There may be no better hunting for black-tailed deer in California than from the foothills to the crests of the Northern Sierras...
Three legal, velvet-horned bucks began foraging within 40 yards of my tree stand. Two of the bucks were decent size, and one of those -- a tall 4x3 -- was pushing record-class status.
It had been at least 15 minutes before the first buck, a young forkedhorn blacktail, busted the oncoming threesome as he crunched through tinder-dry foothills of Nevada County ground in California's deer-hunting Zone D-3.
As I continued to watch the bucks from my perch in an old oak tree (lamenting that none of them were record-book shooters), I suddenly heard the faint sound of what I thought was another animal approaching to my right. I stared in that direction for a second or two. When nothing appeared, I quickly turned my attention back toward the bucks.
Moments later, movement to my right again caught my attention. There he was! The old monarch stood like a statue at the forest edge, about 45 yards away, glaring at the inferior bucks. His spectacular, velvet rack was one of the widest set of antlers I'd ever seen on a black-tailed deer. My heartbeat quickened as he walked closer and came over to my side of the ridge.
Late-afternoon light was fading as I still watched the bucks browsing. That sickening feeling many deer hunters know rose inside me, as the big buck vanished into a coffeeberry thicket about 45 yards out. A few minutes later I caught sight of him again, but only from the neck up, as he raked his horns and nibbled on the brush.
Legal shooting time was almost gone when the buck cleared the brush and looked as if he was going to ease beyond an 8-inch-wide shooting hole. I drew back my bow and lined up the 30-yard pin. The great buck was broadside to me, feeding on acorns and creeping forward from right to left at a slight downhill angle. Remaining at full draw, I had to wait a few more seconds for his vital area to completely clear the base of a large oak. With a glowing red dot anchored behind his left front shoulder, I said a prayer and tugged on the trigger release.
The sleek carbon arrow, tipped with a 125-grain broadhead, sizzled through the air and entered the beast. The old bruiser hunched a bit and started trotting downhill. The other bucks scattered.
"Go down," I nervously whispered. That sickening feeling began festering once again.
But at 60 yards his long legs wobbled and then turned to Jell-O. The monster crashed hard in the middle of the oak-studded saddle. His racehorse-like kicking abruptly ended a few seconds later. He was done. I threw a fist pump and loudly whispered "Yes! Thank you Lord." I'd just taken my largest buck ever!
As I walked up on the reddish-brown trophy buck, florescent red fluid bubbled up from his middle. Although wide, the tines on the rack were a bit on the short side. Still I knew he'd score well -- maybe even a Top 10. The buck eventually measured 149 1/8 Pope & Young points, the eighth-best archery-killed typical "inland" blacktail in the California Records of Big Game.
BLACKTAIL HISTORY OF D-3
According to wildlife biologists of the California Department of Fish and Game, much of the deer-hunting in Zone D-3 is in historic blacktail range, with California mule deer residing near its eastern boundary. Some whitetails, too, are found in isolated pockets along the lower Sacramento River.
The CRBG classifies the D-3 blacktails as "inland" blacktails. The highest-ranked bucks in these records are all non-migratory resident deer taken below the 3,000-foot elevation mark. Most were taken by bowhunters on private lands. The records also show that D-3 archers have taken the most Top 10 inland archery blacktails in the state, including Nos. 4, 5, 6, 8, and 9 in the typical division; and Nos. 5 and 8 in the non-typical division. The largest reported D-3 blacktail grossed 163 1/8-P&Y points and was taken in 1995 near Grass Valley by bowhunter Stan Boyer.
As they are in the entire northern Sierras, the heaviest D-3 blacktails are non-migratory animals and inhabit the biomass- and protein-rich region of the Sierra foothills between 2,000 and 4,000 feet elevation. Some of the older-age class bucks can weigh almost 200 pounds and are heavier, on average, than high-country, migratory blacktails.
Astonishingly, the foothill region, which I commonly refer to as the "madrone zone" (due to the regionally heavy berry crop), receives an average of 50 inches of rainfall per year -- more than Seattle! It seems that all that rain supports both physical and anecdotal evidence the foothill bucks of California deer-hunting Zone D-3 closely resemble those found in southwestern Oregon.
ZONE D-3 BOUNDARIES
Zone D-3 is bordered on the west by Interstate 5 in the Sacramento Valley and extends east to the Pacific Crest Trail along the highest ridges of the Sierra-Nevada Mountains. Its northern border runs from the valley floor along scenic State Highway 70, and then east to State Highway 89 at the town of Graeagle. The zone's southern border follows State Highway 80, and the Bear River, back down to the valley.
