For the past four years California has been suffering through an extreme drought. During the deer seasons last fall there was some rain at times, and it helped hunters. But the overall effects of the drought were still felt. For example, my son, Mark, and son-in-law, Robert Feamster, prefer to hunt the mountainous Trinity Alps Wilderness area where they usually have success. That wasn't the case last fall.
On opening weekend, the weather was hot, which isn't unusual. But the browse plants higher up were drought stressed, and the deer were scarce. Apparently, most of them were already halfway between summer and winter range where the forage was better.
On the second weekend it rained a bit, and it was cloudy and damp when Robert and I hunted in a recovering burn area in Zone B2. Rounding a bend on a skid trail, we spotted two 3-point bucks feeding in a brushy opening at around eight in the morning. Startled by us, they headed for the nearby timber. But I shot the biggest one of the two before he got there. He wasn't a monster, but I was happy to tag him and replenish my supply of venison.
A few days later, on a rainy evening hunt after work, Robert came across another 3x3, and brought the buck home with him. Meanwhile, my son did not kill a buck. After opening weekend, he was tied up with work and only had time for short afternoon hunts that didn't pay off. The only mature buck he saw was making tracks in a skiff of snow as it fled over a rise never to be seen again. And so it went. Due to skill and determination, and quite a bit of luck, some hunters were successful. But many were not.
I've hunted in California since the mid 1950s, and I won't pretend things are as good now as they once were. Today, there are fewer deer and fewer hunters. I don't mean to imply that deer hunting is now in the tank, because that's not the case. I can attest to the fact that it is still pretty good for hunters who work at it.
Each year I search out a few deer hunters and quiz them about their good fortune and how it came about. In 2013, one of the hunters was Ed Kaplan of Redding, who told me about a blacktail buck he took in Zone C3. This year, another Kaplan has made these pages. Her name is Kylea, and she is Ed's 13-year-old daughter. Her story is a tale worth telling.
Kylea completed the required hunter safety course when she was 11. Before her deer hunt, also in Zone C3, she accompanied her dad on goose and pheasant hunts. It's Ed's hope that Kylea and younger brother Kobi (age 11) will grow up to be as fond of the outdoors and hunting and fishing as he is. Kylea has her first buck, and Kobi got his first turkey on a junior hunt this spring.
As for Kylea's buck, it was taken on private property that her dad has hunted for several years. To keep a handle on deer movements, Ed has trail cameras up in a couple of different locations. The deer Kylea shot was one of two bucks that appeared regularly on a camera overlooking a series of trails the animals use to go from feeding to bedding areas and to get water from a nearby creek.
"On Sept. 29, I took Kylea to the property in the afternoon," Kaplan said. "We climbed into a two-person tree stand with a fine view of a field the bucks were seen in several times. And, yes, we were wearing safety harnesses because we were 18 feet above the ground, and I don't like to take chances."
The hunters were in the stand for nearly two hours when they saw movement along the far edge of the field. It was one of the bucks coming into the open 150 yards away. Using a borrowed, scope-sighted Remington .243, Kylea aimed carefully and took the shot when her dad gave her the go ahead.
How did she feel about her accomplishment after recovering the nice 3x3? "Getting my first buck was amazing," Kylea said. "I can't wait to go deer hunting again."
"Tell the readers Kylea wasn't turned off at all when she helped me field dress the deer," her proud father said.
Another success story was told to me by 29-year-old Dustin Vincelli of Palo Cedro. Dustin liked to stay close to roads until a friend introduced him to backcountry hunting a few years ago.
Ever since, he's been hunting places only accessible by hiking. Dustin showed me a mount of his most recent blacktail and told me how he got it.
It was opening weekend of the general season, and he was hunting alone in the Yolla Bolly Middle Eel Wilderness where zones B1 and B2 join because his regular partner had to work.
"I was going to hike into the wilderness the day before opening and camp out," Dustin said. "But at the last minute I decided to sleep at home for a while and then drive to the trailhead and hike in at three in the morning."
If that seems odd, it is. But Dustin works the graveyard shift in a local warehouse, so he's used to doing things at strange hours.
Dustin has been hunting in that area for five consecutive years, and he knows the places he hunts like his back yard. He doesn't see a lot of deer where he goes, but a high percentage of the deer he does see are bucks.
"I saw only three deer after I hiked in," he recalled, "two does and a great 3x3 buck, or 3x4 if you count a short cheater point. I used my lever action .30-30 Winchester to take the buck at around 150 yards."
Here's a look at how things shook out for hunters in 2014. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) tallies the harvest two ways, as reported and estimated. The reported figures, based solely on returned tags, are below. The estimated figures, which are higher than reported figures, take into account the filled tags that were not returned. Here is a look at the reported harvest zones in 2014 and how it compared with 2013.
