We try to even the odds by applying for hunts in special-permit units, hunting districts managed for trophy bucks. But refund checks and preference points are our usual reward, and most of us settle for hunting a general-license area.
That's not as hopeless as it sounds. While general-season hunts can be congested, low-percentage affairs in some states, the Rockies have enough room and enough animals in most hunt areas to give you a good chance of success, even if it means you fill your tag with a middling buck or a doe. But remember, even these general areas produce big bucks every year.
With those two ends of the spectrum in mind the high-odds permit hunts and the meat hunts here's an overview, in no particular order, of some of the most productive hunting units in the Rockies:
Idaho's Unit 76
Location: Extreme southeast Idaho, bordering Wyoming and Utah, from Highway 34 and Highway 30 through Soda Springs and Montpelier to Bear Lake.
Why is it good: As part of the Southeast Deer zone, this area is managed by a multi-unit permit.
Hunter numbers are controlled to a degree, which has allowed bucks to get old. But the real reason to hunt here is that this unit contains some of the most classic mule deer habitat in the West: irrigated fields rising to brushy foothills and eventually to rocky timberline.
Amount of public land: Ample, mostly managed by the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.
Trophies or freezer filler: This is a fair mix of both. Last year about a quarter of the 1,100 any-weapon hunters in this unit tagged out, and 31 percent of bucks went 4 point or better. Only 5 percent had 5 points on at least one side.
Contact: Ace Hardware and Sports Center (208-232-8722) in Pocatello
Montana's Region 6
Location: Northeastern Mon-tana, roughly from Havre east to the North Dakota line, Canada south to the Missouri River and Fort Peck Lake.
Why is it good?: Good diversity of whitetail and mule deer, trophies and meat hunts. And relatively few folks once you get off the main routes.
Amount of public land: While about half percent of the region is public mostly BLM land but also deer-rich country on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge an equal amount of land is open to public hunting under the Block Management Program.
Trophies or freezer filler: Both abound in this corner of the state. If you're after a doe, buy up to seven antler-less whitetail tags and hunt Block Management ground on the Milk and Missouri river valleys and other larger riparian corridors.
Another 1,700 antler-less mule deer tags remained after the draw and are available for over-the-counter sale.
Best trophy potential is either on lightly hunted river bottoms for whitetails or in rough and remote breaks country for muleys.
Contact: Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (406-228-3700) in Glasgow or Westside Sporting Goods (406-654-1611) in Malta.
Location: South-central Utah, bordering the Arizona line to the south, the Paria River on the east and Long Valley on the west.
Bryce Canyon National Park is in the northern end of this unit.
Why is it good: One of only two Premium Limited-Entry deer units in Utah (the other is the Henry Mountains), hunting pressure is so limited that bucks get old here.
This year, for instance, only 90 limited any-weapon deer permits were issued for the Paunsaugunt (also known as Unit 27 for deer).
Trophies or freezer filler: This is definitely a trophy unit. While its reputation has fallen a peg or two in the last decade, it's still a place to shoot the best mule deer of your life.
Contact: DWR's Southern Region office (435-865-6100) in Cedar City.
Wyoming's Area 2
Location: Extreme northeastern Wyoming, north of Sundance and east of Devils Tower National Monument.
Why is it good: It has a good mix of both whitetail and mule deer habitat, and hunting flag tails in Wyoming is a novelty to many Cowboy State hunters.
Amount of public land: More than half the unit is in the Black Hills National Forest. The other half is hard-to-access private land. Outfitting is prevalent here, so expect to see a lot of posted ground.
Trophies or freezer filler: Mostly 4-point muleys and 5-point whitetails are shot here, but there's always interest in hunters shooting whitetail does, so keep this in mind for a good meat hunt.
Contact: Game and Fish's Sheridan regional office (307-672-7418)
East Canyon, Utah
Location: Central Utah, just east of downtown Salt Lake City and Ogden. While this portion of the Northern Region isn't defined for deer, the congruent moose unit is girdled by interstates 80, 84 and 15.
Why is it good: It's close to the population centers of the Wasatch Front and it's one of the few units in Utah that is actually near or over its population objective for deer.
The population objective for the unit is about 8,500 head; last winter the estimated herd numbered about 8,100. That's a lot closer to objective than most Utah districts.
Amount of public land: While the unit contains the high country of the Wasatch National Forest, most deer occupy private land, and access can be tough to secure.
Trophies or freezer filler: Most deer harvested are modest bucks, but this area includes the extended Wasatch Front zone, where late-season archers take whopper bucks that are pushed by the snowline to lower elevations.
Contact: Sports-man's Warehouse (801-334-4000) in Ogden, Utah
Montana District 270
Location: South of Missoula on the east side of the Bitterroot Valley. The unit extends from Skalkaho Creek south to Lost Trail Pass and the Idaho border, then west to Pintlar Pass.
Why is it good: It's one of a handful of permit-only deer units in the state, and it's arguably producing the most remarkable trophies. This year 150 permits were available; last year about 4,200 hunters applied for that same quota.
Amount of public land: Nearly two-thirds of the unit is in national forest or state land.
Trophies or freezer filler: While some doe permits are available in the unit, folks who draw the either-sex tag are looking for a Booner buck. And they get it.
The biggest typical mule deer shot in Montana last year came from 270 and the unit produces 160-inch bucks for hunters who are patient and hunt the higher clearings and meadows.
Contact: Bob Ward's & Sons Sporting Goods (406-363-6204) in Hamilton.
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