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California Hunting Mule Deer & Blacktail

Hunting B-Zone Blacktails

September 29th, 2010 1

Covering roughly one-eighth of California’s geography, these six northwest deer hunting zones are home to one of the West Coast’s most renowned blacktail herds.

By Cal Kellogg

I was soaked to the skin and shivering when I finally reached the clump of gnarled pines that marked my campsite. Great gusts of wind roaring across the ridge and the swirling fog in the valley below transformed the once familiar canyon into a sinister and foreboding place.

Three hours and 2,500 feet earlier, I’d left the trailhead filled with anticipation, despite a constant drizzle falling from the sky. Now, no more than 15 minutes before dark, with an inch of snow on the ground and more falling, I started to second-guess the wisdom of packing into the backcountry on a Thursday afternoon. But it was too late to turn back.

I shed my pack to turn my attention to setting up the tent. If I didn’t get warm and dry soon I would be in trouble.

An hour later, burrowed deeply in my sleeping bag and sipping tea in the luminescent glow of a light stick, a good deal of my confidence had returned. There was reason for my optimism.

Weeks earlier during the archery season I’d seen several good bucks in the basins surrounding the area where my camp now sat. Experience told me that the first snow of fall would put these high-country bucks on the move. Tomorrow promised to be a great day!

The next morning I crawled from the tent and was greeted by a crimson patchwork of low, broken clouds in the eastern sky. During the night the snow had turned to rain and as a result everything was covered with a couple inches of slush. If somewhat slippery, conditions were good for still-hunting.


Photo by Jay Gates

Shouldering my pack, I slowly began working my way west toward the head of a big canyon that overlooked my camp. I hadn’t gone 100 yards before I crossed a set of fresh deer tracks. Wanting a better view of the hillside below and to avoid silhouetting myself, I edged several yards downhill.

Presently I spotted five deer standing in an opening more than 400 yards away. Even before raising the binoculars I could see that two of the deer were shooters sporting heavy antlers. Unfortunately, the bucks were out of my range. After I had watched for a minute or two, the deer simply melted into the canyon. They wouldn’t be the last I would see.

Moving up the canyon, the action was turned hot as deer filtered out of the dark timber. Within an hour I’d seen 34 deer, including six legal bucks. However, for a variety of reasons I’d yet to fire a shot. That was about to change!

I spotted a slate-gray deer as I approached the head of the canyon. It was standing at the top of a gully about 300 yards away. At first I thought the deer was a doe, but my binoculars revealed tall mahogany antlers. Flopping into a sitting position with my rifle rested across my pack, I eyed the buck through the scope. The buck stood statue-still, quartering in my direction. I put the crosshairs behind the near shoulder and pressed the trigger.

The 7mm bellowed, and I heard the bullet slap flesh. The buck humped up and staggered for the timber. Quickly working the bolt, I fired again at the front shoulder and the buck crumbled. It took 15 minutes of aggressive hiking to negotiate the gully and reach the buck.

As I sat there at 7,500 feet admiring the high curving forks of my first B zone buck, I couldn’t have been happier. I had a memory that would last forever and some winter venison to boot!

THE B ZONES

Known by names such as the Killer Bs, the Big Green Zone, or Deer Assessment Unit 3, the northwestern portion of California that encompasses zones B-1 through B-6 represents some of the finest blacktail country on the West Coast.

These zones take in a huge geographic area that boasts ample public land. The Six Rivers, Klamath, Shasta-Trinity, Mendocino and Rouge River national forests are all represented within the six B zones. In addition, four prominent wilderness areas are in this region. From the north these are: the Marble Mountains, Trinity Alps, Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel and Snow Mountain wilderness areas. Together these federal areas offer nearly 1 million acres of rugged roadless wilderness in the heart of the Golden State’s best blacktail country.

For years I lived under the false impression that to have a topnotch public-land deer hunt in California I had to draw one of the state’s coveted X-zone tags. To be sure, the hunting in the X zones can be outstanding. The problem was that I seldom drew a tag. During the middle ’80s, taxidermist and family friend Harley Albers began hunting in the Yolla Bolly Wilderness. It was his success and his stories of big bucks and black bears that first stirred my interest in the B zones.

