On behalf of all of us at Pnuma we’d like to thank our partner, Huntin’ Fool, and Professional Hunt Advisor, Jerrod Lile, for the preparation of this article.
By Garth Jenson, Huntin’ Fool
In this article, I will address different strategies for acquiring mule deer permits by either drawing or purchasing vouchers across the West. The focus is on the top states for trophy and opportunity hunting and the different ways to go about putting a permit in your pocket. Mule deer permits are issued in every state west of Interstate 29, which covers over 17 states within the U.S., four Canadian provinces, and the northern desert regions of Mexico. Mexico and Canada are both “pay to play” areas only for non-residents. Both countries have their own set of hoops you will have to jump through between transportation and firearm permits, but most hunting is only available through an outfitter with a guaranteed tag. For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on opportunities within the U.S.
Regardless of the state you are applying in, if you are only interested in the top trophy producing units within that state, you had better get comfortable for a long ride. If you want to hunt the top two to three mule deer hunts in any western state and you aren’t currently within one to two points of max, you will never have more than a 2% chance of getting drawn. The list of applicants within that magical one to two points of max is very small and the ones who are in that boat likely already know what their application strategy is, so I will approach this topic from the perspective of a hunter who is just getting started in the application game or who has been applying for a few years and wants to figure out if they need to burn their points or keep building for something better. The top five mule deer states in the West for trophy quality are Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming.
Colorado is the clear-cut leader for producing trophy bucks. It is also without question the first state I recommend any potential mule deer hunter apply for if they want to harvest a true giant. One thing to remember with Colorado is that it is a true preference point state for mule deer, which means whoever has the most points for that specific hunt code will get drawn. This is important to remember when building an application strategy for the future. If you just want to hunt a good population of deer with a chance at 160-180" type bucks, then you should be applying in and hunting Colorado every year or every other year.
There is no other state in the West where you can consistently draw quality deer permits for 0-1 point in units that have trophy quality. It is far more likely that a hunter who hunts a lower quality unit three to four times in 10 years will have a better chance at harvesting a trophy buck than a hunter who saves his points for 10 years and hunts a higher quality unit once. If you are a hunter who has been banking points or who is planning on banking points for a unit that is managed for a higher buck to doe ratio, remember that these hunts/units only give you a broader pool of mature animals to choose from in most cases.
When you are dealing with the second, third, or fourth rifle seasons, weather trumps all. If you have hot, dry weather through these October and November seasons, you will be hard pressed to turn up mature bucks, regardless of the amount of points it took to draw that unit. The most overlooked trophy hunts in Colorado, if you are in good physical shape, are the archery and muzzleloader hunts. Most of the top end units that are managed for trophy quality can be drawn with 0-5 points, with the exception of a handful of muzzleloader hunts and a few archery hunts. A common theme with most of the units that take over 5 points to draw, especially for archery, is that they have good road access to most of the unit and appeal to a broader spectrum of hunters. However, these units do not necessarily have better trophy potential.
The best advice I can give potential Colorado applicants is to hunt it as often as possible and not shoot for those units/hunts that take 15+ years to draw because in 15 years those same units will probably take 25+ points to draw and you might never catch up.
Idaho has some of the best mule deer genetics anywhere, but for the most part, they manage for large quantities of hunters rather than large quantities of mature bucks. Despite that management plan, they have still managed to enter the third most amount of bucks in the B&C record book since 2010. Since Idaho does not have a point system, you will not be penalized for sitting out a year or gain any advantage for applying the prior year. This makes Idaho a great state to apply in if you are just getting started and you want to have an equal chance at drawing a trophy mule deer permit.
It also makes it a great state to apply in if you are interested in a backup over-the-counter deer or elk hunt as you have already invested $154 in the hunting license and can now make good use of it by simply buying a general elk or deer permit. Idaho has a very limited number of units that have a restricted amount of tags for all seasons, and the rest of the units have at least one general season hunt that allows for an unlimited amount of general season hunters on them. The good part is that you could be applying for a controlled hunt within some of these units and if you are not drawn, you could pick up a general deer tag and hunt that unit during the general season and become familiar with the unit so that when you do draw the controlled hunt, you’ll be better prepared to capitalize on your trophy tag.
