2008 Big Buck Outlook

2008 Big Buck Outlook

You don't have to draw a D5 or B1 tag to score a big buck this season. In 2007, trophies came from all over the Golden State. (September 2008)

Photo by Eric J. Hansen.

No apologies, friends! But as far as deer hunting in California goes, I'm not exactly what anybody would call a devoted trophy hunter. There was a lot of water under the bridge before I killed my first buck. And it was a fat forkhorn mule deer that I thought was the greatest deer ever to walk a Mono County migration trail.

Of course, that was the mid-1950s -- a time when the emphasis was on getting a supply of venison. Back then, almost no one spoke of bucks in terms of their trophy value. I daresay that inside many an old barn, near-record-book antlers are still piled up where hunters chucked them after cutting up their deer meat.

Indeed, things have changed! Today, thanks to the interest in keeping records, much more attention is paid to antler development on bucks virtually everywhere. There were far more deer in this state in the "good" old days of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Yet the biggest percentage of bucks killed were younger animals with forkhorns or three-point antlers.

Actually, that's still the case today.

In 2007, more than 50 percent of all the bucks taken statewide were forkhorns. Three-point bucks came in at roughly 30 percent. But that means hunters connected with 4-pointers about 15 percent of the time. And about 5 percent knocked down bucks with more than 4 points.

Bigger-than-average deer are killed in virtually every one of the state's 44 general-season deer zones, but not very many of them. And even the best bucks have only a slim chance of being added to the pages of the Boone and Crockett Club's Records of North American Big Game, or Pope and Young's Bowhunting Big Game Records of North America.

That's due in part to the makeup of deer herds in California. No other state has six subspecies of mule deer, as we do here. Because the dividing lines between them are blurred, Boone and Crockett lumps together five of the subspecies in the mule deer categories of typical and non-typical. The lone exception is Columbian blacktail deer, which are listed separately. To qualify for that designation, blacktails must come from a specific geographic area where crossbreeding does not occur.

What does it take to get a buck into the mule deer listings in B&C's all-time records? To give you some idea, California hunters are represented by only one buck in the typical category and five in the non-typical category.

However, scads of blacktails are listed, including a great buck taken by my son-in-law, Robert Feamster, and another that will have my son Mark's name next to it in the next edition of the all-time records book.

Percentage wise, hunters are most likely to encounter wallhanger bucks in the 17 X Zones, where the biggest mule deer are found. All of the premium X Zone tags are awarded in June. In 2007, tags for individual X Zones ranged from a high of 2,230 in Zone X1 to only 55 in Zone X5a.

Last year, the total number of tags available for all the X Zones combined was 8,020.

So-called additional hunts are another good option. But drawing a tag for the best of them is usually much easier said than done. These hunts include general-methods hunts, area-specific archery hunts, muzzleloader rifle hunts and junior hunts.

A few of these hunts regularly produce monster bucks and high hunter success. However, tag allotments are quite low.

Now that you have a better picture of what goes on during California's deer seasons, a review of the situation here is in order.

To begin with, we have both resident and migratory deer -- an important consideration, depending on where you happen to be hunting.

Resident deer are always present somewhere in the general area where they live, while migratory animals divide their time between high-altitude summer range and lower wintering areas. In other words, when migration is a factor, the general rule is to hunt high early and look for deer at mid-elevations later in the season.

The first cold storms usually start the migration. But a few deer do show up early on winter range when the food supply -- perhaps an exceptional crop of acorns -- lures them down in advance of the rest.

Most of their summer range is on public land. Their mid-elevation winter range exists in a variety of settings, including private land where you'll need to get permission to hunt.

Public-land opportunities occur on national forests, Bureau of Land Management holdings and state forests, and the private timberland that's open to hunting.

The number of bucks taken annually, including the trophies, often depends on weather conditions. When fall storms arrive early, as happened in 2007, the total harvest of deer improves considerably.

Last year, a slightly higher percentage of mature bucks was included in the mix, simply because they were on the move with the rest of the deer. I killed a buck that was actually on a migration trail. Needless to say, I was very happy with the tall antlered 4x5.

Last fall, many of the hunters I associate with experienced good hunting in a variety of zones.

One of the biggest bucks I heard of came from private property in eastern Shasta County, where Parrey Cremeans of Redding definitely made the most of his time afield.

His blacktail hybrid was a non-typical 9x9, 31 1/8 inches wide, with eye guards. Its massive rack also had bases so thick that Cremeans could barely get his hands around them.

Despite its amazing antlers, the buck didn't score high enough to be entered in the non-typical records of B&C. However, it does rank second in the non-typical inland blacktail category in the California Records of Big Game.

Of course, Cremeans is an experienced hunter with many archery and rifle bucks to his credit. Would you expect a newcomer to deer hunting to make trophy hunting in the same C Zone look easy?

No? But Christine Tavolazzi, also of Redding, nearly did. Details are sketchy, but the gist of the s

tory is that one afternoon in mid-October, Tavolazzi, accompanied by her 8-year-old son Geno, went hunting on a friend's property.

