Put yourself in the right place at the right time this year! (September 2007)
Photo by Bud Journey.
Sometimes things almost go right.
A prime example took place during a late-afternoon hunt in Zone B2, a portion of which has been called the "big green area" -- a cluster of six B zones in the northwest part of California.
I was waiting for something to happen on the edge of a mountain meadow where the grass met a stand of mature tan oaks laden with acorns. From my perch on a pile of boulders -- on the outside looking in, as they say -- I could hear acorns falling sporadically. What critters, I wondered, might be attracted to the feast?
Ordinarily, I do not like to wait in one spot for very long. But in this case, it seemed like the smart thing to do. Besides, I wasn't bored. There were red-tailed hawks in the air, gray squirrels squawking in the trees and farther back in the woods, blue-gray scrub jays screaming their heads off.
It took a while, but finally it dawned on me that the jays were either fighting among themselves or pestering a critter of some kind.
Deer? Maybe. Bear? Could be!
Actually, it was three bears, probably mom and a pair of nearly grown cubs. All of them left the trees and wandered across the grassy meadow. They made quite a show -- until the sow crossed below me, caught my scent, and almost somersaulted downhill in her haste to depart.
Thirty minutes later, I was back in full relax mode when another odd sound got my attention. A slight breeze had caused several acorns to fall at once. Then I heard a faint noise, at first so subtle that I wondered if my ears were playing tricks on me.
After hearing the noise a few more times, or imagining I had, I was convinced that some an animal -- most likely a deer -- was scarfing acorns as they fell.
The sun was fading fast. I decided I had to try and see what was going on. As quietly as possible, this 200-pound biped half-crawled to a screen of brush and peered into the dark forest, which proceeded to erupt with the sound of a fleeing animal.
I jumped up just in time to see a big blacktail buck crossing the weedy meadow below me at about 75 yards.
My rifle was up quick enough, but my shot was too hasty. And the buck -- tall, wide antlers and all -- was history.
The amazing thing is that I managed to get close enough to the critter to actually have an opportunity to shoot. The depressing thing is that I missed out on getting one of the biggest blacktail bucks I ever put my sights on.
However, the fact that I was in that position in the first place proves that California, a state not known as a big-buck haven, has the potential to produce a very nice trophy when you least expect it.
There is, of course, a Catch-22. This is California, after all. In this state there are six subspecies of mule deer, including blacktail deer, which are scored independently from the rest. In other words, all the other mule deer subspecies are lumped together in the same category. That means they all compete with Rocky Mountain mulies -- which reside only on the eastern edge of the state, and generally have the largest antlers of all Golden State deer.
Since only a small handful of Rocky Mountain mule deer from California have made the record books, the chances of another subspecies -- aside from purebred blacktails -- making the grade are slim, indeed.
However, that doesn't mean that they lack anything as trophies. To me, a good representative specimen of any subspecies, be it California mule deer, burro mule deer, Inyo mule deer or southern mule deer, is as worthy and as rewarding as any other.
Every year, there are reports of magnum deer taken in virtually every zone in the state. With few exceptions, however, these bucks are happy accidents rather than planned events.
At times, of course, a fortunate hunter on private or public ground can work toward getting a specific buck that's been seen before. But that's not the usual scenario.
One reason is that most hunters simply do not have the time to scout in depth before their particular deer zone opens, especially if they live hundreds of miles from where they expect to hunt. A classic example is someone from southern California who, on a whim, puts in for an unfamiliar northern X zone and despite the odds, gets drawn.
Now, of course, reality sets in, and the work begins. All the lucky tag holder needs to do is identify the places in this unfamiliar zone where there are apt to be some deer, and find out how to reach them.
That can take considerable investigation via maps and phone calls before leaving home, and more than a little footwork on location. Sadly, it's likely that a whole bunch of similar hunters with coveted tags will spin their wheels on unfamiliar turf.
Last year, Craig Stowers, deer program coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Game, received a tag for an eastern Sierra X zone. He and his partner Russ Mohr did their homework and scouted for three days before the season started.
Eventually, they found a spot where seven bucks were running together, and that's where they opened the season.
Stowers saw the bucks early in the morning, but he didn't take a shot. He knew that Mohr was approaching the bucks from a different angle, and figured his hunting partner would be a lot closer to them.
And that's how it worked out. Mohr tagged one of the deer a couple hours later. Unfortunately, that afternoon one of their trucks broke down. Their hunting time was cut short, and Stowers failed to score.
"Despite our trouble, I was really happy with our hunt," Stowers said. "I can hardly wait to get drawn again."
Statewide on average, with all general and special seasons combined, more than 51.2 percent of all the bucks taken in 2006 were forkhorns. Across the board, 29.5 percent of the hunter harvest was 3-point bucks; 15.1 percent were 4-point bucks; and 3 percent were bucks with 4 points or better.
