Southwest Public Land Deer Forecast

Southwest Public Land Deer Forecast
A little research can reveal productive public land options across the region. (Photo by John E. Phillips)

Consider these areas when planning your next public land deer hunt in Arizona or New Mexico.

By John E. Phillips

New Mexico hunters emphasize that one of the benefits of hunting their state is that hunters can find a unit to fit their specific style.

Arizona biologist Dustin Darveau noted that archery hunters will find Arizona one of the best Western states to buy over the counter archery tags.

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Whichever state you hunt, there are some good public lands available this season and a lot of opportunities to tag your own Southwest deer.


Rocky Mountain Game & Fish magazine went to the state's outfitters, hunters, taxidermists and deer processors to learn more about what's happening with the whitetail and mule deer populations.

Josh Jensen owns White Mountain Taxidermy Studio in Ruidoso and processes venison too. Jensen advised: "We have lots of deer harvested, but we don't see that many trophy mule deer (150-170 Boone & Crockett) or whitetails in New Mexico."

Jensen's shop is in Unit 36, and Units 34, 32, 37 and 18 are near it. Jensen names Units 32 or 36 as best for harvesting a big mule deer buck, if you'll hunt harder and longer than others and pass up nice bucks.

Hunting the backcountry means having a plan for packing out your game. (Photo by John E. Phillips)

"My shop gets one or two really nice mule deer out of each of those units every year," Jensen explained. "The biggest buck last year at my taxidermy shop was harvested in Unit 18, a very tough hunt with low deer numbers but large bucks."

Bow and muzzleloading seasons generally are the most productive for mule deer hunts, with bowhunters having an edge with their 22 September days in some units. If they don't take bucks then, they can hunt for 15 days in January.

"New Mexico's mule deer herd seems down somewhat from 20 years ago but has had a stable herd the last few years," Jensen reported. "We've seen a direct correlation between the size of the mule deer herd and the demand and the price of fur, which has been extremely low, with more coyotes available to kill and eat mule deer fawns. Mountain lions are attacking adult mule deer, too."

Coues deer hunting in New Mexico has been good, according to state hunters, with a trophy scoring 120-plus.

"We mount numbers of Coues that score from 90-110 B&C," Jensen said. "The best Coues hunting will be in the southwestern corner and then farther north in Units 24, 23, 16, 27 and 26. Units 27 and 26 may home the highest number of Coues, and there's a good amount of public land to hunt. However, access is fairly limited, and you'll need a quality pair of boots. Some of the biggest Coues at my shop have come from Units 26 and 23. I believe the next record Coues may come from Unit 21, although that involves very tough hunting."

Jensen mounted a 122-inch Coues last year. He mentioned that bowhunters will harvest the best Coues at the first or the last of the season but must plan on having challenging hunts. Some of the bigger Coues Jensen has mounted have been taken in January using rattling.

On the east side of the Rio Grande is where you'll find some eastern whitetails, advised Ralph Ramos, veteran whitetail hunter.

"Unit 34 is historically one of the best units for easterns. I prefer to hunt easterns in January, which is the rut for them."

Jonathan Lujan, of Albuquerque, the owner of Intense Trophy Hunters Outfitters, said: "We guide mule deer hunters all over New Mexico on public and private properties. I hunt the Gila and Lincoln National Forests, Units 2A, 2B and 2C in northern New Mexico, Units 32 and 13 in the central section and Units 16A, 16B and 15 in the southwestern part."

The 2016 season was a productive one for hunters, Lujan reported.

"We saw plenty of great antler growth in Coues and mule deer — particularly in northern and central New Mexico. Although the southern section of the state mainly had mediocre sized bucks, I did spot two slammer bucks when in elk country," he advised.

"Last year in the north, one of our hunters took a 188-inch mule deer and his wife took a 187 bow buck in the central section. Our biggest central New Mexico buck was a 178-inch bow buck," Lujan noted.

Hunters also harvested a number of 170-180 class mule deer during rifle season, Lujan advised. "I enjoy guiding mule deer hunters during archery season that occurs at the tail end of the rut — generally the first 18 days of January," he noted.

To take a very nice mule deer, Lujan likes Wildlife Units 2A and 2C (north), Unit 32 (central) and Unit 16 (south), he reported.

"For big Coues deer, about 102 inches, I'll hunt southern New Mexico in Units 23 and 24, since I can hunt there in December, about the only time I have to hunt Coues," Lujan said.

Tactics and Projections 

Lujan puts out 10 to 20 cameras for each mule deer hunt. To locate Coues deer, he sits on ridgetops and glasses the faces of mountains across a valley to spot and stalk.

