San Juan River Mule Deer
October 19, 2018
Imagine a place where you can hunt for the biggest deer of your life and fish for the biggest trout of your life … in the same day! Few places on Earth offer such an opportunity, but the area around the legendary San Juan River and Navajo Lake in northwestern New Mexico is one of those rare places.
Game Management Unit 2, east of Farmington, is divided into three sub-units, and each holds the potential for Boone & Crockett caliber mule-deer bucks.
This prime area is split between the counties of San Juan to the west and Rio Arriba to the east, which are well represented by mulies entered in the record books. With archery hunts in early September and January, muzzleloader hunts in late September and general rifle hunts in October and November, as well as special youth hunts and private land hunts in each weapons category, there are opportunities available for virtually every hunter.
The San Juan River separates GMU 2A from 2B and 2C at their adjacent southern boundaries. Fifteen miles of river from Navajo Dam to the town of Blanco divide GMU 2A and 2B, while the next 10 miles downstream from Blanco to Bloomfield divide GMU 2A and 2C. The first 3.75 miles of “Quality Water” below the dam are truly hallowed territory for trout fishermen, ranked as one of the Top-10 fly-fishing destinations in the United States. A remarkable population (estimated to be 80,000+ fish) of rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout live in this section of the river, where fish are often measured in pounds rather than inches!
Formed from centuries of erosion, the river drainage and surrounding landscape is spectacular. Composed of colorful sandstone mesas, majestic bluffs and deep-cut washes, this area provides ample cover and excellent forage for both resident mule deer and those that annually migrate south from Colorado in late fall. With exceptional genetics and thoughtful game-management practices, it’s not surprising that so many record-book entries come from this area — including a magnificent 191-inch 4x4 “Booner” buck that I took here a few years back.
HUNTING SAN JUAN MULIES
Hunting mule deer in any sub-unit of GMU 2 requires a New Mexico game-hunting license and either a public-land or a private-land deer draw license, issued through the annual lottery. Draw licenses are good on both public and private land (with written permission from the landowner) in most units across the state, but not in GMU 2 due to special management policies. Applicants for private-land licenses in GMU 2 must make arrangements with a landowner to obtain “hunt codes” prior to submission. The application deadline for deer and other game species is typically mid-March, and up to four hunters can submit together on the same application. Both license fees must be paid at the time of application. Refunds for both deer draw (automatic) and game hunting (if requested) license fees, less application fees, are issued to the unsuccessful.
New Mexico does not use a bonus or preference-point system for draw licenses, like other Western states. All applications are treated equally, and by now deer draw licenses have been awarded and processed. State law has established quotas for most draw hunts, including those for deer in GMU 2. Residents are awarded 84 percent of available licenses; 10 percent are awarded to resident and non-resident hunters who apply with a registered New Mexico outfitter; and 6 percent are awarded to non-residents applying without outfitter services. Despite low drawing odds for the most desirable hunts, I have personally drawn five non-resident public-land mule deer tags for GMU 2 over the past 15 years.
If you, too, have been awarded one of these licenses, your hunting opportunities are based on a total of 1,772 tags, allotted in differing numbers for hunts across the general season with 1) any legal sporting arm (five days), 2) archery-only hunts (24 days), and 3) muzzleloader hunts (seven days). In each method of hunting, “youth-only” and “quality” and “high-demand” hunts are included. See the website of New Mexico Game & Fish — Wildlife.state.nm.us — for more information.
WHERE TO HUNT
GMU 2A covers the area south of the Colorado border, south and east of the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation, north of the San Juan River and west of the Los Pinos River (Pine River Arm of Navajo Lake).
Most of GMU 2A open to hunting is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, interspersed with small tracts of state land. Private land along the San Juan River holds a lot of resident deer, particularly during dry conditions. Popular hunting areas include major drainages feeding into Navajo Lake along State Highway 511; Hart Canyon and Hart Mountain, east of Aztec; sandhills and washes along State Highway 173, between Knickerbocker Peaks and Archuleta on the river; and major canyons that hold water throughout the natural-gas production areas in the middle of the unit. Thick piñon-juniper range along the Colorado border holds deer but is difficult to hunt.
GMU 2B runs south from the Colorado border, between the Jicarilla Indian Reservation on the east and the Los Pinos River on the west, down to its southern boundary formed by two major canyons — Largo and Cereza.
