California's X Zones Are Home to the Best Mule Deer Hunting

California's X Zones Are Home to the Best Mule Deer Hunting
Photo By Brad Garfield

Draw a tag for one of California's X Zones and you'll experience some of the best mule deer hunting in the West.


The decline of California's deer population by 50 percent since 1990 masks a good news story about the deer herds on the east side of the Sierras and Cascades. Clearly, habitat loss and degradation has exacted a significant toll on mule deer and black-tailed deer, and the trend is cause for grave concern about the future of deer hunting in California. However, before you throw in the towel and concede to several days of driving and the $1,500 or so in tags and expenses that it will take to hunt mule deer in another western state, consider the X Zones east of the mountains.

Mule deer populations are reasonably stable in many of the X Zones and hunters who draw a tag have the opportunity to experience some of the best hunting in the West. The X Zones offer mule deer hunting that is every bit as good, or, in some instances, better than that which is available in most zones of "destination" states such as Montana, Colorado and Idaho. For example, the Colorado deer harvest success rate was 45 percent for all means of take statewide in 2012, according to the Colorado Division of Wildlife and Parks. In comparison, eight of the 16 California X Zones met or exceeded that rate of harvest, topped by an estimated 72 percent success rate in X-9A. Likewise, X-7B, a zone in which deer are doing well enough that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has increased its tag quota by 63 percent since 1998, posted a 62 percent success rate last year.

"Mule deer populations and buck ratios are stable in many of the X Zones," said Craig Stowers, CDFW Deer Program coordinator. "We suffered from drought and fire in a couple areas, and had to reduce our quotas for those zones this year, but overall things are pretty steady for east side muleys."

California's X Zones are home to Rocky Mountain and Inyo mule deer, the largest of California's six sub-species of deer. The country produces some massive bucks each year and hunting access is essentially unlimited, with vast tracts of public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. It includes some of the most aesthetically stunning landscapes of the West, ranging from the high country of the South Warner or Hoover Wilderness areas to the vast sagebrush country of northeastern California.

Interestingly, hunter success has greatly increased in the X Zones over the last 15 years. All 16 zones reported higher success rates in 2012 than in 1998, according to CDFW deer harvest statistics, and that translates into a far better chance of having a great hunt than was the case in the 1990s. For example, X-9A went from 26 percent in 1998 to a staggering 72 percent last year!

The only downside is that you likely can't go every year due to the demand for tags. However, the odds of drawing an X-Zone tag are better than most folks think. In 2012, the average drawing success rate for the X Zones combined was 21 percent. That rate dropped only to 17 percent when considering the eight zones with estimated kill rates over 45 percent. Odds are that you will be rewarded with a superb hunting opportunity every 3-7 years, depending upon your chosen zone, and some of those tags result in world-class mule deer hunting. It's a low-cost, high-reward tactic that should be a staple of all California deer hunters.


The challenge of hunting the X Zones is learning the country. Most of it is rugged and a long ways from anywhere, so the best approach is to pick a particular zone and stick with it. By hunting the same zone every few years you gain familiarity with the country that will pay big dividends over time. The key is analyzing the drawing odds versus the harvest success rate and deer population trend. Here's a breakdown that will be helpful as you plan your 2014 application.

The most coveted of all X-Zone tags are X-5B and X-5A, which had 5 percent and 7 percent first-choice drawing rates, respectively, in 2012. However, the chance of drawing a tag in a premium zone jumps up to 13-14 percent for the X-7 Zones, X3-A and X-2.

The next rung includes zones such as X-12, X-9A, X-4 and the X-6 Zones at odds of 18-23 percent and X-3B, X-8, X-1 and X-9B at 31-41 percent. These zones boast harvest success rates ranging from 24-72 percent, and all offer a legitimate chance to kill a huge muley.

"Hunters can draw a tag in those zones every third year," Stowers said of the second tier of X Zones. "They offer some great hunting and it's still really a high-quality experience due to generally low hunter numbers."

Finally, folks that want to hunt in big sagebrush or alpine country on a more regular basis should consider X-9C or X-10. The chance of drawing an X-9C tag is 60 percent and the success rate last year was a very respectable 36 percent. X-10 is essentially a general zone with more tags available than it receives first-choice applications.

A key factor in selecting an X Zone is deciding whether you want to camp at your truck and hunt lower sagebrush country or go into the some of the wildest high country in the West. If you choose the latter, be sure to give some consideration to one of the pack stations in the area — going the drop-camp route can greatly enhance your hunting experience.


