Looking for the best California deer hunting locations? We've analyzed the data to identify this season's top areas.
By John Higley
Well, so much for California's years of severe drought. The winter just past was one of the wettest in decades, with record snowfall at higher elevations and flooding in some low-lying areas.
So-called Pineapple Express storms dumped an amazing amount of rain and snow, and led to the destruction of the spillway at Oroville Dam, the tallest dam in the country.
Blacktail deer (Shutterstock image)
After five dry years, we needed the rain, and the end result for deer and other wildlife is more viable water sources, more moisture in the soil and healthier plant based food sources. As retired California Department of Fish and Wildlife senior biologist Tom Stone told me: "Water is a good thing. Cool, rainy weather makes deer hunting better, and when the grasses green up due to timely fall rain, the deer have an easier time of it all winter long. We call it the green flush, and when conditions are right it happens in October."
I gauge hunter success initially by the deer my son Mark, son-in-law Robert Feamster and I get, assuming we tag any of them at all. In 2015, Mark didn't score because he was overloaded at work. But in 2016 he harvested two blacktail bucks in Zone B2.
Meanwhile, Robert and I each tagged a single buck. In this forecast I'll tell you about my buck and one of Mark's, both of which were average in antler and body size. The second of our annual deer forecasts planned for next month centers on bigger bucks, and I'll tell you then about Robert's trophy, also from Zone B2, and Mark's other buck, which was truly exceptional.
As far as my success goes, I was given the opportunity to hunt on private property in Zone C3 in eastern Shasta County. The place is less than an hour's drive from my home, so I made it a point to go there often enough to get a handle on the whereabouts of the resident deer. Migratory deer also come onto the ranch when the weather pushes them down from the mountains, but while I was there I didn't see evidence of that happening.
On the day when I scored on a nice 3x3 blacktail, it was blustery and chilly. The off-and-on rain was blowing sideways in 40-mile-per-hour wind. Despite the rain gear I was wearing, I was just a wee bit wet when it was all over. My hunt got interesting during the afternoon while I was watching a pasture with binoculars where I'd seen several does on previous visits. At first there was nothing moving, but when the rain stopped briefly, a doe got up on the edge of a brushy draw where she had been bedded out of the wind.
Glassing carefully, I spotted the gray body of another deer partially obscured by a thin veil of brush about 300 yards away. I remember thinking that had to be a buck. And when the deer moved its head slightly, I was sure it was antlers and not branches moving in the wind. Trying to remain calm, I studied the scene a little longer, and presently I located a second buck standing a few yards behind the first.
This was getting exciting. I would be happy to tag either one of the bucks when it presented a clear shot. However, taking a long shot in the wind isn't my favorite thing to do. I wanted to get closer, so I circled the pasture, got above the deer, and sneaked up behind a giant oak tree, which blocked at least some of the wind and rain but not all of it, believe me!
I was certain the deer were still there, but both bucks had moved into the brush where they were out of sight for the moment. Alternately standing and leaning against the tree, and trying to keep the rain from dribbling down my neck, I waited for something to happen. After half an hour, my wait paid off. During another break in the storm, both bucks appeared. And when one of them offered a clear shot, I uncovered the scope on my Winchester Model 70, aimed and squeezed the trigger. I've been hunting deer in this state for 60 years I can't believe it either and I'm still thrilled when I harvest a buck
My son Mark is one of the most avid deer hunters I know. He works hard, and he often hunts in the Trinity Alps Wilderness on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Last season Mark took two bucks in the Trinities. One was a real opening-day dandy, and the other one was an average 3x3 that he found late in the season.
Mark had hiked into the wilderness on his day off. It was during another storm event, and he was rained on, snowed on and nearly blown over by the wind.
Dr. James Kroll and Pat Hogan discuss the impact of wind on deer behavior
(Via North American Whitetail)
"It wasn't the most pleasant of days," he told me. "But my attitude improved greatly when I saw the 3x3 buck feeding along the edge of a wildfire site a half hour before dark. I didn't hesitate to take the 100-yard shot, and the buck dropped where he stood. I couldn't believe it. After going without venison for a year I now had the meat from two. And the biggest of them became a European mount to put on the wall."
After boning out the buck on the spot, Mark packed the meat and his gear in the dark to the trailhead three hours away.
To me, our success means that there is some pretty fair deer hunting left in this crowded state. Providing you're willing to work for it, of course. The latest population estimates for deer herds throughout the state were published in 2015. These figures indicate that some herds have actually increased slightly since the last tally, while others have declined or stabilized. The total statewide population of mule deer and blacktails is believed to be around 512,000.
Last year, deer hunters were required to turn in reports on their success or lack thereof, or be subjected to a fine when they apply for tags in the future. Stuart Itoga, deer program coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, was happy with the results.
