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A deep look at Colorado mule deer seasons: Which season is right for you?

What Colorado mule deer season is right for you

The author's 2018 Colorado buck. Photo credit: Chris Neville

Jump to: Archery Early Rifle Muzzleloader 2nd Season Rifle 3rd Season Rifle 4th Season Rifle

Mule deer hunting in Colorado is pretty special. First of all, Colorado boasts one of the healthiest and highest mule deer population in the West, along with some of the best genetics to produce some of the largest bucks. Second, Colorado offers a plethora of season options and terrain choices for any type of hunter. And lastly, there is a lot of opportunities to hunt mule deer in Colorado. If you have no points, maximum points or anything in between, I truly believe that you can find a hunt to suit your needs. I’ve said it multiple times on previous articles and podcasts, but I truly feel that you could close your eyes and blindly drop a pin on a map of Colorado and find a giant buck. In the end, it's all about putting in the required work, doing your due diligence in research, put your time in the unit, and then you are doing everything you can to make the stars align to take a mature buck in any unit of Colorado.

One item that can greatly benefit your success is figuring out what season works best for you. Do you crave velvet bucks and hunting in the alpine during late August and September or would you rather chase hard-antlered bucks in November? Or... do you just want to get out and hunt each year and learn a unit? Colorado has it all.

I’ve been fortunate to have hunted in almost all of the main Colorado seasons except for muzzleloader, early rifle, and fourth season rifle. There is a common theme in all of the seasons I’ve hunted in Colorado… they are an absolute blast!

Before we go any deeper, let's face it, big deer are always going to be a challenge to find no matter which season or unit, but with a little research, you can start to tip the scale in your favor.

Colorado post hunt deer population estimate - Updated 2019

What season is right for you?

That can be a loaded question. To me, it all comes down to your personal goals. Is your goal to just wait out the draws and hunt the best of the best units for an increased chance at a buck of a lifetime? Or is your goal to add another hunt and an adventure to your fall? Then my personal favorite, do you just want to learn more about mule deer and hunt any or all of the seasons at some point? When it comes to what season to hunt, you will also have to take into account the terrain. Each Colorado mule deer season is different in regards to where the deer will be for the most part. Be sure to take this into account before you apply or actually head out in the field. When it comes to seasons and units, keep in mind that the best unit is potentially the one you can hunt and learn through multiple years of hunting.

On Colorado's western slopes, the mule deer you will find are migratory and typically live in challenging terrain for much of the year. Then on the eastern plains, the terrain is relatively flat and can hold mule deer in very unique types of terrain. 

Elk hunting pressure...

Even though you are looking for a mule deer hunt, I feel it is highly valuable to take a hard look at elk hunts across the state. What I mean by this is if you're looking for a great mule deer unit, it's also is a good idea to analyze the amount of surveyed elk hunters in that unit. While those elk hunters are... hunting elk, they are also adding to the human pressure while you're deer hunting. All that commotion could put undue stress on a buck you're hunting and now that buck might hold to the comfort of the dark timber the entire duration of the hunt. Or even worse, a group of elk hunters set up camp in a basin, and push all the mule deer out the first few days of the season, and by the time you get there on day four... the bucks are nowhere to be found.

Screenshot of number of elk hunters surveyed

Screenshot example of what you can expect to find on Unit Profiles when trying to figure out the amount of elk hunting pressure you might get on your deer hunt.

You can quickly find out the number of surveyed elk hunters in each unit on a Unit Profile. What I would suggest, is going to Filtering 2.0 and selecting elk over-the-counter (OTC) to get a big picture at all the OTC elk hunts in the season or units you have in mind. Then click on the units and scroll down to check out the number of surveyed elk hunters.

Knowing how season dates could impact your choices

When it comes to season dates, some people might want to time when they cash in their preference points for mule deer to pull tags for certain season dates. Planning around season dates has the chance to greatly impact how their hunt might be. Colorado works on a rotating season date schedule.

Special note: At this time, the 2020-2024 big game season structure is still being determined by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and we likely won't know the changes until July of this year when the final proposals are sent for approval. Colorado runs on a five-year big game structure as a framework for their annual big game regulations. Some topics of discussion will be the archery/muzzleloader season overlap. So at this time, it is uncertain if the season dates in the tables below will change. Also, the dates in the tables below are based on trends in how they have been conducted in years past.

