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Breakdown of Montana's top late season over-the-counter mule deer hunts

 

Breakdown of Montanas best over-the-counter mule deer hunting
A great general season Montana mule deer. Photo credit: Brady Miller

Jump to: Cost Finding a hunt Region 1 Region 2 Region 3 Region 4 Region 5 Region 6 Region 7 Top OTC Hunts

While Montana isn’t historically known as one of the top tier mule deer producing states in the West, it does have several things going for it that most states do not: incredibly long seasons, rifle hunts during the rut and over-the-counter (OTC) tags that residents can use for nearly the entire state or pretty much guaranteed draw hunts for nonresidents. Note: This is not a true OTC state for nonresidents. A nonresident must draw a general season deer tag. Keep in mind that most years there are leftover tags after the draw that can be picked up in the early summer or through the fall. For more information on the status of leftover tags in Montana, you can check out an article here. While a nonresident has to draw a tag, draw odds have been near 100% the past few years and the huge benefit is their tag is good for almost the entire state.

This can be an incredible state to cut your teeth on mule deer hunting while, at the same time, also providing an excellent backup plan for those who want to build points in other states, but want to hunt deer in the meantime. Hunters who do their research can expect to kill 150” to 160” bucks almost yearly with enough research and the state offers enough terrain features throughout its seven regions to please anyone’s hunting preferences.

Since a large winter die-off in 2011, the state has experienced some very mild winters, leading to some incredible horn growth within the past few years. While almost impossible to predict, it’s forecasted that Montana will see a large snow fall this year, which will undoubtedly lead to some declining deer numbers soon. The bottom line is if you’re on the fence about Montana, do it now!



Montana’s general deer tag system

For nonresidents interested in hunting Montana for mule deer, there are a few rules and regulations along the way that must be followed to ensure you get the tag you’d like. First, Montana requires that all hopeful hunters apply for a license, which must be submitted by March 15 of the current year. The licenses are then awarded through a lottery system though the odds are essentially 100% with surplus tags going on sale every year. You can check out the Montana nonresident mule deer draw odds using the button below.

Nonresident General Deer Draw Odds

Like most states, Montana offers special permits for some areas holding trophy mule deer though the odds can be very steep and take many, many years to draw. Not to mention, hunters possessing a special permit for mule deer can only hunt deer in that specific hunt district with every other district, general or not, being off limits. For the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on the best OTC (general season) districts that can be hunted every year. More information on the Montana hunting seasons can be found here.

Cost of a Montana nonresident deer tag

Type of license
or permit
Cost
Base hunting
license
$15
Deer combination
license
$597
Deer permit
(if hunting special draw districts)
$5
Total $617


Montana offers some of the most generous seasons available with the general archery season lasting six weeks and the any weapons season lasting five weeks, including the rut. Additionally, some areas offer backcountry rifle hunts beginning Sept. 15 every year.

Throughout this article we will be utilizing our Filtering 2.0 software to select specific parameters on what exactly we would like to see in a late season mule deer hunt, specifically in Montana. This is the most comprehensive hunting map available and a powerful research tool that every western hunter should have. With Filtering 2.0, hunters can simply set the guidelines for their hunt based on the state, species, trophy potential, seasons, draw odds, and harvest success rates in order to quickly narrow down the available hunt districts to focus on.



How to find the perfect hunt
 

Brad Tribby with his 2015 Montana mule deer buck
Brad Tribby with his 2015 Montana mule deer buck.

When selecting potential hunt districts in Filtering 2.0 it’s important to pay attention to a few factors that are commonly overlooked by most hunters. Every year, when Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) conducts their annual harvest surveys every hunter is asked for the antler point tally for each antler. This information is transferred into data that separates the bucks harvest by 4 point and under and 4 point and better. But how does this translate into usable data on our end?

Let’s say you have two districts with a trophy potential of over 160” plus. In hunt district A, 75% of the bucks taken are classified as 4 point or better and, in hunt district B, 48% of the bucks are classified as the same. Out of every 100 bucks, hypothetically, you’ll encounter nearly double the amount of 4 points in district A than you would in B. Now, there are certainly 120” 4 points running around, but this tells us that district A holds more mature deer and will likely yield a higher chance of encountering older and bigger bucks.

