Skill and dedication -- along with our coverage of the facts about trophy bucks in the Golden State -- can lead you to the best buck of your life this season! (September 2010)
Well folks, here we go again. California's deer seasons are upon us, and with opening day comes daydreams of monster bucks lurking behind every bush.
In reality, most of the bucks California deer hunters tie their tags to are average deer no one writes home about. There's nothing wrong with that. Most of the state's deer habitat isn't easy to hunt. Actual deer sightings can be few and far between. After several fruitless days, most of us are happy to see any legal bucks at all. In fact, during the general seasons, the annual statewide take of forked-horn bucks hovers right around 50 percent.
Truth be known, a lot of the trophy bucks we hear about are the result of chance encounters. However, there are always exceptions to the rule. Even in this state, some hunters are willing to go the extra mile and hold out for better-than-average bucks, which they may or may not find.
Their dedication is admirable, but those of us who are in the majority -- meaning not especially picky deer hunters -- also have a chance to score big once in awhile. Even yours truly has taken a few bigger-than-average bucks in the state, including a trio of the biggest bodied mule deer I've ever killed anywhere. Two of them came from the northern X zones, and one was killed in the eastern Sierra Nevada Range before the X zones were even thought of by the California Department of Fish and Game.
One of the bucks -- a heavy antlered 4x4 I found in Zone X1 a few years ago -- was in an area where I used to spend many days photographing deer each fall. In effect, I suppose you could say I was scouting in advance. Anyway, after a long, unproductive day in an unfamiliar location, I headed for one of my favorite haunts for photographs, a place that always seemed to have a few deer.
It was early evening when I jumped the big buck on a timbered hillside and got off a single off-hand shot with my .270 Winchester Model 70. The buck dropped in its tracks. Then the work really began. Even after field-dressing the animal, I could barely drag him through the brush whole, so I cut him in two and packed the halves individually to my pickup. As I recall, I was smiling all the way home.
Probably the best big-buck opportunities in California occur in the X zones and in some of the additional late buck hunts for general firearms, archery and black powder. The only drawback is the small number of tags available for most premium hunts (and the years it might take to draw one). Also, while the percentage of 4x4 and larger bucks may be close to 50 percent for some of these hunts, the actual take may be quite small. For example, in hunt G37 (Anderson Flat Buck) 44 percent of the bucks taken in 2009 were 4x4s, but that's just seven out of a grand total of 16 bucks.
As usual, nine of the 17 X zones in 2009 were among the highest producers of 4x4 bucks when it comes down to the rate of hunter success:
- €‚X2, 35 percent
- €‚X3a, 31 percent
- €‚X5a, 39 percent
- €‚X5b, 29 percent
- €‚X6a, 29 percent
- €‚X6b, 29 percent
- €‚X9c, 24 percent
- €‚X10, 26 percent
- €‚X12, 28 percent
Even more 4x4s were taken in most of the state's other general season deer zones, but the percentage was quite small when compared to the overall harvest in those zones. For example, nearly 100 bucks in the 4x4 class were taken in the six B zones, but that isn't many when stacked up against the estimated total take of the B zones -- about 4,900 bucks.
One thing about listing bucks by antler points, as DFG does in its annual reports, is that a simple point count usually doesn't tell you much about the size of a particular animal or its age. A lot of things contribute to antler growth including genetics, quality of feed in a given year and longevity of life.
Habitat, and the particular buck's nature, are also involved. For whatever reason, some bucks develop furtive habits that practically guarantee their survival through several hunting seasons. They're the kind that magically show up during the rut after the hunting season is closed, leaving you to wonder where the heck they were when you had a rifle in your hands.
As one state deer biologist told me, "It's always fun to see a lot of deer, but it may be to your advantage to ignore the places with the most does and fawns. Instead, concentrate on those remote spots where a buck might go to live a solitary existence, and escape most of the hunting pressure."