For example, a 3rd season hunt in 2021 will be highly coveted based on the sole fact that season dates will be the latest they will be until 2026. So… having a third season tag in 2021 is sort of like having a 4th season tag. When it comes to the popularity of 4th season, those tags will be a hot item in 2021 when they start Nov. 17 and end Nov. 21. This is why planning out your points in Colorado can be a great strategy. As you can try to time when you might pull a tag on certain years when the season dates greatly play to your advantage.

Another way to put it, it might not make sense for some people who have been waiting 15 years to pull a coveted 4th season tag in 2019, as those season dates will be some of the earliest, when they could just build a point in 2019 and 2020, or hunt a second choice hunt, and once 2021 rolls around, they will have season that has the potential to be slammer rut dates and greatly has the chance for increased weather.

Keep in mind, that even though you might have a tag with perfect season dates... sometimes weather can play a huge toll in your hunt. Sort of like what happened in 2016 with the unseasonably warm 3rd and 4th season.


Archery

If you love adventure, and hunting bucks above treeline in the alpine, then the archery season is for you! In general, archery tags for mule deer are a lot easier to obtain which can allow you to hunt the same unit a lot more often. This not only leads to an increased chance at success, but it also allows you to become very proficient at your craft.

On top of that, archery hunters get the first crack to chase bucks. The bulk of Colorado’s mule deer summer range is public land. Bucks are still in bachelor groups which makes deer easy to locate and for the most part, they will still in their summer range and patterns. 

The archery season typically spans from late August into late September. As this season opens, the bucks are very much in their normal summer patterns routine of feeding heavily and will be typically found at higher elevations. Bucks in late August are more consistent in their patterns. What they do one day, is probably what they will do the next day. This is a huge advantage for the bowhunter! Plus, the summer cape on a mule deer stands out in the alpine.

The bucks will be velvet racked at the beginning of the season before giving way to hard antlers by the end of the season. Keep in mind that the period when they strip velvet will greatly change how they behave in the highcountry. Units that hold alpine habitat will provide a great chance to find bucks above timberline, but plan to be in shape for this hunt. Your mental toughness will be equally necessary as you can plan on multiple failed stalks and long hikes back to camp. The terrain is generally steep and the air is thin so if you select this season, do not take it lightly.

Archery historical and potential future season dates

(2020-2026 dates are based on previous season trends, are tentative, and still need to be approved by CPW)

Year Open Close
2012 Aug. 25 Sept. 23
2013 Aug. 31 Sept. 29
2014 Aug. 30 Sept. 28
2015 Aug. 29 Sept. 27
2016 Aug. 27 Sept. 25
2017 Aug. 26 Sept. 24
2018 Aug. 25 Sept. 23
2019 Aug. 31 Sept. 29
2020 Aug. 29 Sept. 27
2021 Aug. 28 Sept. 26
2022 Aug. 27 Sept. 25
2023 Aug. 26 Sept. 24
2024 Aug. 31 Sept. 29
2025 Aug. 30 Sept. 28
2026 Aug. 29 Sept. 27

Notes:
  • Seasons highlighted in orange are the potential best season dates.
  • The 2018 season was included to show how the rotating season structure works.
  • Future dates are slightly tentative and could change after Colorado's next season structure proposal meeting in July of 2019 which deals with setting the season dates for 2020-2024.

Archery deer units sorted by number of bucks taken - 2018 numbers

When looking for an archery unit, a person would be wise to analyze the type of terrain in terms of vegetation and the topography of the unit. Some units are better than others when it comes to the amount of summer habitat that will hold mule deer. A heavily-timbered range, could be tough to hunt. Conversely, alpine canyons, peaks or a section of sporadic timber and open feeding areas are better suited for the bowhunter.

Colorado archery deer harvest- Updated 2019

Number of archery deer hunters compared to harvest success

Find your resident archery mule deer draw odds here

Find your nonresident archery mule deer draw odds here


Early rifle

There are currently 29 units in Colorado with early rifle seasons. This is a truly unique experience that is sort of similar to Wyoming and their September rifle hunt. Several early rifle units can be drawn with very few points, but overall, this season is still harder to draw than archery or muzzleloader. Although the season dates are early and bucks should be the alpine, the trend is some of the high country units during this season aren't what they used to be, especially due to the season dates getting pushed a little later in September. You are also competing with the pressure from archery hunters and for a few days, you are also competing with muzzleloader hunters as well.

