California's 2012 deer seasons are about to descend on us again. In fact, depending on when you read this, the rifle season in Zone A may already be open. That's scary, because my hunts in 2011 are still as fresh in my mind as yesterday.
As usual, in my hot hands I had C and B tags and, also as usual, I only filled the B. The places I hunt in Zone C3 have very few deer until the annual migration, and last year the fall storms of October (both of them) were short-lived and mild. As a result, deer movement during the hunting seasons was minimal, and I failed to see any legal bucks on my C zone hunts.
My family had better luck in the B zones. My son, Mark, and son-in-law, Robert Feamster, spent opening weekend in the Trinity Alps Wilderness where, despite the fair weather, Rob spotted a tremendous 4x4 blacktail buck at last shooting light. His shot was good, but rather than fall in its tracks the buck tumbled down a steep slope. And it would have gone clear to the bottom of the canyon had its antlers not become stuck in soft soil on the way down. By the time Rob found the critter it was tomb dark and, as every hunter knows, that's when the work really began.
With Mark's help the deer was caped and quartered and finally packed back to camp at midnight. The next day, after a grueling five-mile trek, the hunters got the deer and their camping gear back to the trailhead.
Later in the season Mark tagged his own buck, a young 4x4 blacktail, and eventually I stumbled upon a robust 3x2 buck in a recovering burn area and filled my B tag. Considering the mild weather throughout the season we did pretty well for ourselves, I think.
There are exceptions, but on average the success rate in most of the state's deer zones ranges roughly from a low of eight to a high of 20 percent. That isn't great, but a lot of hunters are successful, including a bunch of readers of Game & Fish. A few of them were interviewed for this article, and their tales are inserted here in hopes others will recognize the opportunities available in California.
First up is 14-year-old Liam Boyd who, after putting in for three years, drew a tag for the J10 Apprentice Either-Sex Hunt on Fort Hunter Liggett in Zone A. Liam had never hunted deer before but he was eager to give it a try. On the second weekend of the two-weekend hunt in October Liam and his dad, Bill, drove to Hunter Liggett from their home in Green Valley to see what they could find.
"We saw lots of does and fawns on the first morning when we started out," Liam said. "I could have shot a doe but I really wanted to hold out for a buck and we finally spotted two of them. One was a spike and the other was a big-bodied forked horn. He was 150 yards away and moving when I shot him with my Marlin .30-06. The first bullet stopped him and the second put him down for good."
At the end of the day Liam's deer was the biggest of five bucks hanging in the skinning area and the lad was quite pleased by that fact.
Kim Blake, of Redcrest, passed the hunter safety course when she was just 16, but didn't start hunting deer until seven years ago when she was 32. To date, she's harvested three bucks. The biggest is a 4x4 blacktail she got last August on opening day in Zone B4.
"My husband, Colin, had a permit to hunt on private timber land and we took advantage of it because there isn't much public land in this zone," Kim said. "We were driving back roads on the property when we saw this great buck standing on the edge of the timber. I got out, found a rest for my .243 Winchester Model 70, and connected with the first shot. I didn't need to shoot again."
Kim was tickled to get such a great buck, but she saw an even bigger one in the same area and she has her hopes set on getting it this year. With her gung-ho attitude toward hunting, she just might.
Meadow Vista resident Jeff Tentes, age 39, calls himself an all-around outdoorsman. He hunts anything in California, from deer and wild turkeys to squirrels and mushrooms. Sometimes Tentes hunts deer in the Sierra foothills close to home, but he prefers to backpack into remote country in Zone B1.
"I moved to Meadow Vista seven years ago," Tentes said, "and I like to hunt around here, but I really missed my backpack hunts in the northwest part of the state. Last fall I decided to go back to my old stomping grounds."
Tentes and his father-in-law, Anthony (Buzz) Narlock, hiked into the backcountry and set up camp. They scouted the area previously so they knew right where they wanted to go. Turns out they made a good choice.
"We like to spot and stalk," Tentes said, "and we were glassing when Buzz spotted a doe in a meadow around 300 yards away. I had a hunch more deer would show up and, sure enough, two forked-horn bucks came out. I dropped the biggest one with the second round. It wasn't a giant trophy, but it was a real hunt and one I hope to duplicate in 2012."
Finally, there's Jason McKenna, a 27-year-old accountant from San Ramon. An avid bowhunter, he was drawn for the A12 hunt in Zone X6b along with his uncle and regular hunting companion, Tom Chaney. Together they have hunted mule deer in A12 several times, and knowing the area is certainly to their advantage.
On their hunt last August, Chaney spotted a buck bedded in the distance and, after some deliberation, McKenna decided to try stalking it. Only trouble is it was hot, dry and noisy underfoot, and the big forked-horn got up when McKenna was still a hundred yards away. Surprisingly, it didn't bolt and leave the country. Unsure of what disturbed it, the buck stopped in plain sight and looked back.
