Every year thousands of hunters venture west to hunt deer and other big game. Many have made the trip several times and have long-held favorite places. Others are making their first sojourn west. Still others are veterans looking to find a better place to hunt. Even others are westerners who have grown tired of the areas they hunt or want even more opportunities to hunt than their home state offers. The trouble lies in making the best choice or choices.
Several factors need to be considered, and many of those will be personal ones: cost, travel distance and available time to hunt come immediately to mind. However, there are some considerations that are common to most hunters. First might be species. Do you want to pursue a big, ol' gnarly mule deer buck, or does a whitetail buck — regardless of where he calls home — trip your trigger? Are you planning on hunting public land, or will you consider paying for the privilege to hunt private ground? In a similar vein, are you a dedicated do-it-yourself hunter, or do you plan to hire an outfitter? Two more questions you need to answer are: What physical limitations do you (and the rest of your party) have, and what is the maximum range you can score a killing hit from the various field positions? Be brutally honest with these last two questions. Answering them with your ego will undoubtedly lay the foundation for a disappointing hunt.
One of the most difficult aspects of preparing a western hunt — for residents and non-residents, alike — is that most western states are moving rapidly toward limited-draw hunts. Gone forever are the days of simply loading up the camper and taking off to southern Utah or some other hideaway of bomber mule deer and buying a tag over the counter. There are very few places in the west where you can simply buy a deer tag over the counter and go hunting. Those that still offer that freedom typically have limited opportunities for a quality hunt. You can count on plenty of company in the field, too.
Your task will be considerably more difficult if your trophy requirements are great or you want to hunt some of the famous places like Utah's Paunsaugunt Plateau, the Arizona Strip or northern Kaibab. Tags for these legendary monster mule deer haunts typically are allotted in single digits annually. But all is not lost; you can still draw into an area that has some quality bucks. The Internet is a great source of information and can help you narrow down your choices. Still, the task of narrowing it down to a manageable number of areas can be daunting.
I don't claim to have the last word on good places to hunt, but I have hunted throughout most of the western states. What follows are six good to excellent areas to hunt western deer. Most are primarily mule deer areas, but some do have some very good whitetail hunting as well. All require the hunter to draw for the privilege, but draw odds are reasonable, meaning you can probably draw within five years. Let's take a look at them.
Located in the northwestern corner of the state, the area around Buffalo, S.D., has some excellent mule deer and whitetail hunting. Private land offers the best hunting — no real surprise — but outfitters in the area aren't unreasonable. One that I have had personal experience with is Routier Outfitting. Owner Randy Routier is one of the most remarkable guides I have had the pleasure to know. A rodeo accident left him a quadriplegic several years ago, but don't think for a minute that something as insignificant as that would slow him down. From his special wheelchair in his van — and without the aid of a binocular — Randy can spot and judge bucks better than most of his hunters using a binocular.
"In my immediate area on my ranches we are actually having great numbers and quality of both mule deer and whitetail deer," Randy wrote me in a recent e-mail. "On the other hand, I was talking to a local rancher who is roughly 15 miles away, and he said his numbers are way down. He thinks it is because of a mountain lion."
For the do-it-yourself hunter, the Custer National Forest nearby is available. Randy said that public land hunters can expect plenty of company. That said, it was reported that a hunter took a 200-inch mule deer on public land three years ago. The tag to draw is the West River Special Buck hunt. Chances of drawing it on the first try are slightly better than 50-50, but those with one preference point will draw the tag. The hunt typically sells out each year. Applications need to be in by early April, and the special tag will set you back $550, and a general license is $195.
A four-day rifle hunt with Randy costs $2,750, plus 5.5 percent South Dakota sales tax. Archers get a five-day hunt for the same rate. Hunts are fully guided and occur during the rut in mid- to late November. Contact him at HC 66 Box 112, Buffalo, SD 57720; (605) 375-3306; www.huntsd.net.
At first look you'd think the country around Alzada, Mont., would be whitetail country — and you'd be right. But don't let it fool you. There are some very good mule deer here as well. The first morning I hunted there last year with Mike Watkins' Trophies Plus Outfitters, I saw five shooter bucks — three whitetails and two mule deer — before even getting out of the truck. We didn't get on any of those bucks that morning, but a couple of hours later we chased another mule deer buck that at first glance I thought might be a rag-horn bull elk. His heavy antlers had that tapering rake reminiscent of the wapiti as I caught glimpses of them bouncing over the brush atop a hill.
We gave chase, but this old veteran knew the game well and gave us the slip. Late that same afternoon, guide Shawn Zachezwski, Craig Cushman of Thompson/Center and I returned to the ranch where we saw all the shooters in the morning. I crawled into a ground blind set in a saddle near where we saw the mule deer disappear that morning. Less than 15 minutes later, one of the morning's mule deer — a tall, handsome 4x4 — stepped out from the trees atop the hill and stood broadside for me at 109 yards. A single round from the Pro Hunter in .30 TC closed the deal.
