San Juan River Outfitters

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New Mexico Mule Deer

For lifelong hunters there is always a thrill in seeing a big bull elk raise his head in a high mountain meadow, a big boar bear crossing a creek, or a big gobbler strutting his stuff at a hidden little pocket of water. There is, however, for some reason, nothing that compares to the jump in your gut you get when a big mule deer buck steps into the light on the edge of that big sage flat. There is something about that image that speaks to most of us in a way more ancient and basic. I suppose it goes back to our hunting ancestry and eons of associating that image with the ultimate in success.

Mule Deer in New Mexico
  New Mexico Trophy Mule deer

Rarity is a factor as well. While we have seen elk hunting stay good or improve in many states, sadly mule deer hunting opportunity has declined and in many western states. New Mexico has not been immune in the struggle to maintain mule deer populations and hunt quality. There are as many reasons as there are coffee drinkers as to why mule deer populations have declined. Habitat destruction, drought, lack of predator control, and over-hunting are among many reasons given. Suffice it to say that your odds of even seeing, much less drawing a tag and killing a trophy mule deer buck have become very slim across the west. A big muley remains one of the most elusive of North American trophies.


Luckily this trend has been addressed very thoughtfully by many wildlife managers and game scientists. With the reliable help of Mother Nature they have had some great successes in seeing a resurgence of populations and the reappearance of some of the big old wide, heavy horned bucks of our father’s days. This is far from universal across the west or even in New Mexico. Many of our hunt units remain in decline and offer little in the way of a quality deer hunt. 

We at San Juan River Outfitters are blessed to live and hunt in one of the few areas which has reversed this trend. Our headquarters and home is in the northwest corner of New Mexico, in the area known as the “Four Corners” This is where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado all come together in a common point. These are legendary mule deer states and our little corner of New Mexico plays a big part in that legend. Wherever trophy mule deer hunters gather, talk will eventually turn to the storied canyons of Rio Arriba and San Juan Counties. You will find the record books well represented, if not dominated, by bucks taken here over the years. This is New Mexico Game Management Unit 2.


2004 mule deer
Unit 2 is a uniquely placed environ with several factors which contribute to it's excellence as mule deer habitat. We are situated at the base of the Rocky Mountains, which soar to 14,000 feet just north of us. Our area is defined by three large river systems which flow from the snow capped peaks of the Rockies through our area and eventually drain into the Colorado River and on through Grand Canyon to the sea. Our terrain was created by these rivers and their associated drainages as eons of erosion cut through the soft sandstone and left deep, multi- stepped canyons with broad sage flats in the bottoms and on the benches. Our vegetation is predominately pinon / juniper ("PJ") treed areas interspersed with open brushy flats of sage, grasses and varied browse. Our elevation is considerably lower than the mountains to the north. Average elevations in the unit are 5000-6000 ft. Snowfall is minimal compared to habitat even a few miles noth. Mule deer love it. The rugged PJ bench country provides the cover they need with an abundant, nutritious food source at their feet. The main river systems flow year round and add great bottomland habitat and water sources to the mix. Winters are relatively mild and deer are not subjected to deep snows and winter kill. This is, and has been, their home for centuries.
Many mule deer in Unit 2 have a semi-nomadic lifestyle as many of them will drift north into Colorado in late spring. As snow melts off the high peaks deer will seek out the cooler alpine areas on the mountain even as high as the crags above timberline. Many stay in our area and browse the thick, rich river bottoms and tuck away into the shady high cliffs of the canyon country. As soon as snows fly in the high country our deer come home. They come home to rut, to feed, and to grow another little muley.


Mature mule deer bucks are a very reclusive nocturnal creature. For most of the year they are lounging away in the thickest darkest cover available and come out only after dark to feed and water. You'll not likely see them. Hunting success on a big muley in Unit 2 is deeply tied to the rut and and the return of the migratory deer. Normally early snows in Colorado occur around the end of October and trigger southward deer movement to their wintering areas in the sage country. The rut begins in early / mid November. As deer populations rise with the returning herds, the rut starts to engage as well. Then is when the bucks start to venture out a little and you start to see these phantoms. Large herds of does meander the flats and soon there is a war on for their affections. Smaller bucks will optimistically squire the does around as their estrus approaches and then are promptly booted off the prize as she comes into heat. There is no shortage of bigger badder bucks to spoil the dance.  

The various hunt dates in Unit 2 start in late October and extend past mid November. The hunts which are deeper into November are the most prized, and the most successful because you're deeper into the rut and the migration. Our recommendations for your application strategies reflect this.

Thank you for your interest in a mule deer hunt here in New Mexico and call me anytime if you have questions. Also stay in touch as we develop our Old Mexico, State of Sonora, mule deer and Coues deer program. We are into an exciting new venture as we move south to hunt some of the big, wide, monster desert muleys of Sonora and their Coues deer cousins.
San Juan River Outfitters and Livery Co.
 John Jaquez
San Juan River Outfitters and Livery Co.
#200 Rd. 4599
Blanco,NM 87412
575-621-6158 (mobile)