A breakdown of the latest hunter success reports helps hunters find their zones to tag a buck. (August 2009)
It seems like only yesterday when California deer hunters enjoyed one of the most productive deer seasons ever. That was way back in the fall of 2007, when a series of cold storms had resident deer stirring and migratory deer hoofing it for lower ground.
Fast forward to 2008, and it's an entirely different story. Where I hunt there was only one weather event during the general deer seasons. It was a warm rain that encouraged some localized deer movement, at least on the first day, but that was about all. The rest of the time it was hot and dry. And given those conditions, most of the deer that migrate from high-elevation summer range to wintering grounds did not move down until most general deer seasons were over.
As a result, those deer were out of reach of most hunters all season long.
In 2007, thanks to the stormy weather, the statewide take of bucks was more than 33,000. By comparison, in 2008, the estimated harvest was 28,171, or 4,829 fewer bucks overall.
Oh well, that's the norm for the Golden State. Unsettled, cold weather, which comes along every three or four years, means more bucks for hunters than the warm years. However, regardless of the current situation, plenty of hunters have their fair share of good luck.
Let's take a look at the state's various general season hunt zones and compare 2008 with 2007 just to get a handle on the trends.
To begin with, Zone A is huge. It covers an area from western Los Angeles County north to Mendocino County and east as far as State Route 99. Much hunting in this zone takes place on private land. However, in some counties, there is some Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land as well. There are 65,000 tags available for this zone, of which 31,405 were sold in 2008.
Zone A presents a unique set of circumstances for hunters because of the timing of the archery and rifle seasons, which are the earliest in the West. Bowhunting starts on the second Saturday of July and closes 23 days later, while the 44-day rifle hunt starts the second Saturday in August.
In a banner year -- like 2007 -- the take in all of Zone A is about 8,400 deer. In 2008, the harvest was 8,033. Still, a zone that coughs up around 8,000 bucks each fall is nothing to sneer at, and a lot of hunters would rather hunt the A Zone than anywhere else. Last year, hunter success in this region was around 26 percent.
One hunter who likes Zone A is 21-year-old Brittany Lehman. She took a very nice 3x3 blacktail near the coastal town of Cambria, in San Luis Obispo County. To make a living, the Lehmans raise stone fruit near Fresno. Most of their hunting takes place on the family's cattle ranch, where she started hunting as a kid with her dad. To date, she's taken several bucks on the property, including her biggest in 2008.
Spot-and-stalk is the accepted method of hunting on the ranch, but the trick is being in the right place to spot for deer when the coastal fog clears. Early in the morning on the day of their hunt, Brittany and her husband, Cody, tried three different locations before the fog lifted and gave them a good view of a broad swath of land below their position.
As Brittany told California Game & Fish, at first she saw three does come out, then two legal forked horns and a small spike. They were a long way off, and the hunter and husband debated about trying for the biggest one.
"But before we could decide, another buck, a really good 3x3, stepped into view," said Brittany. "We had to get a lot closer, so we picked a route where we wouldn't be seen and started down the hill."
After pushing through thick brush, and trying not to come into contact with too much poison oak in the process, she was finally within 225 yards, but a tree hid the buck. In order to see him under the low-hanging branches, Brittany had to get flat on the ground with her feet pointed uphill. It looked awkward, but she evidently had things under control as she made a perfect shot with her scope-sighted .223 Browning A-Bolt. The buck dropped in his tracks.
Thousands of other hunters had similar experiences in Zone A last year.
Next on tap are the six B Zones in the northwest portion of the state. These zones harbor a good population of blacktail deer. Many of these deer qualify for the Boone and Crockett Club and Pope and Young Club record books each year.
Hunter success was 19 percent in 2008. The quota is 55,000 tags for the region, but usually less than 40,000 are claimed.
A quick look at the B Zones shows the clear difference between 2007 and 2008, when a decline was felt in all of them. For example, in Zone B1, the tally of bucks taken in 2007 was 3,429 while in 2008, the number was 2,593. Meanwhile, Zone B2 went down from 2,988 to 2,248; Zone B3 fell from 724 to 568; Zone B4 slipped from 368 to 333; Zone B5 dropped a bunch from 1,003 to 654 and, finally, Zone B6 went from 1,371 to 999.
The figures were down, but some hunters didn't feel the crunch at all. For example, carpenter Nick Crandell, who resides in a rural part of Shasta County, dropped an exceptional velvet-antlered forked horn on opening weekend of bow season in the Trinity Alps Wilderness. Then he went back for the rifle season and tagged a nice 3x3 on the second day. Crandell's good fortune in Zone B2 is no accident. He scouts hard before opening day and hunts six miles from the nearest road.
Another serious hunter is 37-year-old Corey Graham, an accountant from Portola, who travels to the Mendocino National Forest and Zone B1 to hunt each year. After six years in the same area, Graham and his hunting companion, Juan Janer, have the bucks wired. Graham has taken a nice one each year for the past three years.
Being office-bound much of the time, Graham admits he doesn't get a lot of exercise during the off-season, but he is game just the same. Even though he can drive to the remote campsite, his hunting is done on foot in roadless terrain.
"Janer and I have put a lot of boot tracks across that country," Graham said. "And we've found a couple of spots that always seem to have some deer. One of them was very good to me again last fall."
On the second Sund
ay of the season, Graham spotted two exceptional forked-horn bucks in a dark, crescent-shaped bowl on a mountainside bench far below camp. The deer heard him and left before he could shoot. Realizing that the bucks probably didn't know what made the noise, Graham figured it was worth trying to find them again the next day.