Zone D-3 also includes all or part of eight counties: Glenn, Colusa, Sutter, Butte, Yuba, Nevada, Sierra and Plumas -- all of which hold huntable public land. The Plumas and Tahoe national forests lie within the boundary, as well.
PLUMAS NATIONAL FOREST
Recent "spot-kill" map evidence in the Plumas NF reveals hunters in the area around Bucks Lake posted the highest buck harvest, followed by the area of Little Grass Valley Reservoir. Some of the best hunting took place around the Tamarack Flat area, east of Bucks Lake; Bucks Mountain; Bald Eagle Mountain; and Cedar Flat.
South of Little Grass Valley Reservoir, you'll want to scout the area surrounding the town of La Porte.
Areas near Onion Valley Creek, Bald Mountain and Willow Creek have posted good deer-kill numbers in the past. Another good concentration of kills has been seen near the western edge of the Plumas NF on the west side of Bullard's Bar Reservoir, near the town of Challenge.
TAHOE NATIONAL FOREST
In the Tahoe NF, deer-harvest trends, anecdotal evidence and spot-kill maps reveal the highest numbers of bucks are killed around Jackson Meadows Reservoir, especially to the north near Haypress Valley and Bald Ridge; and in the areas surrounding Gold Lake. Also try Pig and Hog canyons to the west. Farther west is Craycroft Ridge, Bunker Hill and Saddleback Mountain to the north of the beautiful, historic town of Downieville on State Highway 49. Migratory bucks wander past this North Yuba River town when stormy we
At the southeastern corner of Zone D-3 lies a unique area, which I call the "Bowman wilderness." It's bordered by Bowman Lake Road to the west, Meadow Lake Road to the north, the Pacific Crest Trail to the east, and Interstate 80 to the south. Although easily accessible from I-80 and Bowman Lake Road, the area is scenic, rugged and pock-marked with many alpine lakes carved into granite basins.
Looking north from I-80 you see Lake Spaulding and beautiful granite caps with sparsely timbered ridges and draws. It may remind you of the gorgeous Trinity Alps in far northern California and might make Montana natives homesick. The vast, open country is extremely conducive for high-powered optics and long-shooting rifles. Archers still can hunt the many slivers of timbered tracts or set up tree stands within them. Bowman Mountain, Grouse Ridge and Red Mountain are among the most popular locations for filling deer tags. Good friends of mine hunt Weaver and McMurray lakes, near Meadow Lake Road. My own map-scouting gives me pause to consider the Sand Ridge/Black Buttes area, as well as a different "Sand Ridge" that extends off the Pacific Crest Trail, north of the Boreal ski area.
Southward toward Bullard's Bar Reservoir you'll find big, resident, foothill blacktails on the north side of the lake, in the western edge of the Tahoe NF. This area is rainforest-thick. Clear-cuts, fire scars and other large openings are your best bets.
ADDITIONAL PUBLIC LANDS
Outside the national forest land, Zone D-3 holds a lot more public land, extending from the national forest boundaries down to the Sacramento Valley.
Heading southeast through private land, you'll find small tracts of land under the authority of the Bureau of Land Management, with substantial holdings near Grass Valley and Nevada City. The largest tract, covering roughly 12 square miles, is the South Yuba River Recreation Area in Nevada County, north of Nevada City. This particular BLM tract is open only to archery hunters.
At Lake Oroville, just outside the Oroville State Recreation Area (closed to deer hunting), you'll find quite a bit of BLM land, especially on the east side of the lake.
On the west side of Lake Oroville, the 3,300-acre North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve is situated between Cherokee Road and Highway 70. Special deer-hunting regulations apply to this plateau range made up of ancient lava flows. The mineral- rich, high-phosphorus soils should support massive antler growth. According to the 2007 D-3 spot-kill map, five bucks were reportedly taken on the reserve -- three of them on opening weekend.
The Oroville Wildlife Area, south of the city of Oroville holds a small, resident blacktail population. Hunters here are restricted to hunting with shotguns with slugs or with archery gear.
To the south lies the popular Daugherty Hill Wildlife Area in Yuba County, near Collins Lake. It consists of three separate units: Darby Road, Donovan Hill and Daugherty Hill. It is designated as a "class C" wildlife area; there are no fees; deer hunting dates run the same as the rest of the Zone D-3 season.
