Scouting for pockets of these desert mule deer is the most effective way to get close enough to tag a trophy. (November 2007)
Brawley hunter Leon Lesicka with a handsome D12 buck. Lesicka is the founder of Desert Wildlife Unlimited and a crack burro deer hunter.
Photo courtesy of Leon Lesicka.
California's deserts can be both awesomely beautiful and forbidding. Much of the lower third of the Golden State is desert. Despite the public perception that desert is worthless (unless you pave it and build houses), the huge expanses of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts have geological beauty and excellent deer hunting over wide areas of desert mountain ranges.
The eastern portions of San Bernardino, Riverside, and Imperial counties all have deer populations, ranging mostly in higher elevations of the desert wilderness.
Some of he best hunting here is found along the border with Nevada and Arizona, and much of that is adjacent to the Colorado River.
The D12 Zone is one of the most notable of the desert hunting areas. It's rated as about as interesting, but as tough, as anywhere in the West. According to information published by the Department of Fish and Game, D12 is the largest -- in square miles of useable deer range -- of all the D Zones. With almost 6,000 square miles of deer range, almost all on public lands, D12 is a giant stretch of empty country.
Most of D12 is genuine desert-- a mix of Mojave and Sonoran types. It encompasses the eastern half of Imperial County, more than half of Riverside County, and extends into the southeast corner of San Bernardino County.
That's a big chunk of ground, but the majority of it is either locked up in military gunnery ranges, or the Salton Sea or Joshua Tree National Park. Much of it is more desert bighorn sheep habitat than deer range.
Despite that, it's a big desert. The sprawling mountain ranges, especially along the eastern border of the zone at the Colorado River, do provide considerable habitat for deer that have become used to the conditions.
The strain of mule deer found here is mostly what locals call "burro deer." For them, the lower Mojave and the Sonora are home. The environment -- while always short of water -- is a rich one that doesn't support large numbers of deer, but manages to produce numbers of good bucks.
"Last year, the deer take was up-- perhaps it was a bit too successful," said Jerry Mulcahy, a DFG deer biologist. "The overall population as we model it is about 2,000 deer for the zone. For the 2006 season, I got about 70 tag returns, which is pretty good for this desert zone. It's a bit high. Normally we see about 50."
It should be noted that DFG kill figures for a zone are always multiplied by an elusive factor that supposedly reflects the fact that the actual kill in any zone is typically higher than the number of tags returned would suggest. Tag return is not mandatory in California.
Seventy tags returned would give something like a 7 percent success rate. But big-game biologists "estimated" a kill of 114 bucks in D12 during the 2006 season and therefore, an "estimated" 12 percent success rate. It's not known which is closer to the actual deer take. But everybody agrees the deer numbers in D12, both overall and in buck kills, are up.
"We saw a lot of deer last year, and we were seeing the results of the rains of 2004," Mulcahy said. "We saw larger, more mature bucks in that three- or four-year class."
Most of the people who get deer here are the ones who have hunted the zone for many years.
"You see the same names on tag returns year after year," said the biologist. The zone is huge and you have to know where to hunt.
"Overall, the zone looks good, but the hunt is going to be highly dependent on the monsoon for hunter success and diversity in the age-classes," Mulcahy said. "We have good numbers of forked-horn bucks, decent 3x3 bucks, and a few 4x4 bucks. It's a healthy population."
The forkhorn bucks are younger and dumber, said the biologist, and we see a lot of forkhorns.
It used to be the weekends were the hot times, but Mulcahy said a lot of hunters are now giving the zone a week or two and staying out in camps, hunting hard.
Though the deer of D12 are commonly called burro deer, they're really just desert mule deer. The "burro" name probably comes from the fact they are generally smaller in body size than Rocky Mountain or even California's coastal mule deer.
Their diminutive size is a result of their desert home. But they are not as tiny, by any means, as the Coues deer found in Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. That tiny whitetail deer is much smaller.
In some cases, hunters in the D12 and D17 zones to the north have taken some really larger deer -- but the "burro deer" name continues.
The big challenge in hunting D12 is not trying to figure out if the deer there are different. It's in trying to figure out the desert. You would think that the key to hunting any desert deer would simply be to locate a water source -- of extreme importance in hunting most critters in arid country -- and then just waiting around for the deer to show up.
"Setting up on water doesn't work here," said Johnny Gibson, a local hunter who has taken a number of D12 bucks.
Gibson said that water is important, but not critical to hunter success. "You have to keep moving to locate fresh tracks or see deer."
Gibson has been hunting here since her was a kid.
"I've been pretty successful and have killed some pretty good bucks here," he said. "The big key is to do a lot of pre-scouting. You have to locate pockets of deer."
Gibson made the point that D12 is a big zone, and not every part of it has deer. Hunters with good 4x4 vehicles or quads need to cover a lot of ground to locate deer that move large distances depending on weather and water factors.
"We scout water holes and resting areas. The water is critical. If we get monsoon rains that fill up the natural water holes, the deer will spread out. But if we don't get the rain, they will cluster around the guzzlers."
THE WATER FACTOR
y hunters who normally hunt in less arid areas of the West have little experience with how water in the desert works. All of California's deserts have natural water sources.
There are springs of all shapes and sizes in desert environments. Some flow year 'round; others may flow for only a few months in spring, or intermittently following the occasional rains that pelt desert regions.
In much of the desert, man has made serious efforts to upgrade springs for both cattle and wild animals like deer and bighorn sheep.
Man-made water sources that collect rain and store it in tanks underground are known as "guzzlers." These have been installed in many places in the deserts of the Southwest to provide extra water for wildlife.