Montana statewide mule deer 4 point or better harvest


The upward trend in this data the past two years is a great thing to see.

Montana statewide mule deer harvest

Hunter numbers can also be a very important fact to observe. While we always want to target the district with the best odds, biggest bucks and highest deer densities it’s no secret that everyone else will be doing the same thing. By cross referencing hunter numbers with trophy potentials and mature deer numbers you’ll begin to find sleeper hunt districts that will have lower competition with a more abundant supply of quality deer.

Montana State Profile Montana Mule Deer Profile



Region 1

Region 1 is found in the northwest corner of the state and provides some of the most rugged hunting around. Hunters will be greeted with steep slopes, crazy thick ground cover and the possibility of running into a dark horned giant. Deer densities on this side of the state are much lower than the eastern half, but, due to the extreme terrain condition, many bucks can grow to be very old and sport some impressive antlers. While this hunt can certainly produce the buck of your lifetime it’s important to note that pursuing deer in here will not be easy. Hunters can expect to see just a handful of deer each day and glassing opportunities will be very limited. These factors will ultimately play into some serious physical and mental exhaustion.

HD 123 

HD 123 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 4pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
160"+ 27% 76% 699


Of the hunt districts on our list, HD 123 will have some of the lowest deer densities, but will make up for that in good percentages of mature deer—this country can grow some absolute giants. Nestled on the Idaho and Montana border and just south of the town of Thompson Falls, this steep and rugged country has produced some incredible bucks and, thanks to the ground cover, is home to bucks that will likely die of old age with very few, if any, encounters with man. Hunting here will be tough with very little glassing opportunities so still hunting the deep timber patches during fresh snow periods will be the best option. Very few deer will be seen during the season so be prepared to be tested as hard mentally as you will be physically.



Region 2

Hunters that draw the coveted HD 270 or HD 261 permits in Montana’s Region 2 will be in for one of the best hunts of their life and will likely encounter the buck of a lifetime. That being said, expect to be sitting in the drawing pool for more years than you’d like. Hunters interested in OTC districts with find very little excitement in any of the districts in Region 2, unfortunately. A large population of hunters combined with over harvest and very low age levels has created the perfect storm for tough mule deer conditions. While it does house two of the best draw permits in the state, there are better ways to spend your hard earned money when mule deer are on the hit list.



Region 3

While none of the hunt districts in Region 3 made the list for this particular article it definitely deserves a serious nod of approval and honorable mention. Deer populations, while still not as high as districts in the east, are considerably higher than in surrounding regions with much more favorable terrain, too. Because the area features some of the highest elk populations, it will also, naturally, have more hunters than most districts. While most of the competition is likely chasing elk, they will also undoubtedly have deer tags, which will add a new element of difficulty into your hunt. This is a great district to look at for anyone who is also possessing an elk and deer tag and looking for a good combo hunt.



Region 4

Region 4 is located in central Montana and features an incredible array of terrain from open prairies to heavily forested slopes. This area will produce some of the best bucks in the state and offer opportunities to any mule deer hunter. Good deer numbers will be found here, which will, in turn, draw higher numbers of hunters, too. Through enough research, this is a great region to focus on to find sleeper districts that can be hunted year after year as you wait to draw a premium tag.

HD 410

HD 410 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 4pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
170"+ 31% 63% 1,539


HD 410 is found in central Montana with its northern border being comprised of the Missouri River breaks. This area offers some great hunting with ample terrain features for stalking as well as sparse ground cover for great glassing opportunities. In recent years, the annual harvest of deer has spiked dramatically thanks to some very mild winters. This area does see a high number of hunters, but also boasts an extremely healthy deer population that produces large bucks every year. There is quite a bit of private land, but also quite a bit of U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and state land is available. As with most open terrain hunting, your best best will be to find good vantage points to glass from in order to locate bucks.

