X Marks the Spots

X Marks the Spots

California has five deer zones. But only one holds as much history and mystery as the coveted X Zone.

It now seems like a long time ago, but actually, only four years have passed since I was drawn for an X-Zone tag.

Most successful X-Zone hunts end with a long pack-out -- be it a Warner Mountain hike or a desert trek. But it'll be one of the most satisfying trips you'll ever make. Photo by John Higley.

And it was for one of my favorite places in California! Zone X5b, near Susanville in eastern Lassen County, is home to some of the state's biggest mule deer.

I'd like to report that I killed a monster trophy in that high-desert country. But that wasn't exactly the case. After six days of hard hunting spread out over three weekends, I did find a buck to tie my tag on. It was big of body, to be sure, but its antlers were not worthy of the wall.

I was hunting solo, which isn't the brightest idea, and was covering all the steep, rocky ground on foot. Some other hunters I met didn't do any better than I did, even though they had the help of ATVs. Of course, some better-than-average bucks were taken, but they were few and far between.

The odds for bagging a magnum Boone and Crockett buck aren't terrific anyplace in California. But in some of those X Zones, your chances are better than anywhere else in the state.

In all, the X Zones are 17 in number. They cover a region along the eastern edge of California, from Inyokern in the south to the Oregon state line in the north and west into Siskiyou County. Most of the deer found throughout the X Zones are Rocky Mountain mule deer, which range from Modoc County south to Mono County.

Their close cousins, Inyo mule deer, are found from southern Mono into Inyo and Kern counties.

In addition, there are some blacktail-mule deer hybrids, especially in Zone X1.

Part of the appeal of hunting the X Zones is their terrain. Much of the northeast region consists of rocky peaks and draws, with wide-open spaces decorated by plenty of sagebrush, juniper and bitterbrush.

The Warner Mountains, with meadowlands, timber and stands of quaking aspen, spill into the area from Oregon. Within the Warners, the South Warner Wilderness draws horse-packers and even backpackers willing to make the effort to hunt far from roads. The hunt zones within the northeast region include Zones X1 through X6b.

Farther south, Zones X7a and X7b are located just north of Lake Tahoe. The rest of the Zones, from X8 through X12, encompass a wide variety of terrain, from the desert mountains of Inyo County to alpine regions in the eastern Sierra Nevada Range.

Most of the region is characterized by sagebrush and piñon in the lowlands and scattered conifer forests at higher elevations.

All of the X Zones give you a feeling of openness and freedom that you simply wont find in most inland deer country.

Adding to that I-can-go-anywhere feeling is the extensive areas of public land throughout the X Zones. Most of it is managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management.

Zone X5b came into existence in 1978 as the first full-fledged deer zone in the state. The idea was to give the California Department of Fish and Game a better way to control hunter numbers and keep them in balance with the estimated population of deer.

Before X5b was established, more than 3,300 hunters flocked to the area each fall. In 1978, the newly applied quota allowed for just 500 tags.

Today, a zone system covers the entire state. In addition to the 17 X Zones, there are huge Zone A and several B, C and D zones. Nowhere are tags more limited than in the X Zones.

In 2008, the grand total of all X-Zone tags was 8,020. Zone X1 had the most tags at 2,230. Zone X5a had the fewest: 55. Meanwhile, 115 tags were allotted for Zone X5b.

To give you an idea of how things have changed, back in 1992, X-Zone hunters got more than 28,000 tags.

Unfortunately, since the 1970s, deer numbers throughout the X-Zone region have fallen considerably.

Long-term troubles include:

  • Wildfires are often followed by encroaching non-native cheatgrass, which deer do not use for food or cover.
  • Building and development, scattered throughout the X zones, adversely affect both the migrating and resident deer.
  • Winterkill: During the severe winter of 1992-93, mule deer herds suffered a sharp drop, with significant losses across virtually all the West. California, with fewer mule deer to begin with, was hit hard.

My friend Steve Guill hunts wildlife with a camera. In March of 1993, traveling through a portion of the winter range in Zone X1, he saw dozens of deer carcasses lying along the road and a couple of live deer that were too weak to stand.

Deep snow covered their food, and they were simply starving. It wasn't pretty, but such sights are a natural, if unfortunate, part of living wild and free.

Deer herds usually rebound from such untimely events, provided that the habitat they need is still viable. But the X-Zone herds have been very slow to improve.

However, the picture isn't all bleak.

Today, most of California's mule deer herds are relatively stable. And while a few herds still appear to be declining slowly, others are rebounding. The trends are based on harvest data and field surveys, which are naturally subject to the whims of weather and technique. In other words, they're educated guesses -- the best the DFG can do with the tools and time at their disposal.