These water sources are often a bone of contention between sportsmen and so-called environmentalists who think they should be removed from the desert, despite the disastrous effect this would have on wild populations of all kinds.
"We have lots of animals out here that use the water we provide," said Leon Lesicka, water coordinator for Desert Wildlife Unlimited, a habitat and conservation group based in Imperial County. They build and maintain guzzlers for both upland birds and big game in the D12 Zone.
"We had good rains, and we had good forage," said Lesicka. "And for this year, we didn't get much rain. But the forage and the habitat still look pretty good.
"You have to be in the right place at the right time to find these deer," he said. "Everybody I talked to this year said last year was the best deer hunting they had ever seen in D12 -- not that everybody got a deer, but they were seeing lots of deer. I have a friend who took his eight-year-old daughter out, and they saw 32 deer!"
Two basic weather systems provide water for deer and other animals in D12. Both are highly variable. The desert gets much of its moisture in January and February, but there is also a significant chance of thunderstorms in July and August.
These summer storms, known as the Arizona monsoon, begin when moist air is drawn up from the Gulf of California into Arizona, California and New Mexico.
When little rain falls in the summer, hunters can concentrate their efforts on known water sources and along the ever-present Colorado River. But even a modest amount of rain in the summer could spread deer out across the zone, wherever there is water available.
SCOUT FOR POCKETS
Bill Presley, an export hay dealer from Brawley, has been hunting the D12 area for deer since 1996.
"I am successful every year at seeing deer, and I've killed two out there," he said. "But I am selective. I am looking for the really big bucks." He said the monsoon is a big factor. "You need to scout to see where the water is. You also need to look for those deep canyons and cuts where they find cover. Guys who just want to ride down the road in their jeeps aren't going to score," said the hunter. "You need to get off the roads and find where they hide."
Presley also said hunters need to look for tracks and sign to indicate where the deer are feeding.
"I do know that some people bowhunt the area, but most aren't successful," he said. "The guys who are taking them with bows are the ones that practically live out there for the entire season."
What Presley didn't say -- but which all hunters who regularly hunt D12 understand -- is that you need to be able to track deer over all sorts of surfaces. Desert hardpan and rock are certainly a lot harder to track over than fresh snow. A good track may be difficult to locate at all. And if you do, it may be hard to judge just how long ago the deer passed that way.
Despite the open nature of desert country in the D12 Zone, it's not country where you need a 300-yard rifle to get a deer. All of the hunters we talked to for this article thought that the selection of firearm was less critical than the ability to handle desert conditions and survival situations, and being able to cover ground and track deer.
"Occasionally you will get a long shot," said Presley, "but most of these deer are killed within 150 yards. A .30/06 is all you ever need." When Presley is hunting, he uses a quad or ATV and looks for tracks. If he finds fresh tracks, he follows up on them.
"We find that this late in the season, the deer usually don't water every day," he said. "So water is not the overriding factor it might seem to be. It might work in August, but not in November. The river is not a big factor. I hunt 30 to 40 miles off the river. We find deer all over the zone."
"Everybody I talked to this year said last year was the best deer hunting they had ever seen in D12 -- not that everybody got a deer, but they were seeing lots of deer," said Leon Lesicka of Desert Wildlife Unlimited. "I have a friend who took his eight-year-old daughter out, and they saw 32 deer!"
Johnny Gibson said that this kind of hunting is medium-range shooting, out 100 to 300 yards. He uses a .30/06 loaded with 150-grain soft-point bullets. Gibson said a .25/06 would work well, too.
He said that some successful guys hunt right on the river. The area around Walter's camp, south of Blythe, and the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge also near Blythe are known to be good.
"I also think the Pichaco Peak area north of Yuma is a good spot near the river," Gibson said.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Southern California's D12 Zone is located in true desert country. But rather than planning on blazing heat, equip yourself to handle a range of conditions. It can be quite warm at midday, but temperatures plunge after dark, and wind chill can drive temps below freezing just after sunset in November.
The zone's eastern border is the Colorado River, and the hunting area starts just south of Needles in the Chemehuevi Mountain range. It stretches to Yuma on the Mexican border, and west nearly to the desert communities of Brawley and Niland.
Big portions of the area within the zone are off-limits to hunters. One is Joshua Tree National Park; the other is the Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range. There are also a number of Bureau of Land Management-designated wilderness areas within the zone.
Make sure you take plenty of water, survival gear, food and good maps. A compass as well as a hand-held GPS unit are recommended.
Driving conditions can be rugged, so 4WD vehicles with ample ground clearance are necessary in most good hunting areas. Road and boundary closures have restricted vehicle access to some areas, but you can get maps from the BLM showing the wilderness boundaries.
For 2007, D12 Zone has a quota of 950 tags. The full quota of tags was issued to hunters in 2006. The DFG estimate
d the success rate in 2007 at only 12 percent, but most hunters we contacted said they saw good numbers of deer on their hunts.
Hunters should visit the DFG's Web site at www.dfg.ca.gov, download and print out the D12 Zone Map, and the 2007 Deer Zone Information pages for Zone D12.
Season dates for D12 in 2007 are Oct. 6 through 28 for archery, and Nov. 3 through 25 for general rifle.
For the latest information on much of the wilderness area of D12, check with the BLM Resource Center in El Centro, 1661 S. 4th Street, El Centro, CA 92243. Or call (760) 337-4400.
For more information on the D12 hunt, contact the DFG, Inland Desert Region Office (Region 6) at 3602 Inland Empire Boulevard, Suite C-220, Ontario, CA 91764. Or phone (909) 484-0167
Find more about California fishing and hunting at CaliforniaGameandFish.com