X9c: Open-Country Mule Deer

A big chunk of harshly arid country and only 500 tags make X9c a zone worth considering this year if you like your mule deer in wide-open terrain.

Photo by P. Eades/Royal TineImages

Do you like open-country deer hunting? If you do, then you should take a look at California's X9c deer zone. Situated at the low end of the Eastern Sierra, between the massive Sierra Range and the desolation of Death Valley, X9c occupies a big chunk of desert and mountains.

Two deer hunts are conducted annually in the area, the X9c rifle season and A18 archery season.

The general methods (rifle) hunt, designated X9c, operates under a cap of 325 tags, which is a sharp drop from the 859 tags allotted just a couple of years ago. Still, this is not all bad: As the number of tags dropped so did demand, and in recent hunts all the hunters who requested X9c as their first choice got it.

The 325 tags issued in 2004 produced 31 bucks for hunters, and more than half of those deer (54.8 percent) were forked-horn bucks. Three 4-point bucks were reported killed. For 2005, the tag allotment is 325, and season dates are Oct. 15-Sept. 6.

The A18 archery hunt is also included in this zone, with 50 tags available. Last year only 43 A18 tags were sold, and the DFG reported just one deer taken with archery gear. Since California hunters are not required to return their tags (it's a voluntary program), it's hard to know what the actual number of bucks taken with bow and arrow really was.

When you first download the Zone X9c map from the DFG Web site, it looks huge. The overall landmass of the zone is largely within Inyo County and the southeast portion of Mono County in the Eastern Sierra, but the actual huntable area of X9c is not as large as you might first think. A huge part of the area contained within the zone description is Death Valley National Park, and portions of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center range take up a large bit on the southwest corner of the zone.

The part you can hunt includes a nice portion of Inyo National Forest along the east side of Highway 395. There is also a good chunk of BLM land and some private lands belonging to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power that is huntable.

This zone is a land of stark contrasts. Some hunters seek deer in dense riparian habitat along the Owens River, where big mule deer bucks hide in close proximity to tule elk herds, while others take to the higher elevations of the White and Inyo mountains looking for isolated pockets that hold big, solitary bucks.

Deer ranging east of the Sierra Nevada Crest in Inyo and Mono counties (Zones X9a, X9b, X9c and X12) are a subspecies of mule deer known as the Inyo mule deer, according to the DFG. The Inyo mule deer is distinguished from other mule deer by a large white rump patch and a tail that is black only at the tip. Deer in Zone X9c are migratory. Summers are spent at higher elevations (7,500-12,000 feet) in the Inyo and White mountains, while winters find these deer at lower elevations (4,500-7,500 feet). Deer migration between summer and winter ranges occurs during spring and then again in the fall."

That twice-yearly migration is one key to finding bucks in X9c. One of the hunters we talked to about the 2004 hunt asked not to have his name used, because he works for a local sporting goods store and was afraid his customers would think he was giving away local hunters' secrets, said the following; "X9c depends on weather all the way. In hot years you hunt water, and in wet years, hunt feed. When the weather hits, hunt the snow line to catch the deer moving down." He also noted that, following his own advice, he took a 28-inch, 4-point, buck out of X9c in 2004.

Another hunter said the bucks that hang around riparian areas along the Owens River have "webbed feet, and don't show until dark." Still a few hunters focus on these deer, which by most accounts have big bodies and small racks. The big boys hang out in the White and Inyo mountains.

These larger bucks use everything from desert scrub at the lowest elevations (4,500 feet) near Coso Junction to alpine at the highest elevations (14,000 feet) in the White Mountains. The desert scrub community occurs from about 4,500 to 6,500 feet. Pine woodland occurs from 6,500 to 9,500 feet. Piñon pine is the dominant tree in this area, although Utah juniper can be an important co-dominant species. Big sagebrush is the dominant shrub in the piñon woodland community. Sub alpine forest occurs from 9,500 feet to 11,500 feet in elevation.

Riparian vegetation occurs within all of these plant communities, except the alpine tundra. Riparian areas can be important in providing escape cover and fawning habitat. At lower elevations, cottonwood and willow are the dominant species. In piñon woodland communities, birch, wild rose and willow species dominate the riparian habitat. Groves of quaking aspen can be found in drainages mainly located on the wetter, eastern slope within the sub alpine forest.

Mike Birkhimer, owner of The Meat House, a butcher shop that caters to hunters, said that locating deer in X9c is mostly about meeting people, as no major deer migration routes have been delineated in either the Inyo or White mountains by the area's DFG wildlife biologist. You have to locate deer trails in a specific year on your own or by asking others.

"You can hunt from the river bottom to the top of the White Mountains and there are deer there and in-between," Birkhimer said. "For the hunters who work hard, there are deer there. Ask questions: There are local ranchers, Forest Service employees, BLM people, and all sorts of folks who are out in the zone doing things, and they can tell you a lot about where the deer are. It is some big country in X9c and you need information."

"The main thing is to find where deer are coming to water," Birkhimer reasons. "Once you work that out, you are halfway home. Where else can you actually hunt in the bristlecone forest? It's beautiful being up high in the Whites and Inyo mountains. Where else can you hunt deer and chukar at the same time?

Birkhimer said he took a nice little forked-horn buck last year. "I like those tasty younger deer, being a meat cutter by trade. X9c is a beautiful big zone with lots of room for everybody. One thing new is we have some new alfalfa fields going in down by Laws Railroad Museum, and that should attract deer to feed. It's something that a local hunter can look at after work."

"You should stay with the larger deer loads, because you get 200-yard shots a lot," Birkhimer added. "A .243 will do the job.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

You can get an Inyo National Forest ma

p from the Forest Service visitor's center about a mile south of Lone Pine, or by calling (760) 876-6222. The cost is $6 plus tax and shipping. They also carry a series of topographical maps for the area; review them online at

www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo/. The Bishop Forest Service office is at 351 Pacu Lane, Suite 200, Bishop, Ca 93514, (760) 873 2400.

Hunters taking deer in X9c can have their deer processed at The Meat House, 150 S. Main St., in Bishop. Call owner Mike Birkhimer at (760) 873-4990 for more information.

The Bishop office of the California Department of Fish and Game is at 407 W. Line St., Bishop, CA 93514; telephone (760) 872-1171. You can download a copy of the DFG's Zone X9c map at

www.dfg.ca.gov. While you are at it, make a search on the Web site for an X9c PDF file that provides information on X9c and the surrounding area.

Only 325 tags are available for the general methods hunt. The accompanying archery hunt in X9c is the A18 hunt, with 50 tags available.

In addition to accommodations in Bishop, Lone Pine, Independence, and Big Pine, Inyo County has a wide variety of camping opportunities on U.S. Forest Service, BLM and county lands. To reserve campsites, call the National Recreation Reservation Center at 1-877-444-6777 or go online to

www.reserveusa.com. Although open to day use and hunting, overnight camping is not allowed on Los Angeles Department of Water and Power lands.

You can also contact the US Forest Service, Inyo National Forest, White Mountain Ranger Station, at 798 North Main St., Bishop, CA 93514; telephone (760) 873-2408.

For camping on BLM lands, contact the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 351 Pacu Lane, Suite 100, Bishop, CA 93514, telephone 760-872-5000; the Ridgecrest BLM office, 300 South Richmond Road, Ridgecrest, CA 93555, telephone (760) 384-5400; or go online to

www.ca.blm.gov and click on Recreation Search.

Call (760) 878-0272, or visit

www.395.com for camping information in Inyo and Mono counties.

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