California Deer Hunting Forecast for 2014
October 01, 2014
At my advanced age I feel fortunate to be able to hunt deer somewhere in California each fall. I can't put out as much effort as I used to, but I can still hike the hills fairly well, and I can still shoot straight most of the time.
Last year I drew a long awaited tag for an X zone, which I hoped to tie on the antlers of a bigger-than-average mule deer buck. Half the scenario came true. I did tie the tag to a buck's antlers, but it was a young 4x4 and not the old mossy horn I hoped to kill.
I'll blame fatigue. After a very long day of hiking at 7,000 feet the day before, and looking up at my feet a couple times when I fell, not gracefully, on the steep slopes, I was almost tuckered out and a bit discouraged. The next morning, when three bucks appeared as if by magic on a sagebrush-covered hillside, I pulled down on the biggest of the trio and killed him with one shot. My son Mark and son-in-law Robert Feamster, who had no tags but came along to keep me company, agreed it was the right thing to do.
They helped me get the buck to our truck, but as we toiled we saw a much larger buck, and all I could do was wave goodbye. I still kick myself for not concentrating more on a trophy with the tag I had in hand. However, given the circumstances, I'd probably make the same decision again.
To tell the truth, I'm not a serious trophy hunter, and judging from the antler stats provided by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, I have lots of company. I started hunting deer long before high scoring antlers were the measure of success. It was a time when more deer hunters were in the field, most hunting was done on public land, and hunters were happy to put their tags on any legal bucks because those deer represented meat in the freezer.
That said, I have taken some hefty bucks in California. It's just that they were the result of chance encounters rather than planned events. For example, I still have the impressive 4x5 antlers from a big bodied mule deer that I got in the foothills near the ghost town of Bodie in Mono County back in the early 1970s. My son Mark, not yet a teenager, was with me when the buck exploded from the brush on the hillside below the ridge we were on. The deer fled into a draw then bounced up the opposing slope, giving me a chance to shoot off hand three times with the Model 70 Winchester .270 I still use today. I hit the buck with the final shot and he went down hard and stayed there.
Boy were we glad to see two other hunters who showed up and helped us drag the buck to the nearest road a quarter mile away. After that, they got in their pickup, which was parked nearby, and drove Mark, the buck and me back to our rig almost two miles away.
Four years ago, while hunting with a friend on private land in Zone C3, I spotted a tall-antlered 4x5 blacktail traveling slowly down a migration trail at dusk. Finding a log rest, I steadied my rifle and easily made the 164-yard shot that put the buck down almost in his tracks. Had it been an average forked horn, I still would have been happy.
Mark, who is now a grandfather (yes, time does fly), has had a way with big blacktails for several years. He hunts mainly by still-hunting in all sorts of weather, and that tactic fits him like a glove. Last fall, on an afternoon hunt in misty rain in Zone B1, Mark jumped a heavy antlered 3x3 at close range and made a telling shot before the buck was swallowed by the soaked brush. It was the biggest of two bucks Mark tagged last season and one he'll remember for a long time.
"I was hunting more for venison than a trophy," Mark said later, "but I'm always pleased to get a mature buck, and that one certainly was. My truck was parked way up on the ridge, and there was a road below me that I could drive to by taking a roundabout route of several miles. I field dressed the buck, dragged him down to the lower road, and went back up the mountain for my truck. When I got within sight of the gut pile I had to circle wide because there was already a bear on it. I'm glad it didn't hit on the buck before I got back to it after dark."
The best zones for big bucks, in my view anyway, are the northeast X zones. That's where Rocky Mountain mule deer, the largest of six subspecies of mule deer in the state, reside in the high desert terrain of the Great Basin. The other subspecies include Columbian blacktails, the most numerous deer in the state, and the subspecies most likely to make either the Boone and Crockett (rifle) or Pope and Young (archery) record books.
Here's the deal. All mule deer subspecies, except Columbian blacktails, are measured as if they're the same deer. That being the case, only a few mule deer from California have eclipsed the minimum score for entry into the Boone and Crockett Records of North American Big Game, but literally hundreds of blacktails have made the grade. That isn't to say that there aren't worthy mule deer trophies awaiting some lucky hunters, for there certainly are. It's just that very few of them score well according to the B&C system.
One hunter who got a very nice mule deer buck in 2013 is Glynn Gregory of Redding. After applying for several years, Glynn and his buddies Bill Houston and Mike Hanley all got tags for Zone X2. What followed was a nine-day campout hunt in Modoc County during the Oct. 6 to 21 season.
"I wanted to be picky," Gregory said. "I knew there were some big bucks in the zone, so I decided to look for a 4x4 with antlers outside its ears."
As Gregory tells it, he was in and out of camp because he went home for a couple days to celebrate his birthday. While he was away, Bill Houston got a 3x4 in the midst of a rainstorm and Mike Hanley passed up some opportunities. Eventually, Hanley went home without a buck, but he had his chances so he was not disappointed.
