The past two winters were mild across the West, and most deer herds came through in good condition. The mild winter was followed by a wet spring, which helped to alleviate the dry conditions that have plagued several Western states. Throughout much of the Rocky Mountains, mule deer populations are stable, and while their numbers may never be like “the good old days,” Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Wyoming and Utah should deliver good mule deer hunting in 2003. Blacktail deer numbers on the West Coast have slipped due to changing timber harvest practices, urbanization and disease losses. Western whitetail populations are generally on the rise.
ALASKA: With a population of about 60,000 deer, Kodiak Island is without question the deer capital of Alaska. Here the severity of the winter determines deer survival. Last winter was one of the mildest on record. Look to the southern portion of Kodiak for high densities and good bucks, particularly after snow forces deer to the lower elevations. While Kodiak is king, don’t overlook Prince William Sound for early-season hunts. Contact: Alaska Department of Fish and Game (907-465-4190; www.state.ak.us/adfg).
ARIZONA: Statewide, 38,600 deer tags were authorized–the lowest allocation on record. The low number is a result of long-term drought, adverse habitat changes and increased levels of predation. Late-winter precipitation was good, but it was only the beginning of the long-term recovery necessary to restore deer populations. If you’re looking for trophy mule deer and high success your best bet is Arizona Strip (units 13A/B) and the famed Kaibab Plateau (12A/B). Top Coues units will be 36A/B/C, where success could reach 30 percent. Archery tags can be purchased over the counter. Contact: Arizona Game and Fish Department (602-942-3000; www.azgfd.com).
CALIFORNIA: Snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas last winter was below average until spring storms brought precipitation to normal levels. The mild winter and spring moisture allowed for good winter carryover and fawn survival in the north and helped alleviate drought conditions in the south. Zones B1 and B2 in the northwest are the places to go for Coast Range blacktails. The best area in terms of deer density is Humboldt, Trinity and Siskiyou counties, where there is ample Forest Service land. In the northeast, look for trophy mule deer in zones X3a, X7b and X9a. The harvest should improve over last year’s below-average reported take of 18,300. Contact: California Department of Fish and Game (916-445-0411; www.dfg.ca.gov).
COLORADO: Last year hunters harvested 35,165 deer and success was 45 percent. The cluster of six units known as the Middle Park, between Kremmling and Granby, is mostly public land and produces good bucks; hunter success is 40 to 50 percent. If you’re interested in trophy muleys and don’t mind using your preference points, set your sights on units 10 and 21 near Rangely and Unit 44 near Eagle. Most whitetails are found east of I-25 on private land along the major watercourses. This year winter conditions were mild and deer came through in good shape. Of concern is the long-term drought that has impacted the state, especially the southern portion. Contact: Colorado Division of Wildlife (303-297-1192; www.wildlife.state.co.us).
HAWAII: The blacktail season on Kauai is in September and October and hunting is restricted to weekends. Blacktails are found in thick, steep, rugged country. Nonresidents heading to Hawaii should focus on guided Axis deer hunts on Lanai, Molokai or Maui where the success rate is 80 percent and the season is year-long. Contact: Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife (808-587-0166; www.dofaw.net).
IDAHO: Idaho has experienced mild winters in recent years, resulting in good carryover and fawn survival. The harvest has been about 43,000 animals, roughly half whitetails and half muleys. General hunts in the central region in units 29, 33 and 39 should produce quality bucks and good hunter success. The controlled hunts in units 44 and 45 are difficult to draw but produce big muley bucks and a high success rate. For whitetails, check out units north of the Salmon River in the Clearwater Drainage and Unit 1 north of Coeur d’Alene. Contact: Idaho Fish and Game (208-334-3700; www2.state.id.us/fishgame).
MONTANA: More than 100,000 deer have been killed annually in Montana in recent years. Due to three relatively mild winters, deer populations across the state are in good shape. For mule deer, look to the southwest and regions 2 and 3, where mature bucks should figure prominently in the harvest. Whitetail populations are increasing statewide, with excellent prospects in Region 1, particularly along major river drainages. Region 7 in the southeast has increasing deer populations, mature bucks and high success. About 3.1 million acres are enrolled in the Block Management Program here. Contact: Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (406-444-2535, www.fwp.state.mt.us).