Idaho does a good job of mixing up their controlled hunt opportunities between archery and rifle with a handful of muzzleloader hunts thrown in the mix. They have controlled hunts from early August and September rifle hunts down to late November and December archery hunts with everything in between. A lot of the controlled rifle and archery hunts are fairly liberal with tag allocation with 10%-30% draw odds for good hunts for 160"+ bucks, but these hunts will require some hard work dodging other hunters to be successful.
Another great option that often gets overlooked is unlimited tags that only require you to apply for them in the draw and then you are guaranteed the permit. Idaho has some rut archery and rifle hunts that are included in the list of unlimited tags. The deeper we get into this bonus/preference point game, the more I learn to appreciate states like Idaho where every hunter has the same draw odds as the next hunter and no units are off limit no matter if it’s the top unit in the state.
It is definitely a love/hate relationship when it comes to applying in the Silver State. You just can’t predict when or even if you’re ever going to get drawn for a quality deer tag. You can never guarantee you will be drawn on any given year because of Nevada’s point system and the number of choices an applicant gets on their application. Due to the dry, arid environment and the state being overrun with wild horses with zero control over their management, they are destroying critical habitat that Nevada is already in short supply of. Therefore, Nevada has to be very stingy with the amount of overall mule deer tags they issue in order to maintain quality. The one bright spot is that once you are drawn for a mule deer tag, there is trophy potential in just about every unit within the state. However, just because I say there is trophy potential, that doesn’t mean there is an overabundance of 180"+ bucks to sort through, in fact, it is quite the opposite in most cases. Even the top 10 units in the state are extremely tough to find a mature buck in, mostly due to the lack of overall population, but if you do run across one, it is likely a solid buck.
Nevada is one of my top states when it comes to applying for mule deer because they have so many different options to select from when it comes down to different season dates for every different weapon choice. Most of their hunts are conducted during the typical dates – August archery, September muzzleloader, and October rifle. They also have a few rut hunts thrown in the mix for all weapon types as well as two to three rifle hunts on some units that help spread out hunting pressure. Nevada has a wide array of topography, from low elevation desert country to high alpine basins over 10,000 feet. No matter what your physicality level is, Nevada has a hunt that should suit your needs.
You must purchase a hunting license for $142 in order to gain a bonus point each year you are unsuccessful in the draw, so I recommend applying for mule deer if you are already applying for a different species in Nevada. One aspect of the draw to take note of is that if you are interested in rifle hunting mule deer with an outfitter, you should look at applying through the outfitter draw, which is conducted before the regular big game draw. Most of the time, this ups your odds of getting drawn out faster, depending on your unit selection. Archery tags are typically much easier to draw than rifle or muzzleloader tags, so it is a no brainer state to apply for if you enjoy hunting early August with your bow.
Nevada is a good state to build points in and to use as your wildcard state if you are not hung up on drawing any time soon. If you do draw, you will have a legitimate chance at a mature buck.
Utah has always been known for the Paunsaugunt and Henry Mountains when it comes to giant mule deer bucks, but since they broke their five general region zones into over 30 management units and with the large amount of habitat improvement projects over the last decade and Utah’s proactive approach to coyote control, their general season units have been producing some great bucks. Although Utah takes some flack over its conservation tag program, this program has funded these projects and Utah is currently one of the only states in the West that is successfully growing its mule deer population.
There are two separate deer permits that applicants can apply for each year in Utah – a general season permit and a limited-entry permit. The limited-entry units are managed for higher buck to doe ratios and demand a high number of points to draw. The general season units are managed for lower buck to doe ratios and only require a few points to draw. The general season units are some of the biggest sleeper hunts for trophy bucks in the West. When I say sleeper, that is not to suggest that these are easy hunts, but some of the biggest bucks harvested in Utah come from these areas. They still require a lot of scouting and hard work to turn up top end bucks amidst thousands of other hunters.
