California Deer Hunting Options in the D 3-5 Zone

California Deer Hunting Options in the D 3-5 Zone
Photo by Ken Archer

For me the California deer hunting season had come down to the final day. I'd been hunting national forest land just inside Zone D 5 with a pair of Zone D 3-5 tags in my pocket as often as possible for the better part of a month. Success rates for hunters that purchase D 3-5 tags average less than 10 percent and this figure includes deer killed on private property.

Despite the statistically low success rate I was optimistic about my chances. Deer numbers were low, true enough, but I'd done my homework and had put myself in an area that showed a fair amount of sign. In fact the previous day, I'd spotted a season-high seven does.

On my final day of hunting, the forecast called for clear, bluebird conditions; the ground was dry and the leaves crisp. Still-hunting wasn't an option, so I decided to take a ground stand next to an old skid road overlooking a semi-open gully.

On a high ridge behind my position there was a fairly old clearcut several acres in size where deer had been feeding. The gully below me featured a tiny foot-wide, spring-fed trickle. It was my hope that after browsing in the clearcut all night, deer would head down to the creek, tank up on water and then bed down for the day on the shady hillside beyond the far side of the gully.

I moved into position and sat down against a small sugar pine a half-hour before dawn. I spent the first hour of daylight diligently glassing the gully, but nothing moved.

Just when I started to think nothing was going to show, there was a hollow thud and I froze. A few yards away a deer had jumped into the skid road!

Presently, I caught the forms of two deer following a cut toward the bottom of the gully. The lead deer was a doe, but the second one was a legal buck. The buck moved quickly and I only got glimpses of his head and neck.

I wanted to stand up, but I knew better. My only hope was that the deer would cross the gully and come into view on the far side. Minutes dragged by and my mind was spinning. If the deer turned left in the bottom of the gully, I'd never see them again.

When I finally spotted movement behind a screen of pines and oaks across the gully, relief swept over me. I brought the rifle to my shoulder and tracked the buck through the scope as he climbed. The trees were too thick to risk a shot, but he'd run out of cover up near the top of the hillside.

As the doe reached the edge of the cover, she slowed to a stop, scanned the scene for danger and then resumed her trot. The buck held up in the same place as the doe and stood watching his lady friend as she crossed open ground.

The buck was about level with me and facing straight away, about 200 yards away. It wasn't an ideal shot, but it was the only shot I was going to get.

I put the crosshairs on the base of his tail, the rifle went off and the buck when down as if pole axed. When I dressed the husky forkhorn I found that the 7mm slug had traveled through the abdominal cavity beneath the spine, shredding the left lung and major vessels leading to the heart. Despite my worst fears the bullet didn't hit any major bones and very little meat was lost.


If you go strictly by the numbers, purchasing a D 3-5 tag seems like a pretty poor choice. According to the DFG, 29,213 tags were sold last year and an estimated 2,593 bucks were tagged. I'll save you the trouble of doing the math. The success rate last year, despite nearly ideal stormy conditions, hovered near 9 percent. As I mentioned earlier, a portion of the successful 9 perecnt harvested their deer on private land. I can tell you from personal experience that the "backyard" bucks on foothill landowners tags come a whole lot easier than bucks that spend their time running the ridges in national forest areas dodging mountain lions and hunters. This being the case, the actual success rate for hunters confined to public ground is probably significantly lower than 9 percent!

Lest you think I'm trying to discourage you from hunting in D 3, 4 or 5, with the low success rate being what it is, there are still some very good reasons to purchase a D 3-5 tag or, better yet, a pair of them in 2012.

For starters, the season is one of the longest in the state, generally kicking off on the last Saturday in September and running until the first Sunday of November. And, of course, since you can purchase a pair of tags it is essentially a two-deer area. Beyond that, when you look at a map you find that Zones D 3, 4 and 5 encompass a huge area running roughly from Quincy in the north to Arnold in the south, and from Highway 5 in the west to the Pacific Crest Trail in the east. Portions of the Plumas, Tahoe, Eldorado and Stanislaus National Forests are found within the three zones, ensuring that the D 3-5 tag holder will have access to ample public land.

The DFG's estimated three-year blacktail deer population for the three zones is 42,287. Spread this population over the large area encompassed by the three zones and you won't find a deer standing behind every tree. Yet with more than 40,000 deer in the woods, you'll see animals, provided you do your homework and spend time in the woods hunting.

This brings us to an important point about public land hunting, the state of hunters in general and the public land success rate for D 3-5 tag holders. While there are many thousands of people that purchase this tag, I've seldom seen one of them out in the woods hunting on foot. I've seen them glassing from trucks. I've seen them driving on quads. I even had one of them drive up to me while dragging a deer down a skid road and ask me with a puzzled expression where my truck was, as if it was unfathomable that anyone would actually hunt on foot!

