Plan your trophy hunt using our analysis of the best zones from 2008. (September 2009)
More than half of the deer taken annually in most of the state's 44 deer zones are not trophies. They are simply 2- and 3-year-old bucks.
Chris Stone (left) and Aaron Brooks show Stone's 4x5 archery buck from Zone D5.
Photo courtesy of Chris Stone.
Of course, there are some very respectable bucks harvested in the Golden State every year. Some of those big ones are killed by lucky hunters who happen upon them. Most are the result of well-planned approaches by skilled hunters.
Overall, some zones produce far more trophy-class deer than others. For example, in the 12 zones with the highest percentage of 4-point bucks, at least 10 are familiar X zones, such as X2 (35 percent), X4 (29 percent) and X5b (49 percent). The other X zones, where 4-point bucks were taken more than 25 percent of the time are X3a, X3b, X5a, X7a, X7b, X9b and X12. Also on the list are zones D12 and D17, each of which produced big bucks at a respectable pace in 2008.
However, considering the number of tags available for the D zones, the overall percentage of success does not measure up to the majority of X zones. For example, in D12, the hunter success rate was 9 percent. But 36 percent of those deer were 4x4 or better.
Turns out, 9 percent was also the average success rate for all D zones combined.
Meanwhile, the average hunter success for any legal bucks in the 17 X zones was 32 percent, with some individual zones producing bucks between 40 percent and 50 percent of the time.
Chances were good X zone hunters killed a buck, and when they did, it was often a 4-point or better.
Many D zone hunters struggled to even shoot a buck. But if they tagged one, there also was as good a chance it was a 4-point or better.
THE BIGGEST BUCKS
Freunds took a trophy deer in 2008 after waiting 17 years to draw a rifle tag for Zone X7a. Here's how he transformed that privilege into antlers.
A lifelong California resident, Freunds, 48, has hunted since his youth. He was somewhat familiar with X7a because he hunted there as a teenager. Thanks to those long-ago days, Freunds still had some idea of where he and his buddy, Steve Swaringen (who also had a tag), should start hunting. (Continued)
As it turned out, Swaringen saw a respectable 3x2 buck a short distance from camp on the first morning of their four-day stay, and he put his tag on it a little while later.
Meanwhile, Freunds came up short on the first day. The morning of the second day wasn't much better, but Freunds had a plan for the afternoon that seemed promising.
"I had Steve drop me off where the road skirted a long ridge, which I planned to hunt in the direction of camp," said Freunds. "I knew it would take awhile, and it might be dark before I got there, but I thought it was a place with potential -- and it was!"
Freunds didn't get very far before he rounded a bend and spotted a deer 80 yards away looking right at him. "At first, I didn't realize it was a buck because it blended into the background so well. Then he moved his head and there was no mistaking the antlers. I've been hunting for a long time, but I started shaking with excitement anyway."
He raised his Remington 7mm rifle and fired. The buck took off, but didn't go very far before he piled up. Freunds and Swaringen followed the blood trail and found the buck dead in tall grass less than 100 yards away.
"I still can't believe how fortunate I am," Freunds told California Game & Fish. "That buck was really heavy."
Freunds' buck wore antlers 22 inches wide and 24 inches tall with 8 points on the left and 7 on the right.
A DFG biologist said the buck was probably 6 1/2 years old.
Freunds has his deer on his wall.
"He's a constant reminder of one of my best hunts ever," Freunds said.
Newlen's G6 Buck
Like Freunds, Bakersfield resident Robin Newlen applied for a specific tag for several years before being drawn. And then she wasn't sure if it was a good deal or not. Robin and her husband, Kevin, a well-drilling supervisor, normally take their young sons, John and Seth, on family hunts in Colorado. But last year, her G6 Kern River Deer Herd Buck Hunt tag (one of 50) would keep them from doing that.
"Honestly, I was disappointed about losing out on the Colorado hunt, but my husband assured me the tag I got was really worthwhile," Robin said. "It was a late hunt in Tulare County, and he said the high-country bucks would all be down on their wintering grounds and just waiting for me to come along. Well, it wasn't quite that easy, but I'm not complaining, believe me."
The G6 season opened on Dec. 6 and ran for two weeks. The Newlens planned to hunt the first four days and each weekend thereafter if necessary.
The first day was both exciting and disappointing. They drove through the rugged terrain for hours, stopping often to glass for deer. At first, they saw only a few does. But late that afternoon, they spied a nice 3-point buck and a doe feeding near the bottom of a canyon. The Newlens drove to a spot below the deer and started hiking up from below.
Things happened fast.
They spotted the animals 200 yards away, but the deer saw them, too. Robin's offhand shot missed clean.
The next morning it was snowing and raining where they were hunting. They hunted low until noon, getting soaked in the process, and not seeing much of anything. That afternoon they headed for higher ground that they hadn't hunted before.
As Robin painfully recalled, she missed another buck that she spotted in a wildfire-scarred jungle of blowdowns. To say the least, she was discouraged by the turn of events. She'd killed several deer in the past and never had a problem before.
"I was ready to go back to camp," she said. "I needed to figure out what went wrong, but before we got there, I saw another buck walk over a ridge, and I told my husband I was going after him."