NEVADA: Nevada issued 14,788 deer tags this year–one of the lowest allocations since the statewide drawing began in the 1970s. Low-density deer numbers is the reason. However, this past winter was mild, and adult and fawn survival was good. Spring storms brought much-needed moisture, but more is needed. Some of the best areas will be the eastern mountains in Area 11 and the central region in areas l5 and 16. Don’t overlook Area 17 north of Tonopah, where the density of deer is lower but the trophy quality is good. Contact: Nevada Division of Wildlife (775-688-1500; https://ndow.org/).
NEW MEXICO: The southeastern part of the state in Unit 30 near Carlsbad and Unit 34 near Alamogordo supports stable mule deer populations and has over-the-counter tags and respectable hunting success. If you’re looking for a trophy mule deer, try the draw hunts, including units 51 and 52 west of Taos and 2B near Farmington. For Coues whitetails, the southwest region limited-entry hunts are the ticket, with reasonable success in units 23 and 27. Contact: New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (800-862-9310; www.gmfsh.state.nm.us).
OREGON: Top mule deer units are in the northeast, with the Sled Springs, Snake River and Chesnimnus all posting better than 50 percent success. The highly-sought-after Trout Creek and Steens Mountain units produce big bucks. Look for the blacktail harvest to be down from last year’s take of 21,250, mainly due to habitat changes and disease outbreaks. The mule deer harvest should match last year’s 29,000 or be slightly decreased due to a 4 percent reduction in tags. For whitetails, the units to draw are north and east of Pendleton and LaGrande. (See sidebar for blacktail hotspots.) Contact: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (503-872-5268; www.dfw.state.or.us).
UTAH: This year’s mule deer kill is expected to be similar to last year’s 21,000. The northeast has good deer populations and hunter success. The south slopes of the Unita Mountains, particularly The Current Creek and Strawberry Reservoir areas, should be productive. The southwestern corner has good access on public land, a reasonable success rate and mature bucks. For a trophy, set your sights on the difficult-to-draw Book Cliffs, Paunsaugunt or Elk Ridge areas. While antlerless permits have been reduced, some are available. Contact: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (801-538-4700; www.wildlife.utah.gov).
WASHINGTON: Look for blacktails west of the Cascades; their populations have declined due to habitat changes caused by restrictions on timber harvesting. There are still productive areas in the southwest, particularly in Lewis and Pacific counties. The best mule deer hunting will be in the north-central region in Okanagan, Chelan and Douglas counties. Whitetail populations are stable to increasing, with the top areas in the northeastern counties of Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille. Here, second antlerless tags are available by drawing. Contact: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (360-902-2515; www.wa.gov/wdfw).
WYOMING: Region G in west-central Wyoming supports high numbers of mature mule deer bucks and has ample public land. For trophies, the units to draw are 128 near Dubois and 102 south of Rock Springs. The last two winters have been mild, resulting in high survival through the cold months, but summer rains have been below normal. The population of more than 500,000 deer is stable. High-density whitetail populations are associated with major watercourses like the Belle Fourche and the Platte. Don’t overlook the Powder and Tongue River drainages in the north-central region, where whitetail numbers are up. Contact: Wyoming Game and Fish (307-777-4600; https://gf.state.wy.us/).
For more regional information, go to www.outdoorlife.com/regional
FILL THE FREEZER
While most western states’ deer tags are issued by a drawing, there are still a few places where you can buy a tag over the counter and have a reasonable chance of putting meat in the freezer.
Idaho’s Unit 10a near Orofino has good whitetail populations; the season is October 10 to November 20, and a deer of either sex may be taken. Hunter success runs better than 50 percent in the Clearwater National Forest. Clearwater tags can be bought over the counter. Units 32 and 32a in the Weiser River area on the Boise National Forest support good mule deer populations.
The Chetco and Sixes units of Oregon post 25 to 35 percent success for blacktails. Tags can be purchased over the counter and the season opens October 4. Public land is widespread on the Siskiyou National Forest, BLM lands and timber company properties.
In Wyoming, general-season over-the-counter tags are available for residents. Among the best areas are the Snowy and Sierra Madre ranges in units 78 through 82. Much of the area is on the Medicine Bow National Forest and BLM lands.