Ground Zero: California Record Bucks
January 23, 2019
Name a place to tag a record-book white-tailed deer. That’s easy: Kansas, Montana, Alberta, Illinois, Texas and almost anywhere east of the Mississippi River.
The same is true for mule deer. A long list of states — Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and more — boot out bucks nearly every year that are entered in the ranks of the Boone & Crockett Club’s annual awards book.
Turn your attention to putting a Boone & Crockett caliber black-tailed deer on the wall, however, and things get much more limited and difficult. For starters, the range of Columbian blacktails is much smaller than that of whitetails or muleys. To compound the challenge, trophy distribution isn’t equal throughout the blacktail’s range. Instead, trophy-deer production is regional; some counties consistently produce record-book bucks, while right next door another county might produce good numbers of shooter bucks but few, if any, record-book animals.
In California, deer hunters enjoy productive blacktail hunting across a broad region on both public and private land, yet the area where you’re most likely to encounter a blacktail buck of true trophy proportions can basically be honed down to three counties. From 2013 through 2017, Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties produced a total of 50 of California’s 66 B&C blacktail bucks harvested and submitted between those years.
Across those five years, Humboldt County produced 21 of those 50 B&C blacktails. The majority of the county stretches across steep terrain and covered with heavy vegetation. A lot of this rough, thick country is open to the public. In fact, more than 100,000 acres of public land lies in Humboldt County, including parts of several national forests. The western section of the county holds most of the open terrain and rolling hills, but a lot of this land is private.
For trophy hunters, Humboldt County offers multiple options. The entire county falls within the state-designated B deer-hunting zones, where deer tags are easily purchased over the counter or online with no drawing required, creating do-it-yourself opportunities to tag a trophy on public land. You can explore national forest areas that offer motorized access, or you can go hardcore and backpack into the 42,000-acre King Range Wilderness. If you decided to penetrate this wilderness area, you’d better be in top shape, because the land rises from sea level to 4,000 feet very quickly.
While the deer in Humboldt County are not migratory, rain and storms still play a role in public-land hunter success. When big storms roll in during the season, hunter success rates soar. When it rains, the largely nocturnal bucks tend to come out of the thick cover to feed offering hunters a distinct advantage. But spot-and-stalk-styled hunting is tough in Humboldt’s thick cover. Perhaps, the best hunting takes place from one or more well-placed portable treestands, teamed with a big side order of patience.
If your pockets are deep and your desire to bag a big buck is extreme enough, Humboldt offers up both private ranches and guides that will raise your chances of bagging the buck of your dreams substantially. For example, at the cost of $3,500 (plus a trophy fee) for four days, Stover Ranch (operated by Multiple Use Management in San Andreas) offers an inclusive package with hunting access to 7,000 acres of land that has produced multiple B&C bucks. This property also produces some epic black bears.
Dylan Carr, of Diamond C Outfitters in Alderpoint, guides hunters in search of monster blacktail bucks on 16,000 acres of leased land in the southern part of Humboldt County. Carr’s land is part of the state’s Private Lands Management system, so his season is extended through the end of November. If you schedule things right with Carr, you’ll be able to hunt during the rut! Trophy hunts range upward to $7,500 (plus a trophy fee), taking aim on a 4x4 buck or better, or any buck scoring 130 inches gross or better.
Check out this video to learn how to manage your small track of land to bag your trophy buck.
Mendocino County is the second-most productive trophy-buck area from 2013 to 2017, with a total of 17 B&C bucks harvested and reported. Like Humboldt County, Mendocino County carries some outstanding public-land hunting across more than 100,000 acres. The county also offers access to world-class blacktail hunting on large coastal ranches. Some of these ranches are part of the PLM program. Many offer extended seasons and solid trophy-deer management strategies. The way the seasons break down in Mendocino County, it is possible to deer hunt for more than 60 days if you take part in the 20-plus-day archery season and the 40-plus-day rifle season.
If low cost, reasonably easy access hunting is what you’re after in Mendocino County, the Mendocino National Forest is the place to go. Its mountains are steep, heavily timbered and brushy, and a web of roads offer access deep into the forest; but if you want to hang your tag on a trophy, plan to invest in sweat equity. Hike to areas other hunters are unwilling to access and you’ll be well on your way to success.