Utah has been coming up with more limited-entry deer hunts that are comprised of late season muzzleloader hunts conducted on general season units, trying to cull some of the high point holders out of the system. However, since Utah allowed nonresidents to apply for all species eight years ago, the amount of applicants for deer has skyrocketed out of control and has made most limited-entry deer hunts virtually once-in-a-lifetime for non-residents. If you want to hunt any of the limited-entry deer hunts in Utah, plan for a 20-year strategy if you are just starting out. Currently, most limited-entry deer hunts require at least 12 points, and remember that there is a Great Wall of China-sized wall of applicants with 9 points going into the 2018 application season, so unless you have 10+ points, I would take a long, hard look at your mule deer strategy before diving headfirst into that rabbit hole. On the bright side, if you are already applying in Utah for other species, it only costs another $10 to throw your name in the hat for some of the best mule deer hunting in the West. The true gem right now is for opportunity hunters who aren’t expecting a giant buck but don’t mind busting their butt on a general season unit for a small possibility at a trophy.
Wyoming gets a bad rap amongst mule deer snobs when it comes to trophy quality, even though in the same breath those people will turn around and praise Nevada for its trophy potential all while Wyoming has been out producing Nevada in B&C entries since 2010. Wyoming has limited quota and general season hunts for mule deer, but unlike Utah, Wyoming only has deer points and applicants will need to determine if they want to use their points for one or the other. When deciding which route to take with your points, a good rule of thumb is that if you want a better experience with less crowding and a few more bucks to select from, the limited quota hunts are the best fit. If you want to draw out on a more regular basis and don’t mind crowded hunting scenarios with rare mature buck sightings, then general season hunts are the best fit. The one thing to keep in mind is that the true giant bucks that are being harvested in Wyoming are not necessarily coming from the limited quota hunts.
Wyoming started their point system for mule deer a little later than most states, and by 2006, most avid hunters were aware of the benefit of getting in on the ground floor of a point system and the amount of opportunities available to them if they had max points. Because of this, there are around 2,000 non-resident applicants with max points, and since most of the units that take max points to draw in the preference draw have a limited amount of 180"+ bucks, most applicants just keep building points and on goes the cycle. In some ways, I feel sorry for those applicants with max deer points in Wyoming because they feel committed to drawing the best tag for the amount of points and don’t want to drop down to what they feel like are lesser units because they take less than max points to draw and won’t ever get to capitalize on all the great hunting opportunities Wyoming has to offer for 0-6 points.
Use Wyoming for great deer hunts every two to six years and with a little research and scouting you could be hunting the same size buck as the guy who has waited 12+ years to draw his permit.
I’ll touch briefly on Arizona as you certainly can’t write a mule deer article without mentioning the state that holds the Kaibab and Arizona Strip districts. There are so few permits allotted to non-residents for units north of the Colorado River that unless you are already applying for another species within the state, it just doesn’t make sense to donate over $170 a year for 1% odds of drawing one of the late rifle tags. It is, however, a great state for archery hunting if you just want a quality hunt for decent bucks in the 150-160"+ range. Typically, Kaibab archery hunters are using 3-4 points to get into the bonus pass and be guaranteed a permit in a unit that has true trophy class bucks wandering the mountain.
The other opportunity comes in the form of over-the-counter deer tags that are good for most of the units south of the Colorado River and can be hunted during multiple seasons that will encompass velvet bachelor herds and rutting, hard-horned bucks. Arizona as a whole makes a lot more sense from the opportunity standpoint for mule deer than trophy as far as actually putting a tag in your pocket in the next 50 years, especially if you don’t already have 13+ points.
