Tragic wildfires charred huge swaths of D16 Zone in San Diego County. But new growth is fueling bigger, healthier deer -- and more of them. (October 2007)
John Massie took this southern mule deer near Julian on the D16 season's opening day. The heavy forkhorn, measuring 21 inches on the outside, was with a small herd of four does and three younger bucks.
Photo courtesy of John Massie.
San Diego County's D16 Zone is having a comeback of sorts. For decades, it was typical D-Zone country, with too much mature habitat, yielding little in the way of good deer food. Much of its lower elevations was choked with dense chaparral that kept deer at bay.
That changed in 2002 and 2003. Huge wildfires swept large portions of San Diego County.
Twenty-two people died in the wind-driven blazes that claimed hundreds of homes, and thousands of acres of land were scorched.
Out of this tragedy came some minor good. Much of the land that was burned is now full of fresh growth.
The last couple of deer seasons have shown modest increases in hunter-success rates, and most hunters report seeing more deer now than before the fires opened up so much country.
"Condition-wise, the deer are in really good shape," said Randy Botta, the area deer biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game.
Botta monitors the health and habits of San Diego County deer with an on-going radio-collar tracking program. He said after the fires, the area had good rain in 2006, and some of the burns recovered so quickly that they probably have only a couple more years of productive deer use.
But lack of rainfall in the winter of 2006-07 will have an impact, he said.
Surveys have shown an increased number of does with twins -- especially in the burned areas.
The deer here have quite a bit of fat on them, and recruitment is good.
Surveys in December showed roughly 28 bucks per 100 does. "That's quite surprising," said Botta.
"A lot of those bucks were spike bucks, indicating good recruitment from the previous years following the fires. A few were big bucks, but the majority were young bucks."
They also found about 55 fawns per 100 does, and more than 60 fawns per 100 does in some of the burned areas.
Most, but certainly not all of San Diego County's good deer habitat lies within the Cleveland National Forest, and in some large Bureau of Land Management holdings.
D16 is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and dense urban and suburban crowding on the west.
On the east, giant Anza-Borrego State Park is the border, and on the north, Riverside County. Baja is to the south.
The county has a surprising amount of huntable land. In addition to public land in the national forest and the BLM's McCain Valley National Wildlife Area, there is substantial private ranch property -- some of which is open to hunting.
The hunts in San Diego are more varied than in most of Southern California's D Zones. For starters, there's the D16 Zone hunt, with 3,000 tags available. In county where a 6 or 7 percent success rate is considered good, D16 had 12 percent success last year.
Does that still seem low? You have to consider that the real deer hunters in D16 usually get their buck, and the others -- who road-hunt or otherwise don't expend the time and energy -- do not.
The D16 Zone hunt runs from Sept. 1 through 23 for archers, then resumes on Oct. 27 until Nov. 25 for centerfire rifle hunters.
There are two additional firearms special hunts in San Diego County, not counting hunts held on the sprawling Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, which occupies a big chunk of northwestern San Diego County.
San Diego County's G13 antlerless hunt has 300 tags, and is unique in D-Zone hunting: All other special hunts in Southern California's D Zones are either buck-only, or either-sex.
The G13 hunt begins Oct. 27 and runs through Nov. 8.
A large number of San Diego County hunters will put in for a G13 hunt as their first tag, then hope to draw a D16 hunt tag as well, so that they can hunt both bucks and does. Last year, the G13 hunt had a 21 percent success rate, the DFG estimated.
M6 TAGS OFTEN AVAILABLE
There is also a muzzle-loading rifle hunt. M6 is small and doesn't get many hunters. It has only 80 tags available, and sometimes does not fill its quota. Hunter-success rates have been historically very low. In 2006, it was just 8 percent. M6 hunt dates are Dec. 15 through 31.
There is also an archery hunt. A22 is an either-sex hunt and has 1,000 tags available. For 2007, the dates are Sept. 1 through Oct. 14, and again from Nov. 17 through Dec. 31.
San Diego once had an archery hunt that extended through the month of January. But that has ceased because the DFG was having a hard time getting together all the data for the court-required documents to be ready in time for the next season.
Local hunter Larry Aney and his son hunt San Diego County almost exclusively each year.
"The first three days of the season, my son got his doe, then I got a doe," said Aney. "Then I got a 2x2 buck, and we went back to a different area."
"We went back in about two miles," he said. "Since California hunters here are by nature are pretty lazy, you can out-hike them."
Three days before the end of the season, his son got his buck.
"Every time we went out, we were seeing deer," said Aney. "The deer really looked good this year. We hunted areas that had burned three or four years ago and had plenty of regrowth."
They also hunted high -- and that's where the deer were. "It helps to be part mountain goat," said Aney.
The father-and-son team uses one of them as a spotter, and the other as the shooter, sniper-school style. The deer were pretty spooky last season, but the two had the area to themselves.
Aney noted that while stealth often gets a hunter within range of a shootable buck, it isn't always the tactic that works.
He described what he terms "whitetail hunting tactics" that can put hunters on deer in brushy areas.
"When I go into San Diego County to hunt, I know the deer see a lot of people," he said.
"There's a lot of pressure, so I use whitetail tactics to hunt."
He and his son hunt the brush and the steep gullies and canyons the deer hide in. Early in the morning, they hunt using spot-and-stalk tactics.
