Hunting out West can be a daunting task without the tools necessary to know when, where and how to apply, draw and hunt. This is especially true when hunting mule deer in Colorado.
Colorado does not sell over-the-counter tags for mule deer. Hunters must apply for the draw and, in most cases, possess enough preference points in units that offer the best hunting.
Why Should You Hunt Mule Deer in Colorado?
Colorado is a top-ranked mule deer hunting state for many reasons. Find out why.
Top State for Boone and Crockett Entries
First, the area produces a high number of Boone and Crockett mule deer entries. In the late 1990s, popular destinations and vacation sites boomed in Colorado. Through the turn of the century, the quality and population of mule deer were notably at their peak. People believed they could find a 200-inch deer in just about any drainage in the state.
As cities and ski slopes increased in size and number, the state built more highways to connect them. Many feared the wildlife in those areas would suffer as a consequence. Perhaps it did. In the winter of 2007, something else happened that would change the trajectory of harvest numbers and quality of wildlife for nearly a decade. Snow.
The Snowy Colorado Winter of 2007
A steady, continuous snow began in October 2007 and didn’t stop until April 2008. Today, large snows are common during a Rocky Mountain winter, but a large amount of constant snowfall was highly unusual at the time.
Towns like Crested Butte, a resort on the central-western slope of the Rockies, typically average about 196 inches of snowfall per year (over 16 feet). When the snow finally stopped, they were left with a whopping 418 inches (almost 35 feet) of snow.
That infamous winter caused the largest winter kill of deer and elk in Colorado’s history. Despite the massive winter kill, the state of Colorado still produced 155 Boone and Crockett mule deer entries from 2010 to 2017—almost three times the number of entries over Utah, the next highest state. Over the same period, Utah produced 55 Boone and Crockett entries.
Biologists confirm that the state has not fully recovered from this tragic event. Through careful planning and top-notch conservation efforts, mule deer numbers are trending in the right direction.
Hunting Areas With High Trophy Potential
Colorado is one of the best states to hunt mule deer because of its many opportunities to hunt in areas with high trophy potential. Colorado is not known as an “opportunity state” because it does not sell over-the-counter tags. However, hunting deer that score over 170 to 180 inches is possible in almost every unit in the state.
Contrary to popular belief, you can hunt mule deer in Colorado nearly every year. It takes a lot of research and knowledge to accomplish. If you are willing to put in the work, it can be incredibly rewarding!
What Mule Deer Season Should You Apply for?
Knowing which hunting season to apply for is an essential factor in determining the quality of the game. The season you hunt determines how active the deer are during that time and where the majority of the deer population is.
There are eight mule deer hunting seasons in Colorado. The eastern half of the state consists mainly of private land, so we’ll focus on the six seasons available in the mountainous regions:
- Early Rifle
- Second Rifle Season
- Third Rifle Season
- Fourth Rifle Season
Deciding which season to participate in is tough. Earlier mule deer seasons may provide more opportunities to hunt, but later seasons fall during “rut” when mule deer are breeding and are more active during daylight hours.
Early archery, muzzleloader and early rifle seasons provide hunters with the opportunity to hunt in high elevations when most of the deer are still in their summer patterns. Depending on the date each season starts, rut hunts typically don’t begin until the third and fourth rifle seasons. For obvious reasons, success rates for third and fourth rifle seasons are much higher than archery and muzzleloader seasons.
The second rifle season has a much lower success rate because the deer are transitioning from their summer patterns, staging in deep drainages and dark timber, and preparing for the rut. This will normally result in drawing a second season rifle tag with substantially fewer preference points. A draw like that is what we consider an opportunity hunt. The same trophy deer are still present in the unit. They are only much more difficult to locate. If a hunter is motivated, there’s still potential to have a very successful hunt.
What Are Preference Points?
When applying to hunt deer in Colorado, the state gives first preference to hunters with the highest number of preference points. Hunters accrue points yearly when they apply either solely for a preference point or are unsuccessful in drawing their first choice of unit.
Hunters are able to specify their first, second, third and fourth choice units when they apply. If they are unsuccessful in drawing their first choice, they could potentially draw a tag in the subsequent units as long as all the tags allocated to one of those units were not already drawn by first choice applicants.
In the event you draw your second, third or fourth choice tag, you still get a preference point for the following year. Preference points cannot be used the same year they are earned.
There are a few ways to apply—and hunt—using zero preference points or your second choice option. If you want to draw a tag and are willing to forego gaining a preference point for the next year, you can apply and draw tags for some units as your first choice with zero preference points. You will be given priority for that tag over hunters who listed the same unit as their second choice.
You can check your preference points through Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Our Top Picks for Colorado Mule Deer Hunting
The state of Colorado manages units by quality and opportunity to ensure that the best populations and genetics in an area remain at peak levels. As a result, fewer tags are issued in some areas. That way, the appropriate numbers of animals are harvested, maintaining the area’s carrying capacity and genetics.
Fewer tags may mean hunters need over 25 preference points to potentially draw a coveted tag. Other regions of the state are managed more for the opportunity to hunt rather than for trophy potential.
You can draw a mule deer tag in Colorado with zero preference points and have a successful hunt—but you may have to work a little harder to accomplish it.
