Each fall, deer hunters heed the call to Colorado's wilderness in pursuit of a trophy buck or simply for a freezer full of succulent venison. Colorado's mule deer herd has been in decline for several years because of several factors, including drought, human encroachment, invasive weed growth, competition with elk and more. The devastating mortality during the 2007-2008 winter brought Colorado's deer herds to their knees, but deer populations are now recovering and remain the largest in the Western states. Chronic Wasting Disease remains a concern, especially along the northeastern border and along the Front Range.
Andy Holland, Colorado Parks and Wildlife big game manager, told me the current deer population is about 436,000. Colorado remains the primary deer hunting destination among the Western states. Combined with the individual hunter's commitment to succeed, skill, preparation and planning, weather is typically the main determinant for hunter success rates.
One of the keys to deer hunting success in Colorado is to fully understand the licensing process and take advantage of the CPW website, which provides a wealth of hunt planning information in the form of maps, hunting guides, a hunting atlas and other useful materials. All resident and non-resident deer licenses are issued through the draw process. Any licenses that remain after the draw become available as leftovers and can be purchased over the counter. While these licenses will get you into the field, there are seldom any premium Game Management Units remaining. To get the premium licenses, one must acquire multiple preference points either by applying each year for a point or applying unsuccessfully for a specific GMU. Many top GMUs typically require double-digit preference points for a successful draw.
In addition to the limited draw licenses, there are Ranching For Wildlife and Private Land licenses. Ranching For Wildlife is a program whereby the currently enrolled 27 ranches open their land for hunting (resident only). Both of these licenses also must be procured through the draw. Before entering the draw, be sure you have landowner permission to hunt.
Colorado has no peer in delivering trophy mulies, having produced nearly as many record-book deer as the next four states combined. There are also numerous whitetail wall-hangers in the Centennial State as well. Traditionally resident in the eastern flatlands and agricultural region, whitetails are making significant inroads into the higher country and normal mule deer habitat. Typically, the eastern half of the state is private agricultural property where cultivated fields, prairie lands and rocky canyons harbor both trophy mule deer and whitetails. Big whitetails prefer river bottoms, gullies and nearby agricultural lands, while mulies usually opt for rugged canyons, breaks and open prairie grasslands.
Matt Robbins, Colorado Parks and Wildlife public information officer and website manager, told me that the deer herds seem to have survived the winter in good condition. He said the 2015 deer harvest was about average overall and he expects 2016 to be a good season, dependent upon weather.
Colorado's most popular deer hunting destination, the Northwest Region, harbors more deer than other regions in the state. Mike Porras, CPW Northwest Region public information officer, told me that his region had a difficult winter, especially in the far northwest corner. Fawn survival rates were 40 percent or lower in some locations, but as high as 80 percent in Middle Park. The 2015 hunt overall was about average to slightly down — as low as 20 to 30 percent on Grand Mesa and Middle Park largely because of poor weather, but 55-80 percent for White River and Bears Ears herds. The severe weather caused some GMU hunter success rates to decline in 2015.
Lyle Sidener, CPW area wildlife manager, told me that following the 2015 harvest and a good winter survival rate, the Middle Park deer population still remains well above the Department's objective level by some 4,000 deer. Historically a bastion for trophy deer, a good genetic pool here will maintain that trend. Currently, the buck/doe ratio is a very high 45/100. Sidener said big bucks are evenly distributed throughout the uniform Middle Park habitat. GMUs 18, 28, and 181 could be the best there.
Porras expects Middle Park, State Bridge GMUs 15, 35, and 36, Grand Mesa GMUs 41, 42, and 421 along with North Park GMUs 6, 16, and 161 will offer better opportunities for buck hunters in 2016. Bears Ears and White River herds GMUs should also produce well despite 2015's heavy winter mortality, as the mature buck survival rate appears to have been good. The Middle Park and State Bridge GMUs historically offer better odds for trophy hunters and GMU 44, which is difficult to draw, is managed specifically to produce trophy bucks.
Early season hunters should hunt higher heavy mountain shrub and aspen in broken terrain, but by later fall seasons, lower shrub and sage fields will likely host more deer. By the November rut, deer will migrate into more open terrain. Limited numbers of whitetails occupy river bottoms, mostly in Middle and North Park. From the high 12,000-foot peaks, deer will typically begin snow migrations around the third rifle season. Fortunately, there are ample BLM lands, State Wildlife Areas and other public lands open to hunters in the later seasons.
This region ranges from the eastern border westward to the high peaks of the Continental Divide. Nearly 60,000 deer, 50 percent of which are whitetails, share the lower flatlands generally east of I-25. Mule deer become totally dominant as the terrain begins to climb into the clouds. Janet George, CPW biologist, said quality mule deer and whitetails are well distributed throughout the eastern segment of her region, but two recent floods, in 2013 and 2015, below Greeley caused some deer to migrate out of the bottomlands. Yuma County is the only northeastern county to record Boone and Crockett mule deer — a total of four book entries. She said a good fawn/doe ratio indicates good fawn recruitment, thus increasing numbers will probably yield additional licenses in many northeast GMUs.