Mid-morning, they switch to making noise and they walk.
"When we bust brush, we see deer every day," he said. "We make noise, roll rocks and try to make them move. I got my buck last year in Love Valley doing that.
"Even with zero preference points, we've been drawn for the G13 hunt each year, and we always fill our tags," said the hunter.
Cliff Dupee is a bowhunter and vice president of San Diego Archers. He has hunted San Diego County for years and has a slightly different take on the art of stalking deer in San Diego's brush country.
"I don't think the fires really affected the deer at all as far as I can tell," he said. "I haven't spent much time in those burn areas. Recently, I hunted the prescribed burn area on Mount Laguna, and the burn didn't affect the animals at all."
Dupee has gotten D16 tags, and an AO tag as well as A22 tags. But lately, he's been sticking with just two A22 tags.
"As a bowhunter, I average one and a half deer a year or better," he said. "The average success rate is about 10 percent, but I always fill at least one tag."
Dupee hunts only public land. He's hunted from McCain Valley to Jacumba in the south edge of the county, to Ranchita, Volcan Mountain and Warner Springs, and both sides of Palomar Mountain, "and some unusual little places I've found where you wouldn't think there would be legal deer hunting."
Most of his deer have been taken from ground blinds. He used to throw them together from brush. But two years ago, a friend bought him a tree stand for his birthday. He's been up a tree ever since.
"My favorite way to hunt, however, is to get a couple of inches of fresh snow on the ground and just stalk, following tracks and sneaking up on them. It's the most thrilling kind of bowhunting I know."
We don't get much snow on the ground in San Diego County -- but it does happen.
On the big ranches and land holdings in San Diego County, there are also some opportunities for private-land hunting. But it takes a lot of work to run down leads and make new friends.
One large private land deal offers upland game hunting and deer hunting on some good property. It's known as My Country Club; log on to www.mycountryclubinc.com, or call (760) 782-3503.
For those fortunate enough to find a piece of private property to hunt on, the results can be pretty good.
Fletcher Deal does a lot of coyote calling and shooting, and that's led him to some interesting opportunities for hunting deer in the country.
"I've hunted San Diego County all my life," said Deal, who hunts on a private ranch. "I hunt all over, mostly coyote work. I got started hunting there by taking coyotes off their property because they were causing problems."
Deal said there are also deer there. They eat the young avocado trees. About every other year, he draws a doe tag.
"The deer hunting is improving," he said. "The last two years have been quite good. The deer are bigger, and the horns are bigger and heavier."
He predicts the nutrients in the new browse are doing the job. Last year, Deal saw some of the healthiest-looking deer.
The doe he took weighed 122 pounds. "I got there at 4:40, and at 4:50, I got the doe," he said.
Is there better hunting in the hard-to-get-to X Zones, or in other states? The answer is yes. But if you live in Southern California, San Diego County has some of the most varied terrain, and downright interesting deer hunting around.
With long seasons for archery and a good number of tags for the rifle hunter, it should not be overlooked.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
By all accounts, San Diego's D16 Zone and its associated hunts were very much improved in 2006.
The increase was almost wholly the result of the devastating wildfires that swept the county in 2004. While these were deadly and dangerous and destroyed many homes, the result for wildlife was much different.
Nature did what man had not: Fire swept clean a lot of dense brush that held much of the county to a much lower potential for deer growth. That single event should mean several years of good deer hunting in San Diego County's future.
The county's regular archery season begins on Sept. 1 and continues until Sept. 23. The general rifle season in Zone D16 gets underway on Oct. 27 and runs for 30 consecutive days until Nov 25.
These regular season hunts have 3,000 tags available -- a fairly generous amount by D-Zone standards. The limit is one buck, forkhorn or better, per tag.
The split-season A22 either-sex hunt also begins on Sept. 1 and runs until Oct. 14. The A22 hunt's second segment begins again on Nov. 17 and ends Dec. 31. This very long hunt allows San Diego-area bowhunters the option of hunting bucks both early and late and then, if they don't take a buck, putting a doe in the freezer.
The A22 hunt had 1,000 tags available in 2007.
Firearms hunters are favored with two special hunts. G13, an antlerless hunt covering most of the county, opens Oct. 27 and ends Nov. 18. Quota for this hunt is one antlerless deer per tag. The hunt has 300 tags available.
For the muzzleloader crowd, M6 offers a very limited 80-tag hunt for forkhorn or better bucks in that portion of San Diego County lying within D16. Dates for the M6 hunt are Dec. 15 through 31.
Good maps are vital. The Cleveland National Forest's map is a good one, available from the Forest Service, 10845 Rancho Bernardo Road, No. 200, San Diego, CA 92127-2107.
You can also order maps for the Cleveland National Forest and the Pine Creek/Hauser Wilderness a
reas at www.fs.fed.us/r5/cleveland/maps.
BLM maps, especially of McCain Valley, are very handy. Try the BLM at their Desert District Office, 6621 Box Springs, Boulevard, Riverside, CA 92507; or call (909) 697-5200.
Another good reference is the Southern California Atlas and Gazetteer by DeLorme's Co., available at www.delorme.com.
For more information on hunts and other general information, contact the Department of Fish and Game, Region 5 Office at 4949 View Ridge Avenue, San Diego, CA 92123; or call (858) 467-4201.
Find more about California fishing and hunting at CaliforniaGameandFish.com