When I finally began archery hunting the Bs, I could scarcely believe the bucks I encountered. The first morning I hunted there I glassed four bucks that I thought would qualify for the Pope and Young Club records. I quickly learned, however, that glassing them and stalking within bow range in shale country are two different things.

B ZONE BEARS


Over the past 21 years, California’s bear population has nearly tripled, growing from 12,000 animals in 1982 to more than 30,000 today. This is owed in part to good habitat and improved management.

 

About half of those bears live in northwestern California. Department of Fish and Game research indicates that bear densities range from 1.0 to 2.5 bears per square mile in many north state areas. Proof of that is that 47 percent of the 1,736 bears killed by hunters statewide in 2002 were taken in the Northern-North Coast Region. Best of all, most of the northwest’s bear habitat is on public land.

 

Over the years I’ve seen a great many bears while I was hunting in the B zones. On one weekend trip in 2000 I spotted 11 of them.

 

I want to shoot a good-sized bea
r with archery tackle. So far I’ve had some close calls, but things just haven’t fallen into place. Last season I stalked to within 35 yards of a big Yolla Bolly boar, but he winded me before I could get a shot. The year before, a huge bear walked under my portable stand before legal shooting light and left me weak in the knees.

 

The general deer season and the bear season overlap in the B zones, providing hunters with opportunities to score a doubleheader with a blacktail buck and a black bear. For interested hunters, a 2003 resident bear tag costs $29.65. The harvest quota remains at 1,700 bears. When the statewide harvest reaches that number, the DFG will close the season. — Cal Kellogg

 

TAGS, BAGS & SEASON DATES

The B zones support an estimated 160,000 deer, nearly a quarter of the state’s estimated deer population, but could support more. While deer populations here are relatively stable, some herds are declining due to maturing forests and a lack of browse-renewing fire. Buck-to-doe ratios are good to excellent, ranging from 14 to 32 bucks per 100 does across the six zones. Overall the herd is healthy, fawn production is good and several age classes of bucks are present.

The annual deer tag quota for the six B zones is 55,500. B zone tags are available on request. This is a fancy way of saying that you don’t have to draw for a tag. They are sold on a first-come, first-served basis. Typically, these tags don’t sell out. B zone tags allow the holder to hunt during both the archery and rifle seasons in all six zones.

There is some variation in opening and closing dates from zone to zone so it’s important to read the regulations closely. In all zones except B-4, the archery season opens on Aug. 16 and runs for 23 days. The rifle season kicks off on Sept. 20 and runs for 38 days in all zones except B-4 and B-6. That amounts to 61 potential hunting days for a hunter who uses both archery tackle and a rifle. The Department of Fish and Game allows hunters to purchase two B tags, making for a liberal two-buck bag limit.

B zone hunters generally harvest between 9,000 and 11,000 bucks, with weather being the determining factor between good and great seasons. Last year 23 percent of B zone hunters tagged bucks. That’s good by California standards, but mediocre for the Bs. The lack of success was due to unseasonably warm and dry conditions. In contrast, during the cold wet fall of 2000, B zone hunters harvested 11,365 bucks for a success rate of 27 percent. Last season 51 percent of the B zone bucks harvested sported antlers of 3 points or better.

TROPHY BUCKS

If you pine away dreaming of a trophy blacktail but can’t justify the price of a hunt on one of the north state’s premium private ranches, the B zones are the place to head. The record books confirm that blacktails in the northwest part of the state posses outstanding trophy genes.

Wally Schwartz’s 1998 buck from Zone B-2 was taken with a bow. It is a good example of the superior blacktails the B zones can produce. The buck sported a 5×5 rack that netted an incredible 148 5/8 Pope and Young points. In addition to qualifying for the record book, Wally’s buck was the first blacktail to earn the prestigious Whitney-Hill Award.

HUNTING THE B ZONES

The B zones stretch roughly from Mendocino and Glen counties in the south, to the Oregon border and from Interstate 5 to the Pacific Ocean. In a region that encompasses roughly one-eighth of California’s total geographic area, it is inevitable that variations in geography, weather and habitat exist. While great hunting can be had in countless areas across this region, it’s wise to remember that as the environment and habitat varies, so do the habits and quirks of local blacktails.

