If you’re a typical deer hunter in California, the open season in your zone will no doubt stoke your mind with questions. You’ll wonder if this will be the year when you put your tag on the antlers of a legal buck, and will it be typical fare or the kind of buck you call or write home about?
These days, maybe we text home about it —with photos attached, of course. But if it is a trophy buck because of its size, will you honestly be able to say your near-heroic scouting efforts virtually assured your success? Or, were you simply in the right place at the right time by accident and luck? Often, that is the case for so many deer hunters who eventually tag a big buck in the Golden State.
Speaking of big bucks, we know some special state hunts, so-called “premium” hunts, can produce more trophy bucks than others. The catch-22 is, the only way to get a tag for any of these hunts is through the annual drawing in June, and it can take years of attempts and accumulated points to ultimately be successful. However, putting your tag on the antlers of any giant buck is usually an exercise in self-control and persistence, coupled with physical conditioning.
Hunting specifically for a trophy deer in California, where the annual buck harvest statewide is not large to begin with, takes a certain discipline few hunters have. I don’t have it. I appreciate a trophy as much as the next guy, but I also crave venison on cool wintery evenings, which, I suppose, makes me more of a meat hunter than anything else.
With that confession out of the way, let me assure you, I will not pass on a legal blacktail or mule deer because it is too big. If, and when, I get another one of those, I will brag about it for years to come.
OUT OF THE ABYSS
McKinleyville, Zone B2
As usual, most successful hunters killed average legal bucks, but a few of them, like Caleb Carper of McKinleyville, scored on real dandies. His trophy blacktail was taken on a hike-in hunt in the 512,000-acre Trinity Alps Wilderness Area in Zone B2. Last month, in part 1 of our annual California deer hunting reports — the 2018 California Deer Forecast — I briefly mentioned his hunt with his father-in-law, my son, Mark. I asked Caleb what it took for him to find and shoot one of the biggest blacktails of his hunting career.
“Well,” he said, “as you know, we’ve been hunting in the same spot for several years. It’s a long way in on foot, but we scout a couple of times in the summer to make sure nothing has changed, and that the deer are where we expect them to be. We put that knowledge to the test whenever we hunt, and, usually, we’re successful.
“The buck I got last fall was a long way down the side of a mountain in an abyss where other hunters rarely go — maybe never go. The terrain is stair-step steep, rocky in spots and incredibly brushy in others. To get down to where we knew the deer were, we had to take the route we thought the animals used and in spots we had to open it up enough for us to use.It was a chore but worth it in the long run.”
It was the second weekend of the gun season when the pair hiked in to hunt. The bucks, because of their location, apparently hadn’t been pressured during archery season or the beginning of the rifle season. Anyway, they were committed to that spot, and both of them got bucks down there on their first morning.
Caleb’s was the biggest. It had symmetrical 4x4 antlers, 20 inches wide — very good for a blacktail, and although it didn’t make the Boone & Crockett records of North American Big Game, it came close. Because of the effort involved — simply getting in there and toting the cape and meat out on their backs — Caleb says the hunt could not have been more rewarding.
CALIFORNIA MULE DEER, DEFINED
Before moving along, let me explain what it takes to get a buck that measures large enough to be entered in the record books of B&C (firearms) or the Pope and Young Club (archery).
According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, six subspecies of mule deer are found in the state. They include Rocky Mountain mule deer, burro mule deer, Inyo mule deer, California mule deer, southern mule deer and Columbian black-tailed deer. Hunters should know this, because all of the subspecies, except Columbian blacktails, compete in the typical and non-typical categories for Rocky Mountain mule deer, and only a handful of California mule deer have been listed in the record books. On the other hand, California blacktails entered in the record books outnumber those from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Be aware, though, that to qualify for the record books, blacktails must come from a region in the northwest portion of California that is outlined/defined by B&C book rules.
TWO SETS OF EYES ARE ALWAYS BETTER THAN ONE
Inyokern, Zone X9b
Another trophy deer story that caught my attention was that of 23-year-old Tyler Dennison of Inyokern, a desert town near the border of Kern and Inyo counties. Tyler, a married man, works for the Department of Defense in the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, which has been in operation since 1943. Raised in the area, Tyler was brought up by his dad, hunting quail and chukars, and he started hunting deer with some success when he was still a teenager.
In 2017, after trying for four years, Tyler drew a tag for Zone X9b in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains that he could drive to easily from home. He was excited to get the tag. He said he always reasoned there must be some big resident deer in X9b, even before the monster-buck-producing G3 Goodale Hunt opens in the same area in December. That hunt takes place during the rut, after the annual migration of deer from the far side of the Sierra Crest when the herd comes down to its winter range in Owens Valley. The odds of getting a tag for the G3 hunt are astronomical. More than 4,000 folks put in for just 35 tags issued for that hunt in 2017.
