Oregon deer hunters should be seeing more mule deer in five eastern units in the next few years. In the meantime, the state's variety of mulies, blacktails and whitetails will keep them busy. (August 2009)
"Mule deer populations are not what they once were in Oregon and across the West for a variety of reasons. We hear it a lot from hunters," said Michelle Dennehy, the wildlife communications coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Jim Tracy hunted the Fossil Unit in 2008 and shot this dandy mule deer. Public-land hunters saw many younger bucks here, but there are some mature bucks as well.
Photo courtesy of Battle Creek Outfitters.
Her comments echo Director Roy Elicker's message in the 2009 Oregon Big Game Regulations:
"Hunters keep telling us to help our mule deer and increase our hunting opportunities. 'I want my kids and their kids to be able to experience mule deer hunting like I did.' "
Hunters will be glad to know that ODFW has "heard their concerns about declining mule deer populations loud and clear," said Dennehy. "The ODFW is launching a Mule Deer Initiative to get more aggressive about turning these trends around."
In 2007, Oregon's mule deer population was estimated at 227,800, 34 percent below the management objective of 347,400 mule deer.
One example of decline is the Steens Mountain Unit. Historically, it had been one of the premier deer hunts. It's now at 35 percent of the management objective. The Steens Mountain, Murderers Creek, Maury, Heppner and Warner units have been identified as test areas to enhance habitat, control predators and increase enforcement.
There are many factors at play: habitat fragmentation, predators, roads, and junipers replacing bitterbrush.
"There is no silver bullet to reduce the trend," said Dennehy. "But we are committed to doing something to restore our mule deer. Frankly, some of our best habitat is gone."
Each district has pulled together a planning community of key stakeholders from hunters' groups, the Mule Deer Foundation and landowners. The restoration plans will be sent to ODFW.
That is good news for hunters who have watched mule deer herds decline in many areas. And if the ODFW's efforts pay off, hunting could improve in as few as three years. That should generate more hunter interest and more tags, which will mean increased revenue for the state. One study showed that mule deer hunters generate $53.21 per day, which translated to $22 million in 2007.
In the meantime, here are some of the best spots to hunt mule deer this coming season.
The winter of 2007-08 delivered high snow pack and frigid weather across the state. Deer herds suffered in some areas.
The winter of 2008-09 was a different story. Aside from a week of bitter temps in the single digits, mild temperatures and light snows were the rule. Maybe there wasn't as much snow pack as some water managers wanted, but the long-term forage growth potential should be good for deer herds. And hunters.
Fred Alexander of Bend is relatively new to hunting. He picked up archery several years ago because it was a chance to spend time with his sons and learn the lessons that are best taught with the wind in your face and an arrow on the string. But it was insomnia that made him get up earlier than usual one September day to hunt the Paulina Unit.
He thought about doing laundry for his wife and nine children; the other option was a two-hour hunt before breakfast. He flipped a coin and it came up heads three times in a row. He went hunting.
Alexander spent an hour walking through the pines and found the tracks of a large buck. But with no rain in recent weeks, the forest was noisy. Discouraged, he started walking back to the truck to drive home. That was when he saw the buck.
"I wasn't sure how big it was or how many points it had," said Alexander. "I just knew it was a buck."
Alexander raised his bow and released an arrow. The broadhead nicked the deer's leg. Alexander followed the tracks around the side of a hill and, with the wind in his favor, was able to close the distance and make a second shot.
"The buck was tucked behind some sagebrush," said Alexander. "I could clearly see the upper part of the kill zone."
The release of the arrow was clean this time, and it penetrated the lungs. Alexander waited 30 minutes, and then followed the blood trail. He had to backtrack a couple of times to the original spot and start over, but in 45 minutes, he found his buck, a 28-inch 4x4 mule deer.
A friend suggested he get the buck scored. After the drying period, the buck's rack taped out at 168 2/8, big enough to qualify for the Record Book of Oregon's Big Game Animals.
Though it's managed for opportunity and small bucks are the norm, every season, the Paulina Unit produces a trophy for a lucky hunter or two. Rifle hunter success averages a respectable 26 percent during rifle season. A bowhunter has to work harder and spend more days in the field to earn a buck, but time spent in the field pays off.
