Three legal, velvet-horned bucks began foraging within 40 yards of my tree stand. Two of the bucks were decent size, and one of those — a tall 4×3 — was pushing record-class status.
It had been at least 15 minutes before the first buck, a young forkedhorn blacktail, busted the oncoming threesome as he crunched through tinder-dry foothills of Nevada County ground in California’s deer-hunting Zone D-3.
As I continued to watch the bucks from my perch in an old oak tree (lamenting that none of them were record-book shooters), I suddenly heard the faint sound of what I thought was another animal approaching to my right. I stared in that direction for a second or two. When nothing appeared, I quickly turned my attention back toward the bucks.
Moments later, movement to my right again caught my attention. There he was! The old monarch stood like a statue at the forest edge, about 45 yards away, glaring at the inferior bucks. His spectacular, velvet rack was one of the widest set of antlers I’d ever seen on a black-tailed deer. My heartbeat quickened as he walked closer and came over to my side of the ridge.
Late-afternoon light was fading as I still watched the bucks browsing. That sickening feeling many deer hunters know rose inside me, as the big buck vanished into a coffeeberry thicket about 45 yards out. A few minutes later I caught sight of him again, but only from the neck up, as he raked his horns and nibbled on the brush.
Legal shooting time was almost gone when the buck cleared the brush and looked as if he was going to ease beyond an 8-inch-wide shooting hole. I drew back my bow and lined up the 30-yard pin. The great buck was broadside to me, feeding on acorns and creeping forward from right to left at a slight downhill angle. Remaining at full draw, I had to wait a few more seconds for his vital area to completely clear the base of a large oak. With a glowing red dot anchored behind his left front shoulder, I said a prayer and tugged on the trigger release.
The sleek carbon arrow, tipped with a 125-grain broadhead, sizzled through the air and entered the beast. The old bruiser hunched a bit and started trotting downhill. The other bucks scattered.
“Go down,” I nervously whispered. That sickening feeling began festering once again.
But at 60 yards his long legs wobbled and then turned to Jell-O. The monster crashed hard in the middle of the oak-studded saddle. His racehorse-like kicking abruptly ended a few seconds later. He was done. I threw a fist pump and loudly whispered “Yes! Thank you Lord.” I’d just taken my largest buck ever!
As I walked up on the reddish-brown trophy buck, florescent red fluid bubbled up from his middle. Although wide, the tines on the rack were a bit on the short side. Still I knew he’d score well — maybe even a Top 10. The buck eventually measured 149 1/8 Pope & Young points, the eighth-best archery-killed typical “inland” blacktail in the California Records of Big Game.
BLACKTAIL HISTORY OF D-3
According to wildlife biologists of the California Department of Fish and Game, much of the deer-hunting in Zone D-3 is in historic blacktail range, with California mule deer residing near its eastern boundary. Some whitetails, too, are found in isolated pockets along the lower Sacramento River.
The CRBG classifies the D-3 blacktails as “inland” blacktails. The highest-ranked bucks in these records are all non-migratory resident deer taken below the 3,000-foot elevation mark. Most were taken by bowhunters on private lands. The records also show that D-3 archers have taken the most Top 10 inland archery blacktails in the state, including Nos. 4, 5, 6, 8, and 9 in the typical division; and Nos. 5 and 8 in the non-typical division. The largest reported D-3 blacktail grossed 163 1/8-P&Y points and was taken in 1995 near Grass Valley by bowhunter Stan Boyer.
As they are in the entire northern Sierras, the heaviest D-3 blacktails are non-migratory animals and inhabit the biomass- and protein-rich region of the Sierra foothills between 2,000 and 4,000 feet elevation. Some of the older-age class bucks can weigh almost 200 pounds and are heavier, on average, than high-country, migratory blacktails.
Astonishingly, the foothill region, which I commonly refer to as the “madrone zone” (due to the regionally heavy berry crop), receives an average of 50 inches of rainfall per year — more than Seattle! It seems that all that rain supports both physical and anecdotal evidence the foothill bucks of California deer-hunting Zone D-3 closely resemble those found in southwestern Oregon.
ZONE D-3 BOUNDARIES
Zone D-3 is bordered on the west by Interstate 5 in the Sacramento Valley and extends east to the Pacific Crest Trail along the highest ridges of the Sierra-Nevada Mountains. Its northern border runs from the valley floor along scenic State Highway 70, and then east to State Highway 89 at the town of Graeagle. The zone’s southern border follows State Highway 80, and the Bear River, back down to the valley.
Zone D-3 also includes all or part of eight counties: Glenn, Colusa, Sutter, Butte, Yuba, Nevada, Sierra and Plumas — all of which hold huntable public land. The Plumas and Tahoe national forests lie within the boundary, as well.
PLUMAS NATIONAL FOREST
Recent “spot-kill” map evidence in the Plumas NF reveals hunters in the area around Bucks Lake posted the highest buck harvest, followed by the area of Little Grass Valley Reservoir. Some of the best hunting took place around the Tamarack Flat area, east of Bucks Lake; Bucks Mountain; Bald Eagle Mountain; and Cedar Flat.
South of Little Grass Valley Reservoir, you’ll want to scout the area surrounding the town of La Porte.
Areas near Onion Valley Creek, Bald Mountain and Willow Creek have posted good deer-kill numbers in the past. Another good concentration of kills has been seen near the western edge of the Plumas NF on the west side of Bullard’s Bar Reservoir, near the town of Challenge.