Most of the western states offer great mule deer hunting - from Idaho and Montana down to the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, there are a myriad of opportunities to hunt this classic western species. Being from Colorado, we’re fortunate to have some of the best mule deer hunting in the country right in our own backyard.
We frequently receive questions from friends and customers about mule deer hunting here in Colorado. From drawing a license to planning the hunt, there’s a lot to consider. It’s not too early to begin planning your next mule deer hunt!
For simplicity’s sake, this discussion will be limited to the western part of the state where most of Colorado’s mule deer hunting takes place. There are certainly some good mule deer hunting opportunities on the eastern plains. But the added complication of private land makes that a discussion for another day. In this article, we will be referring primarily to the mountain units west of I-25.
Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about Colorado mule deer hunting:
1. What does it take to draw a mule deer license?
The most important thing you should know is that it doesn’t take years of preference points to draw a good mule deer license in Colorado! Sure, you could save preference points for 10 years and have a great hunt. But even if you’re a nonresident, there are many good mule deer hunts that can be drawn with very few points.
Unlike elk in Colorado, there are no over-the-counter licenses for mule deer. All mule deer tags are issued in the annual big game draw. The application deadline is the first Tuesday in April.
Colorado’s big game draw uses a preference point system, meaning the hunters will the most points are first in line when applying for a specific license. There are certainly downsides to any system. However, one nice thing about this system is that it’s farily predictable. With a reasonable amount of accuracy, you can determine how many points it takes to draw any given tag.
How do you find out which units you can draw at your point level? There’s no better way to sort through the options than using the Insider tools from our friends at GoHunt. It would be difficult to overstate the value of this resource when planning any western hunt.
If you’re not ready to pay for a GoHunt Insider membership, go to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife deer statistics page and open the most recent draw recap report. It takes a little practice, but learn how to read these tables and you’ll see a recap of last year’s draw for each hunt code, including the total license quota, how many licenses went to residents and nonresidents, and how many points it took to draw. This will allow you to create a list of the units that are available at your point level.
When it’s time to apply in the spring, have your plan ready. If you’re hoping to hunt that same fall, apply for a license that can be drawn at your point level. If you simply want to save a preference point for a future year, you can apply for a preference point only. You can accrue one point for deer each year. Preference points are species-specific. But they not specific to a unit, weapon or a season.
If you’re unsure – just apply for a point! A point this year will open up more options down the road. You can always decide how to use your deer preference points later.
When you apply for and successfully draw a first choice license, you’ll automatically use any accrued preference points.
2. When is the best time to hunt Mule Deer in Colorado?
Deer seasons in Colorado begin with archery and then muzzleloader in September. Rifle seasons begin toward the end of October and run through mid to late-November. There are pros and cons to each of these seasons.
The archery and muzzleloader seasons give hunters the opportunity to hunt deer in their summer patterns in September. This makes a great spot-and-stalk adventure for bow hunters. Many bow hunts can be drawn with few preference points. Having just one or two points will open up great options. By the middle of September when muzzleloader season opens, deer might be moving to cover at lower elevations. But these movements are highly dependent on the weather and the particular area.
Colorado’s first rifle season is for elk only. That means the next opportunity to hunt mule deer is the second rifle season, which usually opens in mid to late October. The downside of this rifle season is that it’s arguably the most difficult time to find a mature mule deer buck. It’s before the rut when bucks may not be moving very far from cover. On the other hand, the great thing about this season is that it typically offers the easiest tags to draw. Hunters can draw tags in some great units during this season. But they must be willing to work hard to find bucks!
Next is Colorado’s third rifle season, usually in early November. This time of year, the rut is getting close and bucks are starting to be on the move. It’s still pre-rut, but hunters have a better chance at seeing those mature deer up on their feet. However, that makes these tags a bit more difficult to draw. Still, with just one, two or three preference points, hunters can find some good third rifle season hunts.
Finally, Colorado’s fourth rifle season takes place in mid to late November. Not all units offer a fourth rifle season, depending on management objectives. These are excellent rut hunting dates when the biggest bucks are on the move. However, they are among the most difficult licenses to draw. It can take many points to draw one of these fourth rifle season hunts.
So, what’s the best time of year to hunt mule deer in Colorado? It depends on your preference of weapon and your specific goals. There’s always a balance between quality and opportunity.
3. How do I find a place to hunt?
In Colorado we are fortunate to have a great deal of public land. Once you decide on your preferred weapon and have a list of units that are available in your preference point range, it’s time to look at the available public land in those units.
