Where the Mule Deer Are, Part 2: Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas

Mule deer populations are still robust across much of the West, and mule deer hunts remain widely available, both as outfitted opportunities and do-it-yourself, public land hunts. This month, I’m focusing on some states that may not come immediately to mind when you think of mule deer, but still offer many opportunities for quality hunts and trophy animals.

ARIZONA: www.azgfd.gov. The Arizona mule deer population declined from the early 1980s through 2000, but has increased about 10 percent in the last decade. Current estimates place its mule deer population between 75,000 and 120,000 animals. Arizona received exceptional moisture in 2013 and this year’s fawn crop should be good, which is good news for the next several years. Overall hunter success ran only about 12 percent in 2012, but a significant number of permits are for archery hunts, which typically bring the success rate down. Arizona controls all permits by draw, and a license is required to enter. Arizona’s trophy mulies usually come from the Kaibab Plateau and the Arizona Strip (the part of Arizona above the Grand Canyon). Late season permits on the Kaibab and any permit on the Strip are difficult to draw. Archery hunters have two opportunities annually in Arizona, including a January hunt that begins on New Year’s Day and coincides with the desert mule deer rut. If hunters are unsuccessful in the January bowhunt, they may use the same license and tag for the August-September general archery hunt as well. While these tags are available over the counter (OTC), not all units are open for holders of these tags. Fall 2014 regulations won’t be posted until around May.

In our April issue (Article 3071), we addressed Arizona’s trophy deer opportunities on the Kaibab, where subscriber Butch Kuflak took a buck that final scored 200 5/8 B&C with outfitter Marvin James (928-526-6212; www.jamesguideservice.com). The northwest corner of the state, either the Arizona Strip or the Kaibab (particularly in the late-season), offers the best trophy mule deer hunting in Arizona — if you can draw the tag. There are a lot of deer on the Kaibab. However, some early-season Kaibab hunts, such as the Unit 12A early hunt or the archery hunt, offer better draw odds than those late-season hunts. A number of outfitters, including James, offer these early hunts, but don’t expect the 200-inch deer that come later with the rut and migration.

The Navajo Reservation in Northeastern Arizona produced some exceptional mule deer in the past and can do so again (see Article 335 by Mel Toponce from 2000). The process for acquiring a permit is convoluted. To have the best chance of getting the permits you want, you, or a representative carrying a signed application and a cashier’s check or money order, must be present when tags are drawn, auctioned, or first offered for sale. Details for the 2014 permits will be available in December on the Navajo Nation Fish and Wildlife website at www.nndfw.org. The kicker here is that the General Season permits are a bargain — $1,500 for rifle mule deer and elk, $500 for archery.

At press time we talked with Jeff Cole, a biologist for the Navajo Reservation, and he recommended working with a guide. The website has a list of 32 guides licensed to hunt the reservation. One of the guides listed is Galen Pinto (505-236-6219) who was recommended by Mel Toponce in 2000. We talked to Pinto, who told us he will do the legwork (which has included waiting in line for two weeks) to get your General Season tags (for elk or mule deer) or Special Trophy tags. He charges $2,500 to guide for a General Season Hunt and $4,500 for a seven-day hunt with a trophy tag. The trophy tags, by the way, cost $6,000.

Toponce also recommended two other guides whose names are on the 2013 active guides list: MacDonald Avery (505-870-0227) and Lea Dennison (505-870-8657). We talked to Dennison, who has hunts available for 2014 and says he charges $3,500 for a mule deer hunt, including guiding, transportation on the reservation and camping. Dennison also recommended Rex Koontz (602-300-1410), a fellow member of the Navajo Guides Association which auctions a number of tags at their convention in March.

NEVADA: www.ndow.org. Nevada deer herds have struggled in recent years, dropping from nearly 130,000 deer in 2001 to about 106,000 in 2013. Some units, notably those with predation management, are stable to increasing and deer licenses have been increased. Overall hunter success for 2012 was 42 percent, indicating that permit numbers are managed fairly conservatively (the state had only 24,500 deer hunters in 2012). Nonresident tags are only available through the draw, but two different draw opportunities exist, one for hunters booked through outfitters, one for those hunting without an outfitter. While most of Nevada is public land, the limited number of tags available for do-it-yourself hunters limits the opportunity for nonresidents to hunt on their own. One unique opportunity is the early archery hunt in the Ruby Mountains south and east of Elko. During this hunt, mule deer bucks are still bunched up in bachelor groups and very visible above timberline.

Look for tags through the outfitter draw, or apply for Unit 221-222, which has three sets of season dates. My choice would be the middle hunt, since the last hunt has so few available nonresident tags as to make it impossible to draw.

Senior Western Correspondent Lance Stapleton also recommends checking the Nevada hunts offered by Bruce and Craig Hubbard of Triple H Hunting in Salem, Utah (435-623-2744; triplehhuntinginc.com.

Another fun hunt is the Ruby Mountains (mostly units 101 and 102), again through the outfitter draw. In Report 8014 from 2010, subscriber Scott Olds describes a mountain goat hunt in which guide Walt Gardner of Secret Pass Outfitters (775-779-2201; www.secretpassoutfitters.com) “went the extra mile” to make his hunt a success. Gardner is wide open for 2014 since he doesn’t book hunts until after the outfitter draw in March. He currently charges $2,500 for a mule deer hunt and says most of the bucks his clients take score in the 140s and 150s. “I don’t sell ‘trophy’ hunts because we don’t have deer that big.”

My personal choice for a Nevada trophy tag would be Unit 115-muzzleloader. There are great deer in this unit and the muzzleloader season coincides with the rut and a downhill migration due to snow.