As Tyler said, “Nearly 100 bucks are harvested in the X9b region during the earlier general season, so there obviously are some deer there all year. It was up to me to find the spots that furnished water, feed and cover, as I knew I would find some bucks eventually.”
In early July, with his X9b tag in hand, Tyler started scouting for deer with his buddy, Cody Darling, who offered to help even though he held a tag for another area.
“Two sets of eyes are always better than one,” Tyler said.“I really appreciated Cody’s company and the help. We scouted every other weekend all summer long, and we watched a group of seven bucks that showed up in the same general location time after time. One of them really got my attention. He was a big, old buck with impressive antlers.”
Come opening morning, Tyler and Cody were encamped on a familiar rock pile behind their Vortex binoculars and spotting scope. They fully expected to see the bucks in the usual spot, but, for the first time since they started watching them, the deer weren’t there.
“Our first inclination was to move on and look elsewhere, but finally we decided to stick it out all day, and that was a good thing,” Tyler said.
At 5:30 in the afternoon, as the sun went down behind the mountains, the seven bucks came out of a group of trees to feed some 1,200 yards away. “We’ve got to go, and we’ve got to go now!” Tyler recalled saying, as the light started to fade.
Their stalk had to be aborted twice. One time they were caught in the open and had to reroute. Another time, they were busted by some does. Circling around more than a mile, they finally got to a spot directly behind the bucks, whereby Tyler made good on a 140-yard shot with his Remington Model 700 in 300 Win. Magnum.
The X9b hunt is not known for its production of trophies, so Tyler’s buck, with impressive 6x6 antlers, 26 inches wide with eye guards, was definitely exceptional. It was one of the biggest Inyo mule deer taken in the X9b hunt in years and the reward for a monumental amount of hard work.
JUST WHAT SHE WANTED
Bridgeport, Zone X12
Another person who scored big on an X zone hunt last season is Amanda Pelichowski of Bridgeport in Mono County. Amanda teaches school part-time and looks after her 2-year-old daughter. She first took up hunting seven years ago when she met her future husband, John Pelichowski. A Mono County sheriff’s deputy, John was raised in the area, and he’s been an outdoorsman all of his life.
In 2012, Amanda killed her first buck ever on a hunt in Nevada. In 2017, after trying for five years, she was drawn for a Zone X12 tag, the zone that surrounds Bridgeport. She could hunt literally out her back door ... providing she knew where to go.
Thanks to her husband, she would definitely have things ironed out before opening day. In his off hours, one of John’s favorite things to do is spend time, as he says, “in the bushes” checking things out and looking for game.
“You’ve got to make good use of your time before you get a tag, so you know where to go and what you’re looking for when you do draw one,” he said.
John had his eye on a particular buck that he watched off and on for three years. Before the season he was able to show it to his wife from a distance on a scouting expedition. She immediately decided that buck was exactly what she wanted.
If this all sounds too easy, rest assured, it wasn’t.
Scouting off and on all summer ate up a lot of hours, and, despite deer sightings, nothing is ever written in stone. In fact, the couple hunted for five days before laying eyes on the big buck while actually hunting. That happened one morning shortly after dawn. They were watching several deer, when John spotted another one nearly a mile away and confirmed it was the buck they were looking for. They watched the buck until it bedded down; then, after picking out landmarks to mark the spot, they started a long stalk. Eventually, they got to within 100 yards of where the buck was hidden. They knew they were close, but they couldn’t see the animal. They stuck it out until sometime later when the animal stood up, stretched and moseyed away. It didn’t offer a nervous Amanda a shot.
At 300 yards, the buck was finally in the open and Amanda, temporarily quelling a case of buck fever, made two good shots with her .243 Savage. It was her first buck in California and her second ever. One wonders what she’ll do for an encore.
Amanda’s buck wore heavy 4x4 antlers, with an inside spread of 25 1/2 inches and eye guards. Field-dressed, it weighed 190 pounds at Ken’s Sporting Goods in Bridgeport. It was the biggest buck tallied at Ken’s last fall.
WILL YOU TAG YOUR TROPHY THIS SEASON?
All of the folks in this story had the option of scouting well before the seasons took place in their hunting zones. All of their bucks were taken on public land, making their accomplishments all the more noteworthy.
California’s 2018 deer season is already under way. How many trophy bucks will be taken this time around is anyone’s guess, but some hunters will certainly tie their tag on the antlers of bigger-than-average bucks. With the right attitude and just a little luck, you might be one of them.