Early rifle historical and potential future season dates

(2020-2026 dates are based on previous season trends, are tentative, and still need to be approved by CPW)

Year Open Close
2015 Sept. 12 Sept. 20
2016 Sept. 10 Sept. 18
2017 Sept. 9 Sept. 17
2018 Sept. 8 Sept. 16
2019 Sept. 7 Sept. 15
2020 Sept. 12 Sept. 20
2021 Sept. 11 Sept. 19
2022 Sept. 10 Sept. 18
2023 Sept. 9 Sept. 17
2024 Sept. 7 Sept. 15
2025 Sept. 6 Sept. 14
2026 Sept. 12 Sept. 20

Notes:
  • Seasons highlighted in orange are the potential best season dates.
  • The 2018 season was included to show how the rotating season structure works.
  • There are two different early season rifle dates in some units.
  • Future dates are slightly tentative and could change after Colorado's next season structure proposal meeting in July of 2019 which deals with setting the season dates for 2020-2024.

Early rifle deer units sorted by number of bucks taken - 2018 numbers

This season can be a great option to hunt bucks that are still in their summer range. Review the topography, vegetation and Draw Odds to see if one of these hunts is right for you. When it comes down to it… hunting the alpine in Colorado with a rifle can lead to breathtaking scenery and a very memorable hunt. Be in shape and be prepared to spend a fair amount of points to draw some of these seasons.

Colorado early rifle deer harvest- Updated 2019

Number of early rifle deer hunters compared to harvest success

Find your resident early rifle mule deer draw odds here

Find your nonresident early rifle mule deer draw odds here


Muzzleloader

Similar to archery, during the muzzleloader season, you will typically see bucks up in the alpine.

The muzzleloader deer season typically opens during the second week of September and runs nine days. Note: This season does overlap with the archery season, so you could see an increase in the number of hunters in the field. Bucks are still in their summer patterns and this can be a great time to harvest a great mule deer buck.

Muzzleloader historical and potential future season dates

(2020-2026 dates are based on previous season trends, are tentative, and still need to be approved by CPW)

Year Open Close
2012 Sept. 8 Sept. 16
2013 Sept. 14 Sept. 22
2014 Sept. 13 Sept. 21
2015 Sept. 12 Sept. 20
2016 Sept. 10 Sept. 18
2017 Sept. 9 Sept. 17
2018 Sept. 8 Sept. 16
2019 Sept. 14 Sept. 22
2020 Sept. 12 Sept. 20
2021 Sept. 11 Sept. 19
2022 Sept. 10 Sept. 18
2023 Sept. 9 Sept. 17
2024 Sept. 14 Sept. 22
2025 Sept. 13 Sept. 21
2026 Sept. 12 Sept. 20

Notes:
  • Seasons highlighted in orange are the potential best season dates.
  • The 2018 season was included to show how the rotating season structure works.
  • Future dates are slightly tentative and could change after Colorado's next season structure proposal meeting in July of 2019 which deals with setting the season dates for 2020-2024.

Muzzleloader deer units sorted by number of bucks taken - 2018 numbers

The two disadvantages to the muzzleloader season in Colorado is the primitive weapon and potentially the unforgiving terrain. Colorado has strict limitations on their muzzleloaders. No pelletized powder, no saboted bullets, and no scopes will make for a fairly short-range weapon. Check out more information on muzzleloader regulations here and how to build a Colorado legal muzzleloader here. If you can get comfortable with shooting a muzzleloader that fits Colorado’s limitations, and you are mentally ready for the challenge, then the muzzleloader season is a great choice and can be drawn with far fewer points than a rifle season.

Plus, let’s be honest… getting a crack at a mule deer with a muzzleloader opens the doors to hunting more, and getting up in the alpine and hunting bucks in their summer patterns is something to witness. A win/win in my opinion!