For the hunter interested in hunting the Bs, it is helpful to divide the region on the basis of on variations in habitat and deer habits so they can choose areas that best match their personal hunting style and objectives. The Coast Range slices through the region from north to south. To the west of these rugged mountains are zones B-1 and B-4. The blacktails in these zones are mostly resident deer that don’t migrate between summer and winter range.

B-4 is a small zone that offers little public land. B-1, on the other hand, is the largest B zone and provides access to four national forests. This country consists of steep draws and canyons. The vegetation is typically dense with enough breaks and clear-cuts to allow for effective hunting.

Good hunting is scattered throughout B-1; however, most knowledgeable hunters focus their efforts south of Highway 299. Grouse Mountain, South Fork Mountain and the Lassic Mountains all have a reputation for producing bucks. With exceptions, the deer west of the Coast Range run smaller than their eastern kin. Last season 19 percent of B-1 bucks had racks of 4 points or better. That’s not bad by any standard.

To the east of the Coast Range you find zones B-2, B-3, B-5 and B-6. These eastern B zones are the crown jewels of California blacktail hunting in terms of producing record book-size bucks. Most of the blacktails in the eastern B zones are migratory. The deer spend their summers in high country at elevations in excess of 6,000 feet. While on the summer range the blacktails divide their time between bedding in dark timber and feeding in high glades, meadows and old avalanche sites that offer fresh green browse. Generally, these deer stay on summer range until they are driven lower by snow.

WILDERNESS AREA HUNTS

When the blacktails of the eastern B zones are on summer range, B-2′s Trinity Alps Wilderness and B-5′s Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness are prime places to hunt for those willing to make an investment in time and sweat. These designated wilderness areas are extremely rugged and prohibit vehicle travel. The only access comes in the form of day hiking, backpacking, or by horse. These factors greatly reduce hunting pressure.

Bucks on summer range often travel in small bachelor groups. These bucks are easy to glass, since they routinely feed in open areas early and late in the day. For this reason, spot-and-stalk hunting is the rule.

Once blacktails are forced off their summer range, they concentrate below snowline near prominent food sources, usually at elevations between 3,000 and 5,000 feet. The vegetation at these elevations consists of mixed buckbrush, manzanita, evergreens and oaks; deer feed heavily on acorns in years of good mast crops. When acorn production is down, deer tend to move directly to winter range, where they feed on brush and new grasses sprouted during the fall green-up.

Last year the blacktails of the B zones didn’t migrate until after the season had closed. During the best years strong storms strike while the deer season is still under way. When such storms arrive, they invariably trigger the migration and blacktails literally pour out of their high country haunts. At no time are blacktails more vulnerable to hunters than when they are migrating. The deer are concentrated and on the move through unfa
miliar terrain, even during daylight hours.

My favorite way to hunt migrating blacktails is from a tree stand or enclosed ground blind. Migrating deer follow the same drainages to their winter range season after season. This makes it fairly easy to predict where to set up when the migration finally kicks off. I usually place my stand near the top of a main drainage ridge. I target land features such as saddles, rimrocks and natural bottlenecks that concentrate deer movement.

Of the four eastern B zones, B-2 and B-5 arguably offer the best migration hunting in terms of both the size and number of blacktails present. In B-2 the North Fork of Swift Creek, Coffee Creek and Cedar Creek canyons all lead out of the Trinity Alps Wilderness, making them fine areas during the migration. In B-5, concentrate on the drainages leading out of the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness to the east and south.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

For hunting information, contact the Northern California and North Coast Region office of the DFG in Redding, (530) 225-2300.

For camping, hiking, access and wilderness area information, contact the following National Forest Service offices: Six Rivers, (707) 442-1721; Klamath, (530) 842-6131; Shasta-Trinity, (530) 244-2978; Mendocino, (530) 934-7724; Rogue River, (541) 776-3600.



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  • matt

    I'm an Oregon hunter looking for more opportunities to hunt my favorite deer. I particularly interested in the wilderness areas in the Bs.

    Thanks for such an informative article, I have much better understanding of how to put my first California blacktail hunt together now.

    In gratitude,

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