Most of the bucks are younger age-class deer, forkhorns, 3-points and small 4-points. But every year someone tags a trophy.
Coming out of deer season last year, fawn numbers were lower across central Oregon.
The Upper Deschutes Unit is still a great place to hunt, even though it's fragmented by development and plagued with poachers and predators.
Harvesting a deer is difficult. Hunters have averaged 18 percent in recent years. Post-season counts showed 22 bucks per 100 does, according to District Biologist Corey Heath.
In the Metolius Unit, habitat conditions are good, but buck numbers at 19 per 100 does are lower than management objective. Hunter success averages 36 percent. Poaching continues to be a problem.
"There are probably more illegal hunters in the Metolius than legal hunters," Heath said.
Managed for an objective of 25 bucks per 100 does, the White River Unit hasn't measured up in the last few years. But it still represents a great opportunity; fawn ratios have averaged higher in recent years. Plan to hunt four days or
more to boost your odds.
The Wagontire Unit is managed for trophy potential. You can find good numbers of deer here in the winter, but the best hunters are hard-pressed to find a buck in most of this ground during the season. Post-season counts put buck numbers at 17 per 100 does, higher than management objective. Plan to spend a good part of the season. Best bets are close to agricultural lands.
Fort Rock Unit hunters have the best success on the east side where the open country has better feed and higher numbers of deer. Both the Fort Rock Unit and the Silver Lake Unit should have good numbers of younger bucks available.
To the south, hunters in the Keno, Klamath Falls and Sprague units should expect an average year with good numbers of 2 1/2-year-old deer.
Deer numbers are depressed in the Interstate, Warner and Beatys Butte units because of the extreme temperatures and snows in the winter of 2007-08. Barring hard winters, ODFW efforts in the Warner Unit should bear fruit in a couple of years.
Tag numbers are way up in the Beulah Unit with twice as many hunters in the field on opening day as there were four years ago. Last season, Adam Brooks of Bend hunted solo, away from the roads, and took a big Roman-nosed 3-point.
Eight clients of Battle Creek Outfitters hunting in the Beulah Unit tagged eight bucks in the 175- to 195-inch class. According to owner Steve Mathers, buck quality is still high because there are areas where deer can escape from people. Hunters who make an extra effort to get into remote areas may find fewer deer than in the popular portions of the unit, but the bucks should be bigger.
Mathers reported that there are fewer big bucks in the Sumpter Unit because of 2007 winterkill.
"We think the big bucks expended too much energy during the rut and didn't survive the harsh winter. We are seeing lots of 3-points and big forkhorns, bucks with inferior genetics," he said.
The Desolation Unit is characterized by mountain and forest habitat, which is not the easiest deer hunt. A great elk unit, deer hunters do best when they focus on deer habitat and employ spotting tactics from long range, and then stalk in for a shot. Best bets are in the aspen groves, rimrocks and the tops of canyons.
Mike Crawford of Battle Creek Outfitters has hunted the Heppner Unit for years. His hunters went six for six in the Heppner Unit last year, but deer numbers are down. ODFW is pursuing a program to reduce numbers of large predators. Elk calf recruitment is up, but deer numbers are still depressed.
Public-land hunters in the Fossil Unit are finding a lot of younger bucks. Crawford's hunters went seven for seven in 2008 and are seeing bigger deer. Their best buck for the Fossil Unit was a 3- or 4-year-old deer with a spread of 28 inches.
Murderers Creek Unit hunters reported mixed success last year. The east side of the unit seemed to produce more deer than on the west side. That trend is likely to continue.
The Snake River Unit continues to be a top unit for trophy mulies. The key lies in looking over a lot of deer, which means covering ground and spending time behind the spotting scope. It also means that it may take four or five days to fill the tag. The hunter hoping to tag a whitetail should hunt habitat along the river and creek bottoms.
Wherever deer season takes you, make sure to have cougar and bear tags. Predator numbers are high in most units, and your chance of filling one of those tags is good.
Eastern Oregon's archery season is from Aug. 29 through Sept. 27. The Hood-White River centerfire rifle hunt will run Sept. 12 through Sept. 20.
Eastern Oregon's Controlled Buck Centerfire season runs from Oct. 3 through Oct. 14.
