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California Game & Fish Magazine

California's 2003 Deer Outlook

Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas
Conditions are set for another excellent deer-hunting season in the Golden State -- if only we could have an early storm or two to push bucks down from the high country.

Photo by John Higley

By John Higley

The 2002 deer season was nothing to brag about unless - and this is always the case - you were one of those relatively few California hunters who shot a buck. Obviously, there are a few hunters who have a honeyhole, somewhere on public or private land, where chances for success are above the norm.

The secret is in having intimate knowledge of a particular area and how deer use it under different circumstances. It helps, of course, if there's a decent population of legal bucks to raise the odds in your favor. It also helps if you're one of those energetic young-to-middle-aged adults who can cover ground when necessary and yet be patient when playing a waiting game is the way to go. Here's an example of what I mean.

Last year on opening day, my son Mark had to coach a soccer game, so his hunting was naturally delayed. Later, though, he hiked four miles into the Trinity Alps Wilderness loaded down with a backpack full of camp gear and his rifle. Not wanting to miss opening day altogether, he made record time from the trailhead to the top of a familiar mountain and arrived a couple of hours before dark.

Before reaching his regular campsite, Camp Two as we call it, he decided to watch a particular saddle where he'd seen deer on a bowhunting trip a couple weeks before the gun season began. So he set his backpack aside and sat down in the brush to wait quietly.

In a few minutes the local wildlife had forgotten his intrusion. Stellar jays were noisily flitting about, chipmunks were curiously investigating his pack, and a blacktail doe stepped into the open and crossed the saddle on her way, probably, to water. Dusk was upon him, and shooting light was fading as if behind a slowly closing door, when Mark saw another movement in the timber at the edge of the saddle. A very respectable buck, obviously legal, stepped out of the cover 150 yards away and Mark, needing no more convincing, raised his .270 bolt-action and fired once.

The 4x4 buck went all of 25 yards and fell. Mark was elated and disappointed at the same time. He'd only been hunting for an hour, and since he got a buck with his bow a few weeks earlier, his season was effectively over. Poor guy!

Anyway, the point is that my son knew where he wanted to hunt because he'd been there enough times to learn the area thoroughly and he had the drive to get there on a fast hike and the sense to wait when and where he should. What made Mark's accomplishment all the more interesting is that the weather was warm, as it often is in California, where snowy-day deer hunting, even in the high mountains of the state, comes along only once every 10 years or so.

In fact, mild weather throughout the 2002 season most likely contributed to a lower overall take than hunters saw in 2001, which itself wasn't up to year 2000 standards. But then, stormy weather that year resulted in one of the highest harvests in recent memory. By comparison, the overall kill in 2000 was 39,062 bucks (21 percent hunter success); in 2001 the take was 33,273 (17 percent hunter success) and in 2002 the tally was 31,553 bucks (also for 17 percent hunter success).

The figures used, incidentally, are the estimated numbers from the state Department of Fish and Game. For simplification, the numbers have been rounded up or down slightly. The percent of success is based on the actual number of tags sold, which explains how the same percent of success in different years can result in a different final harvest number.

For example, the number of tags sold for the year 2000 was 189,675; in 2002 it was 192,586. Of course, not every tag represents a hunter in the field. For one thing, some hunters purchased two tags and some hunters got tags but didn't hunt for one reason or another.

My family members did hunt, however, and Mark wasn't the only one of us to bag a deer. Son-in-law Robert Feamster got two dandy blacktail bucks, one in Trinity County and the other in Humboldt County, during the course of the B zones season. My daughter Meredith hunted in Humboldt County and got her first buck ever, a nice 3x3, and even her old dad found a buck on which to hang a tag. For us that's great success, and as was the case with Mark, we must credit familiarity with our hunting spots and where the deer are in them.

Several of my friends and acquaintances also killed bucks last fall, including 18-year-old Justin Brower of Cottonwood. He and his dad, Larry, drew tags for a northeast X zone. Justin could hunt one weekend only but he worked hard and got a nice 4x4 mulie on the second day.

