The middle of October means another Utah and Idaho deer hunting season will soon be underway. General seasons around Cache Valley last a week with two weekends in Utah and for a couple weeks in Idaho. Both states are careful not to let the general season stretch into November as this is the time of year when these animals are in the rut and are more susceptible to harvest.
The best strategy for deer hunting in October is to hike before daylight to an area above where animals are naturally funneled or moved by hunters. Finding a vista, away from roads and putting binoculars to use, is a good way to locate bucks. Staying put all morning in such a place takes advantage of other hunters moving deer when they enter the woods early in the morning and as they depart midmorning. Opening day is by far the best day to hunt deer on public lands as these animals are still exhibiting predictable behaviors. In contrast, hunting private lands or remote public lands can often be better towards the end of the season as animals move to areas with fewer hunters and start to feel a tinge of the upcoming breeding season.
In Cache Valley deer numbers rebounded in 2018 from a harsh winter in 2017, but then had higher than average fawn mortality last winter. Consequently, success during the upcoming deer season should fall between the last two year’s results. Hunters in Utah’s Cache Unit had a 28% harvest rate in 2018 which was higher than the 20% success seen in 2017. The Idaho unit just north of Preston (#74), saw 31% of the hunters being successful in 2018 which was higher than the 21% success rate in 2017. Given these recent harvest rates, it is likely about 1 in 4 deer hunters in and around Cache Valley will be successful this year. Not only are there fewer deer in the region this year, but the long-term weather forecast calls for little snow and below average temperatures through the end of the month. These are good, but not ideal environmental conditions in which to pursue deer.
Bucks that made it through last winter had a wet summer with lots of vegetative growth so they should have had the opportunity for above average antler growth. Large antlers are always a possibility in our region. Utah and Idaho are just behind Colorado as the states with the most record book deer in the last decade. To get even more geographically specific, Cache County in Utah and Bear Lake County in Idaho have each produced a couple record book non-typicals over that timeframe. But even if you aren’t able to find a record book deer, each ridge you crest has the possibility of revealing a buck of a lifetime.
One piece of technology that will increase mule deer hunter success while improving the likelihood of a humane kill, is a range finder. Knowing how far away a deer is, reduces the chance of a bad or missed shot. I’m capable of consistently making shots up to 250 yards. Using a rangefinder to know exactly how far away an animal is, greatly increases my confidence when I pull the trigger. Since I have been carrying and using a rangefinder, I have yet to need more than a single shot to kill a deer.
It should be noted that it is likely there will be changes in the number of non-resident mule deer tags in Idaho. This already happened in Unit 73 (the unit that surrounds Malad), where non-resident tags were unlimited last year but were capped at 250 tags this year. This reduced the number of non-residents, most of them likely from Utah, by about 500. The reason for these reductions were residents wanted less crowded hunting conditions. Wyoming is also seeking input this year on how to reduce crowding in mule deer hunting units.
These trends mean hunters need to cherish each mule deer hunt as states focus on producing older bucks with less crowding. It is likely the number of future tags for out-of-state hunters will be reduced while prices are raised. States are also altering trespassing rules that make it harder to access private lands without permission. This is quite a change from recent decades where state agencies often had the capability of producing a large number of quality mule deer and hunters were welcome on unposted private land. Change, however, happens. Learning how to take advantages of these changes may bring a future where you have fewer opportunities, but get to pursue larger mule deer with fewer hunters in the woods.