If you know how California deer hunters fared last year, then you're one step closer to success this year in the Golden State. (July 2010)
If we base our predictions for success wholly on season-to-season harvest tallies, we'll say the 2010 California deer-hunting season should see overall kill numbers increase.
For sure, deer hunting last year was tough in some areas due largely to the summer-like weather that lingered into fall. In some locations it did rain twice, but the storms were short-lived and warm. Hunters who were able to take advantage of the events benefitted from some limited deer movement, but you had to be there at just the right time.
The affects of heat can't be overstated. I remember scouting in Zone B2 (in the Trinity Alps) some years back and seeing several bucks and does during the evening hours before opening day. My son Mark, son-in-law Robert Feamster and I were understandably excited about the prospects for morning. However, during the night we were sucker-punched by a warm breeze, which had us sleeping on top of our bags all night. The result was a serious lack of deer up and about during shooting light. Two days later, we went home empty handed.
California hunters are used to less-than-ideal weather conditions. Still, no matter the temperature, some places still offer reasonably good hunting. I'm talking about terrain with good visibility, where there's a fair population of deer to look for. The best approach is to take a stand before first light, and watch the openings like a hawk as the sun rises. With a little luck, you may get a shot at a buck ambling toward his bedding area.
The same patient approach applies in the evening. More than once, I've collected a buck near the end of shooting light, after waiting on stand for several hours. Incidentally, the rule of thumb for evening hunting is: Don't give up until there's simply no shooting light left. You're heading back to camp too early if you can see your way without a flashlight.
Luck is involved, certainly, but most successful hunters are those with intimate knowledge of the region where they hunt. These days that's a luxury few of us have, and more of us should strive for.
How did 2009 treat the guys I usually hunt with? Mark, my son, killed a great 4x4 blacktail during the archery season in Zone B2. My friend, Nick Crandall, got two respectable blacktails -- both 3x3s -- with his rifle. I hunted only during opening week and was blanked, but I don't feel bad because I had plenty of company.
Besides the weather that was too good (depending on your perspective), another contributing factor to lower overall success afield may have been the widespread bumper crop of acorns that drew deer into oak forests, where they could feed and bed without showing themselves. One evening, I stood on a hillside above a sea of black oaks. I heard crunching noise in the trees that had to be deer, but I couldn't catch so much as a glimpse of them through the branches and leaves. However, where there's deer in the acorns there's always hope.
Years ago, after waiting near a stand of tan oaks for two hours, I finally heard a sound other than falling acorns. It was getting late, so I chose to sneak in close to the oaks and try to see what was there. The decision was a good one. Peering into the dark canopy from above, I couldn't see a thing, and I don't think the deer (it turned out to be a fine buck) saw or smelled me. It did hear me, however, and it bolted from the cover to an open hillside, thus giving me an easy shot. It remains one of my best blacktails ever in my hunting career.
2009 VERSUS 2008
Judging from the reports I've heard, I was not surprised to learn that the overall harvest numbers were lower in 2009 than 2008.
According to the California Department of Fish and Game, the total buck harvest for all hunts in 2008 was 28,131 animals. In 2009, California deer hunters killed 26,415 animals. The 2009 numbers equal a success rate during general hunts statewide of about 15 percent; that's down slightly from 2008 when hunter success averaged at 16 percent.
True -- hunter success statewide appears low, but remember it is only the average. The success rate was significantly higher in 14 of the state's 17 X zones and noticeably higher than average in the A, B and C zones. Meanwhile, only two of the 15 D zones reached upward of 16 percent, and hunter success in 10 of the 15 was less than 10 percent.
Last year a total of 236,004 tags were available for all of the state's deer hunts. About 176,390 of them were sold. Tag numbers were slightly higher in 2008 when 178,536 tags were issued.
Tags for premium hunts of all kinds -- including general methods, muzzleloading, archery and apprentice (junior) hunts -- are gone after the annual June drawing.
However, there are always tags available over the counter for some zones including Zone A, the B zones and most of the D zones.
Let's take a look at the zones that regularly produce the most deer and the best hunter success. Our conclusions are based on the number of deer tags returned by successful hunters as tallied by the DFG.
The A Zone is the largest single deer-hunting zone in California. And because of the timing of the hunting season there, it's also one of the hottest in terms of weather. The 23-day archery season starts on the second Saturday in July, and the rifle hunt begins on the second Saturday in August. The seasons start early because deer in that part of the state tend to go into the annual rut much earlier than they do in other regions.
Normally, the A-zone harvest hovers right around 8,000 bucks. However, due mostly to the relentless summer heat that was experienced, the take in 2009 fell to 6,735 animals. By comparison, in 2008 hunters killed 8,033 bucks; and in 2007 they harvested 8,399.
The tag quota for Zone A, which covers a huge area -- from northwest Los Angeles County, north to Mendocino County -- is 65,000. Ironically, only 30,324, were claimed in 2009, and 31,405 were issued in 2008.
No doubt, lack of public land in much of Zone A accounts for the low sales numbers. However, with a little research hunters can find some public land in Colusa, Fresno, Lake, Mendocino, Monterey, Napa, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Yolo counties.
Deer hunters in the B zones have 55,000 tags at their disposal for the six B zones in the northwest portion of the state. In 2009, 38,037 of them were sold, compared to 39,066 in 2008. The estimated buck kill in all the B zones combined was 7,580 animals, which is higher than 2008 when hunt
ers tallied 7,,394 animals. Here's how the totals added up for individual B zones.