Mendocino County deer hunters also can approach great wilderness outings across the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness. Motorized vehicles are prohibited in the massive 152,000-acre wilderness area, and some of the biggest blacktails on the planet call the Yolla Bolly home. Much of the area is arid and steep. Visibility is good at high elevations but limited in the valleys. Spike a camp, get clear of hunting pressure, and break out the binoculars. Odds shift in your favor if you can be in the backcountry when it rains.
When you absolutely must get that chance at a real-world Mendocino County trophy blacktail, look no farther than Lockwood Hunting Services headquartered in Hopland. With access to many thousands of acres in A zone in Mendocino County, Lockwood hunts take place in classic, coastal blacktail habitat consisting of heavily vegetated canyons and gullies punctuating grass and oak highlands. Hunting pressure on Lockwood’s properties is low, and harvest is selective. You’ll absolutely see deer when hunting Tim’s ranches and there is an outstanding chance of seeing one or more fully mature 5- to 7-year-old bucks. Lockwood’s prices range upward of $5,500 for a five-day fully outfitted hunt.
Trinity County takes up the “rear” among California’s top-3 record-book producing counties, with 11 B&C bucks reported between 2013 and 2017, but Trinity County really gets my heart pumping when I think of trophy blacktails. The Trinity Alps Wilderness produces epic deer-hunting opportunities.Encompassing more than 500,000 acres of prime blacktail habitat — including alpine lakes, 9,000-foot summits, and more valleys choked with dark timber than you can contemplate — the Trinity Alps is the ultimate chessboard for testing your wits against a record-book blacktail. You’ll need strong legs for these hunts, and a packhorse or two can be a real boon. The wilderness boasts more than 600 miles of trail and a total elevation swing of nearly 7,000 vertical feet!
Speaking of horses, the folks at Coffee Creek Ranch in Trinity Center offer a couple pack-string-styled service, beginning at $200 per day, to access remote parts of the B-2 deer-hunting zone in the Trinity Alps. On a dunnage trip, the packer or cowboy takes your gear into a designated spot and drops it off. He returns on a given date to pack the gear back out. You are responsible for hiking into and out of your camp, but you’ll have zero gear to carry; and if you score, you won’t have to pack the meat back to the truck on your back. The second option is called a spot trip: The cowboy hauls both you and your gear into the back country and returns to haul you, your gear your trophy back to civilization.
McBroom & Company Packers and Guides in Sawyers Bar offers what may just be the ultimate trophy blacktail adventure. Not only will they utilize a pack-string to transport you and your gear into the Trintity Alps, they will also stick around to guide you, ranging upward of $3,000 a week. This isn’t a ranch hunt, where you’re trying to drop the hammer on a buck that has never experienced real pressure. Instead, you’ll be in the heart of one of the West Coast’s epic wilderness areas, hunting trophy bucks that know they are on the menu. And you’ll be getting one-on-one instruction and advice from a backwoods guide with a ton of local knowledge.
Deer Hunters/Hikers Beware: Pot Grows Not Worth Any Risk
Humboldt and Mendocino counties lead the nation in marijuana cultivation. Both recreational and medical marijuana are now legal in California, but you can’t assume you won’t run into dangerous illegal cartel-operated marijuana grows while hiking/hunting the forests of Humboldt and Mendocino counties.
Marijuana is still illegal in much of the country. As long as this is the case, cartels will set up operations on California’s public lands, polluting waterways, killing wildlife and threatening hikers and hunters all in an attempt to grow, cultivate and export marijuana to jurisdictions where it remains illegal.
How do you avoid running into a “pot grow” protected by cartel members armed with AK 47s? Common sense is your best resource. Keep your eyes open and look for signs of activity in remote areas. In the backcountry, tarps, barrels, garbage and sections of black irrigation hose are tip-offs that you might have stumbled on a grow.
As a general rule, pot growers don’t want a confrontation. At the first sign of pot-grow activity, immediately back out of the area and report what you saw to any law-enforcement authority.
Marijuana growers — like mountain lions, camp-destroying bears and rattlesnakes — represent a challenge hunters need to avoid and/or overcome when hunting in northwest California.