Last fall, California was still in the throes of a multiyear drought. As was the case in 2014, many of the deer moved out of higher, backcountry areas early because of stressed food sources. More than one Northern California deer hunter told me that pickings were slim during the rifle seasons on public ground at higher elevations, including places where there were lots of bucks during the earlier bow season. The deer that came down found a bumper crop of acorns in the oaks, and many of them wound up on private land where hunting opportunity is limited. Hunting was a challenge, but finding a legal buck was not impossible.
I was with my son-in-law, Robert Feamster, when he scored on a nice 4x4 blacktail in Trinity County near Hayfork. As he keeps reminding me, the buck could easily have been mine. When we came around a corner on a rarely used trail, Rob, who has much better eyesight than me, spotted the buck standing with a doe on a brushy slope less than 100 yards away.
"Do you see him?" Rob hissed.
"He's right there."
"Sun's in my eyes," I whispered.
"Take him if you want him."
Without hesitation, Rob shot, and the deer went down instantly. I call Rob a buck magnet. He can pick a buck out of almost any cover with his naked eyes while I'm still fussing with binoculars. It's disgusting, really, but I've got nearly 40 years on him, so I guess I have an excuse.
Rob's buck was taken in zone B2, as was the forked horn I got a couple of weeks later on another hunt with him. On that afternoon we were bouncing along a logging road in his pickup on our way to the highway far below, when I saw a deer bolt across the road and start up the hillside.
"Robert, there's a deer," I yelped.
"Buck or doe?" he asked.
"Don't know," I said.
Rob followed my gaze up the hill. "Oh, there it is," he grinned. "I see antlers."
Getting out of the rig, I crept forward, hoping the animal would be standing somewhere in the trees where I could see him. He was, and he was legal. I let my old .270 Winchester Model 70 bark. The buck collapsed where he stood, and proceeded to roll down the slope until he hung up in thick brush. It wasn't the biggest antlered deer in the woods, perhaps, but the venison he provided was the focus of many winter meals.
Each year I ask some lucky hunters what it took to tag a buck here in California. This year I'm going to acknowledge the achievement of two newcomers to the scene. I admit I'm showing favoritism with the first selection. She's my adult granddaughter, Megan Carper, of Mckinleyville, who got her first buck ever during the rifle season in zone B1. The other hunter is the 17-year- old daughter of a friend by the name of Annelise Saltsman.
Megan passed her hunter safety course just before bow season opened and hunted with the bow her husband, Caleb, bought for her all through that season. Even though she didn't score, she was excited about deer hunting, and she was excited for the start of rifle season.
On their third day out they were hunting on family property near Mad River, and the deer were hiding out. It was hot, and after several hours of tramping through the woods and seeing only two does, they decided to call it a day. However, while driving out to the gate, Caleb spotted a deer about 150 yards away. With the help of binoculars, he determined it was a legal forked horn. Telling Megan to follow him, he led her to a spot where they would have a clear view of the animal. They then set up the shooting sticks he had packed for just such a situation. Megan settled her Browning .243 on the sticks and tried to find the buck in the Redfield scope.
"I see a doe," she said.
"The buck is to her right," Caleb instructed.
Megan moved the rifle a few inches and saw the buck facing away at a slight angle. Caleb told her to aim behind the shoulder, and she squeezed the trigger. Her shot placement was a little off, but the buck collapsed anyway. It turns out that Megan hit him in the neck, and, as she told me later, she didn't ruin any meat.
Meanwhile, on public land near Whiskeytown in Zone B2, Annelise was hunting with her dad, Cory, her mom, Angela, and her two brothers, Carson and Cory. They had spent several hours in an area where Annelise had scouted on her own before and during the bow season, but when they heard someone else shoot nearby they decided to move to another spot. It was a good decision. As the SUV bounced along the narrow dirt road, Annelise caught sight of a deer on the steep hillside below and told her dad to stop. She got out and slipped back to where she had a better view of the deer, which was now standing in the shade inside a stand of live oak trees.
"At first I thought it was a doe," she said later. "But my dad said it was a legal forked horn, and that's all I had to hear. It happened so fast I didn't have time to get nervous. And when I raised the .30-06 Savage rifle and shot off hand, the deer was mine. I couldn't believe it. My first buck!"
With some instruction, both Megan and Annelise field dressed their bucks and had no qualms about it. Each of them told me they are looking forward to many more years of deer hunting.
Here's a look at how things shook out for hunters in 2015. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) tallies the harvest two ways, as reported and estimated. The reported figures are based solely on returned tags. The estimated figures take into account the filled tags that were not returned. In the future the emphasis will be on reported figures because hunters are now required to return their tags, filled or not, and to report on how many days they spent in the field. A fine will be assessed for tag holders that do not meet the above requirements. Stuart Itoga, Deer Program Coordinator for the CDFW, noted that tag returns are very important. They will play a big part in providing future deer hunting opportunities.