"We saw plenty of bucks, including some big ones we couldn't do anything with," Gregory said. "That all changed for me on the last day of the season. I was driving through an area where I'd seen some bucks earlier in the season, and by chance I spotted a nice one standing in the open around 220 yards away."
Leaving his truck behind, Gregory got into a good position, set up his shooting sticks, and made the shot with his 7 mm Remington Model 700. When he got to the buck, he discovered it wore 5x6 antlers wider than its ears and had double eye guards.
"It was everything I wanted and more," he said later.
Just to show there are bigger-than-average deer in every deer zone, Scott Mahoney, of Windsor, tied his Zone A tag to the antlers of a very respectable buck. Mahoney, who has hunted on a private ranch near Booneville for many years, was hunting alone on the last Tuesday of the season, and here's his story."It was foggy, misty and cold that morning, and the deer were moving," Mahoney said. "I saw a fair 3x3 at first light as I was driving into the property, but lost sight of it when it spooked and went uphill. I tried, but I couldn't locate it again. However, on my way back to my truck, I spotted another legal buck about a hundred yards below the ranch road."
Mahoney took an off-hand poke at the forked horn and it ran off apparently unscathed. "I followed up just to make sure and didn't find any sign of a hit," he said.
Convinced of a miss, Mahoney continued driving up the mountain but it was so windy and foggy on top that he came back down. He stopped to check the spot where the forked horn had been, and noticed odd branches sticking up from the brush below the road about 60 yards away. With binoculars, Mahoney could see it was a bigger buck partially hidden by brush, and it was looking directly at him.
All Mahoney could see was the deer's head and neck, so he took a breath, let it out and squeezed the trigger of his Ruger .243. At the shot the buck simply disappeared, and Mahoney was relieved to find him piled up in the brush a few yards below the brush patch he was in. The buck's tall 4x3 antlers had eye guards and were wider than his ears.
"I can't remember ever seeing so many bucks in such a short period of time," Mahoney said. "It was a very good year, and from what I saw, there were plenty of bucks left over for the 2014 hunting season."
With very few exceptions, blacktails are the only bucks in California with a chance to make the record books. To qualify, they must come from a region outlined by B&C in the northwest B zones. The tag quota for the B zones was lowered from 55,000 to 35,000 a couple years ago, but they are still sold on a first-come, first-served basis. The demand does not exceed the supply by much, so you can get a B tag if you don't wait until the last minute to put in for it.
Of course, getting a tag is just one step of many in the quest for a trophy. The six B zones cover a large region, and the process of finding a place to hunt will take time unless you're familiar with the region already. If you have access to private land with a resident population of deer, you're ahead of the game because you can learn the whereabouts of deer on the property and hunt it accordingly.
Public land is another matter altogether. Much of it is national forest and many of the deer that reside there are migratory. They spend the summer at higher elevations and move down in the fall. Early in the season a number of hunters backpack or ride horses into wilderness areas to pursue blacktails. Each year some real trophies are tagged by archery and rifle hunters, but on average the bucks, while legal, are not yet in their prime years for antler growth. After the migration begins the deer will vacate the high country and wind up in wintering areas at lower elevation.
Wherever you hunt there's always the possibility of bagging a big, mature buck someday. Recently, I talked to Craig Stowers, former Deer Program Coordinator for the CDFW, and he shared some of his insights into what it takes to be a trophy hunter in California.
"If you want a bigger than average buck the first thing you've got to do is decide on what you want, and stick with that goal. If that means passing on lesser legal bucks you come into contact with so be it," Stowers advised. "For first hand information, call local CDFW or forest service biologists who spend time in the area you're going to hunt, and by all means scout the place in advance if you can.
"If that's not possible, at least get to the area early and scout for a day or two before the season begins. When you know something about the whereabouts of some deer in the zone, you won't spin your wheels nearly as much when you're actually hunting."
Stowers also said if he was a serious trophy hunter he'd look into some of the archery or muzzleloader hunts in zones X6a and X6b as they've been good lately. A couple more zones he recommended are X9a and X8, which are very good when the weather cooperates and the migration occurs on schedule. He also mentioned Zone D6. Weather in that zone pushes big bucks out of Yosemite National Park and down onto winter range, where they can be hunted. If the weather is mild, though, the bucks don't move much if at all.
The business of hunting trophy bucks in California is, with a few exceptions, nothing like hunting magnum whitetails from tree stands in the Midwest. Our deer are not the same, our hunting areas, especially on public ground, are vast, and our deer populations are nowhere near as dense. That's one of the reasons why the majority of California deer hunters are satisfied when they tag any legal buck at all.
Of course, there are some whopper bucks taken each season, and if you persist one of them may eventually come your way. Good luck to you, and me, in our quest to be in the right place at the right time.