California'™s 2006 Deer Season -- Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

What's in your freezer? Probably not venison steaks from a Golden State buck. Here's how and where to change your luck this year.(August 2006)

Okay, let's hear it from you all: "Here we go again." Right on!

Once again, the warm, dry weather that's typical of fall in California contributed to less than stellar harvest numbers for deer hunters last year. Around here, that's to be expected. Back-to-back warm fall seasons in 2002 (statewide buck kill was 31,553) and 2003 (28,109 bucks) kept the take down in those years, too.

The fall of 2004 was one of those "It's about time" events. We were blessed with several storms during the deer seasons, which helped boost the statewide take to 36,390 bucks.

That possibility was predicted in these pages prior to the 2004 season, based on the carryover of legal bucks the previous two years because of the uncooperative -- meaning good -- weather. Got that? Well, because of the mild fall weather in 2005, the overall harvest dropped to 28,276 bucks. Ho hum, another typical deer season in sunny California.

It's not that things were all bad. I admit having missed opening weekend here in Northern California, and so did my son-in-law, Robert Feamster, one of my main hunting partners. We both had the same excuse. My daughter Meredith, his wife, gave birth to their second child (another daughter) two days before the B zones' deer season opened.

That was poor timing, indeed, and they should have known better. But things worked out fine eventually. As luck would have it, when Rob and I did get a couple of days to hunt a few weeks later, it actually rained in Trinity County for the first and only time during the season. And before the weekend was over, there were two blacktail bucks in our mountain camp.

As usual, Robert's buck was bigger than mine. But he's a whole lot younger and more ambitious. I gladly dragged my average 2x3 a few yards in the fog and rain to a skidder road, while Rob packed his magnum 3x3, in partially boned-out form, for about six hours. I was happy to see him stumble into camp at dark, where I had a hot meal waiting. The evening hours were spent telling our tales while huddled around a propane heater, listening to the rain pelt the overhead tarp.

My son Mark, who joined us the next morning, got his second buck of the season a few hours later. It was bigger than either Rob's or mine, and the only deer Mark saw all day. Incredible! That single weather event was short but very sweet for hunters able to take advantage of it.

Some zones naturally produced higher hunter success percentages than others. But the statewide average for hunters in the field, during all deer hunts, was around 16 percent in 2005, as compared to 20 percent in 2004.

For all seasons combined, 238,199 tags were available in 2004, of which 180,509 were purchased outright or awarded by drawings. In 2005, the figures were 237,235 and 177,783, respectively.

By now, of course, you know if you've been drawn for any additional deer hunt tag, since the selection process took place in June for the 2006 seasons. After the drawings, however, there are always tags available for some general-season zones. Included are the B zones in the northwestern part of the state, sprawling Zone A, which stretches from northern Los Angeles County north to Mendocino County, and several of the D zones.

Not surprisingly, all tags for the X zones are gone after the June drawing, and C-zone tags now sell out shortly thereafter. In fact, if you really want a tag for the four C zones, you should plan to buy one as soon as they become available. If you enter the drawing for a premium deer tag, consider putting a C tag down as your second choice. Then, if you miss out on your first choice, at least you'll get a C tag by return mail.

2005 BY THE NUMBERS

Okay, let's toss around a few figures and see just what happened where in 2005. But first, a word about the numbers we're using. They are from the preliminary, estimated and reported figures compiled by the Department of Fish and Game. In other words, they weren't yet finalized when this article was written. However, any difference between the numbers recorded here and the final tallies will be slight. So, without further ado, let's get on with the program.

We might as well begin with Zone A, where deer hunting starts earlier than anyplace else in the West. The archery season opens in July, and rifle hunting starts in August. What happened in Zone A last year is indicative of the trend that affected most of the state's other zones.

You might recall that 2003 was a slow year in this huge zone, with an estimated harvest of 9,119 bucks. But 2005 was even worse, with a grand total of 8,943 bucks taken. Both pale by comparison with 2004 -- a banner year, when 10,224 bucks were tagged.

There are 65,000 tags for Zone A, a little more than half of which were sold in 2005. Most of the zone consists of private land, which limits hunter access. However, there is public ground in Colusa, Lake, Mendocino, Monterey, Napa, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. Despite the summer timing of the general rifle season, which begins on the second weekend of August, around 27 percent of tag holders were successful in 2005.