Among the Western states, California is somewhat unique when it comes to the deer that reside here. DFG recognizes six subspecies of mule deer: Rocky Mountain mule deer, Inyo mule deer, southern mule deer, California mule deer, burro mule deer and Columbia black-tailed deer. Despite some minor differences, the Boone and Crockett Club puts all of California's mule deer, with the exception of Columbia blacktails, into the same typical and non-typical listings as Rocky Mountain mule deer from throughout the Western states.
Ironically, Rocky Mountain mule deer -- the largest subspecies -- reside only along the eastern edge of California, from Mono County north to the Oregon border. Some tremendous bucks roam that region, which is blanketed by X zones, but only a few meet record-book standards. In fact, California has placed only four non-typical mule deer in the Boone and Crockett all time records, and just one in the typical category.
Meanwhile, true blacktails range throughout the northwestern part of the state, and there are a lot of them. To be entered in the Boone and Crockett or Pope and Young records, blacktails must come from within a region designated by B&C. In the blacktail department, the Golden State, with literally hundreds of entries, far outshines Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
Because tags for the X zones, where Rocky Mountain mule deer reside, are impossible to get on a regular basis, and because the rest of the state's mule deer subspecies are generally smaller in stature, blacktail hunters obviously have the best chance to harvest a record-book buck. Lord knows, the chances of getting an animal like that are never better than poor, but two members of my family have killed B&C bucks on public land, proving it isn't impossible. Both my son Mark and son-in-law Robert Feamster, have also taken P&Y-class bucks with their bows, but they have yet to register them.
Just for fun, let's rehash a few success stories from the 2009 season, beginning with the 4x4 blacktail my son Mark got with his bow last fall.
Mark Higley and Robert Feamster, Zone B2
Each year, Mark and Rob hunt a specific Zone B2 location in the Trinity Alps Wilderness Area that has become as familiar to them as the backs of their hands. Theirs is a walk-in hunt all the way, featuring a 4-mile pack out if they're successful.
Last year they arrived at their favorite campsite late in the afternoon on the day before the opening of archery season. After setting up camp, they set out for an hour or two of scouting, before turning in for the night.
"That was really fun," Mark said later. "For the first time in years, we actually saw several bucks before dark, and we were ready to get after them the next morning."
However, despite the number of deer around, neither hunter got close enough for a shot on opening day.
"We both blew stalks," Mark said later. "That was frustrating because we only had the weekend to hunt, before we had to be back to our jobs. Anyway, the next morning we decided to make one more hunt before we packed up camp and hiked out. It was about noon when I came across a really nice buck bedded in the scrub oaks. He heard me I'm sure, but he didn't see or smell me, and when he got up he didn't go very far. I was able to follow him and get off a good shot."
There's more to the story, of course. After waiting a half-hour, Mark and Robert tracked the buck for two hours before finding it dead at the base of a steep slope. There the buck was caped, quartered and tied to pack frames. The hunters finally got to the trailhead at 11 p.m. Not so sure at first, they'd tell you today the ordeal was well worth the trouble. The buck's velvet-covered 3x4 antlers with eye guards were 22 inches wide and about that tall. It would be a dandy blacktail in any man's woods.
Larry Brower, Zone X6b
Despite having only a couple of preference points, Larry Brower of Cottonwood and five of his friends were drawn for Zone X6b. It was their first time in the area, and they knew it would take time to assess the possibilities and learn the land, so they camped there for the entire 16-days of the 2009 season.
"I was impressed by the variety of terrain. There was everything from sagebrush in the lower foothills to pine trees at higher elevations," Brower said later. "We saw at least a few deer wherever we went, including enough bucks to keep us excited. We hunted mostly by taking our ATVs to the high spots and hunting down on foot, which seemed like a logical approach."
Their tactic paid off nicely, and by season's end five of the hunters filled their tags. Brower killed an old white-nosed buck on the second to last day that was apparently regressing after passing his prime.
"I spotted him below me about 250 yards away," Brower recalled. "He wasn't a 30-incher or anything, but his antlers obviously had a lot of mass, and I made a good shot with my Weatherby .300 Magnum."