The Jicarilla Ranger District of the Carson National Forest covers the eastern third of the unit, while the balance is BLM land interspersed with small tracts of state and private land. The main topographic feature is Navajo Lake in the northwest quadrant. Much of the deer hunting in this unit relates to this expansive impoundment. Other popular areas include sandhills and canyons along Manzanares Mesa and south of Gobernador Canyon; and Cabresto Canyon in the Carson National Forest. The piñon-juniper belt along the Colorado border is a travel corridor for deer migrating south during late seasons.
GMU 2C lies south of GMUs 2A and 2B and southeast of the city of Bloomfield, bordered by U.S. Highway 550 on the west and south, and the Jicarilla Reservation on the east. The northern boundary is formed by the San Juan River, to its intersection with Largo Canyon, and to its intersection with Cereza Canyon.
The land is mostly BLM, interspersed with small tracts of state and private land. A corridor of tribal land bisects the unit in Blanco Canyon, and there is a USFS/Carson District finger to the east. The main topographic feature is Largo Canyon, and, true to its name, this is big country where access can be difficult and getting lost is not uncommon. It reminds one of the famous “strip” area in northwestern Arizona, where deer are scarce but resident bucks can grow giant antlers and often die from old age. Popular hunting areas include drainages on both sides of Largo Canyon, down through the heart of the unit, and those surrounding Harris Mesa on the west side.
HUNTING METHODS & TECHNIQUES
The San Juan Basin contains some of the richest coal, oil and natural gas deposits in New Mexico. The State’s Oil Conservation Division estimates this area produced 700 billion cubic feet of dry natural gas in 2014.
As a result, active mining operations cover much of the area in GMU 2, presenting hunters with some unique challenges, and one distinct advantage: Hundreds of service vehicles, from pickups to tankers, traverse the area daily to monitor and maintain equipment on well sites, called “locations.” With all this activity, non-migratory resident deer are primarily nocturnal. Spotting an aged trophy buck in the vast, multi-stepped canyon country during daylight hours is unlikely. In fact, many service workers have never seen a deer! Thus, traditional hunting methods, like glassing up a feeding buck and then watching where he beds before planning an approach, are largely ineffective.
That’s the bad news for early season hunters. The good news? Ubiquitous service roads provide easy access to areas where deer feed and bed.
Scouting for my first hunt in Unit 2A early one September, I quickly became frustrated by not seeing deer. A seasoned local hunter provided excellent tips.
“Don’t overlook the large secondary canyons,” he said. “Most will hold a mature resident buck if there’s adequate feed…. Check the backsides of locations on canyon benches for buck tracks.”
Two weeks later I tracked and killed my best New Mexico buck with a muzzleloader at close range, as he arose from his bed. During the 2017 season, two friends both scored big, mature bucks using this method — a combination of tracking and stealthy still-hunting — on the same muzzleloader hunt, their first in GMU 2.
To kill one of these reclusive resident bucks with a bow or muzzleloader you must learn to track them and/or have some luck. This is all-day hunting. Follow tracks midday to locate active feeding and bedding areas. These deer feed on sage, cliff rose, bitter brush and mountain mahogany, often in secluded cuts and at the backs of benches where moisture gathers and the animals are difficult to spot. Bucks typically bed in the thickest, darkest cover. Sneak into feeding areas at first light and around bedding areas at last light and be ready for an explosion of hooves and antlers! Bucks that are “bumped” by sound will often travel only a mile or so if they do not smell the hunter. If bumped again or if they catch wind, they will likely leave the county.
Many mule deer in GMU 2 follow a semi-nomadic lifestyle. They drift north into Colorado in late spring and return to winter in the sage and canyon country when snow starts to fly, usually in late October. Late-season success rates are tied to this annual migration. When the rut begins in November, doe herds wander the flats and hopeful, young bucks take notice. They hang with does until the onset of estrus, when the big boys come out to play. Rifle hunts in November are the most desirable hunt for which to pull a license and the most difficult to draw. More deer are available at this time, and as the rut progresses the chance of encountering a wall-hanger buck increases.
Traditional hunting methods like spot-and-stalk are more successful during late-season hunts. Boating-for-bucks is an unusual but popular technique during late season hunts in Unit 2B. Hunters cruise Navajo Lake in search of deer. When a good buck is spotted the boating ends and the stalking begins! With this lone exception, hunting water sources is usually not productive. Old bucks typically water at night, and mule deer can go days without water. Short five-day rifle hunts can end before a big buck is caught drinking.