Colorado muzzleloader deer harvest- Updated 2019

Number of muzzleloader deer hunters compared to harvest success

Find your resident muzzleloader mule deer draw odds here

Find your nonresident muzzleloader mule deer draw odds here

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Second season rifle

The second season rifle hunt… typically there is not a lot of love given to this season. A quick look at Draw Odds and you'll realize that this season can be drawn a lot more often with fewer points than a third or fourth season unit. Hunting a unit more often has its advantages in being able to learn the deer patterns and gives you more years to figure out the hidden pockets that hold bucks in a unit.

A second season hunt might also allow you to hunt a better unit with a higher buck:doe ratio much more often than waiting for a third season license. Hunting those units will give you a higher chance of actually finding a quality buck due to more bucks in the unit. While this all sounds ideal, do keep in mind that Colorado’s second season could have its challenges (but honestly, all seasons have little quirks to why they are challenging. More on that in the third and fourth season breakdown below).

Second season historical and potential future season dates

(2020-2026 dates are based on previous season trends, are tentative, and still need to be approved by CPW)

Year Open Close
2012 Oct. 20 Oct. 28
2013 Oct. 19 Oct. 27
2014 Oct. 18 Oct. 26
2015 Oct. 17 Oct. 25
2016 Oct. 22 Oct. 30
2017 Oct. 21 Oct. 29
2018 Oct. 20 Oct. 28
2019 Oct. 19 Oct. 27
2020 Oct. 17 Oct. 25
2021 Oct. 23 Oct. 31
2022 Oct. 22 Oct. 30
2023 Oct. 21 Oct. 29
2024 Oct. 19 Oct. 27
2025 Oct. 18 Oct. 26
2026 Oct. 17 Oct. 25

Notes:
  • Seasons highlighted in orange are the potential best season dates.
  • Future dates are slightly tentative and could change after Colorado's next season structure proposal meeting in July of 2019 which deals with setting the season dates for 2020-2024.
  • 2020 and 2026 dates were tough to predict as on historical records, I haven't seen second season dates go to Nov. 1, so most likely to continue with their trend of hunts and second season will most likely go from Oct. 17 to Oct. 25.

Second season rifle deer units sorted by number of bucks taken - 2018 numbers

Typically across the West, October is a tough time to locate mature mule deer bucks. They are transitioning out of the high alpine and into rut/winter range and are often solitary, spending the bulk of their time feeding and bedding in preparation for the rut. So depending on the unit, the second rifle season will usually have bucks hanging out in heavy timber and moving very little during daylight hours. Still, the second season can offer a good hunt for those willing to work at it. Hunting pressure can be very heavy.

This can be a difficult hunt if you have mild weather… but at the same time, mild weather might keep bucks in the highcountry longer, which could make for a hunt that is similar to an early rifle or muzzleloader tag. If you get a little weather on this hunt, this could lead to a phenomenal hunt as you then have the advantage of being able to glass up bucks bedded in the aspens.

Personally, this has been one of my favorite rifle seasons. During this season you will not have the bulk of mule deer transitioning to lower elevations quite yet. What this means is more mature bucks will still be on public land. During the later third and fourth seasons, you have the potential for weather to push deer to lower elevations (private land) and if does move lower, bucks will soon follow as the rut nears, which could make for unhuntable deer if they are on private.

Hunters that have time to scout and locate a buck before the season can do very well on this second rifle season, but with little overall movement during the day and no rut activity, hunters will definitely need to work hard to find bucks. Review trophy potentials, Draw Odds and harvest success percentages and you’ll see there are some sleepers in this category.

Colorado 2nd season deer harvest- Updated 2019

Number of second season rifle deer hunters compared to harvest success

Find your resident 2nd season rifle mule deer draw odds here

Find your nonresident 2nd season rifle mule deer draw odds here


Third season rifle

There’s always a lot of talk about third season rifle tags, and for good reason too. They typically have more tags offered for the third season than the fourth season and the nine-day season will help to avoid a total loss due to inclement weather.

Third season tags are valid the first week of November. The dates are good for buck activity, as bucks during this time should be showcasing pre-rut activity. Add cold weather mixed in with some snow and this can be a fantastic hunt! Those conditions you may even experience a full-on rut hunt. On the flip side… warm weather during this season can make for a difficult hunt as it can on most seasons. The trend as of late has been a warmer than normal third season, which is why fourth season hunts are normally preferred, but take a lot longer to draw.