"The reporting went well," Itoga said recently. "I want to thank tag holders personally. Historically, we had reporting rates of 30 to 50 percent, and this year it was 84 percent. My hope is that we reach 100 percent in the future so we don't have to collect any fees from hunters for not reporting. Anyway, the harvest figures are as good as they can be."
Comparing the 2016 harvest numbers with 2015, we find in many cases that the take went up. In some zones the increase was significant. That said, here's a zone by zone run-down.
For record-keeping purposes, Zone A, which covers all or part of 29 counties, is divided into north and south sections. However, a single A zone tag covers the entire region. Zone A is definitely a short-shirt-sleeve zone because it opens earlier than any other zone, and it's reliably hot. Bowhunting starts in mid-July and rifle hunting begins in mid-August. The tag quota for Zone A is 65,000, but normally less than half of them are sold.
The harvest in this huge zone went from 4,124 in 2015 to 5,586 in 2016.
In all, there are six B zones, and they are home to most of the Columbian blacktail deer in the state. These zones cover an area from Glenn County in the south to Del Norte County in the north and east to Interstate 5. All of the zones, with the exception of B4, have plenty of national forest and BLM land which is open to the public.
Years ago, the tag quota for the B zones was 55,000. Less than 40,000 were sold annually, but the quota has been lowered to 35,000, which is below the demand. You can still purchase one or two B tags over the counter, but the tags are sold out before the annual rifle season opens. Buy yours early or risk losing out for the year.
Here's how the B zones shaped up in 2016 as compared to 2015: Zone B1 rose from 1,421 to 2,218. B2 went from 1,288 to 2,240; B3 increased from 305 to 411; B4 fell a bit from 241 to 233; B5 climbed from 428 to 536; and B6 stepped up from 526 to 911.
The four C zones cover an area from Siskiyou County in the north to Butte County in the south. The region is east of Interstate 5 and includes the west slope of the Cascade Range. Hunters have access to national forest, BLM and timber company land, although the latter is often a walk-in situation due to vehicle caused erosion.
The tag quota for the all of the C zones combined is 8,150, which is well below the demand. C zone tags, once available over the counter, are now obtained in the annual June drawing.
A comparison of harvest figures from 2015 to 2016 shows an increase in the take overall, and here's how things shook out: C1 rose from 264 to 316; C2 went up from 248 to 371; C3 grew from 293 to 459; and C4 (with the late season G1 hunt added) improved from 1,045 to 1,475.
Despite the low success rate in most D zones, some hard-working hunters get their deer nearly every year in whichever zone they hunt. Last year, the D zone with the highest percent of success was D17 where hunters scored 29 percent of the time. The lowest average was reported in Zone D8, where only 6 percent of hunters filled their tags.
Moving right along, here is how the harvest numbers for 2016 compare with 2015: The take in Zone D3 went up from 1,260 to 1,955; D4 rose from 382 to 516; D5 climbed from 1,064 to 1,737; and D6 went up from 613 to 773. At the same time D7 jumped from 471 to 581; D8 rose from 284 to 338; D9 swelled slightly from 155 to 164; D10 climbed from 81 to 109; and D11 went up from 216 to 331. Finally, Zone D12 jumped from 100 to 151; D13 improved from 146 to 286; D14 rose from 202 to 305; D15 went up from 29 to 46; D16 climbed from 261 to 319; D17 went up from 62 to 128; and D19 bounced from 73 to 116.
California has a fair number of Rocky Mountain and Inyo mule deer (a subspecies) which reside mostly along the eastern edge of the state. To hunt them it's necessary to draw a tag for one of the X zones, and it may take several years to do so. 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. In 2016, just 6,180 tags were issued for all of the X zones combined. The zone with the fewest tags was X5b with 50, and the zone with the most was X3b with a total of 795, the same number as 2015. Zone X1 was a close third with 770 tags available.
Here is how the harvest in 2016 compares with 2015 in all of the X zones: Zone X1 climbed from 269 bucks to 352; X2 went from 71 to 119; X3a grew from 129 to 147; X3b jumped from 256 to 321; X4 rebounded from 144 to 239; and X5a went up from 28 to 37. Meanwhile X5b hopped from 33 to 41; X6a climbed from 143 to 223; X6b went up from 114 to 141; X7a rose from 82 to 106; X7b dropped from 59 to 50; and X8 fell from 59 to 52. To wrap this up, X9a slipped from 255 to 232; X9b stepped up from 93 to 108; X9c rose from 68 to 86; X10 climbed from 34 to 62; and X12 jumped from 184 to 232.
The good news here is that the quotas this year will remain virtually unchanged from last year. Personally, I'd like to see increases in a few zones, but that's another story. Whether you draw a premium tag or buy one of the over-the-counter tags still available, the hope is that you'll find the time to enjoy the deer hunting that California offers. In 2015, the statewide harvest of bucks was 19,164. With more inclement weather, and better hunting conditions, the harvest in 2016 increased to 27,078. With any luck at all, you'll tie your tag to one of the bucks taken in 2017, and so will I.