September 29, 2010
Last year's wildfires in Southern California's national forests will be this year's deer-hunting hotspots for bowhunters. (July 2008)
Justin Young, left, and his dad Lance hunted the Esperanza Fire burn in Zone D16 to tag this fine mule deer.
Photo courtesy of Lance Young.
In the past few years, fires have raged over wide areas of the Angeles, Los Padres, San Bernardino and Cleveland national forests.
These fires are tragic when they damage private property and cause loss of life. Unfortunately, the media is fond of using phrases like "thousands of acres of national forest were destroyed . . . "
The problem is, that part isn't true.
Fire doesn't destroy forests, it regenerates them. Many of the plant species here have evolved to use fire as part of their life cycles.
While massive fires do burn with great intensity, much of what burns up is quickly replaced with green growth that begins to emerge from the ground almost the moment the smoke clears. The plants that return first are often those that actually improve the forage for game species.
But how should you tackle hunting in areas where most of the cover -- for deer and hunters alike -- has been removed?
Bowhunters in particular are at an apparent disadvantage when trying to get within bow range of a buck that's living in a moonscape of burnt, blackened soil with no cover. It's pretty hard to still-hunt when the land is almost barren. And it's very difficult to put a tree stand up where all the trees have burned and most have fallen. Those left standing are dangerous to approach, and you surely wouldn't want to climb into one!
Jerry Maytum is a veteran bowhunter who has taken a number of trophy bucks in Southern California's national forest lands, and is an expert at this very type of hunting.
"Actually, the burns have made the hunting better," said Maytum, who serves as the measuring chairman for the California Bowmen Hunters Big Game Record Book.
"In many parts of the national forests here, the brush was so thick that the mountain lions had it easy."
Burns mean more quality food for the deer. "In the next three to five years, some mammoth bucks will be taken in Southern California," said Maytum.
"What you want to do is find oaks in the bottom of canyons," he said. "Especially if there is water, which is often hard to find during the archery season."
Even the worst wind-whipped fire doesn't burn the landscape evenly. Pockets of unburned cover, especially in ravines and canyons, often escape the fire that blows over the top and moves on. After a recent burn, these small pockets of cover can be deer magnets both for bedding cover and for food. This is especially true of small, untouched stands of oaks.
"Scout these small habitat areas, looking for tracks," said Maytum.
"If you find tracks and trails being made by deer entering and leaving these pockets of unburned oaks, hunt there. If you don't see signs of use, go find another area."
Maytum did say that though you might not find tracks and signs of use right after a burn happens, don't overlook these spots later in the year.
Deer may be a little slow moving back into some burned areas, especially if there's a lack of water.
"Last year," said Maytum, "I went and hiked an area along the edge of a recent burn and didn't see a track. But by the time the season rolled around, the deer were back in the burn, just like nothing had happened."
Rather than wander around inside a burned area, giving the deer every chance to see you, the better method is spot and stalk, even when doing your pre-season scouting. Get up on higher ground where you can see long distances and then scout with optics.
"I can tell most bowhunters, get good binoculars," Maytum advised. "That's the most important gear you can have for prospecting burns."
When everything is wide open, Maytum recommends glassing the burns in the early morning and again in late evening with 10X binoculars.
The idea is, you'll see deer and you can pattern their movements in and out of the oak cover.
This year, you can score on good bucks despite the forest in Southern California being "destroyed" if you hunt in and around recovering burns. Last winter's rains will help the areas recover quickly, and over the next two to five years, the abundant forage will grow more and better bucks.
In future, keep in mind that burns are excellent hunting locations soon after the fire is out.
According to DFG biologist Randy Botta, the deer in San Diego County reacted to the burns by promptly moving right back into their original habitat. They also prospered.
"We've seen increased numbers of does with twins, especially in the burn areas," Botta said. "The deer here have quite a bit of fat on them, by and large, and samples we've seen from road-killed deer show that."
If San Diego's deer are typical, then burns have a positive effect on deer populations and are good places to hunt -- especially two and three years after a major burn, when buck numbers are up and antler production is high.
If you're interested in locating burns, stop by the National Forest station in any of the affected forests, where you'll probably be able to get the latest information. You can also do a Google search for the various national forest Web sites, and then their fire pages. Hit the "News releases" section for past reports about fire locations. You could also find burn maps as well as road closures.
Burns mean more quality food for the deer.
"In the next three to five years, some mammoth bucks will be taken in Southern California," said veteran bowhunter Jerry Maytum.
Just a few examples show the magnitude of the wildfires during the 2007 fire season:
'¢ The Ranch Fire started Oct. 20, 2007, near Townsend Peak, southwest of Templin Highway and Interstate 5 on the Angeles National Forest. Intense Santa Ana winds, peaking above 100 mph on the ridgetop
s, drove the fire southwest -- across 13,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest, then onto the Los Padres National Forest and private lands in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, burning a total of 58,401 acres.
'¢ The Buckwheat Fire burned 38,356 acres in three days, due to strong Santa Ana winds. The fire started Oct. 21 in Mint Canyon and rapidly spread to 23,000 acres in one day.
'¢ In San Diego County, huge fires also flamed over thousands of acres of Cleveland National Forest and burned deer habitat along with hundreds of homes.
'¢ In the San Bernardino National Forest, three blazes -- the Slide Fire, the Butler Peak Fire and the Green Valley Fire -- all clustered near Arrowhead Lake and burned almost 30,000 acres of good deer country along with many homes. All of the country involved was habitat for some sort of wildlife, and much of it was deer habitat.