Whenever I daydream about tying my tag on the antlers of a trophy class buck here in California I can't help but wonder if it will ever happen again. The buck I killed last year wasn't big or old, and neither were four of the five most recent bucks I've taken.
The lone exception was a Zone C4 blacktail that I spotted one chilly evening four years ago as it followed a well-used migration trail in eastern Shasta County.
I collected the high-racked 4x5 with a single shot just before dark. The buck wasn't a giant, but he was definitely above average when it comes to headgear. I have scored on several big antlered bucks during five decades of deer hunting in California, but I attribute my good fortune to persistence and good luck more than conscious planning. Big antlers are nice, but they are not the reason I buy my hunting license and deer tags each year.
It's a fact that the majority of bucks killed annually in California are not old enough to have reached trophy status. When competing with other hunters on public land, the odds of bagging a big buck seem even more daunting.
That said, I don't believe hunters should be discouraged from seeking outlandish bucks if that's what's important to them.
Right now lets take a brief look at the deer that occupy suitable habitat throughout the state. Here's what you need to know if you want to bag a buck in California that might make the pages of the Boone and Crockett Club's Records of North American Big Game, or the Pope and Young Club's Bowhunting Big Game Records of North America.
According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife there are six subspecies of mule deer in the state. They include Rocky Mountain mule deer, burro mule deer, Inyo mule deer, California mule deer, southern mule deer and Columbian blacktail deer.
Because the first five subspecies cannot be separated neatly into geographic areas, they are all lumped together for records keeping purposes. They compete in the typical and nontypical categories for Rocky Mountain mule deer, which range throughout the West but reside only in eastern California, roughly from Mono County north.
Due to the relatively small population, only one typical and five non typical mule deer from this state are listed in the B&C records book.
Columbian blacktail deer are listed separately. To be eligible, they must come from a region designated by B&C as having pure strain blacktails. In their category, California tops the listings with several hundred entrants. British Columbia, Washington and Oregon provide the rest.
If you really want to harvest a record book candidate in the Golden State, your best bet is to hunt the northwest portion of the state and try to bag an exceptional blacktail. It's rare, but each year at least a few hunters take "book" deer. In the past, the two guys I hunt with most often, my son Mark and son-in-law Robert, did just that.
Both of their bucks came from Zone B1 several years ago. Rob spotted his buck one day after a snowstorm caused the deer to start migrating from the Trinity Alps Wilderness Area to lower wintering areas several miles away.
He shot the buck late in the afternoon on the far side of a steep canyon and had to pack it in pieces uphill to his truck, after which he nearly froze in his wet clothes. Shedding the outer layer, he turned the heater on full blast until he stopped shivering enough to drive.
In 2004, on another snowy day in the same zone, Mark, who hunts in remote, hike-in places more than anyplace else, followed deer tracks into a no man's land abyss, and got lucky.
"The thought of getting a deer out of that spot wasn't pleasant," Mark said, "and I was about to turn around when I saw three does and decided to stay put for a few minutes longer. Boy, I'm glad I did. It was late in the season, and there was a buck hanging around with the does. Turns out he was one of the biggest I ever got!"
The minimum score for blacktails is 135. Mark's deer scored 142.Mule deer from this state may not score well, but some of them are huge. On average, the biggest bucks, in body weight and antler size, come from the 17 X zones.
The only trouble is that it can take years for a hunter to accrue enough preference points to finally be drawn for the X zone of his or her choice.
That said, there is a slim chance that you'll draw a tag even without many points. Here's how. Ninety percent of the Premium Deer Hunt Tags, which include the X zones, C zones and zones D9, D12, D16 and D17, go to maximum preference point holders in the June drawing. The remaining ten percent are awarded using a Draw-by-Choice drawing, which is a random, luck-of-the-draw situation.
Just to show you what might happen should you be drawn for an X zone tag, here's what Josh Wiley, of Redding, told me about his hunt in Zone X4.
To begin with, Josh and four friends applied as a party and they beat the odds, which were slightly less than five to one.
"I was surprised that we got drawn," Wiley said, "but we all were happy that we did. We made the most of it by camping out in the zone. As it turned out, four of us got our bucks on the opening weekend. The last guy filled out on the following Thursday."