The following are some of our favorite units to hunt and the number of preference points you may need to draw a tag.
Colorado Mule Deer Opportunity Hunts
1. Unit 75 in Muzzleloader Season
One of our favorite units to hunt with the second choice option is Unit 75 in muzzleloader season. With this unit, you have approximately a 50% chance to draw a tag and hunt using a muzzleloader in September.
Located east of Durango, this unit runs south from Silverton to the New Mexico border. This hunt offers trophy potential of over 180 inches and has healthy populations of deer and elk.
Deer will be in high elevations to start this season and may still be in their summer patterns. If you are up to scout before the season begins, you should find success—especially if you outwork the other hunters in the unit.
Hunters should be in top physical shape and ready to hunt above 12,000-foot elevations. One downside to this unit is that it is only 45% public land. Hunters must be mindful of private land boundaries and carry GPS with them. In 2021, this hunt had an approximate 35% success rate.
2. Unit 25 in Second Rifle Season
Our next top choice is for hunters with little or no preference points who want an exceptional experience. To hunt this area during the second season, you must exchange gaining a preference point for the opportunity to hunt now.
Unit 25 offers a near 100% chance of drawing a second season rifle tag. It also has an excellent trophy potential of more than 170 inches and a success rate of close to 36% in 2021.
The unit’s steep basins with plenty of cover hold exceptional deer. Home to White River National Forest, Unit 25’s boundary includes a small part of the Flat Top Wilderness area. Hunters should also plan to buy an over-the-counter tag because this unit holds a large, healthy population of elk.
3. Unit 44 in Fourth Rifle Season
For hunters with six or more preference points, Unit 44 is one of the largest trophy-producing units in Colorado. Unit 44 requires at least six preference points (50% draw odds) to acquire the early rifle season tag.
The coveted fourth season tag requires over 25 preference points to draw, making this unit high on our list of opportunities to hunt with as little as five to ten preference points. The trophy potential in this unit is more than 190 inches, and the chance to see bucks above the 200-inch mark is a real possibility.
Unit 44 is 81% public land with good access, so covering large amounts of ground is possible. A drawback to this hunt is that weather conditions play a vital role in your success. During years with good precipitation levels and mild winters, antler growth and food sources should be maximum levels. In dry years, animals may travel to other areas to find the nutrients they need. It is wise to spend time scouting this unit before your hunt or consider hiring a guide.
You will have to use at least six points to hunt here. Harvest statistics vary wildly, and accurate statistics are not readily available through Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Colorado Mule Deer Trophy Hunts
We’ve covered units that you can hunt at least once every decade. Now let’s jump to a few units considered once or twice in a lifetime hunts.
4. Unit 6 in Third Rifle Season
Next on our list of outstanding deer hunts in Colorado is a third season rifle hunt in Unit 6. At approximately 60% draw odds with 11 preference points, this hunt has exceptional harvest statistics and produces many bucks each year, scoring over 170 inches.
This hunt pushes towards the seeking phase of the rut in mid-November. Bucks will be on their feet and active for a substantial amount of time during the day, seeking and chasing does. They will be less likely to spook with the presence of humans.
Unit 6 is relatively small, but there is ample public land to hunt on. Fewer tags are allocated to this unit, so there are far fewer hunters to contend with. Deer and elk herds have the opportunity to thrive.
This unit borders Wyoming and shouldn’t be overlooked by anyone that’s waited more than ten years to draw an excellent tag.
5. Unit 54 in Fourth Rifle Season
Our first fourth season hunt on the list requires at least 16 points to draw. Genetically, Unit 54 is considered one of the best units in Colorado, producing bucks that score well over 190 inches. Hunters can draw earlier seasons here with fewer points, but the chance to harvest the buck of a lifetime is high during the late fourth season.
This unit was once one of the top-producing Boone and Crockett units in the United States, but it is also one of the units most affected by the 2007 to 2008 winter kill.
According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials, the unit has rebounded quite well after nearly 15 years to recover from that notorious winter. The deer numbers are not what they once were, but the genetics here allow any mature animal to grow impressive antlers.
During the fourth season hunt, deer search tirelessly for does, which often pushes them into easily seen areas accessible to hunters. Hunters should be picky, even though they have had to wait for many years to draw this tag.
This unit is south and west of Crested Butte and has good access to trailheads.
6. Unit 66 in Fourth Rifle Season
The last hunt on our list could be considered one of the best hunts in all of North America. And it has the track record to prove it.
The fourth season hunt in Unit 66 can take over 25 years to draw. When they say all great things are worth waiting for, they mean it.
Unit 66 has incredible genetics, and harvesting over a 190-inch buck is possible. Top-notch genetics, great cover, remote areas, excellent winter range and very few issued tags make this hunt one that won’t disappoint.
Hunters that have waited more than 25 years should hire a guide or, at the very least, spend as much time as possible in the unit before the season starts. If you are willing to wait, this is the trophy hunt to beat all trophy hunts.
Start Your Next Adventure
Some say Colorado is the “land of giants.” No other state offers a better opportunity to hunt deer pushing the 200-inch mark.
You must be willing to put in time, effort and money to learn how to hunt mule deer in Colorado. Once you do, the experience can be extraordinary and highly fulfilling.
No other state lets you walk among giants.