Daugherty Hill WA holds some of the best habitat I've seen for blacktail deer in California. I've never hunted it, but I've driven around it and have map-scouted it several times. Elevations range from about 1,000 to 1,600 feet, and it consists of blue-oak (also called white oak) woodlands among lower foothill habitat. It can remind hunters of the best chaparral-type deer habitat found in Zone A.
The non-migratory, resident blacktails tend to be A-Zone sized as well, and stand among the smallest blacktails of the west-slope Sierras. Due to the area's high calcium and limestone geology, these small bucks can, however, grow tremendous racks. I've seen pictures of bucks taken there (and a few live ones from the truck) in the 150-class range. As in the entire lower Sierra foothill range the rut starts early and is usually in full swing by mid-October. Dougherty Hills WA is accessed from State Highway 20 to Marysville Road, then north to Dolan Harding Road and east to the parking area. Camping is available at Collins Lake.
South of Dougherty Hills, Yuba County serves up Spenceville Wildlife Area, about 15 miles east of Marysville. This nearly 12,000-acre parcel lies even lower in elevation than Dougherty Hills, and secretive local residents take a few wild hogs there every winter and spring.
The area around Spenceville dries up fast and can be blazing hot during deer season. Bucks will be found near the only available green forage, which means you must hunt the creeks. Try near Dry Creek, downstream from the Waldo Road Bridge (just north of Spenceville Road) and south of Spenceville Road at the far eastern boundary. The resident bucks there also are rutting by mid-October during the general season. Cooler weather helps.
Heading west to the Sacramento Valley floor, several state- and federally managed wildlife areas are open to deer hunting. Within this area, Hunt No. G12 -- the Gray Lodge Shotgun Either-sex deer hunt -- opens Sept. 18 and ends on Sept. 26. It takes place within the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area in southwestern Butte County near Colusa. Twenty-five tags are the normal allotment for the drawing, and the hunter success rate usually runs about 20 percent. Only shotguns with slugs may be used. For more information, call the manager's office at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, (916) 358-2882.
North of Gray Lodge is the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area, where Hunt No. J9 -- the Little Dry Creek Apprentice Shotgun Either-sex deer hunt -- takes place. This junior hunt offers selected young sportsmen a collective total of five tags to fill, and you've got to give the young guns a lot of credit. Hunter success was a whopping 80 percent n 2009! The hunt is limited to shotgun and slugs, and is open to juniors under the age of 16.
Farther west several more small state and federal areas lie along the Sacramento River shoreline. These boat-in and/or walk-in deer hunts include the Princeton, Stegeman, Moulton, and Colusa units of the Sacramento River Wildlife Area; and the Afton, North Drumheller Slough and Drumheller Slough units within the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge. Also therein lies the 1,248-acre Colusa Bypass Wildlife Area.
While much of the habitat along the Sacramento River is dense riparian jungle, some blocks hold oak woodlots surrounded by private cropland and orchards, typifying river-bottom whitetail country. Only archery equipment and slug guns are allowed (rifles and pistols are prohibited). Deer seasons here begin and continue with the archery and general-season dates of Zone D-3. The 2007 D-3 spot-kill map shows 11 legal (forkedhorn or better) bucks were reported taken from these areas.
If it's mule deer that you're after in Zone D-3, the best hunting appears to take place near the Sierra crest in Plumas County, where D-3 borders Zone X-6a; and in Sierra County, near the border of Zone X-7a.
On September 3, 1999, bowhunter Dan Seaters took the CRBG state-record California mule deer, while hun
ting near the X-7a border. The non-typical 5x4 gross-scored 191 5/8 P&Y inches, and had an outside spread measuring 31 2/8 inches!
According to taxidermist Ken Slattery of Grass Valley, the largest D-3 buck he has mounted was taken near the X-6a border a few years ago.
"They brought in two (bucks) from that area. One had a 30-inch spread and it looked like a pure Rocky Mountain muley," Slattery noted. "The other looked like a (blacktail-mule deer) hybrid."
Columbia black-tailed deer dominate the varied terrain of California deer-hunting Zone D-3. From the valley floors to the highest ridges of the northern Sierras, the zone carries a long history of fine deer hunting that also includes mule deer and even small populations of white-tailed deer.
It just could be one of the most interesting areas for deer hunting anywhere in California.