Here's a rundown of five great X Zones. Populations are reasonably stable over the last 15 years in all of these zones, as evidenced by the fact that, with the exception of X5-B, their 2013 quotas were at least 70 percent of their 1998 quotas. Best yet, these X Zones collectively offer a wide array of habitats and hunting experiences, ranging from alpine wilderness to mountain brush to sagebrush flats.

1. X-3B: Richard Shinn, CDFW biologist for Modoc County, says deer numbers are stable over the last decade and his trend counts this spring were the third-highest in 11 years. Shinn recommends the South Warner Wilderness Area and the Blue Lake burn southeast of Jess Valley on the south end. Good hunting also exists in the North Warner Mountains around Bidwell Mountain and Dismal Swamp. "The South Warner Wilderness is rugged country, but it produces some really nice bucks," says Shinn. "Last year was particularly good in the South Warners. I know of a number of bucks in the 24 to 27 range that were taken."

2. X-5B: The granddaddy of California mule deer country saw its quota sliced from 140 to 55 this year in response to the massive Rush Fire along the California-Nevada border, which burned 315,577 acres. Stowers reported that deer populations are still in good shape and hunters killed some great bucks in 2012. The fire burned from the north side of Skedaddle Mountain all the way into the country around McDonald, including legendary haunts such as Shinn Mountain. Shinn says he's worried about the long-term effect of the fire on habitat quality in the face of cheatgrass invasion that has occurred after fires in similar landscapes. Nevertheless, the genetics are there to produce monster muleys, and those that draw tags the next few years will undoubtedly have some tremendous hunts.

3. X-12: Deer populations are reasonably stable and the tag quota is actually higher than it was 15 years ago, so X-12 is an excellent choice for ambitious hunters that want to experience a classic high-country hunt. The Hoover Wilderness, which abuts the Emigrant Wilderness at the crest of the Sierras, is superb summer range with willows, aspens, and mountain brush habitats. I have hunted this country and strongly recommend arranging an early season pack trip to access the remote country between Virginia Lakes and Sonora Pass. Leavitt Meadows Pack Station ( is an excellent bet for a drop-camp pack trip; give Craig Randall a call early in the year.

4. X-9A: Boasting the highest harvest success rate of any zone in California (72 percent) and offering 19 percent drawing odds, this may be the best of all X Zones these days. This zone stretches from the Virginia Lakes trail all the way to Bishop, encompassing both the Sierra Nevada escarpment and sagebrush high desert. The deer migrate out of the high country with the first snow, so good hunting often exists on the benches west of Highway 395 and out in the desert to the east, including haunts such as Long Valley, Glass Mountain Range and Bald Mountain.

5. X-9B: This is a good bet for those looking to hunt an X Zone regularly, due to its 41 percent drawing odds. Deer numbers are stable to slightly increasing. A good tactic for those in excellent condition is to hike into mountain passes that serve as muley migration routes, such as Taboose, Sawmill and Bishop. South Lake, Onion Valley, McMurry Meadow and Palisade/Sage Flat are good spots for those seeking a less extreme hunting experience.

We've gathered up photos of the biggest and baddest trophy mulies from the West. Take a look:

W. Richard Ellison


Score: 195

Hunter: W. Richard Ellison

Location: Rio Blanco County, CO

Date: 2011

Photo courtesy: Boone and Crockett Club

Gary L. Soeth


Score: 190 6/8

Hunter: Gary L. Soeth

Location: Humboldt County, NV

Date: 2011

Photo courtesy: Boone and Crockett Club

Jose Abrego


22-inch, 3x3

Hunter: Jose Abrego

Location: Northern Utah

Date: 2013

Photo courtesy: Camera Corner

Rob Deckman


5x5 using black powder

Hunter: Rob Deckman

Location: Colorado near NM border

Date: 2013

Photo courtesy: Camera Corner

Thaddeus J. Selbitschka


Score: 198

Hunter: Thaddeus J. Selbitschka

Location: Carbon County, WY

Date: 2011

Photo courtesy: Boone and Crockett Club

Ryan K. Steward


Score: 195 5/8

Hunter: Ryan K. Steward

Location: Malheur County, OR

Date: 2011

Photo courtesy: Boone and Crockett Club

Walter J. Titus


Score: 221 1/8

Hunter: Walter J. Titus

Location: Rosebud County, MT

Date: 2009

Photo courtesy: Boone and Crockett Club

Zack Thornton


Hunter: Zack Thornton

Location: Willows, CA

Photo courtesy: Camera Corner

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