While researching this article, I happened to contact guide Doug Roth of Camp 5 Outfitters on another matter. During our talk, the subject of deer came up. Roth, who is based in the heart of Zone A, told me his hunters enjoyed 100 percent success last year. In his opinion, the deer population isn't what it was 20 years ago. But it appears to be growing, and that's definitely good news.

B-ZONE DEER

Looking at the northwestern portion of the state, we find that the harvest in the six B zones -- where most of the state's Columbian blacktail deer reside -- also slipped in 2005. Last year's total take was estimated to be 8,489 bucks, while the 2004 figure was much higher, at 11,705. The overall success rate in 2005 was 22 percent; the year before, it was slightly more, at 29 percent.

I'm going to say it again: Weather is the main key to the size of the deer harvest throughout the state. A warm, dry year will result in a diminished kill every time, while a few significant storms will boost hunter success.

As I told you, there was only one weather event of any significance in Northern California during the 2005 season, and during that event, my son, son-in-law and I all got bucks in the Trinity Mountains. It wasn't exactly luck, since we know the hunting area well. But it was obvious that the weather prompted some blacktails to start moving down to their w

inter range from the high country.

A quick look at the B zones will reveal the dramatic difference between stormy 2004 and summery 2005. In 2004, Zone B1 produced 4,282 bucks; and in 2005, the number was considerably lower, at 3,118. Zone B2, meanwhile, took a dive from 3,735 to 2,386; Zone B3 fell dramatically from 1,110 to 603; Zone B4 dropped from 537 to 445; Zone B5 slipped from 764 to 622 and (surprise!) Zone B6 improved modestly from 1,277 to 1,315.

There are 55,000 tags available for the B zones. Last year, 39,522 were sold, so plenty of them were left over. Zone B4 has limited public access due to private land, but the rest of the B zones have plenty of open land, thanks to several national forests including the Shasta-Trinity, Mendocino, Klamath and Six Rivers.

C-ZONE DEER

In 2002, there were 11,500 tags available for the four C zones. But by 2005, that number was lowered to 9,025. The tags, which used to sell out around the end of August, were gone as early as the first week of July. In addition to the regular C-zone tags, there were also 2,850 tags available for the G1 late buck hunt, which takes place in Zone C4.

In 2005, an estimated 1,535 bucks were taken in the general C zones' rifle seasons. Again, that represented a decline from 2004, when 1,692 bucks were tagged. The tally in individual zones looked like this: Zone C1 produced 237 bucks in 2004 and 137 in 2005; Zone C2 climbed from 327 to 448; Zone C3 dropped from 408 to 274 and Zone C4 fell from 720 to 676. Meanwhile, the take in the G1 late buck hunt dropped from 726 to 521. Regionwide, C zones and G1 hunters scored a little more than 17 percent of the time -- an average for warm-fall years.

D-ZONE DEER

Amazingly, in 2005, nearly half of the state's 16 D zones showed some increase in harvest from 2004. Unfortunately, however, the rest of the zones fell off enough to drop the total harvest precipitously from 11,720 in 2004 to 7,688 in 2005. The percent of hunter success varies from zone to zone, but it is generally low. In fact, in 2005, D-zone hunters averaged only 7 percent success. The so-called high-success zones, meaning better than 10 percent, were D16, D17 and D19.

Last year, 33,000 tags were available for the combined zones D3-D5; and 28,386 were sold. In 2004, hunters in those zones tagged 3,420 bucks, while in 2005 the take fell to 2,195. For the rest of the D zones, there were 49,650 tags with 6,045 left over.

Here's how the remaining D zones fared: Zone D6 fell more than 50 percent, from 1,584 to 766; Zone D7 went from 1,305 to 594; Zone D8 dropped from 643 to 434; Zone D9 slipped from 146 to 133 and Zone D10 slid from 77 to 52. Moving right along, Zone D11 climbed from 204 to 332; Zone D12 almost doubled, from 34 to 67; Zone D13 jumped from 272 to 284; Zone D14 went down from 242 to 212; Zone D15 improved from 13 to 24; Zone D16 went up from 200 to 219; Zone D17 went up a few from 67 to 70 and Zone D19 climbed from 93 to 111.