Some zones produced 3- and 4-point bucks at a much higher rate than others. The highest percentage of 4x4 bucks was reported in t
he X zones. The take went as high as 56 percent in Zone X7b, and stayed above 25 percent in zones X7a (30 percent), X5a (39 percent), and X3a (34 percent).
Not surprisingly, the X zones were right up there when it came to 3x3 bucks. Virtually every zone produced such bucks at better than a 30 percent clip.
Some other zones came in with similar figures, including zones B1 (at 34 percent), B4 (40 percent), B5 (32 percent), C1 (44 percent), C2 (34 percent), D6 (36 percent), D10 (38 percent) and D14 (36 percent).
But how many of those bucks were actually of trophy caliber? It's tough to say. Just because a buck has more than 3 or 4 points per side doesn't mean that it's a monster. But these numbers, according to the latest available reports, do tell us that these zones produced quality mature deer.
I started hunting deer in California long before there was such a thing as a zone system. Had I known what was to come starting in the 1970s, I would certainly have covered more ground in search of trophy deer.
As it is, I have hunted in several parts of the state -- from the hills of southern California north to Modoc County and west to the Coastal Mountains.
In the early days, being an energetic, scatter-yourself-around type of hunter, I was ecstatic with any legal buck that happened to cross my path.
Today I'm a far better -- if less energetic -- hunter, and much more aware of what it takes to be a trophy hunter in virtually any zone in the state.
Over the years, I've learned that first, you've got to dedicate enough time to the project. Quickie weekend outings rarely pay off. Spend a few days in the area and work toward the goal. Pass up any buck that doesn't meet your criteria.
This is much easier to do, by the way, if you are drawn for a late-season additional hunt where you can realistically expect to get more than one opportunity.
In many places, weather during the regular or special late seasons plays a big part in the take of outstanding bucks. Rain will quiet down forested areas, allowing largely undetected movement and promoting still-hunting as a viable technique.
Foul weather will move deer down into the areas where they migrate from summer to winter ranges -- something you hope for every year but can't count on, at least not while seasons are still open.
At least two of the biggest mule deer bucks I ever got in California were a direct result of stormy weather that moved the deer from the high country.
Today, I live in the northern part of the state and watch weather conditions carefully because blacktail deer in the C and B zones migrate extensively, and I definitely want to be there when conditions are right.
MAKING A TROPHY
But what does it take to create a trophy buck? Good genetics are part of the equation, as are the mineral content and abundance of food. Of course, none of the above matters unless you also factor in longevity.
Bucks in their prime are generally in the 5- to 7-year-old class, meaning that they've survived that many hunting seasons.
Such survival is common among resident herds on private land where hunting is closely regulated. Several ranches in California's Private Lands Management program produce tremendous bucks simply because the deer live long enough to produce outstanding antlers.
Game & Fish Magazine reader Greg Galli of Sacramento would agree. He tells of a really nice mule buck deer taken on a PLM ranch in Zone X3b during the last week of the season in 2006. Galli remembers it was cold hunting but nevertheless, deer were scarce at first. It even snowed a bit on Saturday night, which didn't seem to improve things on Sunday. On Monday, however, it was a different story.
Galli decided to hunt the lower reaches of the 18,000-acre property and immediately saw a small herd of deer, including a pair of small bucks, about 300 yards out.
"I sat down to glass the animals and spotted a mature buck in some scattered juniper trees," Galli said. "One look at the antlers, and there was no doubt in my mind -- it was the buck I wanted."
Using the bipod installed on his rifle for a rest, he took aim and fired with the desired effect.
The buck wore a tall 4x4 rack that was 24 inches wide, with triple eye guards on each side.
What's more, Galli's companion Gabe Martin got an even bigger buck, a more-than-26-inch 5x4, the following day.
Deer hunting in California is commonly a warm-weather affair, which is advantageous to the deer because they simply don't move around much during daylight hours. It's common knowledge that extended periods of warm weather will affect the total harvest some years, while cool, wet weather other years will increase the take accordingly. What's more, after a couple of hot-weather seasons, there will be more carryover bucks in the mix. And so, the first favorable season, weather-wise, will see a higher take of trophy bucks.
Last month, in the first part of this two-part series, we noted that both 2005 and 2006 were quite warm throughout most of the deer seasons. That meant a lower-than-usual harvest and more carryover, which -- depending on the weather -- may be reflected in the harvest for 2007.
I well remember the year 2000, when a series of honest-to-goodness storms came during the deer seasons virtually statewide. That year, everyone who worked at it seemed to tag a buck, and photos of many of them were hung in prominent places. More than a few were real dandies.