Approximately 320,000 blacktails inhabit the western third of the state (and spill over the Cascades into eastern Oregon's Hood River, White River and Keno units).
Western Oregon, specifically the Melrose Unit, is the only place where Columbian whitetails are legal game (with the proper controlled tag).
Doug Gattis of Southern Oregon Game Busters grew up hunting the Applegate, Evans Creek and Rogue units in southwest Oregon. He and his wife, Janet, have guided hunters for 19 years, and they have seen a lot of changes in deer numbers and habitat.
"Things change, you adapt," said Gattis. "I think there are more deer now, and they're staying down low."
Gattis' trail cameras confirmed what he suspected. "Some deer are migratory and some are not. The trail cameras show it. We're seeing a number of really big bucks. These may be the good old days again."
But the deer move under the cover of night, making them more difficult to hunt, especially in periods of high-pressure weather patterns.
"We're hunting lower down in the valley on properties between ranches and small holdings of 500 acres down to 20 acres," he said.
In the spring, the deer follow the new grass up the slopes and out into the open. That gives Gattis a chance to see the deer in his area.
"I'm starting to see groups of bucks like we used to see in the '60s and '70s, groups of five, six, seven bucks together. Deer get up to that new grass, and it's like candy to them," he said.
In Douglas County, deer numbers are stable and highest on private land. Pat Fisher of Fisher Outfitters said prescribed burns are part of the reason.
"We burn about a third of the ranch every year," he said. "There are so many blacktails."
On an average day, he sees 40 to 60 bucks. The buck-to-doe ratio is right about 25 percent. On cooler days with early afternoon rain, he can see 60 to 70 bucks.
"It was crazy," said Fisher. "Some afternoons you'll see 150 deer if the weather conditions are right."
Columbian whitetail numbers are increasing in many areas in and around Douglas County. Blacktail hunters need to know how to identify whitetails to keep from taking the wrong deer.
Hair loss syndrome and adenovirus continue to be a concern for game managers in western Oregon, particularly at lower elevations. Hair loss syndrome hits does and fawns harder than bucks, so buck ratios are better in some areas and bucks may be more vulnerable as they cover more ground prospecting for does.
McKenzie Unit hunters found good numbers of deer last year at higher elevations where hair loss damage has been minimal.
Public-land hunters should take note of ground that burned in wil
dfires or was logged in recent timber operations and plan their hunts accordingly. When focusing on timber operations, look for newly logged units, adjacent to five- to 10-year-old cuts. Access may be restricted on private timberland to weekends and late afternoons. To check on access on private timberlands in the Siuslaw and Alsea units, call the Weyerhaeuser Hunter Hotline at (541) 741-5403.
David Nuzum, an ODFW biologist on the north coast, saw more mature deer last season.
"The rut seemed to come earlier, and we saw nicer racks," he said.
Post-season buck counts were higher than the management objective of 25 bucks per 100 does. In the Saddle Mountain Unit, Nuzum counted 31 bucks per 100 does. In the Wilson Unit, it was 37 bucks per 100 does. In the west side of the Trask Unit, there were 33 bucks per 100 does.
Nuzum reported that there is more timber cutting in his units than in recent years and more acres opened.
"I've been noticing a lot more tasty-looking areas," he said. "Look for cuts that are three to eight years old. The older cuts may still hold deer, but you can't see them in the brushier cover."
Land ownership changes may limit hunter access to weekends on some timber. A mountain bike is a good option for probing some privately owned timber company lands.
The Western Oregon archery season runs Aug. 29 through Sept. 27. The Alsea, McKenzie, Santiam, Siuslaw, Stott Mountain, Willamette units, and a portion of the Indigo Unit in the Willamette drainage will be open from Nov. 21 through Dec. 13. Archers can hunt from Nov. 14 through Dec. 6 in the Evans Creek, Melrose, Rogue, and Sixes units. A portion of the Saddle Mountain Unit will be open to bowhunters from Nov. 28 through Dec. 13.
The West High Cascade Buck season runs Sept. 12-20.
The Western General Centerfire Season in the Cascades begins Oct. 3- 16, opening again from Oct. 24 through Nov. 6. The Coast Buck hunt runs Oct. 3 through Nov. 6.