Regardless, many hunters still want X-Zones tags, and for good reason.

Even today, the success rate in most X Zones is higher than in other comparable zones throughout the state. In all but five of the 17 X Zones, hunters scored better than 30 percent. Those five were X1 (at 26 percent), X8 (23 percent), X9b (27 percent) X9c (20 percent) and X10 (14 percent). Many of the other X Zones offered success rates of 40 percent and above.

Craig Stowers, deer program coordinator for the DFG, said that last fall, he got optimistic r

eports from hunters about several X Zones.

"Based on our surveys, I didn't expect to hear a lot of good things," he said. "But some hunters I talked to said they saw a lot more deer than they'd expected in the places where they were hunting."

Stowers said the bright spots included zones X8, X12, X7a and X7b.

In these areas, weather was probably a big factor. Last fall, several storms arrived when the seasons were still open. That always makes a difference, said Stowers.

He said the X Zones are unique in that each year there are a lot of hunters who are new to the area.

"You simply can't expect to get a tag every year, the way the old-timers did," Stowers said. "Most of those folks knew the area like the backs of their hands."

Now things are different. Many hunters put in for the coveted tags, draw them and venture into an X Zone for the first time. If they don't scout in advance or allow themselves enough time to learn the area while they're hunting, they shouldn't expect to be very productive.

On the other hand, they might have luck on their side.

Back in the mid-1990s, I had only weekends to hunt Zone X5a. And once again, I was alone.

On Friday afternoon, the day before the opener, I went to scout the area west of Highway 395 in Lassen County. I never saw a deer, but I did cover lots of ground and eliminated some places from my itinerary.

I also had an ace in the hole. One of my friends knew X5a well. He showed me maps that he'd marked with what he had found on past trips.

On opening day, I followed his directions. One of his so-called "secret" spots involved a walk from the main road across a series of rimrock-lined ravines and into a wash lined with junipers, with a spring-fed now-and-then creek in its bottom.

Because I was prospecting new ground, I began hunting after sunrise. And it's a good thing I did!

While hiking along above the wash, I spotted movement on the opposite hillside far ahead. Those sunlit shapes -- all six of them -- were bucks, hightailing it toward the head of the wash. I suspect that they had run into other hunters on top of the mountain and were making good their escape.

For a few minutes, I hurried up the ridge, then dropped part way into the wash and started sneaking from juniper to juniper, slowly and carefully.

I oozed along the hillside, keeping in the shade as much as possible and watching intently for movement up ahead.

Suddenly, there he was! A buck magically materialized on the slope well ahead of me . . . and then another and another. They were going to pass me on the far side of the wash, less than 100 yards away.

I sat down next to a juniper to break up my outline. I was excited and more than ready when the first buck -- a fair 4x4 -- paused long enough for me to let me shoot.

My buck wasn't monstrous, but he was the first one to come through a nearby DFG checkpoint. And he impressed a group of hunters who up until that moment hadn't even seen a deer, let alone a legal buck.

Before that X5a hunt, I had been drawn for Zone X5b. I hunted with local Doran Wheeler and scored another nice 4x4.

Twenty years ago, tags for the X Zones were easier to get than they are today. For one thing, many more tags were available, so the odds of getting one were good.

However, demand remained high, while the tag quota diminished. As a result, some hunters seemed to get picked regularly, but others became discouraged with the process.

Eventually, some of them quit trying for X-Zone tags altogether. At least some of them looked to other states for their mule deer hunting.

Today things are better -- or worse, depending on your point of view.

To level the playing field somewhat, a preference point system was initiated in 2002. Tags for the A, B, C and D zones are still issued on request until tag quotas are filled. However, the DFG classifies tags for the X Zones as premium deer tags because they are all awarded every year in the June drawing.

Tags for additional hunts, including general-methods hunts, muzzleloader hunts, archery hunts and junior hunts are also awarded in the drawing.

To enter the drawing, you must buy a hunting license and a first-deer tag application, and you must meet the early June deadline.

Most premium tags go to those with the highest number of preference points, which are earned at a rate of 1 per year. However, 10 percent of the tags go to applicants who have few preference points, or none.

All told, you have three choices in the drawing. When you fill out your application, you can put down an X Zone as choice No. 1, then list two other tags as your second and third choices. If you don't draw your first-choice tag, you'll get a preference point. And if your second choice is sold out before your number comes up (which could happen in the C Zone and some of the D Zones), you may -- depending on your pick -- get your third-choice tag.

After all that, if you still receive an unsuccessful draw notice, you can still get a leftover tag, or a refund.

For more details on how the drawing works, consult the DFG's California Hunting Digest, Big Game.

You can also view it online at www.dfg.ca.gov/licensing/biggame/biggamebook.html.

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