When it comes to landowner permits/ vouchers, each state has its own set of regulations and seasons associated with the program. A quick rule of thumb when looking for price and availability is that Colorado has the highest number of vouchers along with the widest price range; Nevada has the most liberal season dates for a guy who can hunt with all three weapon types, but vouchers will typically run $6,000+; and Utah has the most complicated system for distributing vouchers as some are unit wide and some are allocated through outfitters on CWMUs (Cooperative Wildlife Management Units), which are guided only. Currently, there is not a landowner voucher program in place for Arizona or Wyoming. Idaho has a landowner tag program that allows for transferable landowner tags, but the landowners cannot sell them or profit on them in any way. These tags are good unit wide but are very difficult to come across, and if you do find one, most of the time landowners will give the tag to the individual and charge a premium for a trespass fee as part of the package.
In Colorado, 20% of the general public quota may be issued to landowners west of I-25 as either unit wide or private land only vouchers. Unit wide vouchers have been getting harder and harder to find for good mule deer units, especially for third and fourth season hunts.
Hunters have a much better chance of finding archery, muzzleloader, and second rifle hunts in better units and for a more reasonable price in the $1,000 to $3,000 range. It used to be that you could count on paying $500-$1,000 per point it took to draw that unit, but since Colorado reduced the amount of unit wide vouchers available in the draw, the demand for popular units has shot up to where it’s hard to put a price per point value on hunts as some vouchers will sell for $3,000-$4,000 for a 1 point hunt.
Private land only vouchers are a lot more readily available because they are harder to sell as they are only valid on private land. You can hunt other private land within the unit, but it’s no different than a unit wide voucher in that you would still need to gain permission from any other landowner other than the one you purchased the voucher from.
One good thing about Colorado’s landowner tag program is that it is pretty cut and dry. There are two types of vouchers, and you simply purchase the voucher from the landowner, redeem it for the permit, and go hunting. That’s it.
Nevada has one of the best landowner voucher programs in the West if you can afford the voucher. Nevada’s landowner vouchers for mule deer are good for all hunts in that unit. They are unit specific and not hunt code specific. For example, Nevada issues their permits for certain zones within the state that often include multiple units, but landowner vouchers are only for the unit(s) in which the private land falls that was used to secure the voucher. All of these vouchers are good unit wide and do not restrict you to private land. These permits are difficult to come by as they are in short supply, depending on the unit and the amount of private land within that unit, and since only 15% of Nevada is private land, there are not a lot of permits issued. Therefore, the price of permits has been going up as demand has increased. The average landowner deer tag costs between $6,000 and $12,000.
A lot of landowners sell to the same person every year, and since these vouchers are transferable, even if that person doesn’t use the voucher, they can then turn around and sell it to someone else and at the same time secure that tag again for the next year from that landowner. The dirty little secret about acquiring Nevada landowner tags is that if you put in a little research, you can find the list of landowners who receive these permits from NDOW and which units they are issued for.
Utah issues landowner vouchers and conservation vouchers that can be purchased for limited-entry units and are transferable. They also issue landowner vouchers for general season units, but unfortunately, these are not transferable. Landowner vouchers are also issued to private landowners who are enrolled in the Cooperative Wildlife Management Units (CWMU). These vouchers are transferable but limit hunters to the CWMU boundaries and typically require a guide.
Most of the transferable landowner and conservation vouchers are sold through banquets put on by nonprofit conservation organizations, like SFW, MDF, and RMEF. Since they were purchased from a charity event, the dollar amount can be considered a donation and therefore written off as a charitable donation. The prices being paid for these permits typically start at $15,000 and go all the way up to $85,000 for a Henry Mountains voucher. Most of these will sell for $20,000-$30,000, which is far more than any other state.
The cheapest route is to go through the CWMU program because there is a wider variety of hunts for different trophy sizes. We deal with a lot of these CWMU managers and can help you out with trophy hunts versus mediocre hunts and put you in touch with the right CWMU manager. These hunts will typically range from $6,000 all the way up to $20,000+, but some of these higher priced hunts can be difficult to get ahold of as they are sold out years in advance.
As always, if you have any questions about any of these draw or guaranteed hunts, please get in touch with the team at Huntin’ Fool to help you secure the mule deer hunt you’ve always wanted.