Deer will be found along the South Platte and Republican River valleys and tributaries. Numerous SWAs along the Platte River Valley open up public access in this area, which is largely private property. George said hunt those SWAs farther from Denver during the week, if possible, to reduce congestion.
Segments of the nearly 200,000-acre Pawnee National Grassland also offer public access to hunters north of the Platte River valley. Mule deer are the predominant species in the Grasslands. She said the deer are not evenly distributed there. They tend to avoid the open grasslands in favor of breaks, canyons, gullies and brushy areas.
Some South Park deer inhabit the very high country, but probably more will be found in the brushy habitat east of the Park, especially late in the season; however, most heavy-racked bucks will be found in the eastern prairie lands.
Southwest Colorado is a vast area from the agricultural-based San Luis Valley to the awe-inspiring cathedral-like peaks of the Weminuche Wilderness. Here one finds a diverse hunting environment from the flourishing Valley through rolling sagebrush hills finally climbing into the ruggedwilderness regions of southwestern Colorado's jagged, snowy peaks. Joe Lewandowski, CPW regional public information officer, said the region had a relatively mild winter and about average 2015 all weapons/all seasons 46 percent hunter harvest. Deer numbers are increasing nicely from the devastating 2007-2008 winter kill and the entire Southwest Region has plenty of deer.
In the Gunnison Basin, Nick Gallowich, a CPW district wildlife manager, said buck/doe ratios and numbers are at or above management objectives in all GMUs. Although trophy bucks are spread evenly throughout the Gunnison Basin, rugged GMUs 54 and 55 always produce a good share of wall hangers for stalwart hunters. Lewandowski concurs and includes GMUs 66, 67 and 551.
According to him, there will be lots of really nice bucks along the west and northwest side of the San Luis Valley in GMUs 79, 80, and 81 although deer numbers are a little lower there. He thinks GMUs 77 and 78 will also yield big bucks. For the indomitable hunter, GMU 82 along the western side of the steep, rugged Sangre de Cristos hides heavy-racked mule deer that feed amongst the timberline willow patches until winter snows drive them down. The area between Pagosa Springs west to the Uncomphagre Plateau is always productive. La Plata and Montezuma counties and the Uncomphagre Plateau historically have produced numerous record book mulies. Other quality deer areas include GMUs 68, 82, and 681, north and west of Saguache.
Matt Robbins said the deer population in the southeast is strong. The 2015 harvest here was a little higher than in previous years. Although there are lots of deer in the eastern segment of the region, much of the terrain isn't necessarily trophy deer habitat. Robbins said Las Animas and Pueblo counties have produced the largest number of record deer in this region. Many deer tend to congregate along the Arkansas, Huerfano, and Purgatoire River and Big Sandy Creek valleys. Several SWAs along the Arkansas River Valley offer access to high quality whitetail deer. These SWAs are popular and can be crowded, especially on weekends. To reduce congestion, hunt those SWAs farthest from high population areas during the week. Both Sikes and Grenada SWAs have produced well in the past.
The Comanche National Grassland, comprised of two segments totaling over 400,000 acres, also offers prime habitat for big mule deer and some whitetails. The Grasslands are a historic treasure trove featuring dinosaur tracks, remnants of ancient Indian life and early frontier life. Mule deer here tend to favor rocky, sandy, and brushy areas in more rugged terrain and canyons whereas whitetails prefer the agricultural areas around river and creek beds and gullies. Both mulies and whitetails will take advantage of agricultural plots when possible.
Robbins said GMU's within Las Animas County and Pueblo County have the highest number of Boone and Crockett mule deer entries for the southeast region. Typically, those GMUs closest to the Arkansas River have potential for quality whitetail harvests and good public land access between La Junta and Lamar. GMUs 59, 84, 123, 124, 128, 133, 134, 140, 143, 591, and 851 historically produce the most trophy deer. He told me that over the last few years, GMUs 120, 136, and 137 yielded 50 percent success rates while 119, 134, and 140 have been around or over 60 percent.
West of I-25, mule deer become dominant as altitude rapidly increases to 14,000-plus feet, but whitetails have continued their westward migration now as far as Canon City. Terrain here is mostly scrub, pinon, and juniper until reaching the high tundra. Early season hunts can focus on big bucks high up in the timberline willow patches, but most deer will be lower on the eastern slopes. Late season hunters should focus more on the Arkansas River valley, which unfortunately has a lot of private property.
Jamin Grigg, CPW area wildlife manager, said though deer numbers remain below objective, populations are up some 20 percent since 2010, perhaps leading to increased license availability along the Collegiate Range from Salida north to Buena Vista. Grigg favors GMUs 49, 57, and 58. He also suggested the steep, cloud-scraping GMUs in the Sangre de Cristo range as a likely place to find some real back-scratching antlered bucks for hardy hunters. The eastern slopes of the Sangre de Cristos probably hold more deer as well as some big bucks down in the lower brushy terrain.
Deer hunting is alive and well in Colorado. Numbers are increasing each year, hovering just below or slightly above management objectives in nearly every GMU. With good planning, good weather, and a little luck, one can find that mossy-back trophy buck hidden out in any part of the state.