Photo courtesy of David Sylvester.
Some hunters will swear there are no deer left in Southern California. They’ve either quit hunting the D Zones or pray to get drawn for a Northern California X-Zone hunt.
Then there are those who put in for out-of-state, high-dollar hunts that are equally hard to get.
But there’s a third group.
These guys hang in there and put in for a D-Zone tag each year. They sometimes harvest bigger bucks within an hour’s drive of their suburban homes than the other hunters do on the other side of the state or in the Rocky Mountains.
How do they do it?
It takes a combination of skills and knowledge, plus sheer doggedness to hunt this tough country.
It’s tough because there are a lot of problems to deal with: ever-encroaching housing developments; increasing numbers of motorcycles and quads that roar through deer country every weekend; and the almost endless stream of mountain bikes, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts who head to the local mountains and desert on weekends.
Add to that the unforgiving nature of the habitat itself, and you have some very difficult hunting.
While deer get pushed around by all these intruders, it doesn’t mean hunters have to seek the far-off reaches of wilderness areas. That can work, but hunters who seek out the tiniest pockets of habitat kill some of the best bucks taken in Southern California.
One hunter that has learned to do just that is Chad Gierlach. This archer has taken several D-Zone giants in the Los Angeles. He took a 143-inch buck in the mountains of D11, and a 136-incher in D15.
These are big deer, and when you consider that Southern California’s coastal mule deer is smaller than its Rocky Mountain counterpart, the numbers are impressive.
Gierlach uses his gear to his advantage by avoiding rifle hunters.
“I’ve moved down out of the higher forest and into the foothills, and often quite near the suburbs,” he said. “You have to find spots where you aren’t trespassing on private land, and where shooting a firearm is either illegal or impractical.”
There are a number of such spots along what is known as the front of the San Gabriel Mountains, just above the foothill communities of Altadena east to San Antonio Heights. This is in the D11 Zone, and there are places like this in other zones where local regulations have restricted the use of firearms. Some have early archery seasons, while others have special archery hunts that go till the end of the year.
A bowhunter with a simple archery-only tag may hunt during the rifle season, and if you are able to hunt in an area where firearms are not permitted, you have a long season.
Gierlach also uses tree stands whenever he can. He picks his locations after reviewing images from several trail cams.
“I use a lot of trail cameras to show me where the deer are,” Gierlach said. “Two months before the season starts, I have a minimum of five cameras in position.”
By the season opener, he has between eight and 10 different spots he could hunt. They run from D15 to D11 in different terrain and setups for various conditions.
“Things change,” Gierlach said.
In one D11 spot, Gierlach would usually see at least three bucks under his tree stand. But last year, he didn’t see a single deer for days. That’s why he has other options ready to go.
Gierlach won’t shoot bucks under 120 inches. Last year, he missed what would have been his biggest buck, a nearly 150-inch deer.
If you plan on using a stand, Gierlach said get settled in by first light. Or climb in at midday and stay till after dark.
Mountain bikers and hikers can be a problem: They are often noisy and can spook deer. But these humans usually are not active during the ideal hunting hours of early morning and late evening.
Motorcycles, quad-runners, and other OHVs are more of a problem if you are hunting close to trails big enough to support them. Get away from the traffic, and try to find small, undisturbed water sources for deer.
Gierlach also regularly reaches for deer calls when hunting Southern California. A doe bleat, buck snort-wheeze or a rattle bag all work well.
If you think your buck is trolling for a doe, use the doe bleat. The snort-wheeze and the rattle bag work best near the rut.
Another hunter who has scored well in the D Zones is David Sylvester. He also hunts the San Bernardino National Forest in little pockets of heavy cover in tough-to-hunt parcels.
Last fall, he shot an excellent buck while hunting in a canyon that looks out over a major freeway. He figures the biggest deer are in the country that is so steep and rugged that it’s inaccessible to motorized vehicles, and few hunters even bother with it. The uglier the terrain, and the harder it is to get into, the better your chances are of connecting with a trophy buck.
In an interview with outdoor writer Jim Matthews for a newspaper column, Sylvester said that he wanted to shoot a big buck, but it was getting near the end of the D14 season.
After nine years of hunting the D14 Zone in the San Bernardino Mountains, Sylvester knows what a local trophy buck looks like. He finally managed to shoot a real trophy on the last weekend of the 2008 season: a 4×3 with good antler mass and a 23-inch spread. For the California mule deer subspecies, this is a whopper — even with crab claw forks.
The vast stretches of Riverside and San Bernardino counties — each larger than some foreign nations — plus the mountain regions that cluster around the Los Angeles Basin and the highly urbanized portion of San Diego County are broken down into eight hunting zones. All of them are mostly desert except for the coastal mountain ranges, and even there the climate is
dry and warm much of the season.
The two biggest are D17, which covers most of San Bernardino County, and D12, a sprawling zone that includes nearly all of Riverside County, plus the eastern half of Imperial County. These are the most desert-filled of all the D Zones.
- D13 covers a portion of Kern and Ventura counties.
- D11, for all practical purposes, is the Angeles National Forest.
- D14 is likewise mostly the San Bernardino National Forest.
- D19 includes portions of eastern Riverside County, northern San Diego County and some of the northwest corner of Imperial County.
- D16 includes the bulk of San Diego County.
- D15 is set around coastal and highly suburban Orange County.
Seasons in most of the D Zones are roughly similar: an archery season runs in September, and general method (rifle) hunts from early October to as late as Thanksgiving.
There are also a number of special hunts from formerly called Junior Hunts, now called Apprentice Hunts in 2009, Either-Sex Muzzleloading Hunts, and Either-Sex archery hunts.
Check this year’s California Big Game Hunting Digest, either by picking one up at a local sporting goods dealer, ordering it from the DFG, or viewing it online at www.dfg.ca.org.
A deer tag issued for zones D11, D13 and D15 is legal in any of these zones, creating a sort of super zone.