HD 417

HD 417 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 4pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
160"+ 42% 74% 748


Located along the Missouri River Breaks, HD 417 features some great mule deer hunting with less competition than surrounding districts. Like most districts in this area, the landscape is primarily dominated by open prairie type country with broken coulees intermixed making for some great habitat. The annual harvest of bucks has been increasing over the last few years and this year should be no different. Optics will play a pivotal role in success here and finding a good vantage point will be paramount.

HD 441

HD 441 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 4pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
160"+ 27% 80% 846


Located along the famous Rocky Mountain Front, HD 441 features some of the most scenic country in Montana and some impressive deer stats to boot. Of the hunt districts on our hit list, this district offers the highest percentage of bucks in the 4 point or better range as well as some of the lowest hunter numbers. Within this area, hunters will have the choice to hunt open, prairie type land, or head into the Front on the west side of the district and hunt some truly remote and rugged country. Regardless, optics will play a huge role here and finding a good vantage point early will be important. Hunters looking to hunt the Front should put early season cardio training on the top of their list as this country can eat you up.

HD 445

HD 445 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 4pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
170"+ 34% 55% 1,739


Great deer numbers are found in HD 445 though, as usual, the hunter numbers are higher as a result. Hunters will find a good mixture of terrain in this district ranging from low lying farm lands to steep and forested slopes. Most of the agricultural areas will generally be dominated by whitetail though some mule deer will wander into the areas, particularly during the rut. Because of the easy terrain and glassing abilities in the lower terrains most hunters will gravitate this direction while hunters in the high country will generally have an easier time escaping the crowds. Physical preparation should be at the top of your list if you wish to hunt the mountainous terrain.



Region 5

Region 5 is another one that almost made the list but has some interesting aspects that hurt it in the end game. Overall, the trophy potential in the district is fairly low (less than 140”) though some of the districts have been known to produce some very nice deer. The problem lies in the simple fact that the density of mature bucks is very low, meaning that a hunter looking for a particular caliber of buck will be looking past a lot of deer before the “one” is potentially found. The eastern half of the district will see a lot of competition around the Billings area though the western half will see much less hunters.



Region 6

When you really start breaking down Region 6 by the numbers it can be very interesting to look at. While the trophy potentials kept it from making our list, it has some of the highest percentages of 4 point or better bucks taken across all of its hunt districts. This is likely explained by the numbers of hunters in the area shooting “decent” bucks before they reach full maturity and antler potential. This area got hit fairly hard with EHD in 2011 and has since experienced some pretty easy winters so the potential of some five to six-year-old bucks running around for this season is fairly good. While this area isn’t well known for producing giant bucks it certainly has the capacity to and will likely make this list in the near future.



Region 7

Region 7 is found in the southeast corner of the and features some of the best mule deer hunting in the state. Here, the hunter numbers will be high but good populations of deer are present and the hunting can still be great. The area will be largely checkerboarded in landownership between state, BLM, and privately owned lands so access can be difficult. If access can be obtained for private land hunters can be in for a fantastic hunt. Deer in this area were hit hard with EHD several years ago but have rebounded well thanks to the recent stream of mild winters.

HD 701

HD 701 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 4pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
170"+ 42% 67% 3,350


Like most hunt districts in this region, fantastic mule deer habitat is there for anyone looking for a classic plains type hunt in HD 701. For the most part, this area will be very barren without much vegetation other than the ever present sagebrush and, because of this, gaining a vantage point to glass from can be a great tactic in locating late season deer. The biggest challenge for anyone hunting in this area will be land access. Public land can be found, but because of anti-corner hopping laws in Montana, much of this will be off limits without private access so landownership maps can be a lifesaver. This area will be largely dominated by mule deer but some whitetail will be encountered, predominantly in the areas immediately surrounding the Yellowstone River.

