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Montana general season mule deer — narrowing down your choices

 


Photo credit: Shutterstock

The Montana general deer combination license has been increasing in popularity over the past few years, and for a good reason. While the state isn’t known for producing numbers of giant bucks, it does provide great hunting opportunities with good deer numbers, respectable bucks, and loads of public land to chase them on. The general deer license allows hunters to hunt on any of the general units, which cover roughly 85% of the state from the eastern to the western border. Loads of opportunity are available with a very diverse range of terrain types, a fact that can make narrowing down an area to hunt even harder.

In the following article, we are going to dive into populations around the state, hunting conditions in each of the seven regions, and some of my favorite things to consider when looking at hunting districts.


Current mule deer numbers across the state

 

Montana is comprised of seven administrative regions for management. A great way to begin breaking down our research is to start with the population levels in each of these regions.

Montana mule deer population status by region

Region Population
estimate
% change
from 2020
1 6,055 -13%
2 9,551 -5%
3 43,025 +10%
4 58,082 -4%
5 32,103 -1%
6 67,994 +5%
7 77,140 -32%
State Total 293,950 -10%

Region 1

Region 1, in particular, has been really struggling in recent years. Predation continues to be a large issue here, and that, coupled with the heavy vegetation and extreme terrain, leads to some very tough hunting conditions. Some exceptional bucks have been taken here over the years; however, hunters should expect a hunt with very few deer sightings and low odds of success.

Region 2

Region 2 is still providing some good hunting opportunities for mule deer, although the densities and average age of bucks are low. Two of the best hunt districts in the state (261 and 270) are found here, but the hunting conditions there are vastly different than what is found in surrounding units. Hunters can expect to see a decent amount of deer here; however, targeting mature bucks could lead to several seasons worth of eaten tags.

Region 3

Region 3 is a great option to consider for your next deer hunt. Bigger bucks can still be found with more consistency in other portions of the state, and adding a combo hunt for elk in this area can make for a great trip. During periods of heavy snow, some great migrations will occur in this area and hunting near the dates of the rut can be an exciting time.

Region 4

Region 4 features a wide array of terrain, from wide-open sage flats to rugged mountains. Additionally, portions of the famous Missouri River Breaks are located within the region. Large private ranches are more prevalent here and continually produce some incredible deer. Escaping pressure can be slightly more difficult here; however, unconventional tactics can put hunters in some great and mostly untouched areas. This would be an excellent unit to consider for your deer hunt.

Region 5

Region 5 produces good numbers of deer, although most of the larger bucks will be taken on private lands. The southern end of the region features a greater distribution of public land that can also become very rugged. Game densities are generally lower in the rugged country, but some great bucks have been taken in these areas.

Region 6

Region 6 is an area that will see large amounts of hunters heading into the famous Missouri River Breaks, although some incredible hunting can also be found in the surrounding districts. Private lands dominate much of this area though sections of BLM and Block Management land can provide hunters with great opportunities to escape the crowds and search for pockets of unpressured deer. The terrain here is mostly comprised of rolling hills with pockets of heavy timber and sage-covered coulees. Glassing is king in this country, and optics will play a pivotal role in success for anyone hunting here.

Region 7

One of the most popular regions for mule deer as it possesses the highest population of deer, this area will experience lots of pressure from other hunters. Pay close attention to sections of public land within the sea of private ranches; this can provide hunters with great opportunities to find mature deer. For hunters only looking to pursue deer, this would be an excellent option.


Honing in on your district

Once you’ve started to get an idea of the type of terrain in the part of the state you want to hunt, it is time to start deep-diving into the individual hunting districts (HDs) and their respective terrains. Filtering 2.0 and GOHUNT Maps are key for my research at this point. Filtering 2.0 will be my first stop as this will help me first identify a handful of hunt districts that pique my interest. From there, I jump into GOHUNT Maps and really begin to dig into each individual HD and see which ones start really grabbing my attention.

Starting with Filtering 2.0

The first thing I’m going to do is head over to Filtering 2.0 and jump on Montana Mule Deer, General. Filtering 2.0 will display all of the districts with general license opportunities on the map. Then, I jump into the various filters and start breaking the map down. If I have a particular region in mind, I’ll focus on that area initially; however, going into Filtering 2.0 with an open mind can lead to unexpected hunts, too.