Wiley described the deer hunt as the best he and his friends ever had. They were not targeting trophies, but Josh came home a great buck.
"I hate to admit this, but we were driving to one of the spots a local rancher told us about, when we came around a corner and saw two bucks standing in the sagebrush along a tree line," Wiley explained.
"One of them looked really good to me, so we parked out of sight, and I put a sneak on the deer. I made a good 150 yard shot with my .30-06 Remington model 700."
As he should have been, Wiley was delighted with the 25-1/2 inch wide 3x3.
"My buck was running with a smaller buck," he said, "and that was about par for the course. We didn't see any giants, but there were plenty of respectable bucks around. We saw several every day."
Each year, some hunters draw tags for zones they've never hunted in before. That can be a good thing, but it can also be disappointing if they approach their hunt ill prepared. Research can prove very valuable in this situation, and speaking with hunters who are familiar with the area can pay off.
I know of one hunter who got his first tag for Zone X3b in 2014, and he made the most of it when he tagged a respectable 4x4 mule deer on his second day there. Prior to the hunt, he gathered info from other hunters and used Google Earth and topographical maps to gain insight about the area.
California deer hunters have to deal with a variety of circumstances that may or may not contribute to their eventual success. There are resident and migratory deer in this state, and it's important to recognize which are which, and how such things as weather will affect them. Resident deer spend most of their lives in a relatively small geographic area, while migratory deer divide their time between summer and winter ranges, which can be many miles apart.
If you hunt close to where you live, and have access to property with resident deer, you may actually be able to pattern the deer somewhat. After a few trips to a place, you should know if there are any trophy class bucks in residence, and where they're apt to be seen.
Migratory deer are weather driven much more than resident animals. When the season opens, most of these deer will still be on higher summer range, and that's where you need to go to find them. Sometimes there's road access to such spots, but you may have to pack in on foot or with pack stock.
Usually, with the first cold fall storms, the deer start to migrate. That process can be short and sweet or drawn out for days or weeks, depending on the severity of the weather, distance between summer and winter range, and the food supply.
Some years, when the supply of feed is scarce on summer range, as it was in 2014 due to drought stress, some deer may move early. A substantial acorn crop will also lure some of the deer down before the serious migration occurs.
Because of their movements, it's difficult, if not impossible, to pattern specific migratory deer. The best you can do is learn the drainages they use when moving from summer to winter range and, better yet, the actual trails they follow. Watch for migrating deer early and late in the day.
Studies have shown that most of the bigger bucks travel from evening until early morning. In an ideal migration situation, you may see several bucks from which to pick and choose.
Without a doubt, most of the so-called trophy deer taken in California are the result of chance encounters rather than planned events. By trophy, I'm not specifying record book deer, but any adult deer of any subspecies from any zone.
The hunters who are serious about bigger than average bucks all have some of the same things in common. The most obvious of which is, they pass on the legal but lesser bucks they come across.
Recently I talked with Craig Stowers, the former deer program coordinator who now oversees all the wildlife programs for the CDFW. I asked Stowers, who hunts deer, what other hunters can do to improve their chances of harvesting a trophy buck, or any legal buck, in the Golden State.
"One mistake some hunters make is to think they've got it made when they draw a special tag," he said. "It's true your chances are better with an X tag or a tag for one of the additional general methods, archery or muzzleloader hunts, but success is not assured no matter where you hunt.
I tell hunters they've got to do their homework to learn about access to a particular zone, what the terrain is like and where the deer are apt to be, whether they're resident or migratory animals.
"I know not everyone can break away and investigate an area before their hunt, but at least they should set aside enough time to scout while they actually hunt. I hear about guys who hunt for a weekend at a time, and that's not nearly enough time, especially when an area is new to you."
California is a unique state when it comes to deer hunting, because there are so many subspecies of mule deer to hunt and there's such a variety of terrain.
The good part is the amount of public land offering access to anyone with the appropriate tag in hand. This year you may be one of the hunters who harvests a trophy buck in one of the state's many zones. If not, I hope you can at least have fun trying.