HD 702

HD 702 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 4pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
170"+ 43% 72% 2,443


HD 702 features great habitat for hunters looking to not only to glass but also still hunt ridges in search of bucks hiding in heavy cover. High hunter numbers will be found here though anyone willing to hike off the roads will be able to distance themselves from the bulk of the competition. As with most areas in this region, a high vantage point and some quality time behind the glass can be a great way to turn up bucks. However, don’t underestimate the tried and true still hunting tactics, especially later on in the season, as hunting pressure increases.

HD 704

HD 704 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 4pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
170"+ 46% 71% 4,694


HD 704, which lies on the borders of Wyoming and Montana, features some of the most diverse country in this region. The lower elevations on the northern end of the district will yield large sage flats with some sporadic patches of juniper, but, on the southern end, steep ridges rise sharply off the land covered in dense patches of juniper that offer great cover and excellent hunting. In the more open terrain, glassing will be key as hunters will be able to see a great distance from any vantage point. On the southern end, a combination of glassing and still hunting will be the best option to track down some of the districts mature deer as they search for hot does. This area sees some of the highest numbers of hunters in the state though it is also one of the largest districts at roughly 5,500 square miles. Study the maps and look for out of the way areas to escape the crowds.

HD 705

HD 705 breakdown

Trophy
potential
Harvest success %
(5 year avg.)
% 4pt or
better
Hunter numbers
(5 year avg.)
170"+ 55% 67% 4,208


HD 705, found in the southeastern corner of Montana, has been one of the most consistent districts for trophy quality over the years though it does see some of the highest hunter numbers in the state. As with many other districts in this area, hunters will find mostly prairie type landscapes here though some timbered areas can be found along the South Dakota border. The biggest issues most hunters will experience will be escaping the crowds. Landownership maps can be a huge helping hand and allow hunters to discover out of the way parcels of public land unknown to most. Glassing will be the best tactic in locating a prospective buck; however, hunters will need to move on a target deer quickly as the odds of somebody else also spotting the same one is high.

The bottom line
 

Kirk Russell with his 2015 Montana Mule Deer
Kirk Russell with his 2015 Montana general season mule deer. You can read this hunt story here.

The simple fact of the matter is that any of these hunt districts can produce an absolute deer of a lifetime and offer quality hunting in general. The biggest quandary for the researching hunter will be deciding on what exactly he or she wants out of the hunt. Some of the listed districts can provide healthy deer numbers with the cost of higher hunter numbers while others will offer far less competition but tougher hunting conditions.



Breakdown of Montana’s top general season mule deer districts
 

General season over-the-counter Montana mule deer buck
General season Montana mule deer buck from 2015. Photo credit: Brady Miller
 

 

Top OTC/general districts based on harvest success

Rank Hunt
District
Success
1 HD 705 55%
2 HD 704 46%
3 HD 702 43%
4 HD 701 42%
5 HD 417 42%
6 HD 445 34%
7 HD 410 31%
8 HD 441 27%
9 HD 123 27%

 

Top OTC/general districts based on %4pt or better

Rank Hunt
District
Success
1 HD 441 80%
2 HD 123 76%
3 HD 417 74%
4 HD 702 72%
5 HD 704 71%
6 HD 701 67%
7 HD 705 67%
8 HD 410 63%
9 HD 445 55%

 

Top OTC/general districts based on hunter numbers
(low to high)

Rank Hunt
District
Success
1 HD 123 699
2 HD 417 748
3 HD 441 846
4 HD 410 1,539
5 HD 445 1,739
6 HD 702 2,443
7 HD 701 3,350
8 HD 705 4,208
9 HD 704 4,694


 

Jake Ingram with a great general season Montana mule deer buck
Jake Ingram with his 2015 Montana mule deer. Jake is the owner of Scapegoat Wilderness Outfitters — A goHUNT Business Member

By cross referencing your personal goals for your hunt with the information presented in this article as well as the table above, you should see a few promising hunt districts begin jumping out at you. Don’t be afraid to push yourself out of your comfort zone in search of a new honey hole as any of these can be hunted year after year. Hunters interested in building points for a premium district may also be interested in reading our 2016 Montana Application Strategy guide for an in-depth breakdown of the state's best draw hunt districts.

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