Well folks, here we go again. California’s deer seasons are upon us, and with opening day comes daydreams of monster bucks lurking behind every bush.
In reality, most of the bucks California deer hunters tie their tags to are average deer no one writes home about. There’s nothing wrong with that. Most of the state’s deer habitat isn’t easy to hunt. Actual deer sightings can be few and far between. After several fruitless days, most of us are happy to see any legal bucks at all. In fact, during the general seasons, the annual statewide take of forked-horn bucks hovers right around 50 percent.
Truth be known, a lot of the trophy bucks we hear about are the result of chance encounters. However, there are always exceptions to the rule. Even in this state, some hunters are willing to go the extra mile and hold out for better-than-average bucks, which they may or may not find.
Their dedication is admirable, but those of us who are in the majority — meaning not especially picky deer hunters — also have a chance to score big once in awhile. Even yours truly has taken a few bigger-than-average bucks in the state, including a trio of the biggest bodied mule deer I’ve ever killed anywhere. Two of them came from the northern X zones, and one was killed in the eastern Sierra Nevada Range before the X zones were even thought of by the California Department of Fish and Game.
One of the bucks — a heavy antlered 4×4 I found in Zone X1 a few years ago — was in an area where I used to spend many days photographing deer each fall. In effect, I suppose you could say I was scouting in advance. Anyway, after a long, unproductive day in an unfamiliar location, I headed for one of my favorite haunts for photographs, a place that always seemed to have a few deer.
It was early evening when I jumped the big buck on a timbered hillside and got off a single off-hand shot with my .270 Winchester Model 70. The buck dropped in its tracks. Then the work really began. Even after field-dressing the animal, I could barely drag him through the brush whole, so I cut him in two and packed the halves individually to my pickup. As I recall, I was smiling all the way home.
Probably the best big-buck opportunities in California occur in the X zones and in some of the additional late buck hunts for general firearms, archery and black powder. The only drawback is the small number of tags available for most premium hunts (and the years it might take to draw one). Also, while the percentage of 4×4 and larger bucks may be close to 50 percent for some of these hunts, the actual take may be quite small. For example, in hunt G37 (Anderson Flat Buck) 44 percent of the bucks taken in 2009 were 4x4s, but that’s just seven out of a grand total of 16 bucks.
As usual, nine of the 17 X zones in 2009 were among the highest producers of 4×4 bucks when it comes down to the rate of hunter success:
- X2, 35 percent
- X3a, 31 percent
- X5a, 39 percent
- X5b, 29 percent
- X6a, 29 percent
- X6b, 29 percent
- X9c, 24 percent
- X10, 26 percent
- X12, 28 percent
Even more 4x4s were taken in most of the state’s other general season deer zones, but the percentage was quite small when compared to the overall harvest in those zones. For example, nearly 100 bucks in the 4×4 class were taken in the six B zones, but that isn’t many when stacked up against the estimated total take of the B zones — about 4,900 bucks.
One thing about listing bucks by antler points, as DFG does in its annual reports, is that a simple point count usually doesn’t tell you much about the size of a particular animal or its age. A lot of things contribute to antler growth including genetics, quality of feed in a given year and longevity of life.
Habitat, and the particular buck’s nature, are also involved. For whatever reason, some bucks develop furtive habits that practically guarantee their survival through several hunting seasons. They’re the kind that magically show up during the rut after the hunting season is closed, leaving you to wonder where the heck they were when you had a rifle in your hands.
As one state deer biologist told me, “It’s always fun to see a lot of deer, but it may be to your advantage to ignore the places with the most does and fawns. Instead, concentrate on those remote spots where a buck might go to live a solitary existence, and escape most of the hunting pressure.”
Among the Western states, California is somewhat unique when it comes to the deer that reside here. DFG recognizes six subspecies of mule deer: Rocky Mountain mule deer, Inyo mule deer, southern mule deer, California mule deer, burro mule deer and Columbia black-tailed deer. Despite some minor differences, the Boone and Crockett Club puts all of California’s mule deer, with the exception of Columbia blacktails, into the same typical and non-typical listings as Rocky Mountain mule deer from throughout the Western states.
Ironically, Rocky Mountain mule deer — the largest subspecies — reside only along the eastern edge of California, from Mono County north to the Oregon border. Some tremendous bucks roam that region, which is blanketed by X zones, but only a few meet record-book standards. In fact, California has placed only four non-typical mule deer in the Boone and Crockett all time records, and just one in the typical category.
Meanwhile, true blacktails range throughout the northwestern part of the state, and there are a lot of them. To be entered in the Boone and Crockett or Pope and Young records, blacktails must come from within a region designated by B&C. In the blacktail department, the Golden State, with literally hundreds of entries, far outshines Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
Because tags for the X zones, where Rocky Mountain mule deer reside, are impossible to get on a regular basis, and because the rest of the state’s mule deer subspecies are generally smaller in stature, blacktail hunters obviously have the best chance to harvest a record-book buck. Lord knows, the chances of getting an animal like that are never better than poor, but two members of my family have killed B&C bucks on public land, proving it isn’t impossible. Both my son Mark and son-in-law Robert Feamster, have also taken P&Y-class bucks with their bows, but they have yet to register them.
Just for fun, let’s rehash a few success stories from the 2009 season, beginning with the 4×4 blacktail my son Mark got with his bow last fall.
Pages: 1 2