Amazingly, that's exactly what he did. After sneaking quietly into the target area, he came to a grassy opening and spotted both of the bucks feeding in the middle of it.
"Everything happened fast," Graham remembers.
The bucks took off in different directions, and one was swallowed by the brush instantly. But the other one ran uphill.
"I saw just enough of him to take a shot with my .270 Weatherby Mark V," said Graham. "When he fell backwards downhill, I couldn't believe my eyes."
Graham's forked horn wore antlers 19 1/2 inches wide and 22 1/2 inches tall. Local hunters call a buck like that a "Pacific fork." Regardless, that's a great blacktail in any man's woods.
The four C Zones lie east of Interstate 5 and west of the Cascade Range from Siskiyou County in the north to Butte County in the south. The tag quota last year was 8,575, which, unfortunately, is lower than the demand. So, if you really want a C tag, you'll have to buy it over the counter before the June drawing, or else they're gone. Hunter success in these zones was around 18 percent in 2008.
In Zone C3, the 2008 harvest was actually higher in 2008 compared with 2007. But taken as a whole, the zone produced fewer bucks in 2008 compared with 2007.
Here's how the C Zones fared. Zone C1 dropped from 401 in 2007 to 330 in 2008; Zone C2 went from 294 to 195; Zone C3 climbed a bit from 445 to 466 and Zone C4 dropped from 1,471 to 1,085.
As usual, the C4 figures include the take from the late-season G1 hunt, which takes place in that zone.
The C Zones offer a mix of public and private land. Unattached hunters can roam freely on the Klamath, Lassen and Shasta-Trinity national forests, as well as some private timberland that is open to the public.
Public-land hunters should be aware that the deer aren't just everywhere. During fall backcountry treks each year, I invariably meet a few C Zone hunters who are wasting their time in places with very little feed and practically no deer sign at all.
My motto is: "Believe the sign." I prefer to scout until I find ample feed and a concentration of tracks so I'll know where to spend my time with a realistic chance of success.
If you look at the deer zone map online at www.dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/ hunting/deer/cazonemap.html, you'll see how the 16 D zones go from Imperial County north to the southern edge of the C zones in Placer County. The quota for tags in individual D zones varies from 500 in Zone D17 to 10,000 in Zone D6.
A single tag covers zones D3 through D5 and the quota is 33,000. Some tags for individual D Zones sell out each year, but there are always permits left over for several of the zones, including D3-D5.
Apparently, the take in 2008, in at least nine of the D Zones, eclipsed the total harvest in 2007 but not by much. Here's how the 2008 numbers compare with 2007.
First, looking at Zone D3, we find that 1,097 bucks were taken in 2007 and 1,070 in 2008; Zone D4 fell from 329 to 312; Zone D5 rose slightly from 1,699 to 1,705; Zone D6 dropped from 881 to 856; Zone D7 went from 574 to 558 and Zone D8 fell from 647 to 535. Meanwhile, Zone D9 slid from 245 to 179; Zone D10 improved slightly from 54 to 56; Zone D11 jumped from 230 to 296; Zone D12 slipped from 117 to 89; Zone D13 went up from 302 to 335; Zone D14 climbed from 178 to 235; Zone D15 went up one notch from 18 to 19; Zone D16 erupted from 265 to 429; Zone D17 increased from 84 to 98 and Zone D19 increased from 76 to 125.
The D Zones are not known for their high hunter success. The highest success rate occurred in D17 (19 percent), while the lowest was in D15, (5 percent). Just the same, some hunters score virtually every year in whatever D Zones they hunt, and occasionally a tremendous buck comes from one of these unheralded zones.
Without a doubt, the most coveted general season deer zones in the state are the 17 X Zones. They extend north along the eastern edge of the state from Inyo County to the Oregon line. The popularity of these zones stems from the mule deer that live there and habitat they live in. You'll find semi-arid high desert sagebrush-juniper country, as well as alpine ridges and everything in between. It's big, open country. And a good percentage of the bucks are bigger than deer in other areas.
The X Zones produce very well for tag holders as do additional, low-quota hunts for muzzleloaders, bowhunters, juniors and general-method hunts. The trick is to draw a tag, and that can take years with the current preference-point system.
All tags are awarded in the June drawing, along with special-hunt tags of all kinds. Last year, the total number of tags for the X Zones was 8,060, which was slightly higher than the year before. Hunter success ranged from just 10 percent in X10 to 55 percent in X3a. In round figures, the average success rate in the X Zones was 32 percent -- the best in the state.
Taking the X Zones individually, we find that the harvest of bucks was down somewhat in all but two of them. Here's what the figures looked like for 2007 and 2008. Zone X1 dropped from 585 in 2007 to 442 in 2008; Zone X2 fell from 82 to 67; Zone X3a went down from 231 to 137; Zone X3b slipped from 389 to 296; Zone X4 decreased slightly from 175 to 173; Zone X5a slid from 29 to 15; Zone X5b dropped from 52 to 41; Zone X6a improved from 146 to 156; Zone X6b declined from 117 to 78; Zone X7a dropped from 124 to 71 and Zone X7b fell from 51 to 46. Meanwhile, Zone X8 slipped from 57 to 53; Zone X9a dropped from 352 to 234; Zone X9b jumped from 88 to 104; Zone X9c fell from 64 to 47; Zone X10 dropped from 58 to 40 and Zone X12 slipped from 244 to 203.