While they were hiking along an open ridge, they spotted a very nice buck below them in the oaks.

"I've shot at bucks before," she said, "but I always got nervous and missed. This time, things happened so fast that I didn't have time to come unglued. When the buck suddenly started to leave, I just raised my rifle, found it in my scope and fired."

Her buck was a beautiful 4x6 with eye guards and an outside spread of 24 inches.

"I'm still amazed I hit it. What a way to break the ice!"

The C Zones weren't the only place where outsize bucks were taken in 2007. When Timothy Sands, a reader from Auburn, was drawn for Zone X7a, he definitely made the most of his tag. Hunting for six days with friends and by himself, Sands found his great 4x5 buck in a recovering burn area near Sierraville on Oct. 11.

The deer's antlers were tall, heavy and wide, and while they won't make the B&C records, they scored well by Safari Club International standards -- a true trophy in any man's woods.

Five out of seven of Sand's friends also filled their X7a tags last year.

If a D-Zone hunt is in your future, perhaps the experience of 35-year-old Hank Moore ill help you focus on trophy hunting as a real option.

Moore, who resides in Ione, hunts Zone D5 each season. He's always gotten his buck, but none of the early ones compare with the 28-inch-wide 3x4 he ran into in 2007. Hunting near Arnold in Calaveras County, Moore saw the buck with a doe on the cold, clear morning of Sept. 29.

"The buck stopped cold, 60 yards away," said Moore. "I got off a shot with my .30/06 and dropped him right there.

"It's the biggest buck I've ever got, and I'm still thrilled with it. I already have it mounted and on the wall."

One tactic that most successful trophy hunters have in common is spending plenty of time afield, learning whatever they can about their chosen hunt area and where the deer are within it. Unfortunately, though, many hunters assume that just because they were drawn for coveted X Zones or additional hunt tags, that a big buck will come easily.

Miracles do happen! But usually, the chore of locating deer in unfamiliar terrain requires considerable time and effort.

Your best idea is to set aside for the hunt all the time you can. Then if you kill a buck right off the bat, you can always go home early.

Blind luck most definitely accounts for a certain percentage of the trophy bucks killed in California. However, most of the serious trophy hunters rely more on hard work and skill to accomplish their goals. And they must be willing to pass up legal bucks that don't meet their criteria, knowing full well that they may not fill their tag that year.

Earlier, I mentioned that the X Zones are the best general-season zones in the state for trophy deer. The catch is that it can take you several years to build enough preference points for a decent chance of drawing a tag. Of course, if you don't enter the drawing, you won't ever get a tag --so you've got to keep trying.

In 2007, the X Zones that produced the highest percentage of 4-point bucks were X2 (at 38 percent), X5a (41), X5b (47), X6b (34) and X7a (31 percent).

By comparison, the highest 4x4 production in any other zone was in Zone D12, with 29 percent.

Now, just because a buck's antlers have several points per side does not mean it's exceptionally big. And as you've seen, even if it's a true trophy, it probably won't make it into the record books. However, that should take nothing away from the animal. Any buck that lives long enough to reach its prime of about four to seven years, does so by virtue of where it lives and how and when it moves.

One avid deer hunter -- who also happens to be a long-time biologist for the Department of Fish and Game -- said that any place with lots of does and fawns doesn't usually harbor the bigger bucks.

"The bucks may not be too far away. But they're likely utilizing marginal habitat and moving mostly early in the morning, right at dark and at night," he said. "Some bucks just seem to prefer a lifestyle that contributes to their longevity."

The modern emphasis on scoring antlers doesn't say much about the factors that should really matter most -- such as the way a hunt is conducted, the experiences you had and how much you value your success.

That said, the best chance for a "book" buck probably occurs in the B Zones where blacktail deer reside, because they are listed separately from bigger mule deer. But to be realistic, book bucks are few and far between, even on blacktail range.

That, of course, is how it should be.

Looking ahead to this fall, if you've been drawn for a premium or additional-hunt tag of some sort, your odds of bagging a real wallhanger buck are significantly better than those of most mere mortals holding general-season tags.

However, everyone must deal with the reality of weather and its effects on hunting. Fall 2007 brought numerous storms that contributed to a bigger than average kill. Years of prime weather usually don't come back to back, but there's always a chance.

Like you, perhaps, I put in for premium tags that appeal to me, usually in the X Zones. But I realize that to get one, I may have to wait several years. In California, however, you can always get a tag to hunt deer somewhere, should you so choose. And that's a pretty fair deal.

Without a premium tag in my hand, I usually wind up hunting in the B or C Zones, simply because they're close to my home. You might hunt in the A or D Zones for the same reason.

There's nothing wrong with that. Sometimes a place you hunt regularly pays off handsomely simply because you've become familiar with it and know where to be and when.

If I get drawn for a premium tag, I'll make the most of it by researching everything I can about the zone, and make every effort to scout the area in advance of the hunt.

If I'm very fortunate, perhaps I'll have another California trophy to hang my tag on. And if I do, trust me -- you'll be the first to know.

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