"In the upcoming season, I think Coues and mule deer hunts will be better than last year," Lujan explained. "We didn't harvest a number of the mediocre bucks spotted in 2016. The numbers and sizes of bucks available to harvest depends on the amount of rain before hunting season."

Chris Moehring operates High Country Outfitters and Moehring Taxidermy in Folsom. He guides for mulies on 10,000 acres of private lands. The biggest mule deer in his taxidermy shop scored 186 B&C last year.

"Some patches of public lands over near Clayton, 30 minutes west of me near Raton and Colgate Canyon, 15 minutes away, and just south of Branson, Colorado, offer good public mule deer hunting. Poachers harvested numbers of deer off private lands here last year. So, this upcoming fall, I won't take any hunters out to private land to allow our herd to rebuild and provide quality mule deer bucks again," he reported.

Moehring mounted a 170 and a 165 B&C mule deer last year taken on public lands near Clayton. Due to the light winter and the deer not being stressed finding food in deep snow, Moehring expects 2017 to be one of the best seasons.

"By not getting deep snow, New Mexico should have a much higher survival rate of the fawn crop here in the extreme northeastern part of the state," Moehring advised.

A little research can reveal productive public land options across the region. (Photo by John E. Phillips)


Dustin Darveau, Region 6 game specialist for Arizona Game & Fish Department, noted: "Last year our deer season was stable, compared to the year before. We had some good rains that stimulated deer populations in some sections.

For the 2017 season, the Coues in Region 5 near Tucson probably will see an increased number of whitetail permits available for purchase. Although Arizona has had a 10-year drought, the last 2-3 years have had more rain, close to the state's historic average, causing increased habitat and better fawn survival in Region 5."

Arizona's mule deer population has been fairly stable for the last 5 to 7 years. Like most other western states, Arizona has seen a slight decline in its mule deer and Coues populations. However, Coues are very adaptable and have moved into some traditional mule deer areas at elevations of 3,000 to 7,000 feet.

When asked where to hunt to take the biggest Arizona mule deer, Darveau explained: "The biggest mule deer are on the Kaibab Plateau (the Strip) in management units 12A, 12 B, 13A, 13B, 3A and 3C. To try and take the largest Coues, any units near Tucson will be productive, including 34A, 34B, 35 on the Mexican border and 23. Fortunately the majority of our units offer hunts from August-January. One of the relatively new changes is no baiting is now allowed in Arizona."

Dale Robinson owns Wild Heritage Taxidermy in Young, in the center of Unit 23 between Roosevelt Lake and the Mogollon Rim.

Robinson reported a good year in 2016 for both Coues and mule deer.

"We had a 190-inch mule deer mounted at our shop last year. Our biggest Coues deer scored 134, and we see many nice Coues deer," he advised. "Our Coues deer often are non-typical. We get good-sized mule deer from the Apache reservation and Unit 22," Robinson said.

"We're located on the northern end of the Coues range in east-central Arizona," Robinson noted. "Just about all the deer we mount come from public land hunters."

Robinson said he thinks the 2017 mule deer and Coues season in Arizona will be better than last year.

"Several reasons for my optimism include: our deer numbers are up over last year; our region has had a wet winter, resulting in an abundance of food and ground water; and this area has had good fawn recruitment, resulting in continued herd growth and probably good antler growth throughout the spring and summer," he reported.

As a taxidermist, Robinson recognizes the results of years of high nutrition and low nutrition availability. In years of less rainfall and food, he sees more broken antlers in the deer and the elk.

"If I had to choose one public hunting area where I could take a trophy mule deer, I'd go to the Kaibab Rim, with its high mule deer population and some trophies," Robinson explained. "I've mounted 200-inch mule deer taken there, but hunters have to be willing to pass up numbers of 170- to 190-inch mules."

To hunt a trophy Coues, Robinson said he'll probably hunt in his backyard. That's in Unit 23, adjacent to the Tonto National Forest.

"This area contains steep terrain with heavy vegetation, numerous thick cover places and an abundance of remote sites that allow the Coues to escape much of the hunting pressure," he advised.

In the southern section, the Coues don't have as much food as Coues in the northernmost part of their range. Therefore, the southern Arizona Coues have smaller antlers and bodies.

"Coues from Unit 23 may weigh as much as 120 pounds, but only 100 pounds or less in the south," Robinson noted.

Robinson considers trail cameras the key to taking trophy Coues in Unit 23. He said he knows an outfitter who puts out 200-plus cameras every year to show his customers the sizes of Coues available.

"Some individual hunters often will put out 20 game cameras to try to find that Coues of their dreams," Robinson said. "A mountain lion hunter can tell you remote places where Coues and mule deer numbers are high, since those are mountain lion regions. Try to hunt Coues between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when Coues are most active."

Read more from John E. Phillips

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