offers," Hampton said. "Hunters will find plenty of bucks in the lower range, which is around 5,700 feet (elevation) all the way up to some of the higher areas around 10,000 feet."
As mentioned before, the Grand Mesa carries throngs of public acres, but a few good places to start include the areas off Forest Road 121 and along the West Bench Trail.
The brutal winter of 2007-2008 put a hurt on North America's largest deer herd, the Piceance herd, but the reduction in licenses and careful management by the CDOW is paying off.
"Even with that disastrous winter, we still have a huge population, especially in GMUs 11, 211, 12, 13, 131, 231, 22, 23 and 24. Current estimates show the herd to be 63,603 animals strong, and the buck-to-doe ratio is 26 to 100," Hampton added.
Hampton went on to say that even though the buck-to-doe ratio is not the best, hunters are still killing some very impressive bucks. He told Rocky Mountain Game & Fish magazine that a hunter last season took a monster 10x10 drop-tine buck on public land in GMU 22. Hampton, who often hunts these units, recommended hunters look to GMUs 12, 22, 23 and 24 for the larger bucks.
To round things out in northwest Colorado, we need to look at the State Bridge (Eagle) herd. This population of deer makes their home in GMUs 16, 36, 38 and 46 and suffered a large winter mortality rate in 2007-2008. Next to the Gunnison Basin, this area endured the second largest winter deer kill. Current population estimates put the herd at 15,619 animals, with a buck-to-doe ratio of 29 to 100. Hunters should know that for the next few years the CDOW plans to keep license numbers low, but state wildlife officials are very optimistic about the future.
SOUTHWEST & WEST-CENTRAL:
Ridges and Timberlines
Like many areas across the state, southwest and west-central Colorado endured horrible weather abuse during the 2007-2008 winter, and deer hunters here are still feeling the affects.
However, quick work and feeding stations set up by the CDOW prevented massive deer (and elk) losses, and local deer herd numbers are really starting to come back. Grafton Singer, who spends more time chasing big mule deer in the Gunnison Basin than anyone I know, pointed out some big changes.
"The numbers are really coming back, but the buck quality isn't back yet, and this will take some time. They go into the winter months weak from the rut and are, sadly, the first to fall," Singer said.
This year the Gunnison Basin saw very little snowfall where the deer winter, and hunters as well as CDOW personal are very optimistic about the future. Productive areas in and around Gunnison include GMUs 53, 54, 55, 66 and 67. Hunters will find plenty of room to roam in the Gunnison National Forest, as well as in the West Elk Wilderness Area.
Southwest Colorado -- especially around the towns of Durango, Cortez and Pagosa Springs -- get a lot of attention from hunters each year and for good reason. These units hold stable deer numbers, even after that problematic winter, and have decent trophy potential. There is also plenty of public land, especially for early season hunters. The San Juan and Rio Grande national forests, along with wilderness areas like Lizard Head and Weminuche, offer a lot of opportunities.
Andy Holland, CDOW terrestrial biologist for much of southwest Colorado, mentioned this area suffered another terrible winter, and he is predicting a higher winter mortality rate than the past two years.
hit hard again!" Holland exclaimed. "We have no final numbers in yet (as of press time), but what I gather from our radio-collared deer, we are going to see higher than normal (mortality) rates. The biggest problem," Holland continued, "is our fawn survival rate has been low the past few years and will be low again. This will ultimately affect our buck-to-doe ratio in the future. We are already seeing lower numbers of young deer. We still have plenty of adult deer, but we are missing those young deer, and that is a concern for the future."
That being said Holland is still optimistic about this season and encourages hunters who have a tag to get out there and get after it.
"We still have great numbers, and I have seen some great bucks while flying. If I had a tag I would be out. Guys aren't really going to be able to tell much difference from this year and previous years. The southwest remains a great place to come hunt!" he exclaimed.
Although final population counts and buck-to-doe ratios for many southwestern Colorado units were not available, deer-harvest and hunter-success rates were in. The Ground Hog Disappointment herd, which was estimated at 24,000 animals last year, is made up of GMUs 70, 71, and 711. Of this trio of units, hunters in units 70 and 711 posted the highest success rates. When combining all methods of take, hunters in GMU 70 took down 904 bucks and 321 does, and posted a hunter-success rate of 63 percent. Bordering GMU 70 to the south is GMU 711, where hunters dropped 496 bucks and 340 does, carrying a 61 percent hunter success rate.
The cluster of units in the far southwest corner of the region -- GMUs 72, 73, 74 and 741 -- makes up the Cortez and Hermosa herds. Hunter-success rate in these units was led by GMU 72, which posted a 77 percent success rate. When factoring in all methods of take hunters harvested 350 buck and 336 does. Posting the second highest mark was GMU 741. Here hunters put down 251 bucks, 143 does and posted a success rate of 62 percent.
Last year, GMUs 75, 77, 78, 751 and 771 carried an estimated population of 24,000 animals. Personnel at the CDOW don't expect that number to differ much this season. After crunching the numbers, GMUs 771 and 75 posted the best hunter-success rate. In GMU 771 hunters took down 313 bucks and 55 does from the San Juan herd, which resulted in a 62 percent harvest rate. Hunters in GMU 75 carried an even 50 percent success rate, and took 411 bucks and 176 does.
Quality bucks are not found around every corner in Colorado. But regardless of where Colorado deer hunters choose to hunt in the Centennial State, research and hard work assures they'll come during the 2010 deer-hunting season backstraps for the grill and a great set of horns for the wall.
Have a great season!