Larry Brower shot a buck on the last day of the season. As you might guess, the Browers had no complaints, but did note that the deer were rather scarce. They attributed the lack of sightings more to the weather than to anything else. It was nearly 90 degrees in the shade by 10 a.m. each day and that probably contributed to the paucity of deer in the open during hunting hours.

Last fall California Game & Fish heard from Susanville bowhunter Dick Bendix about a buck he killed in September in Zone C-4. A 74-year-old graying gent with no flab who retired from the Army after 37 years, Bendix now spends his free time in the fall sitting on tree stands or in ground blinds waiting for the next buck to show up.

He was in a tree on an early-morning hunt near Chester, in Plumas County, when a real dandy got too close. With his compound bow he shot the buck through the lungs; it ran only 40 yards before piling up. Counting small points, the buck was a 5x7 with an outside spread of 29 1/2 inches. With a final score of 141 points, it will be entered in the Pope and Young records book.

While it's always nice to tell success stories, no one ever said that deer hunting in this state is easy. Real hunting can never be a sure thing, but there are some places where the chances for success are greater than at others. Generally speaking, the 17 X zones along the eastern edge of the state offer the highest success rates of all - but all the tags are awarded by drawing, and the deadline for applications is in early June.

While it's too late to apply this year, don't forget that you'll have to apply early next year for the X zones, special general methods hunts, muzzleloading rifle hunts, junior hunts and special archery hunts. Even though you have three choices on your application, make sure the hunt you want most is listed first. As a general rule, figure that all tags for the X zones are gone after the first draw, so if you list one of them as your second choice, you won't get it.

In the past, when your number came up, the computer assigned you a tag for whatever choice on your application still had tags available. Now your first choice is all the system looks at the first time around. Leftover tags are awarded to second-choice applicants via a second draw and obviously there won't be any remainders for the most desired hunts.

Looking more closely at the X zones, we see that the percentage of success in various areas ranged from a high of 49 percent in Zone X3a to a low of 6 percent in Zone X9c, the only X zone that does not fill annually. That's understandable, as the deer are few and scattered and vehicle access is restricted in some areas.

Across the board, the X zone take declined in 2002. In 2001 there were 10,105 tags available for all of the zones and the total kill was 2,479 bucks for an overall success rate of about 25 percent. In 2002 there were 10,085 tags available and the take was 2,156 for a success rate of 21 percent. While those figure are not bad compared to statewide standards, they are lower than you'd expect. Of course, that's just the average and some X zones, as we've seen, provide much higher success than that.

Related Resources

A quick comparison of all zones from 2001 to 2002 readily shows the downward trend, however slight. And some of this can be attributed to weather and other factors rather than a definite decline in the herds.

Looking first at Zone X1, we see that the take in 2001 was 562 and in 2002 it fell to 513; X2 went from 60 in 2001 to 51 last year; X3a dropped from 182 to 142; X3b declined sharply from 348 to 251; X4 fell from 157 to 131; X5a went from 39 to 28; X5b dropped dramatically from 92 to 35; X6a was slightly down from 127 to 119; X6b skidded from 83 to 66; X7a went from 144 to 113; X7b slid from 45 to 29; X8 (surprise) went up from 77 to 116; X9a was down from 254 to 205; X9b went up from 47 to 91; X9c slipped from 74 to 54; X10 went up from 13 to 36 and X12 gained a tiny bit from 175 to 176.

Huge Zone A, which stretches from northern Los Angeles County north to Mendocino County and from the coastal mountains inland to the Central Valley, has the dubious distinction of offering the hottest -weatherwise - deer hunting anywhere in the state. The archery season here starts in July, and the general rifle hunt starts in August! Wildlife managers have their reason for this: The rut starts early in the region, and the seasons are designed to be over then.