Third season historical and potential future season dates

(2020-2026 dates are based on previous season trends, are tentative, and still need to be approved by CPW)

Year Open Close
2012 Nov. 3 Nov. 11
2013 Nov. 2 Nov. 10
2014 Nov. 1 Nov. 9
2015 Oct. 31 Nov. 8
2016 Nov. 5 Nov. 13
2017 Nov. 4 Nov. 12
2018 Nov. 3 Nov. 11
2019 Nov. 2 Nov. 10
2020 Oct. 31 Nov. 8
2021 Nov. 6 Nov. 14
2022 Nov. 5 Nov. 13
2023 Nov. 4 Nov. 12
2024 Nov. 2 Nov. 10
2025 Nov. 1 Nov. 9
2026 Oct. 31 Nov. 8

Notes:
  • Seasons highlighted in orange are the potential best season dates.
  • Future dates are slightly tentative and could change after Colorado's next season structure proposal meeting in July of 2019 which deals with setting the season dates for 2020-2024.

Third season rifle deer units sorted by number of bucks taken - 2018 numbers

Bucks are easier to locate during this season because, with colder weather and the hint of the rut in the air, bucks are on their feet and moving more during daylight. The biggest advantage to the third season over a fourth season is the nine-day season. If you do have inclement weather on a fourth season hunt, you could lose a lot of days to weather, whereas if this happens on a third season hunt, you still should days to recover. And the flipside, weather could change a lot in nine days, making for a chance for snow and cold weather during your hunt.

If you draw a third season tag and can only have limited time to hunt, your best bet for success will be the last part of the season. The last five days of the third season should have great action if the weather cooperates. By this time of year, many of the deer will have transitioned into mid to low elevations. There are often bucks that hang in the higher aspen range, but a lot are moving into more traditional pinyon, juniper and sage winter range.

A good chunk of the winter range in some of the easy to draw 3rd and 4th season hunts is private land or the public land that does exist, just isn't good deer habitat. Public land and access are worth considering before picking a hunt. Considerations should be made and public land should be looked at before jumping on some of the easy to draw units, just in case all the bucks are lower on private by the time your third season hunt shows up. Hunting pressure can be heavy.

Colorado 3rd season deer harvest- Updated 2019

Number of third season rifle deer hunters compared to harvest success

Find your resident 3rd season rifle mule deer draw odds here

Find your nonresident 3rd season rifle mule deer draw odds here


Fourth season rifle

The coveted fourth season tag is what most big buck hunters dream about in Colorado! The biggest advantage of the fourth rifle season is the dates. The rut should be going strong and by this time, the bigger bucks have moved out of the mountains and into areas where the does are concentrated. The key to this season is to find the does, and sooner or later you will find the bucks. As always, keep in mind that just because you have waited a long time to pull a fourth season tag, do not think that you will be covered up with 180 to 200" deer each day. Having a limited tag in a unit does allow there to be more mature bucks, but you still need to put your time in. To maximize your success, due to the limited hunting time, you will be much better off if you head to the unit several days before the season opens to do some scouting.

Fourth season historical and potential future season dates

(2020-2026 dates are based on previous season trends, are tentative, and still need to be approved by CPW)

Year Open Close
2012 Nov. 14 Nov. 18
2013 Nov. 13 Nov. 17
2014 Nov. 12 Nov. 16
2015 Nov. 11 Nov. 15
2016 Nov. 16 Nov. 20
2017 Nov. 15 Nov. 19
2018 Nov. 14 Nov. 18
2019 Nov. 13 Nov. 17
2020 Nov. 11 Nov. 15
2021 Nov. 17 Nov. 21
2022 Nov. 16 Nov. 20
2023 Nov. 15 Nov. 19
2024 Nov. 13 Nov. 17
2025 Nov. 12 Nov. 16
2026 Nov. 11 Nov. 15

Notes:
  • Seasons highlighted in orange are the potential best season dates.
  • Future dates are slightly tentative and could change after Colorado's next season structure proposal meeting in July of 2019 which deals with setting the season dates for 2020-2024.

Fourth season rifle deer units sorted by number of bucks taken - 2018 numbers

This is the only time of the year where a truly mature buck will let his defenses down in search of does. Bucks are often moving most of the day in search of does or have found a group of does and will be relatively close by.