Zone A, which covers all or part of 29 counties, opens for archery hunting in mid-July and gun hunting on the second Saturday in August. The tag quota for Zone A is 65,000, but only around half are sold each year. Last year, the actual tags issued totaled 30,761. Part of the reason sales aren't more robust is because private property covers much of this huge zone. There is some public access on BLM and national forest lands and it's worth knowing about. For information, contact the nearest regional office of the CDFW.
The reported harvest in Zone A decreased from 3,128 in 2013 to 2,662 in 2014, and that may be due to the prevailing hot weather conditions.
In the northwestern portion of the state, the six B zones blanket an area west of Interstate 5 from Glenn County north to Del Norte County. This region is noted for mountainous terrain and plenty of public land, including national forests and wilderness areas. The only exception is Zone B4, which is mostly private.
The big change in recent years is in the tag quota, which was cut from 55,000 to 35,000.
The latter number is close to the number of tags sold annually, so most hunters who want them can still purchase a B tag over the counter. Be aware, however, that the quota is normally filled sometime during September. If you wait until the last minute to purchase yours, you might miss out.
As for the buck take, the total reported harvest in 2014 was a little higher than it was in 2013. Here's how the figures looked: Zone B1 went up from 1,025 in 2013 to 1,214 in 2014; B2 jumped from 925 to 1,053; B3 fell from 296 to 204; B4 dropped slightly from 150 to 147; B5 went up from 303 to 317 and B6 declined from 460 to 434.
There are large parcels of private land throughout the C zones, but there is also public land on BLM and national forest property. Private timber companies have historically allowed access to their lands, but be aware that motorized vehicle access is increasingly restricted because of road damage during wet weather.
The four C zones extend from Butte County north to Siskiyou County. They blanket an area from the Cascade Range on the east to Interstate 5 on the west. The quota on C zone tags has dropped from 9,025 a few years ago to 8,150 today. Demand exceeds supply, so you must participate in the June drawing for a C tag.
Here's how the C zones harvest in 2014 compares with 2013: C1 dropped slightly from 267 to 258; C2 went up from 166 to 210; C3 grew from 219 to 227 and C4 declined from 817 to 773. The C4 harvest figure includes the G1 late buck hunt.
The D zones are special in the worst way. They boast the lowest average success rates of all the zones in the state. However, things aren't all bad. Hunters who apply themselves and learn about the whereabouts and movements of deer in the areas they hunt, are successful often and they take truly great bucks.
Here is how the harvest numbers for 2014 compare with 2013: The take in Zone D3 went up from 889 in 2013 to 957 in 2014; D4 rose from 240 to 251; D5 climbed sharply from 844 to 938 and D6 fell from 323 to 245.
Meanwhile, D7 dropped from 299 to 286; D8 declined from 229 to 200; D9 rose slightly from 105 to 115; D10 slipped from 46 to 30 and D11 dropped from 154 to 147. Moving along, Zone D12 is up from 38 to 66; D13 dipped from 158 to 132; D14 rose from 130 to 149; D15 went down slightly from 35 to 31; D16 climbed from 176 to 195; D17 went up from 44 to 48 and D19 improved from 46 to 52.
Anyone who wants to hunt mule deer in California has to have an X zone tag in his or her pocket. These tags must be applied for in the annual June drawing wherein unsuccessful hunters accrue preference points that are applied in future years. Last year just 6,065 tags were issued for all of the X zones, and that was down from 6,970 in 2013.
The zone with the fewest tags was X5b (50). That was due to a massive wildfire in 2012 that scorched more than 300,000 acres. The zone with the most tags was X1 (770) but that was down from 1,150 in 2013.
Here is how the harvest in 2014 compares with 2013 in all of the X zones: Zone X1 doubled from 82 bucks in 2012 to 164 in 2013; X2 climbed from 26 to 69; X3a grew from 59 to 114; X3b jumped from 126 to 200; X4 rebounded from 53 to 93 and X5a went up from 14 to 39.
Meanwhile X5b hopped from 27 to 31; X6a climbed from 60 to 125; X6b doubled from 62 to 125; X7a jumped from 43 to 74; X7b grew from 34 to 48 and X8 slipped from 21 to 18. To close this out, X9a grew from 186 to 232; X9b climbed from 39 to 67; X9c rose from 32 to 47; X10 fell from 23 to 17; and X12 bounced from 117 to 191.
If you get the idea that hunting in the Golden State during the general seasons isn't easy, you're right, but only to a point. Public land hunting can be physically tough, but it can also be rewarding. Hunters who tie their tag on a legal buck's antlers can be justifiably proud of their accomplishment. In 2013, the statewide success rate was less than 18 percent. In 2014 it was almost up to 22 percent. With good weather and some luck, the percentage could be even higher once the 2015 season is in the books.