X-ZONE DEER

Without a doubt, the most coveted general-season zones in the state are the 17 X zones, which lie along the eastern side of the state and extend from Inyo County north to the Oregon border. The attraction, of course, is the possibility of hunting Rocky Mountain mule deer, which are on average the biggest deer in the state, both body- and antler-wise.

In 2005, a grand total of 8,465 tags were available for the X zones. All of them were issued in the June drawings. The estimated harvest in the X zones last year was 2,000 bucks, down from 2,329 in 2004.

Typically, X-zone hunters enjoy much greater success than hunters in most other parts of the state. Tags are quite limited, however, so there are far fewer hunters to begin with. The X zone with the highest quota was X1, where 2,355 tags were available. Not too many years ago, three times that number of tags were doled out.

Moving right along, we find that hunters in Zone X1 killed 490 bucks in 2004 and 476 last year; the take in Zone X2 improved from 62 to 63; Zone X3a went up a little from 136 to 139; Zone X3b fell from 340 to 300; Zone X4 dropped from 166 to 121; Zone X5a declined from 34 to 26; Zone X5b went down one from 58 to 57; Zone X6a slipped from 156 to 98 and Zone X6b improved from 71 to 84.

Meanwhile, Zone X7a dropped one from 87 to 86; Zone X7b climbed from 33 to 37; Zone X8 went from 51 to 41; Zone X9a slid from 274 to 206; Zone X9b lost ground from 73 to 53; Zone X9c jumped from 39 to 45; Zone X10 dropped from 32 to 27 and finally, Zone X12 crash-dived from 227 to 141.

In 2004, X zones hunters scored roughly 32 percent of the time; in 2005, that number was 27 percent. In 11 of the 17 X zones, the success rate was above 20 percent; in seven of the 11 zones, the success rate was above 30 percent -- including Zones X3a, X5b and X7a, where the success rate was actually above 40 percent. Even though those numbers aren't bad, there were only small gains in zones X2, X3a, X6b and X9c.

It's interesting to look at the percentage of success in all the X zones and wonder why some fell off more than others. Zone X7b is a prime example of this phenomenon. There, the success rate was 47 percent in 2004 and 33 percent in 2005, yet the deer kill was four bucks more in 2005 than 2004. The difference is that the tag quota was 70 in 2004, but in 2005, it was increased to 110!

PROSPECTS FOR 2006

That's enough number-crunching. What deer numbers can we expect to find statewide in 2006? I suppose 2005 will be classified as a poor year for deer hunting in the Golden State. However, the normal ebb and flow almost guarantees a couple of seasons of cool-off before the harvest increases substantially again. With that in mind, it's fair to say that 2006 could be better than 2005. I may be wrong, but it's more likely that the weather pattern will be seriously better a year or two farther down the road. It's anyone's guess.

"As far as habitat quality and quantity goes, we haven't noticed any major changes that would affect the deer population," said Craig Stowers, the DFG's deer program coordinator. "We're just going along. There aren't as many deer now as there were back in the 1960s, but there are still huntable numbers. You've just got to work a little smarter and harder to find them -- especially if we don't get wet weather during the seasons."

According to Stowers, the deer kill isn't a major indication of what's really out there. Ups and downs are more a reflection of hunter effort and weather conditions than of how many deer there are in any particular location. In most cases, the DFG's spring and fall deer surveys show stable populations, when based on a three-year sample. The exceptions may be some of the X zones where, as Stowers pointed out, the mule deer populations are hurting.

California's deer hunting options are still a good deal. For one thing, there are places where you're guaranteed a tag anytime you want one. That lets hunters plan ahead with certainty and perhaps establish a tradition of hunting in the same area, year after year. That way, you can gear up for conditions and learn the country to be more successful.

Of course, you can also try drawing for an X-zone deer tag or apply for one of 70 additional deer-hunt opportunities. Among the latter offerings are antlerless, either-sex, general methods, blackpowder, archery and junior hunts, many of which offer exceptional success rates. If you're not drawn right off the bat (and most folks aren't), you can build up preference points and better your chances in the future.

Regardless of where you hunt, you'll have to overcome challenges, some of which are uniquely Californian. Some hunters tend to grouse about the situation here, especially if they don't see any bucks. But I know that there are, indeed, deer in the hinterlands. All you've got to do is put yourself in the right place at the right time -- which, of course, takes time, dedication, persistence and luck.

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