I point out all this to illustrate a couple things. First, if you are the type of hunter willing to leave the vehicle and hike, you'll encounter very little competition. Second, your chances of scoring while road hunting are pretty slim, so I'm convinced that the success rate of public land hunters who actually get out of their vehicles and into the woods is higher than the statistics indicate. Speaking for myself, I have about a 50-percent success rate. On average, I put a D 3-5 tag on a public land buck every other year.

The final positive factor in hunting D 3-5 is the chance of encountering a truly massive blacktail. While these zones don't hold huge numbers of deer, the herd does exhibit some incredible genetics. This, combined with a lack of "serious" hunting pressure, means that a good percentage of bucks survive enough hunting seasons to reach their true genetic potential. The result is that if you spend enough time in the woods you've got a decent chance of putting your crosshairs on a big, majestic buck.


Zones D 3, 4 and 5 have both resident and migratory deer. The majority of the deer that inhabit national forest lands are migratory, so we'll focus on migratory deer hunting tactics.

Migratory herds head into the high country in early summer and remain there until the fall, when they head for lower elevation areas where they spend the winter. Call the DFG biologist for the area you intend to hunt and establish where the deer summer, where they winter and the time frame and factors that prompt them to move toward the winter range.

Generally speaking, some begin filtering lower in late September and October regardless of the weather when acorns begin to drop. If early rain causes an early "green up," this, too, can serve as incentive for browse-hungry deer to move lower.

Ask any experienced migratory deer hunter what constitutes prime hunting conditions and he'll tell you that it's hard rain and snow. If a winter storm hits during the season, a mass migration is often the result as deer vacate their high-elevation haunts. These deer will be on the move across unfamiliar ground and memorable hunting is often the result.

Whether the deer are filtering down during fair weather or bailing out of the high country in the teeth of a snowstorm, you've got to know where the deer summer and where they winter in order to intercept them as they move.

Deer hunting experts stress the importance of preseason scouting and I agree with them to some extent. If you head out and scout migratory deer in August and early September, you'll find them on their summer range.

Certainly it is good to know where the deer are holding on the summer range, yet come opening day of the rifle season, things almost certainly will have changed. The bucks that you saw out feeding when their antlers were soft and covered with velvet will have stripped off the velvet. These hard-antlered bucks will be leading a largely nocturnal lifestyle and frequenting heavy cover by the time the season rolls around. Toss a bunch of noise and man scent into the mix on the opening weekend of the season and the bucks that seemed like easy marks in late August will become very elusive, indeed.

While I do scout to find the herd in late summer, that only occupies a small amount of my scouting time. I invest the rest of my scouting time identifying key areas at various locations between the summer and winter ranges. My goal is to map out a variety of stand locations across a range of elevations. This way I can hunt the herd throughout the entire season as they move progressively lower.

Pre-season scouting is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of my overall scouting strategy. I actually do more scouting during the season than before it. When the weather is fair, I spend the hours between my morning and afternoon hunts looking for sign. While the deer will hold tight in heavy cover during the midday hours, their tracks and droppings betray the elevation where the majority of the herd is located. This keeps me hunting my highest percentage stands at any given time.


Okay, you've done your homework. You know where the deer herd is located and you've identified some promising locations. How are you going to convert this knowledge into venison? The best way to do it is while sitting patiently in a ground blind or tree stand.

I can hear the grumbling already. "My grandpa killed 47 bucks while still hunting ... ." Good for him, but if you want to score consistently while hunting on low percentage public land like that found in D 3-5, stand hunting is the way to do it.

There are times when the ground is wet, rain is falling and/or the wind is blowing that still hunting is a good option, but when all is said and done the guy that rides his stand day in and day out will kill more and bigger bucks than guys that rely on still hunting or spot-and-stalk hunting.

Deer detect hunters using their senses of smell, hearing and vision. Stand hunting is the best way to minimize the effectiveness of their senses. Stand hunters don't spread their scent through the woods and if you are in a tree stand your scent actually seems to be carried away from your hunting area. Stand hunting reduces the noise you make to the absolute lowest level. Finally, deer are color blind and they are not good at identifying shapes, but they are quick to pick up movement. If you can sit halfway still, the deer simply won't see you — at least until it's too late!

Stand hunting allows you to remain in a prime location while making minimal disturbance. Wait in that prime location long enough and you're going to tag a buck. It really is as simple as that.


I'm always reluctant to point to specific public land deer hunting locations and identify them as the places to go. Deer are where you find them and the steps I've outlined will help you pinpoint them. Having said that, here are some spots that are proven producers spread across Zones D 3, 4 and 5. In D 3, check out the areas around Bucks Lake and Little Grass Valley Reservoir. In D 4, both the Rubicon Canyon and Soda Springs areas hold bucks. For hunters working in D 5, Cook's Station and Kyburz are good central hubs.

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