California deer forecast: Weather patterns across the Golden State appear to be the primary factor for success for state hunters.
Looking back on the general deer seasons in California last fall, the success rate for some hunters, while quite good, could have been better for more of us. The determining factor, as is the case most years, was the weather. The age-old rule in this state is, the harvest declines when the weather is predominantly hot, and the take goes up when it's cool and stormy.
IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT
During hot weather deer will hide out in shady areas most of the day to escape the heat, and, to some extent, the insects. Hunters who wait it out during the middle of the day may catch a legal buck moving from one spot to another, or taking a few bites of food, but most of the deer movement will be early in the morning and late in the afternoon.
In 2015, when the weather was mild during the deer seasons, the statewide take of bucks totaled 19,164 animals. With a good amount of inclement weather in 2016, the take jumped to 27,078 bucks, and in 2017, another hot-weather fall, it fell back to 21,289. My excuse for not tagging a buck for the first time in years was the heat. I tried, but, as my wife pointed out, I don't hunt as hard as I used to. It's something about decades lived and gravity that holds me back, I suppose.
California is a huge state; 163,696 square miles; 250 miles wide and 770 miles long. Many hunters live so far away from where they hunt, regular scouting of an area in advance of hunting is a luxury many of them do not have. And it should be obvious, those who do scout religiously before they hunt hold a much better chance to score on a legal buck in whatever zone they hunt than does a weekend warrior who needs to be back on the job on Monday morning.
The majority of hunters in this state hunt primarily on vast tracts of public land. Finding deer in the first place often is a challenge. Tagging a buck is usually the result of hard work coupled with the luck of a lottery winner. It's another matter, however, when you hunt resident deer on private property. If you visit the property often enough to observe the deer and how they move around, you can adapt your method of hunting to a certain circumstance. That might mean spot-and-stalk, sitting on a tree stand or hidden in a ground blind.
For more than 20 years, my son, Mark, has been hunting in the Trinity Alps Wilderness on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Hunting across these 512,000 acres of mountain land is tough because there are no roads. But Mark knows the country. He is successful more years than not. Last year he killed two bucks, one each on separate treks, and he made it look easy. Mark and his son-in-law, Caleb, hiked into the back-country and set up camp. The only weather event of the season occurred two days before they arrived and left the place with a shallow cover of fast-disappearing snow.
"I saw some bucks in a deep hole during bow season," Mark told me, "so we had an idea of where to spend our time. As it turned out, Caleb and I both shot bucks one right after the other on our first morning." Both bucks were 4x4s; Caleb's was the biggest, but Mark definitely wasn't complaining about his.
Wildfires: Know Before You Go
From California Fish and Wildlife, Fires throughout California have affected access to public lands in many locations that are normally heavily used during the fall general hunting season openers. Archery deer hunters on scouting expeditions around the state are already encountering restricted access to desirable properties. As the general deer seasons approach in many California hunting zones, hunters are reminded to research the areas where they intend to hunt or scout to be sure those areas are free from fire restrictions.
HARVEST TO HARVEST
Remember, California's weather during deer season was more favorable for success in 2016 than in 2017. According to the California Nevada River Forecast Center, precipitation records in many places reveal totals to more than 200 percent of normal (PON) for the measured record period (MRP) from October 2016 to April 2017. (See the accompanying tables for harvest-to-harvest comparisons.)
Zone A offers the earliest deer hunting in the state and, consequently, some of the warmest weather despite its position parallel to and along the central coastal mountain range. However, precipitation ranged as much as 145 PON in San Francisco to 137 PON in Salinas during the record period. Bowhunting starts in mid-July; gun season begins in mid-August. The tag quota for Zone A is 65,000, and tags are good for both the north and the south sections. Still, less than half of them are sold annually.
In all, there are six "B" zones in the northwest portion of the state. They include part of Glenn, Tehama and Siskiyou counties and all of Humboldt, Trinity and Del Norte counties. The B zones are home to most of the Columbian black-tailed deer in the state. Public land is scarce in Zone B4, but all other B zones have plenty of it, including national forest and BLM land, which is open to all hunters.
Rainfall across the B zones was staggeringly high in 2017 as well. Eureka precipitation over the MRP was 167 PON.
The tag quota for all the B zones, once at a high of 55,000, has been lowered to 35,000. At one time, hunters could buy one or two B tags over the counter well into the season. That is no longer the case. In 2017, B tags were sold out by August 1. Because of the early sell-out, B tags are now categorized as restricted deer tags a situation, no doubt, that surprised a lot of hunters when they went to purchase tags this year. For an exact description of restricted zones, see the website of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife at CDFW.ca.gov and consult the Big Game Hunting Annual.
The four "C" zones lie east of Interstate 5, from the town of Willows north to the Oregon border. Included in the zones is the west slope of the Cascade Range where Redding saw rainfall of 151 PON across the MRP. Farther south, precipitation measured during the same period at Blue Canyon, in the Sierra foothills, was a whopping 195 PON. And on the flanks of the southern Sierras, Fresno saw rainfall measured at 163 PON across the MRP.
In addition to a large amount of ranchland, the C zones hold a considerable amount of national forest, BLM and timber company land that is open to the public. Due to liability, and road damage caused by unauthorized vehicles, much of the timberland is walk-in only these days.
The tag quota for the all of the C zones combined is 8,150 bucks, which is well below the demand. To get one you have to apply in the annual drawing in June.
Sixteen "D" zones lie between the A and X zones, and they cover an area roughly from San Diego County north to the southern edge of Zone C4. This includes the foothills of the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountain ranges, as well as the widespread desert, east to the Nevada border where rainfall in Barstow was measured at 142 PON over the MRP. Santa Barbara measured 144 PON of rainfall, and San Diego received 121 PON over the MRP.
Last year, the average success rate for all D zones combined was 13 percent. Individual zones range from low success rates of just 5 percent in Zone D15, to good showings, such as 39 percent in Zone D17. Long ago, I hunted in the area that is now D11. There were never many deer in the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles, but I always managed to fill my tag during the gun season.
Most of the mule-deer hunting in California takes place along the eastern edge of the state. Tags are required in the X zones and must be applied for in the annual June drawing. In 2017, just 5,495 tags were issued for all of the X zones combined. The zone with the fewest tags just 50 & was X5b.The zone with the most tags was X3b, the same number available in 2016. Zone X1 tags numbered a close third, with 760 available.
HUNT YOUR DEER, WEATHER OR NOT
Was it the weather that drove down the overall success of California deer hunters in 2017? No one knows for sure. What most deer hunters know, however, is deer hunting in California is never a piece of cake.
I've been hunting deer in this state since 1956, and most years, I've put venison in the freezer through my commitment to the sport. Devote the time and effort this year, and you may very well put your tag on the antlers of a buck wherever you hunt in this state.
Deer tag holders are now required to turn in reports on their success, or lack thereof, or they will pay a fine when they apply for tags in the future. David Casady, a biologist with the Large Mammal Conservation Program, which includes deer management, stresses the importance of following up so the CDFW has an accurate accounting of the take in various regions.
"Last year 87 percent of hunters made their reports," Casady said. "That's good, but we hope the reporting will go even higher in the future. It really helps us to understand the trends and how the deer herds are holding up throughout the state."