Don't be surprised if you see a lot more big adult bucks afield this year. Carryover could be historic, thanks to so few major storms in '06 and '05. (August 2007)
Photo by Willy Onarheim.
While composing this annual deer-hunting forecast, usually I can point with a certain degree of smugness at the passage of another successful season for me in the Golden State.
However -- and I hate to admit this -- I did not kill a buck in my home state in 2006. Certainly I tried, but evidently not as hard as I should have. And the only buck I shot at, I missed. Hard as it is to believe, I seem to remember that I've "been here, done that" before.
My usual hunting partners did much better than I did. But then, my son Mark and son-in-law Robert are way younger than me, and much more energetic.
Robert got a nice 4x5 blacktail in the morning, and Mark got a bigger-than-average forkhorn that afternoon.
In the big picture, weather had a lot to do with hunting success across the state this past season.
During years when a few good storms occur, hunting success is considerably higher than in years when heat is the main ingredient.
In 2004, the last year that several storms graced the deer seasons, the harvest of bucks was nearly 37,000, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.
By comparison, 2005 was warm, and the take dropped dramatically -- to 28,276 bucks.
Not surprisingly, the latest figures show that in 2006 the take was even lower, at 27,028 bucks. While success in some individual zones was considerably higher, the state average was about 15 percent.
In 2004, when the weather was much more favorable, hunters scored more than 20 percent of the time.
For an assessment on how things will go in the state's upcoming deer seasons, California Game & Fish analyzed past years' results and interviewed Craig Stowers, deer program coordinator for the DFG, to get a picture of 2006 harvests in every zone.
Overall, favorable weather for deer hunting will always result in a higher harvest and, said Stowers, we're about due for a good season.
The stage is set for an increase in the take in 2007. And the real good news is that there should be a higher percentage of adult bucks in the mix. That's because of the carryover from the last two years, when the weather contributed to a decline in the harvest statewide.
"The carryover from 2005 and '06 should be good," he said. "And the open winter we had in 2007 was easy on the animals throughout the state."
Stowers noted that herd composition also counts, and pointed to stable deer populations in most areas.
If there's better hunting weather this fall, deer will move around more, and hunters will feel like expending more effort. Naturally, the combination will lead to more hunters being in the right place at the right time.
All that now remains is to see if an increase manifests itself in the overall harvest. I, for one, certainly hope so. It's not unusual for an upward spike to occur every three or four years. The last such event was in 2004, so we're about due in 2007.
The DFG looks at total deer harvest in two ways: the actual reported take, and the estimated take. We'll use the latter figure here, since it takes into account those tags that were filled but not returned.
Stowers said he expects the tag system to be computerized before long, and with modernization will come some sort of mandatory tag-return process. It will be interesting to see how that all plays out and how it might change the way we view harvests in the future. But for now, the estimated harvest formula is what pulls the wagon, so to speak.
Here, then, are the latest harvest stats available for the 2006 season deer hunts throughout California.
Without a doubt, some of the hottest deer hunting anywhere (literally) takes place in the huge Zone A, which covers an area stretching roughly from northern Los Angeles County to Mendocino County along the western edge of the state.
Zone A is notable because of the timing of its archery and rifle seasons -- the earliest in the state. The archery season opens in July, and the rifle hunt begins in mid-August when the weather is normally toss-your-covers-off hot. (I know from experience.)
The estimated take in Zone A in 2005, with 8,943 bucks harvested, was down significantly from 2004, when 10,224 bucks were tallied. The difference was attributed to cool weather in 2004 and warmer conditions in 2005. However, it was warmer still in 2006, and again the take dropped, to just 7,632 bucks.
There are 65,000 tags available for Zone A, but only 33,160 were sold last year. About 22 percent of hunters in Zone A were successful.
One tag covers all in the six northern B zones, giving hunters plenty of freedom to roam throughout the region where -- with the exception of Zone B4 -- there is a wealth of public land to choose from.
In 2004, harvest in the B zones was 11,705 bucks. In 2005, the figure dropped to 8,489, and the tally in 2006 -- reflecting the weather -- was lower yet, at 8,340.
There are 55,000 tags available, and 39,812 of them were sold in 2006 despite the predominant hot weather. Around 21 percent of hunters tagged their bucks in 2006, compared to 2004 when that figure was 29 percent.
Lets take a quick look at the B zones and see how the harvest numbers differed from 2005 to 2006:
€¢ Zone B1 produced 3,118 bucks in 2005 and dropped to 2,872 bucks in 2006.
€¢ B2 actually improved from 2,386 to 2,429.
€¢ B3 also went up from 603 to 697.
€¢ B4 fell from 445 to 417.
€¢ B5 climbed from 622 to 704.
€¢ B6 dropped from 1,315 to 1,221.
The DFG estimates that in the C zones' regular season, 1,435 bucks were taken in 2006. In addition
, 475 bucks were tagged in the G1 late buck hunt, which takes place in Zone C4. That's a grand total of 1,910 bucks. By comparison, the regular season tally in 2005 was 1,535, plus 521 bucks from the G1 hunt, for a total of 2,056. So overall numbers were down, but not dramatically.
The figures shake out like this:
€¢ Zone C1 produced 137 bucks in 2005 and jumped to 285 in 2006.