What follows here is a look at the harvest in the various zones in 2015 and how it compared with 2014.
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 zone is now separated into north and south zones, but one tag covers all, so the harvest figure used here combines both. The tag quota for Zone A is 65,000, but only around half are sold each year. Private property is the rule in much of this zone, but there is some public access on national forest and BLM land. The reported harvest in Zone A increased from 2,662 in 2014 to 4,124 in 2015.
The six B zones blanket an area west of Interstate 5 from Glenn County north to Del Norte County in northwestern California. Most of the zones in this region have plenty of public land in the form of national forests. The lone exception is Zone B4, which is largely private land. In B4 there is limited access on the King Range Conservation Area, which is administered by the BLM and the CDFW.
A few years ago the tag quota for the B zones was cut from 55,000 to 35,000, and last year, for the first time, the tags sold out in August. For the time being you can still purchase a B tag over the counter, but don't wait until the last minute to do so.
As for the buck take, the total reported harvest in 2015 was a little higher than it was in 2014. Here's how the figures looked: Zone B1 went up from 1,214 in 2014 to 1,421 in 2015; B2 jumped from 1,053 to 1,288; B3 climbed from 204 to 305; B4 grew from 147 to 241; B5 went up from 317 to 428, and B6 jumped from 434 to 526.
The C zones, have a decent amount of public land on BLM and national forest property. In addition, timber companies allow public access to much of their land. But a lot of it is walk-in only because of vehicle- caused road damage, especially during wet weather. In the foothills, where migratory deer wind up, it's largely private land.
The four C zones blanket an area from Butte County north to Siskiyou County on the east side of Interstate 5. Last year the quota on C zone tags was 8,150, which is below the demand. To get a C zone tag you must participate in the June drawing.
Here's how the C zones harvest in 2015 compares with 2014: C1 went up from 258 to 264; C2 jumped from 210 to 248; C3 swelled from 227 to 293, and C4 climbed from 773 to 1,045. The C4 harvest figure includes the G1 late buck hunt.
On average, the D zones have the lowest general seasons success rates of all the zones in the state. Across the board the average is around 17 percent. The best is Zone D10, at 35 percent. The worst is Zone D15, at 7 percent. However, hunters who apply themselves in the D zones and learn the whereabouts of the deer in the places they hunt have at least a fair chance of tagging a buck there.
Here is how the harvest numbers for 2015 compare with 2014: The take in Zone D3 went up from 957 in 2014 to 1,260 in 2015; D4 rose from 251 to 382; D5 climbed from 938 to 1,064, and D6 went up from 245 to 613. Meanwhile, D7 jumped from 286 to 471; D8 rose from 200 to 284; D9 swelled from 115 to 155; D10 climbed from 30 to 81, and D11 went up from 147 to 216. Moving along, Zone D12 is up from 66 to 100; D13 improved from 132 to 146; D14 rose from 149 to 202; D15 decreased slightly from 31 to 29; D16 climbed from 195 to 261; D17 went up from 48 to 62, and D19 improved from 52 to 73.
Anyone who wants to hunt mule deer in eastern California has to have an X zone tag in his or her pocket. These tags must be applied for in the annual June drawing. Unsuccessful hunters gain preference points that increase their odds for success in future years. Last year, just 6,180 tags were issued for all of the X zones combined. The zone with the fewest tags was X5b with 50. The zone with the most was X1, with a total of 775. That's a slight increase over 2014, when the X1 quota was 770, and much lower than 2013, when the quota was 935.
Here is how the harvest in 2015 compares with 2014 in all of the X zones: Zone X1 climbed from 156 bucks in 2014 to 269 in 2015; X2 went from 69 to 71; X3a grew from 83 to 129; X3b jumped from 224 to 256; X4 rebounded from 111 to 144, and X5a went up from 23 to 28. Meanwhile, X5b increased from 25 to 33; X6a climbed from 120 to 143; X6b went up from 96 to 114; X7a dropped slightly from 84 to 82; X7b grew from 37 to 59, and X8 more than doubled from 23 to 59. To close this out, X9a grew from 193 to 255; X9b climbed from 60 to 93; X9c rose from 45 to 68; X10 rose from 30 to 34; and X12 bounced from 125 to 184.
If you get the idea that hunting in the Golden State during the general seasons isn't easy, you're right. Public land hunting can be physically tough, but it can also be very rewarding. Hunters who ultimately tie their tag on a legal buck's antlers, can be justifiably proud of their accomplishment. In 2015, the statewide success rate was around 22 percent and the total harvest of bucks was 19,164. That's up considerably from 2014, when the harvest was reported to be 14,199. The final take depends on several factors, the main one being the weather. With hot weather, not unusual in the fall, the take slips. With a smattering of storms, it climbs. That said, it will be interesting to see what 2016 brings.