Southeast Montana abounds with public land as well, and hunters there necessarily have to contend with more pressure, but the chances of filling a tag are still pretty good. A general statewide deer license will pull $540 from your bank account. Mike Watkins provides a comfortable place to stay, solid meals and access to some excellent private property. Contact Trophies Plus Outfitters, P.O. Box 44, Alzada, MT 59311; (406) 828-4512; www.trophiesplusoutfitters.com.
The southeast corner of Idaho is a sleeper area for mule deer. It isn't tough to draw; Area 76 hunters need only a General Deer Tag. But that tag will lighten your wallet by $301.75, plus another $154.75 for a non-resident hunting license. Public land comprises a bit more than half of Area 76; the area includes portions of the Caribou and Targhee national forests. Motorized vehicles are restricted to established roads.
It has been several years since I have personally hunted this area, but I have seen some excellent mule deer taken from this region. Mule deer populations do vary significantly based upon winter kill, but recently the numbers have been increasing for both population and hunter success. The 2008 hunter success rate was a paltry 23 percent, but in '09 it increased to 30 percent and in '10 more than a third — 36 percent — of the 2,766 hunters in that area came home with venison. Of those successful hunters, a quarter to a third hang their tag on a four-point or better (western count) buck.
Whitetails are infiltrating southeast Idaho, as they are much of the west. Last year the eastern interloper accounted for 2 percent of the harvest. Few whitetails are found on the public land; their preference seems to be the river bottom areas adjacent to agriculture.
The Monitor Range located in central Nevada is another good choice for a dedicated mule deer hunter. A caveat, though: Elevations run from 5,500 feet to nearly 12,000 feet, and the terrain can be steep and treacherous. This is remote country. Count on primitive camping miles from the nearest town. If you draw one of these coveted tags, you'll be money ahead to hire an outfitter, especially if your life won't be complete unless you tag a really big buck.
All of Nevada is a draw, and many of us must wait years to be successful. However, Unit 161 has a one-in-three chance of drawing an early tag; a late-season tag's odds are one in ten. Success rates run 50 percent to 60 percent for early-season hunters and 60 percent to 63 percent for the late season. Of the successful hunters, 40 percent of the early-season tags were hung on 4-point or better deer. In the late season that 4-point or better success rate soars to 75 percent. Success is often a function of weather; enough snow must drop on the high country to move the big boys into more accessible areas.
A non-resident hunting license is $142, and if you want your bonus point in the event of an unsuccessful draw, you'll have to eat that license. A deer tag is $253 for non-residents, but you do get a refund on that if you do not draw. Hunters born after 1960 will have to produce a Hunter's Safety Certificate. The deadline for applications is in mid-April.
NORTHWEST NEW MEXICO
North of the town of Cuba are portions of the Santa Fe National Forest with some excellent deer hunting opportunities. The forest borders the famous Jicarilla Apache Reservation, long known for the superb mule deer bucks it produces. It is, however, a tough draw. Unit 5A offers a paltry 30 deer tags for the public-land-only hunt with any legal weapon. Archers get another 30 tags, and muzzleloaders have to compete with the any legal weapon guys. The application deadline is toward the end of March.
The season lasts but seven days in mid-November. Hunter success rate is an astounding 80 percent using any legal weapon. A non-resident public land deer tag is $270; a private land tag will cost you $355.
BIG HORN BASIN WYOMING
My home area offers one of the best mixes of mule deer and whitetail hunting. If your passion is big mule deer, the mountains of the Shoshone National Forest can accommodate you. Whitetails abound on the river drainages and agricultural lands surrounding them. Landowners are generally receptive to whitetail hunters but, if you find it difficult to gain access, there are several Access Yes properties available where you can hunt private land for free.
A Region F tag will cost you $326, plus $12.50 for a Conservation Stamp. Region F tags usually do not sell out, so you can usually count on being able to hunt. Within the region there are some limited-draw hunts, as well as general deer hunts. Success rates for buck hunters run from 40 percent to 75 percent, depending upon the area.
There is an abundance of public land, but it is checkerboarded with private holdings. A caveat: In Wyoming it is the hunter's responsibility to know where he is and have written permission on his person if he is hunting private land that does not belong to him. Landowners are not required to post their property and most don't. Maps are available at BLM offices that designate public and private lands.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
This, of course, is not an exhaustive list of western deer hunting opportunities. Literally dozens of other possibilities exist. An online search can easily produce other hunting possibilities, some that may be even better than those listed here. Most game departments are including harvest data now on their Web sites, making it possible to do much of your preliminary scouting from the comfort of your home.
When it comes to specifics, there is no substitute for on-the-ground scouting. For many, that isn't an option because they live so far away from their chosen hunting area. That's when you need to cultivate reliable local sources — a fellow hunter, biologist or even the game warden.
Cultivating a good deer hunting area requires a commitment that often spans several years. Like hunting itself, there will be some dry runs, so don't get discouraged. Eventually, you'll find an area to your liking, but it's best to keep alternatives available in case a local catastrophe — die off, fire, flooding or overharvesting, for example — turns your favorite spot unproductive for a while.