When Sublette County is mentioned, hunters’ minds immediately go to world-class mule deer and pronghorn herds.
The Wyoming Range mule deer herd is the stuff of legend. The superior genetics of that and some neighboring deer herds have produced such legendary bucks as Popeye, Morty and Goliath, and more recently a big bruiser known as The King.
But the 2023 hunting season won’t be the best time to go looking for Sublette County monster muleys or trophy pronghorns.
Both species were hammered during this past winter and froze or starved to death by the thousands, leaving severely limited pickings for hunters as fall arrives.
“This past winter created some remarkably challenging conditions, particularly for pronghorn and mule deer. Not only in terms of hunting licenses being cut but, to be blunt, in terms of hunters’ interest in even applying for pronghorn and deer licenses,” county resident and avid hunter Paul Ulrich told Cowboy State Daily.
Elk Are Still Plentiful
But that’s no reason for hunters to give up on the county this fall, he said.
“Elk hunting in Sublette County should be fantastic, in both the Wind River Range and the Wyoming Range mountains,” he said.
Cooler weather can push elk to start filtering down from the high country and into the foothills, which border either side of a vast “sagebrush sea” in Sublette County, Ulrich said.
What’s more, many of the elk hunt areas in the county are for general tags rather than draw tags.
General elk hunting tags can be bought over the counter at any time. Draw tags must be applied for months in advance, and there’s no guarantee that hunters will draw the tags they apply for.
County resident and outdoorsman Mike Schmid agreed that elk hunting in Sublette County can be some of the best that Wyoming has to offer.
“Sublette County is home to incredible elk herds. It is also home to the majority of our state-run elk feed grounds,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “Elk can be found virtually everywhere in the county from the magnificently rugged Wind Rivers, the older and more mellow ranges such as the Wyoming range and Gros Ventre to the high deserts in the southern part of the county.”
Tags for animals classified by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department as trophy species — such as moose and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep — are harder to come by. Hunters might have to apply for years on end before drawing a tag. Those hunts are usually a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
For hunters tenacious and lucky enough to draw a tag, Sublette County offers moose and bighorn sheep hunting, Schmid said. The bighorn sheep might be sparse this year.
“In the trophy game arena, we have bighorn sheep habitat where the famed Whiskey Mountain herd spends more than half the year,” he said. “The other part of the year, the herd spends its time in the place where it gets is name — on Whiskey Mountain on the Dubois side of the Wind River Range. This herd winters there.
“The Whiskey Mountain herd is what I called the ‘hatchery’ for bighorn sheep translocations nationwide. The herd is struggling with pneumonia outbreaks and the population is at its lowest in decades.”
Mega-sized bull moose lumber about parts of Sublette County, Schmid said.
“Sublette county is also home to a high population of moose and some of the most sought-after hunting units in the state. Our moose numbers statewide are down considerably over historical numbers for reasons yet to be determined, but Sublette County still produces magnificent trophy-class bulls each year,” he said.
Don’t Forget Bird Hunting
While the county is primarily known for its big game opportunities, upland bird hunting in Sublette County should not be overlooked, Ulrich said.
Out on the seemingly endless sagebrush steppes, sage grouse are the primary species bird hunters and their dogs can go after.
“For those who enjoy sage grouse hunting, it should be a productive season,” Ulrich said.
And if the plump “sage chickens” aren’t cooperating, bird hunters can take to the foothills and mountains after ruffed grouse and blue grouse.
Combination bird and big game hunts can be fantastic in Sublette county’s high country, Ulrich said.
“What I’ve found is a lot of fun is, during long walks when I’m out elk hunting – if I’m feeling strong – I can carry a small .410 shotgun in addition to my rifle in case I run into blue grouse or ruffed grouse,” he said. “They’re delicious, and they occupy much of the same territory that elk do.”
And Waterfowl Too
Another hidden gem is Sublette County’s duck and goose hunting, Ulrich said.
“Although I’m not a waterfowl hunter myself, from what I’m hearing, this fall should be pretty solid for duck and goose hunting,” he said.
During cooler fall weather, but before the full force of the winter freeze hits, Sublette County rivers can draw significant numbers of waterfowl, he said.
Some folks even like to combine waterfowl hunting with fishing, Ulrich added.
“Some of our river guides offer ‘cast and blast’ excursions during the fall,” he said.
‘We’ve Got It All’
So, despite traditional mule deer and antelope hunts being mostly off the table this fall, Ulrich said he and other hunters will be far from bored as they take to the varied topography of Sublette County in pursuit of other favored game species.
“In Sublette County, even in challenging years, you can pivot to something else,” he said. “You can pivot to elk hunting, or bird hunting, and even fishing. We’ve got it all.”
Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.