Zone B1, the take went up from 2,593 to 2,681 bucks
Zone B2 increased from 2,248 to 2,314
Zone B3 improved from 568 to 660
Zone B4 dropped from 333 to 301
Zone B5 fell from 654 to 599
Zone B6 climbed from 999 to 1,026.
Although I did not score a deer kill in the B zones last fall, I know some hunters who made it look easy. Retired DFG senior biologist Tom Stone was one of them. Ironically, it was the first time in years that he opted for a B tag.
"It was actually a pretty good opening day," Stone recalls. "A friend and I headed for Trinity County long before daylight with no fixed destination in mind. Once on Highway 3, I started remembering what I used to tell hunters when they asked about different places to hunt in Zone B2. For a change, I got to follow my own advice and drove into the mountains toward a trailhead I know.
"Instead of hiking from there into the back-country, my buddy and I split up and followed abandoned logging roads around the mountain. He didn't see anything, but I jumped four deer out of a willow patch, and one of them was a respectable forked horn buck, which I shot. He wasn't a giant deer, but the meat from him was wonderful!"
In 2009, C-zone hunters got a reprieve of sorts. The DFG wanted to include the block of four C zones in the June drawing, along with premium hunts. But the California Fish and Game Commission nixed the idea at the last possible minute.
Regardless, the tag quota for the C zones last year was just 8,150, which was down from 8,575 in 2008. Because the demand is great, C tags sell out in a hurry. If you want one for 2011, you'll have to get with the program as soon as possible, whether it's an over-the-counter or drawing situation.
A wide variety of land types lies in the C zones, which run the gamut from private ranches where permission is needed to hunt, to Forest Service and private timber-company holdings that are open to the public. The area covered runs east from Interstate 5 to the west slope of the Cascade Range and north from Butte County to Siskiyou County.
In 2009, the four C zones produced 1,609 bucks as compared to 1,576 in 2008. As it turned out, all but one of the C zones saw some improvement over 2008. Here's how the figures added up:
Zone C1 went up from 330 to 350 bucks
Zone C2 jumped from 195 to 252
Zone C3 dropped from 466 to 425
Zone C4 (includes the G1 late buck hunt, which takes place in the same area) went up from a count of 1,085 to 1,111.
Each year some tremendous bucks come from the C zones. Some of them migrate out of high-country areas with the arrival of cold storms; others are year-round residents on foothills ranches. Generally, these bucks are classified as inland blacktails; but for Boone and Crockett records book purposes, they are put into the same categories as mule deer.
When it comes to deer-hunter success in California, the 16 D zones are on the bottom of the pile, with an average success rate of just 10 percent. Still, some hunters, who know the areas they hunt very well, are successful nearly every year. And it's true that some very impressive bucks are taken in these areas.
The importance of the D zones to California deer hunters can't be overlooked. That's because the D zones cut a wide swath through the state from the southern edge of Plumas County south to San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, ending at the borders of Mexico and Nevada.
The largest block of tags (33,000) in the D zones covers zones D3, D4 and D5. Last year 30,361 of these tags were issued to hopeful hunters. The number of tags for the remaining 13 D zones went from 10,000 in D6 to 387 in D15.
Zones D3, D4 and D5 produced 2,954 bucks, which is down from 3,087 in 2008
Zone D6 dropped from 856 to 678
Zone D7 slipped from 558 to 556
Zone D8 went down from 535 to 517
Zone D9 remained unchanged, with 179 each season
Zone D10 slid from 56 to 52
Zone D11 fell dramatically from 296 to 177
Zone D12 declined from 89 to 71
Zone D13 improved from 335 to 34
Zone D14 dropped from 235 to 171
Zone D15 went up from 19 to 41
Zone D16 climbed from 429 to 461
Zone D17 dipped from 98 to 81
Zone D19 stepped up from 125 to 145.
Year after year, the 17 X zones are highly sought after by California hunters in their quest for a mule-deer hunt in the Golden State. But, as the old saying goes, many are called but few are chosen.
In 2009, the total number of deer tags available for the X zones was 7,860, and the total number of applicants in the June preference point drawing was 28,721. Obviously, not everyone is awarded a tag, but the idea is to keep trying as long as it takes. Someone has to be drawn. One of these days it may be you.
On average, 32 percent of X zones hunters scored last year, but some zones were certainly better than others. Zones X1, X9b, X9c and X10 all produced hunter success rates of less than 20 percent; while hunters in the rest of the zones posted success rates of between 23 percent in Zone X8 and a whopping 63 percent in Zone X3a.
Here's how the harvest numbers looked in all the X zones in 2009 and how they compared with 2008:
Zone X1 dropped from 442 to 383 bucks
Zone X2 climbed from 67 to 73
Zone X3a jumped up from 137 to 151
Zone X3b fell slightly from 296 to 291
Zone X4 slid from 173 to 151
Zone X5a doubled from 15 to 31
Zone X5b increased from 41 to 47
Zone X6a grew from 156 to 172
Zone X6b went up from 78 to 100
Zone X7a dropped from 71 to 59
Zone X7b slipped a bit from 46 to 42
Zone X8 declined from 53 to 50
Zone X9a fell from 234 to 167
Zone X9b went from 104 to 54
Zone X9c improved from 47 to 52
Zone X10 fell from 40 to 27
Zone X12 dropped from 203 to 152.
SUCCESS THIS SEASON
California deer hunters always have to deal with a variety of situations unlike those found in most other Western states. The weather is always a factor, and so is the diverse habitat found from sea level to the highest mountains and everything in between.
It isn't an easy task, but some of us just have to connect with California bucks now and then. This year, it might as well be you €¦ and me!