The number of tags offered during the fourth rifle seasons is very low, so draw odds can be steep. This also means you'll have far less hunting pressure to deal with. Like mentioned in the 3rd season section, by this time of the year, a lot of the deer will be on rut/winter range and it’s worth looking at land access and ownership before embarking on a fourth season hunt. Even if a unit has a lot of public land, at this time of year it might not be great deer habitat and the deer will most likely be lower in elevation.

There is also a weather risk in drawing a fourth season tag. With the season only five days long, if you experience a severe storm front, it could make vehicle travel near impossible, and glassing visibility can be lost for days on end. So your already short season could be cut even shorter if a bad storm hits. But for the most part, the fourth season is typically some of the best odds at a buck of a lifetime, a quick look at the Boone & Crockett record book and you'll see a lot of bucks taken in November that meet the minimum scores, come from the 4th season timeline.

Colorado fourth season deer harvest- Updated 2019

Number of fourth season rifle deer hunters compared to harvest success

Find your resident 4th season rifle mule deer draw odds here

Find your nonresident 4th season rifle mule deer draw odds here


What about the plains?

The eastern plains can be a phenomenal hunt, but due to the vast amount of private land, it is off limits for the majority of us. But… an eastern plains hunt on a private ranch might give you the best odds to tip the scale at a true giant mule deer. Keep in mind that a plains hunt can be drawn on considerable fewer points too.


The possibility of hunting each year in Colorado

2nd choice tags

Don't forget about second choice tags. The only way that a second choice is even drawn is if that particular hunt choice had tags available after everybody’s first choices were considered. You’ll hear this as being an undersubscribed unit. Make sure that you look at our Draw Odds and find only hunt choices that have 100% second choice draw odds during prior years when you are looking for a second choice hunt.

Second choice tags and leftover tags can be a great way to get your self out in the field to sort of "scout" an area ahead of time to see if you'd be willing to burn points on that unit. For example, you might be able to pick up a leftover archery license which will not burn your points. You hunt that season one year and find out what the habitat is like at all of the elevations and the amount of deer you saw, and you may notice some areas in the unit that would make for a great muzzleloader or 2nd season hunt. The following year you could do the same thing in a different unit to essentially hunt/scout another unit for where you could burn your points on a later season tag. This is also a great strategy if you are sitting on a ton of points for an early rifle hunt. It might be greatly worth your effort to see if you can pick up a leftover archery tag or second choice tag. 

Another strategy you can consider to learn a unit is by picking up an elk tag and hunting elk one year. During that year while you are elk hunting, you will get a great idea of the terrain, access points, and hunter pressure. All of which you can utilize for a future mule deer hunt in that unit. A great way to scout/hunt before you burn your points on a unit.

Leftover and landowner options

Leftover licenses remaining after the initial and leftover drawing will be available on a first come, first served basis in person at a CPW office, by phone, or online at 9:00 a.m. Aug. 6, 2019. All returned licenses that take four or fewer preference points in the current year’s draw will be available for purchase the week after they are returned and processed. Reissued licenses will be available starting Aug. 13, 2019. That list will continue to release Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., as licenses are turned in until the end of the season. The reissued list is a decent way to pick up a license if you did not draw one and are looking for an opportunity to just go hunting.

If you buy a leftover license, your preference points are not used. If you buy a returned license, your points will not be used. In addition, Colorado also has a landowner tag program where you can buy a landowner tag and still retain your points. If you are strategic, you could obtain a permit to hunt in Colorado every year.

In summary

With all that said… what season is truly best for you? I feel the answer to that question still lies in your personal goals.

Colorado mule deer populations by unit - updated 2019

Colorado has the most diverse season structure of any state, offering archery, muzzleloader, early rifle, 2nd rifle, 3rd rifle, and 4th rifle, as well as several plains options. You have the ability to be backpacking in the alpine on an early season tag and if that isn't your cup of tea, you could look to draw a late season tag and be sitting in sagebrush and pinyon-juniper flats glassing up bucks during the early stages of the rut. Certain seasons and units are easier to draw than others, but if you want to hunt early with a bow or a gun, you can. If you want to hunt late season during the rut, you can. Colorado gives you the options and just about every one of them can offer you a good hunt.

Best of luck this season!

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