In a hard rain, Robin climbed the ridge as fast as she could, and stoppe
d at the crest before peeking over. She saw the buck about 50 yards away. She raised her Remington .260, and when the buck turned broadside, she pulled the trigger.
Robin couldn't believe it when the deer started walking uphill and tumbled into the brush.
"I got one! I got one!" she shouted over her two-way radio.
And did she ever!
The buck was a big 6x6 with antlers 28 inches wide. All Kevin could say when he saw it was, "He's huge!"
Another D5 archery giant was killed in Amador County by sheriff's deputy Chris Stone of Jackson. His buck, which Stone calls an inland blacktail, came from a foothills ranch with a small population of resident deer. How Stone went about finding, and eventually seeing the deer up close and personal, is an interesting tale. If I didn't know better, I'd think he was hunting whitetails in Iowa.
Stone is obsessed with bowhunting. He owns a deer rifle, but it's been gathering dust for 10 years. During that time, he harvested some really fine blacktails with his bow -- but nothing like the deer he got in 2008.
The first clue that a decent buck was on the property came just before the season opened when the landowner mentioned it to Stone. With no time to lose, Stone scouted the property and found a well-used trail. It led to a low spot in a fence line, where several deer apparently crossed regularly to get to a supply of acorns.
Stone hung a Moultrie trail camera nearby to see what it would come up with. Three days later the trail cam photos revealed more than one respectable buck using the crossing, and one stand-alone giant that nearly took his breath away.
"Gad, he was big," Stone said. "That buck was definitely record-book material."
A day after seeing the photos, Stone installed two tree stands near the crossing. The second stand was for his buddy, Aaron Brooks, who was going to film the hunt.
Sitting on the stands on opening day, they saw two or three young bucks but no sign of the big one. Over the next two weeks, the hunters spent seven fruitless afternoons in their trees. More than one mature buck walked by, but the big boy stayed away. Things really got exciting at around 5 p.m. on the eighth afternoon, Aug. 28.
"We just got settled on the stands when I heard a noise on the trail behind us," Stone said. "I turned just in time to see a nice buck come out, and he wasn't alone."
Tagging along behind was the monster Stone was waiting for.
"I drew my Martin Firecat bow and released the Muzzy broadhead-tipped arrow when the buck was 20 yards out," said Stone.
The arrow passed through both lungs, and the deer went 60 yards before expiring.
"My knees were Jell-O, and I felt a rush you just can't believe. That was the best shot of my bowhunting career!"
Stone's buck was impressive. Still in velvet, its 28-inch-wide rack sported tall eyeguards, 4 points on the left side and 5 on the right.
As it stands right now, Stone's buck ranks third as a non-typical in the CRBG records, and it ranks sixth as a typical in the records.
When it comes to big deer and record-book possibilities, there is quite a bit of regional variation. In fact, the state Department of Fish and Game recognizes six subspecies of mule deer in California: Rocky Mountain mule deer, burro mule deer, Inyo mule deer, California mule deer, southern mule deer and Columbian blacktail deer.
In the Boone and Crockett Records of North American Big Game and Pope and Young's Bowhunting Records of North American Big Game, five of the subspecies are lumped together and measured as if they're the same type of mule deer. But Columbian blacktails have their own separate category.
Not surprisingly, the only California deer with a large record-book showing are Columbian blacktails, which must come from an area designated as blacktail range by B&C.
Meanwhile, only five mule deer from this state are in the non-typical records, and only one typical mule deer was listed. One reason for the poor showing is that Rocky Mountain mule deer, the biggest mule deer in the West, are present only along the eastern edge of the state, roughly from Mono County north to Oregon. So, there aren't that many of them here to begin with.
But B&C and P&Y are not the only record-keeping organizations. On a local level, there's the California Records of Big Game. The group has established categories for different mule deer subspecies as well as coastal and inland blacktails. California Bowman Hunters and California Deer Association also keep records of the state's biggest-antlered deer.
The annual increase or decrease in the harvest of bucks in California is mostly weather related. That's because in warm years there's less migration of high-country bucks during the actual hunting season, meaning fewer bucks in the more accessible foothill regions -- including public and private ground.
In 2008, warm fall weather did little to move the deer, at least while the general seasons were still open. By comparison, in 2007, more hunters hit home runs because there were several timely cold storms to bring deer down from the backcountry.
Craig Stowers, deer program coordinator for the DFG, said there are some dandy trophy bucks harvested in every California zone each year but normally not many of them.
"Most of the bucks are killed before they reach true maturity and their peak antler growth," he said. Stower said he's seen "some toads" while doing aerial surveys in the high desert X zones, and each year hunters kill some real heavy bucks out there.
The odds of getting any bigger-than-average general season buck, regardless of antler points, are obviously best in the X zones. But the Catch 22 is you've got to get a tag in the June drawing, and that can take years, even if you have the maximum number of preference points. That is also the situation with additional hunts, whether they're for Archery Only, Muzzleloading Rifle, General Methods or Apprentice (formerly called Junior) hunts.
If you have a premium hunt tag, you're in luck. You may tie it to your biggest buck ever. However, when conditions are right, and Lady Luck smiles, even the most common zones can produce exceptional bucks when you least expect it.
So, wherever you hunt this year, enjoy your time afield, and keep your eyes open for a mature buck to come your way. You never know when it might happen no matter what zone you're in.