Jump to Montana general mule deer Filtering 2.0 here

Filtering option in Filtering 2.0

Filter Notes
Trophy Potential Trophy potential can be a good gauge for districts in general. Mature bucks can be found in nearly every region,
but some are definitely more consistent than others. 
Seasons/Dates In this area, we can filter the map down by specific date ranges or season types. For the most part, any general rifle season district
will be open to general archery seasons, but there are some exceptions.
Public Land This is my favorite filter by far. The public land percentage filter lets me know how much of a given district will be accessible to me
Animals Harvested Another filter that I like to use is the Animals Harvested. This allows me to filter units based on those with the most bucks killed,
and those with the least. This allows me to avoid units with lots of hunters and also the ones with no deer.

A quick note on the Animals Harvested filter

In Montana, we use Animals Harvested as a data point in place of Harvest Success. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MT FWP) has an odd way of collecting and presenting harvest data and, unfortunately, does not provide the correct data to accurately provide harvest success rates by weapon, species, or tag. Because of this, we opted to display animals harvested instead. Animals harvested will include bucks killed with all weapon types and on all tag options.

Bucks 4 point+

This data point is not filterable in Filtering 2.0, but is another one I like to look at. The Bucks 4 point+ data point is the number of bucks killed in that district that had 4 points or more on one antler. Obviously, a higher percentage of this lets me know that the area could hold a higher density of mature bucks.


My top considerations when looking at units and e-scouting

Once I’ve got my list of target districts filtered down, I like to jump over to GOHUNT Maps and start analyzing each area more in-depth. While on the map, I am looking for terrain features, roadless country, roads, trails, etc. There are many terrain types available in Montana, and there is a hunting opportunity available for anyone with a tag. Regardless of where you are hunting in the state, there are a few things I learned over the years that have really helped me escape people and find deer in Montana. 

Jump over to GOHUNT Maps here to start e-scouting

Habitat

This is likely the most important, most obvious, and most overlooked aspect for hunting areas. People need all of the basic necessities; Water, food, and shelter. These three needs can be met in a number of ways and can leave deer scattered across a mountain or prairie. The first thing I like to do when looking at potential areas is to start with where I feel I can most effectviely hunt. In western Montana, the vegetation and timber can be very thick, and glassing can be near impossible. When hunting these areas, I like to first focus on the locations that have some glassable east-facing slopes. Once I’ve marked these slopes, I can then start analyzing them for having the three deer necessities - water, food, and shelter.

With more open country, glassing conditions are generally not a concern so I’ll start focsuing on the necessities a little more. Deer still need to be in close proximity to water sources, but food and bedding options are more common.

Maintained trails

Maintained trails can be a great way to quickly access some of the backcountry areas. Yet, these areas will also attract other hunters and those with livestock. I will utilize trails from time to time; however, if my true destination includes a trail in the immediate area, I’ll cross it off the list. Instead, consider basins you have to hike from the trail to reach, and you will find yourself with far less competition.

Roads

Again, this is another no-brainer, but locating areas with less road activity will increase the likelihood of finding mature mule deer bucks. The average hunter in Montana will generally not venture much more than a mile or mile and a half from a road — even less, if the going is tough. Western Montana is full of closed logging and mining roads; these can be excellent options for accessing deep basins but will also draw some attention. In my experience, most hunters utilizing these closed roads will simply walk the roads and glass. Getting off the road and into new glassing positions can make all the difference.

Ease of access

This is perhaps my biggest piece of advice. Don’t immediately look for the deepest and nastiest terrain you can find. There is nothing wrong with that, but hunters will often walk past deer to find deer. Some of my better spots in Montana were close to roads but required some effort to get into. Sometimes, even a square mile of good habitat that is unpressured will hold some incredible hunting action. Looking for areas where a massive climb is needed from the truck, which will weed out nearly all other competition. My mantra has always been, “If it looks terrible to hike into, then there is a high chance of finding deer there.” A lot of people like to hunt in the backcountry, but there is a definitive zone between the road hunters and the hardcore guys where good deer will live and die every year.

Be sure to check out these other great articles on e-scouting and finding mule deer:


Final thoughts

In my opinion, Montana boasts some of the best deer hunting in the west. Bigger deer can certainly be found, and with more consistency, in other states, but when it comes to quality of the hunt, deer seen each day, and the overall quality of animals, it’s tough to beat Montana. Good hunting conditions can be found throughout the entire state, along with different hunting experiences. Some are certainly better than others but don’t over-stress the need for the best district. Find a terrain type that speaks to you, the unit that has the data that attracts you, and e-scout your tail off until the season arrives. Good hunting will be found throughout, and there are a lot of adventures to be had.

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