The buck's 3x4 antlers were 23 inches wide and more than 7 inches around at the base, which had multiple eye guards. "I've never shot a mule deer that had antlers with more mass," Brower said. "I'd like to hunt in that zone again one of these days."
Dave Null, Zone M3
Dave Null of Red Bluff is another happy mule-deer hunter. After applying for seven years, Null and his friend Al Katschke were finally drawn for the M3 hunt (Doyle Muzzleloading Rifle Buck, 20 tags), which ran for nine days in late November.
The weather during the hunt varied from cold to cool throughout the week, with assorted snow flurries and periods of high wind. Without question, conditions were perfect for serious deer hunting.
"We had some excitement," Null said while telling his story. "The weekend before the season opened we spotted some nice bucks, including, as it turned out, the one I eventually shot. After the season opened, we hunted from daylight to dark and saw some bucks every day but none big enough to shoot. Al was holding out for a monster, but I was willing to settle for a good representative muley buck."
On Thanksgiving morning, the sixth day of the hunt, Null shot high and cleanly missed one buck. Disappoint aside, later that morning he and Katschke moved to another spot and located a second buck.
"I recognized him as a buck we saw only a quarter mile away from that spot while scouting," Null said. "He was plenty big enough for me and, when he stopped broadside 131 yards away, I shot him with my .54 caliber Cabela's Hawken replica muzzleloader. The 26-inch wide 4x4 was everything I wanted out of the hunt."
Meanwhile, Katschke held out until the bitter end and failed to fill his tag.
Chris Stone, Zone D5
Chris Stone, who calls the town of Jackson home, is making a habit of finding great bucks in Zone D5 in the foothills of Amador County. The story of the giant buck he got during archery season in 2008 was featured in last year's trophy-deer forecast in California Game & Fish magazine, and he got another one in 2009.
An avid bowhunter, Stone works hard at his hunting, and when he gets a handle on a big buck somewhere he takes pains to pattern the animal using, among other things, several trail cameras. As Stone tells it, one evening last August, when he was driving past a piece of property where he holds permission to hunt, he spotted a dandy buck scarfing acorns beneath a sprawling black-oak tree.
"He really got my attention, because I never saw a buck like that on the property before," Stone said. "A couple of days later, I went back and walked the area until I found three well-used game trails. I hung cameras on all of them, and when I picked them up five days later I had pictures of that buck and three others using the same trail. Then I put a couple cameras on that trail and found out the bucks came through mainly in late afternoon and evening."
Stone put a tree stand up a week in advance of the hunt, and he was sitting on it on the second afternoon of the season. He remembers the temperature was in the 90s and the air was still, but he wasn't too worried about his smell because he relies on Scent Lok clothing and applies a generous amount of deodorant spray.
"Just before dark, things started happening fast," Stone said. "I heard a noise to my left, and by the time I turned my head one of the bucks was coming down the trail. I was tempted, but he wasn't the trophy, so I let him pass, and I'm glad I did because the big one was right behind. When he paused broadside about 20 yards away, I drew my Martin Firecat bow and let the Muzzy broadhead fly, and it hit him just behind the shoulder. It was full dark when I found the buck dead only 60 yards away."
A heavy antlered 3x4, with eyeguards and a drop tine, Stone's buck, which he calls an inland blacktail, green-scored 168 7/8 points using the Safari Club International scoring system.
There you have it. The 2010 deer seasons are either under way or about to begin, depending on where you are and the zone you hunt. If you've been drawn for a special late buck hunt, or for o
ne of the X zones, or if you're simply lucky, you may very well find yourself in the right place at the right time to score on an exceptional buck.
As Craig Stowers, deer program coordinator for the DFG says, "Obviously, there are hunts that have more bigger-than-average bucks than others. However, every zone in the state produces trophies once in awhile, and someday one of them could be wearing your tag. The key is to get out there and hunt."