The best tool available for this research is OnX Hunt. These maps will show you public and private land boundaries and public roads. You’ll also be able to view both topographical maps and satellite views. What’s more, you can overlay other pertinent map layers like recent wildfires, wilderness areas and more. You can make notes and save pins that will automatically sync between your desktop and mobile versions. When you go into the field, you can download the maps and use them offline, turning your smartphone into a fully functioning GPS – only better.
OnX does require a subscription. Another useful tool that’s totally free is the Colorado Hunting Atlas. Here, you can also see those public and private land boundaries along with the topographical map and satellite view. There’s no mobile/desktop syncing and the Atlas is much more limited than OnX. But it will give you an accurate picture of the available land to hunt in a particular unit.
When you’re looking for a place to hunt mule deer, consider the time of year you’ll be hunting and where that prime habitat overlaps with accessible public land. In some places, mule deer tend to concentrate at higher elevations in the summer and then migrate down with weather and hunting pressure. However, that’s not always the case. In many areas, resident deer will live at the same elevations year-round. All that to say – consider elevation as a factor when looking for places to hunt. But don’t become stuck in thinking that you have to hunt high in the early seasons or low in the later seasons. Keep in mind that deer will use quality habitat whenever and wherever it’s available.4. How should I handle logistics and meat care?
When you’re planning a hunt, you need to think about how you’ll transport your gear, weapon and other equipment to the hunt. Then, you’ll want to make a plan for getting meat home in case you are successful in harvesting a deer.
If it’s realistic with your schedule, driving is usually the best option. This gives you the most flexibility in terms of packing gear and getting meat home. One large cooler in the 120qt range should be enough to hold the meat from a single deer. But if you’ve got the space, a second cooler might be nice, so that you have plenty of room for ice. We recommend using block ice or frozen water jugs. This will make it easier to keep the meat cool without being soaking wet.
Speaking of meat care, don’t forget a set of high quality Caribou Gear game bags. This is our bread and butter, so we’re happy to admit that we’re totally biased. But it’s the only patented game bag on the market for a reason. You won’t find another game bag that matches ours for the combination of breathability (ideal for meat care), durability, lightweight design, and the ability to wash and reuse them. A set of Caribou Gear game bags will truly keep your meat in the best possible condition – and they’ll last you for a long time!
For a mule deer hunt, you have a few different options for game bag sets. For backcountry hunters and high-country archery hunters who plan to bone out their meat, take a look at the newly redesigned Carnivore set. You can use the Carnivore to hold anything as big as a mature boned-out bull elk and it will work just as great fore a boned-out mule deer.
If you like to keep it lightweight but you’d rather leave meat on the bone, pick up a set of our Muley game bags. This set is designed to hold an entire mule deer buck on the bone. It includes four quarter bags and one meat parts bag for the loose meat.
If you’re interested in our most robust system, then have a look at the Small Magnum Pack. In our Magnum Pack series, the small size is designed for deer-sized game and is also great for antelope or bear. Just like the Muley pack, this magnum pack is designed to hold an entire buck mule deer on the bone. However, the Magnum Pack bags are cut slightly larger for better air circulation. Additionally, it includes a bag for your cape and an extra camp meat bag for carrying some meat back to the campfire.
5. Other Important Considerations
As you’re planning a Colorado mule deer hunt, there are a few other things you ought to consider. First, remember that Colorado offers over-the-counter (OTC) elk licenses for many units during the archery, second rifle and third rifle seasons.
On the positive side of this, there are opportunities to have an elk tag in your pocket while you’re hunting mule deer. You might want to pick a unit where you have a chance at either species. However, there’s also a negative side to this. OTC elk seasons usually mean more pressure and more people. Either way, it’s something to consider when you’re picking out a unit and a season for your deer hunt.
The last thing we’d like to stress is that while all deer licenses are on a draw in Colorado, it doesn’t take a lot of preference points to have a great hunt. In fact, consider this: if you’re a nonresident with five or fewer preference points, you can hunt all but 7 units in in the entire state! If you’re a resident, you can hunt all but 3 of Colorado’s units with five points or less!
Yes, you might have to hunt a less desirable season, like the second rifle season in some of those higher quality units. But that’s a ton of units and seasons that are open to you. If you have just one, two or three preference points saved up, you have some great options available. Sure, you could wait a decade or more and draw a great tag. But consider using those points more often. You can hunt more frequently, which probably gives you just as good a chance to kill a quality buck in Colorado!
By Ryan McSparran
Ryan is an outdoor writer based in Colorado, and is proud to be a part of the team at Caribou Gear.