Of course, weather has a lot to do with yearly success here. The best, coolest season recently was in 2000, when 11,983 bucks were killed. It's been all downhill since. In 2001 the estimated take was 11,387 and in 2002 it was 10,125. The success rate fell from 33 percent in 2000 to 27 percent in 2002.

In 2001, overall success in the six northern B zones was around 22 percent. Last year, based on tag sales (40,908 out of a possible 55,000), the rate bounced a bit to 23 percent, thanks to harvest increases in zones B-1 and B-3. But the other zones were down, confirming the DFG's contention that, depending on the zone highlighted, deer have declined slightly or remain stable.

A quick look at the zones reveals that hunters bagged 9,006 bucks in the year 2001 and 9,323 bucks in 2002. Individual zones shook out this way: The take in Zone B-1 in 2001 was 2,853 whereas in 2002 it was 3,275; Zone B-2 went from 2,853 to 2,700; Zone B-3 climbed from 592 to 759; Zone B-4 fell from 549 to 477; Zone B-5 dropped from 740 to 696 and Zone B-6 slipped a fraction from 1,420 to 1,416. The bottom line: Despite a suspected decline in some areas, annual take remaines stable. All in all, not a bad record for what's mostly public national forest land.

The 11,500 tags for the four C zones are always sold out these days, which simply means you can't wait until the last minute to get one. Regardless, the annual hunter success rate varies only a percentage point or two depending on the weather during the season. The last season with favorable deer hunting weather was 2000 when a total of 1,952 bucks were taken in the zones. In 2001 the figure dropped to 1,776 and in 2002, another warm year, it fell again to 1,619. Meanwhile the success rate went from 16 percent to 14 percent.

A closer look at the zones shows that the 2001 take in Zone C-1 was 393 and in 2002 it was 323; Zone C-2 dropped from 288 to 253; Zone C-3 went from 420 to 381 and Zone C-4 dropped just a bit from 675 to 662. Not added to the above total was the harvest from late hunt G-1 (585) which takes place within Zone C-4.

Most deer hunters know that the D zones commonly have the lowest success rates. In 2002, that was certainly true in zones D-11, D-13, D-14, D-15 and D-19: They were closed because of extreme fire danger. The DFG offered to refund tag money to hunters putting in requests before Jan. 31, 2003. The closure might be a good thing in the long run, as more bucks will be in the mix when the seasons begin this year - assuming that the zones aren't closed again.

As for the other D zones, we find that the total take for D-3, D-4 and D-5, which are covered by the same tag, was 2,988 in 2002 and 2,832 in 2001. That's an improvement but the success rate was just 10 percent last year. Zone D-6 was also up from 865 to 971; D-7 went up from 903 to 989; D-8 fell from 545 to 490; D-9 climbed from 187 to 234; D-10 was up from 64 to 99; D-12 stayed level at 65/65; D-16 dropped from 214 to 151; and D-17 slipped from 55 to 49. The lowest percent of success, not counting the closed zones, was D-16 with just 6 percent.

Craig Stowers, deer program coordinator for the DFG, had a couple of interesting things to pass on to hunters for this year. For example, Stowers advised, hunters who might be planning an out-of-state hunt ought to read the newest regulations for new rules governing the importation of deer from other states. The rules are in place because of the threat of chronic wasting disease that has occurred elsewhere in deer and elk.

"Presently, not much in known about CWD except that it has never been reported here in California," Stowers said, "and we don't want it here if it can be avoided. At first the special requirements may seem like a bother to some hunters but if they abide by them we'll all be ahead in the long run."

Stowers also mentioned the initiation of a point system for the premium deer hunts that are always filled in the first drawing. That includes the X zones and junior hunts, muzzleloader hunts and so on. Starting last year, hunters, who put in for these hunts and failed to get tags, earned preference points that will accrue until they eventually are drawn. From now on, 90 percent of the tags will go to point holders while 10 percent will be reserved for the random draw.

So after all that, what's in store for deer hunters in 2003? More of the same, with harvest results resting solidly on the need for cold, wet weather to move deer during general rifle seasons.

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