"He stared in my direction for a full half-hour," McKenna said. "All the while I thought he had me pegged, but he might have been looking at another buck. When I finally took a step a nice velvet-antlered 3x3 jumped up from behind a juniper tree just 20 yards away, and he stood there long enough for me to draw my Matthews bow and shoot.
"I hit him good and that's when my legs got wobbly and I had to sit down until the shakes went away. I don't get buck fever when I'm stalking, but after the shot it's another story. What a rush. I never had an experience like that before!"
For a number of reasons the figures normally provided for this forecast by the Department of Fish and Game were incomplete this year. All we could get from the department were preliminary reported figures, which do not reflect the full harvest. In any case, the low numbers you see here should still establish a trend that will help you plan your hunts this fall. With that in mind, here's a brief look at what happened during the general seasons last year in the A, B ,C, D and X zones.
The biggest individual hunting zone in the state, Zone A extends from northern Los Angeles County in the south to Mendocino County in the north. The tag quota is 65,000 but only around half that number are sold each year. In 2011 the reported buck harvest was 2,117, which was down from 2010 when the reported take was 3,293. As usual, hunter success hovered around 20 percent.
Although most of the land in Zone A is owned privately there is some public access on the Mendocino and Los Padres national forests as well as some BLM land.
Hunters got a rude surprise in 2011 when the tag quota for the B zones was dropped from 55,000 to 35,000 without much advance warning. In 2010 only 37,157 tags were sold, so the main effect of the lower quota was to deny some hunters the option of getting a second tag for the region. The situation will be the same in 2012, so be sure to get your B tag(s) early.
Of the 6 B zones only B4 is short on public land. The others have plenty of it on the Shasta-Trinity, Six Rivers, Klamath and Mendocino national forests as well as tracts of BLM land.
Here's the rundown on the individual B zones and how the reported harvest looked in 2010 and 2011. B1 went from 1,031 in 2010 to 699 in 2011; B2 dropped from 932 to 707; B3 fell from 196 to 145; B4 slipped from 175 to 95; B5 went down from 285 to 231 and B6 went down from 485 to 423. When the smoke cleared, around 18 percent of B zones hunters scored.
An over-the-counter item until 2010, C zone tags are now part of the June drawing for Premium Hunts. If you choose a C tag as your first choice, odds are still good that you will get it. I've drawn C tags the last two years as my second choice, but I know some hunters who took a chance and weren't so lucky.
In 2011 the reported harvest of bucks fell slightly from 2010, and here's what the figures look like. Zone C1 went from 243 in 2010 to 192 in 2011; C2 fell from 130 to 89; C3 dropped from 283 to 242 and C4 slid from 347 to 232.
There is a mix of national forest and private land in all of the C zones with the lower areas being largely private. There's also timber company land open to the public but some is walk-in only.
The 16 D zones start in San Diego and Imperial counties and go north through the central part of the state to Butte County. Success rates throughout the region are some of the lowest in the state, but despite that the D zones produce a lot of bucks for hunters familiar with the areas they hunt. That said, here's a look at how the D zones fared in 2010 and 2011.
In 2010 Zone D3 produced 713 bucks and in 2011 the number fell to only 527; D4 fell from 164 to 138; D5 backed off from 840 to 625; D6 slipped from 419 to 269; D7 went down from 397 to 255; D8 dropped from 272 to 179; D9 fell from 82 to 75; D10 dipped from 48 to 39; D11 fell slightly from 109 to 104; D12 went down from 31 to 27; D13 slipped a bunch from 256 to 153; D14 lowered from 109 to 65; D15 rose from 16 to 27; D16 fell from 224 to 194; D17 dropped from 57 to 29 and D19 fell from 75 to just 35.
Last year there were 82,650 tags available for the D zones and 77,221 were purchased.
X zones tags are coveted by hunters who draw them because the success rate in various zones is usually higher than most other zones. Also, traditional spot-and-stalk mule deer hunting is possible throughout much of the region. In addition, there's plenty of forest service and BLM land to hunt.
In 2011 the kill figures for 11 of 17 X zones were lower than they were in 2010 and the percentage of success across the board was down. Remember, though, these are not the final numbers. Okay, here's how things shook out in the X zones in 2011 as compared to 2010.
Zone X1 went up from 193 in 2010 to 227 in 2011; X2 went down from 80 to 45; X3a improved from 89 to 92; X3b fell from 222 to 189; X4 dipped slightly from 109 to 106; X5a slid from 32 to 19; X5b grew from 45 to 50; X6a dropped from 98 to 92; X6b sagged from 84 to 69; X7a went up from 47 to 50; X7b rose from 36 to 37; X8 fell from 25 to 15; X9a slid from 184 to 165; X9b slipped from 64 to 50; X9c increased from 38 to 44; X10 dipped from 22 to 20 and X12 went down from 205 to 161.
As this story is wrapped up, the statewide harvest in 2011 appears to be down at least 10 percent from 2010. That is more a reflection of scant tag returns (see sidebar) and unfavorable weather than a decline in deer herds. This year, weather permitting, I'm looking forward to a more productive deer season, and I hope you are, too.