€¢ C2 dropped significantly from 448 to 171.
€¢ C3 climbed from 274 to 341.
€¢ C4 fell from 676 to 637.
Surprisingly, the only so-called "storm" to visit the C zones was hardly noticeable. But it was enough to encourage a few migratory deer to descend from their summer to winter range. A couple guys I know got their bucks by waiting for them to come along on migration trails.
C-zones hunters scored only 16 percent of the time in 2006.
Moving right along, we find that the state's 16 D zones produced only 5,776 bucks in 2006, compared with 7,688 in 2005.
Even adding the two highest percentage zones in terms of success -- D15, with 17 percent and D17 with 26 percent -- we find that D-zone hunters averaged success of only 9 percent.
Of course, that sounds considerably worse than it is. The D zones are very good for some hunters who take trophy bucks each and every year.
To prove it, here are a couple of examples from the 2006 season.
One reader who shared his experience with California Game and Fish is Robert McKnight, a truck driver from Chowchilla. He has hunted in Zone D6 for 15 years. But last year McKnight, along with his uncle Gary White and his father-in-law Denny Snyder, decided to try D5 for the first time. The result was rewarding.
McKnight said his uncle did most of the scouting and found a good spot that had lots of sign on national forest land at around 7,000 feet.
They arrived early on opening day and found a place to hole up on along a ridge where they could watch a meadow ringed with timber.
Soon after the sun came up, they heard a few rifle shots. The wind was in McKnight's face. He knew if a deer came from the direction of the shots, it would never smell him.
"Sure enough," the hunter said, "a few minutes later a dandy buck stepped out of the timber into the opening about 70 yards away."
McKnight dropped the deer with a shot from his 7mm. It was a great 3x4 with a rack 23 inches wide.
"I still can't believe it was all over so quickly," he said. "But I'm not complaining!"
Meanwhile, 15-year-old Hannah Ramey decided to open the season in the afternoon on her family's property in Zone D3 near Grass Valley.
Hannah loves to fish and hunt. She completed a sport-shooting class with the 4H Club and passed the hunter safety course last spring.
"I knew where there were some deer on the property," Hannah said. "So I decided to take a stand under the overhanging branches of a tree, where I could watch some trails unseen."
She was using a Winchester 30-30 carbine with open sights. It was evening when she saw a big buck coming at her. When he got close enough and turned broadside, she took a shot that hit a little low.
The deer ran off, but he didn't get very far before he fell over and died.
"Boy, was I ever excited!" she said. "He was a 4x4 with antlers 25 1/2 inches wide. My first-ever deer!"
Obviously, there's hope in the D zones, even though the percentage of success isn't terribly high.
With that in mind, here's how the D zones shaped up last year.
€¢ Zones D3 to D5 (covered by a single tag) produced 2,203 bucks in 2006 and 2,195 in 2005.
€¢ Zone D6 fell from 766 to 673.
€¢ D7 dropped a little, from 594 to 522.
€¢ D8 went from 434 to 576.
€¢ D9 rose from 133 to 237.
€¢ D10 increased from 52 to 64.
€¢ D11 climbed from 332 to 344.
€¢ D12 nearly doubled, from 67 to 112.
€¢ D13 dropped from 284 to 216.
€¢ D14 improved from 212 to 227.
€¢ D15 jumped from 24 to 68.
€¢ D16 went up from 219 to 285.
€¢ D17 went from 67 to 132.
€¢ D19 showed slight improvement, from 111 to 117.
Hunters in the 17 X zones generally enjoy higher rates of success than hunters in other regions. That's one reason why tags are in such high demand. Another reason is because the X zones -- which extend from Inyo County north to the Oregon border along the eastern side of the state -- contain most of the state's coveted Rocky Mountain mule deer.
In 2006, there were only 7,965 tags available for all the X zones combined, and after the June drawing, they were all gone. The lesson here is that you may have to wait several years for an X-zone tag, even where the odds are best.
Surprisingly, the X zones produced more bucks in 2006 than in 2005. The overall take went up from 2,000 to nearly 2,500. Across the board, hunters in the X zones scored around 35 percent of the time. The lowest success rate (just 8 percent) was in Zone X10, and the highest (60 percent success) was in Zone X3a.
To put a wrap on the X zones, here's how they looked in 2005 and 2006.
€¢ Zone X1 went up from 476 bucks in 2005 to 509 in 2006.
€¢ X2 climbed from 63 to 77.
€¢ X3a increased from 139 to 178.
€¢ X3b went up from 300 to 340.
€¢ X4 climbed from 121 to 163.
€¢ X5a rose from 26 to 38.
€¢ X5b jumped from 57 to 84.
€¢ X6a improved from 98 to 131.
€¢ X6b declined from 84 to 67.
€¢ X7a dropped from 86 to 83.
€¢ X7b increased from 37 to 38.
€¢ X8 jumped from 41 to 56.
€¢ X9a improved a bunch from 206 to 312.
€¢ X9b more than doubled from 53 to 113.
€¢ X9c went up from 45 to 65.
€¢ X10 rose from 27 to 33.
€¢ X12 went from 141 to 213.
Statewide, the average success rate in 2006 was just 15 percent.
Every zone produces deer. And anyone who hunts anywhere has at least a chance to score.
FINDING TROPHY BUCKS