NEW MEXICO: www.wildlife.state.nm.us. Mule deer in New Mexico did not do well during the drought years of 2011-12, but moisture in the southern part of the state was exceptional in 2013. New Mexico’s deer herd is estimated between 80,000 and 90,000, with the 2012 harvest about 9,400 (about 27 percent success). Permits are regulated through a draw with information available in January and the deadline in March. New Mexico is about 40 percent private land, and the New Mexico Game and Fish Department works with private landowners on mule deer management through a private lands program, which provides guaranteed permits to these landowners and the outfitters who lease from them. Like Arizona, New Mexico has a January archery hunt that provides an opportunity to hunt mule deer in the rut or on winter range. Trophy deer can be found on managed private lands and on public land in the northwest corner of the state.

Without question, the best trophy mule deer hunt in New Mexico is on the Jicarilla Apache Nation (575-759-3255; www.jicarillahunt.com) out of Dulce, New Mexico. This area, famous in the 1960s and early 1970s, is again producing monster deer. In today’s market trophy deer are uncommon. The Jicarillas certainly know what they have and the prices reflect that. They offer both draw tags (no preference points) and auction tags. The 2013 general deer permit was $15,000 plus guide fees; two extended-season permits are awarded by sealed bid with a $30,000 minimum, not including guide fees. Their trophy quality is unparalleled and they have season dates that favor locating one of these monsters. According to the Jicarilla Game and Fish, “Success rates for these hunts approach 100 percent, and, over the past two years, the average gross-score of our clients’ bucks has been 210. Each year two to three bucks taken will qualify for entry into the all-time Boone & Crockett record book.”

Not all hunts in New Mexico are as pricey. The Jicarillas also own The Lodge at Chama (575-756-2133; www.lodgeatchama.com) and offer mule deer hunts there. These won’t have the same trophy quality as the reservation hunts, but the lodge is exquisite and the hunting fun. We contacted them at press time and they still have “a few” mule deer hunts available for 2014 at $9,000.

Also near Chama is the Quinlan Ranch (575-209-1618; www.quinlanranch.com), which developed hunting out of its own lodge several years ago. I guided on the Quinlan Ranch for another operator for 10 years and, while a lot has changed since then, the location of the ranch hasn’t. This property straddles the migration corridor from Colorado’s San Juan Mountains to winter range on the Jicarilla Reservation. If you’re lucky enough to time this hunt right, you could see the deer of your dreams.

While looking for opportunities in Arizona, we also contacted Douglas Henio (505-720-7378) who was listed by Mel Toponce as one of the guides of note on the Navajo Reservation. Henio is no longer guiding in Arizona, but told us he is still actively guiding in New Mexico where he has access to a number of landowner tags. “Prices for hunts depend on where the hunter wants to go and what they want from the hunt. I don’t like to make any promises I can’t deliver.”

One final fun hunt opportunity in the Land of Enchantment would be a management hunt on Vermejo Park Ranch (575-445-3097; www.vermejoparkranch.com) near Raton. “Management” deer here are up to 160 inches and for 2014 the all-in price for a 2×1 hunt is $4,000! According to hunting manager John Sakelaris, they also do up to 10 trophy hunts each season for $5,500, 2×1, with a realistic expectation of taking home a 160- to 170-class buck. Several 180-plus bucks are taken most years. Not only is this a great price for a quality deer hunt, but the ranch (over 400,000 acres of private land) is a showpiece for private land conservation.

Texas: www.tpwd.state.tx.us. Texas has two distinct mule deer populations, the Panhandle population (estimated at 58,000 to 83,000) and the Trans-Pecos population (estimated at 91,000 to 127,000). While the Panhandle population is considered stable, the Trans-Pecos population is declining, primarily due to drought. However, the spring and summer of 2013 were kind to much of the Trans-Pecos, and I would not be surprised to see a strong 2013 fawn crop. The general OTC Texas license contains a mule deer buck tag, but Texas Parks and Wildlife Department estimates only about 19,000 hunters actually hunted mule deer in 2012, and they took 10,261 deer (about 54 percent success). With the inclusion of mule deer in the Managed Lands Deer Program, several large Trans-Pecos ranches have started intensively managing mule deer and trophies (over 200 inches) are taken every year. With the moisture available this year, antler growth should be excellent.

Almost all of my experience with Texas mule deer has been in the Trans-Pecos and there are several outfitters offering good desert mule deer here. Jim Roche of Magnum Guide Services (325-853-1555; www.magnumguide.com) offers mule deer in far west Texas. This hunt will require long-range planning as they are sold out for 2014. He currently charges $5,500 for a mule deer hunt. Most of the bucks are 160 and up with the largest in the 180s.

Greg Simons of Wildlife Systems (325-655-0877; www.wildlifesystems.com) offers trophy deer on well-managed ranches near Marathon. He tells us he’s now booking hunts for 2015 and 2016 for mule deer that average in the 160s. He told us his hunters have a 90 percent success rate with a lucky few taking bucks in the 180- to 200-class. Billy Jackson of Outback Outfitters (432-290-0944; www.outbackoutfitter.net) is offering affordable management hunts near Ft. Stockton in the Glass Mountains.

As a final note on this area, Senior Western Correspondent Lance Stapleton says one of the best deer hunters he has ever hunted with is Bubba Glosson of Southwest Trophy Hunts (512-413-1618; www.swhunts.com). Mule deer are mentioned only in passing on Glosson’s website. At press time we spoke to Glosson, who said opportunities are limited and he is currently booked out four years in advance on his mule deer hunts.

I have hunted with both Jackson and Roche and know Simons and the properties he hunts and can personally recommend any of them. As an added bonus, these outfitters all hunt in areas where add-on aoudad are available on most hunts.