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Deer Outlook 2011

by Terry Knight

California hunters kick off their rifle deer season on August 13 when the A zone opens. That’s followed by the B, C and D zones which, with a few exceptions, open on Sept. 17. The X zone openers range from Sept 17 to Oct. 1. The spring hatch produced a record number of birds and there was a good carry-over from last year.

According to Department of Fish and Game (DFG) sources, hunters can expect a season similar to last year where the hunter success ranged from as high as 49 percent in X5A to as low as 4 percent in D11.

Here is a rundown of the deer zones:

In the A zone, searing temperatures and dry conditions will greet California deer hunters for the opening of Zone A coastal deer season. That’s the bad news. The good news is that deer herd is holding its own. The wetter than normal spring did help the deer herd, especially in the southern sections of the A zone. The other good news is there is excellent antler growth due to an abundance of food. According to DFG, hunters can expect a season similar to last year, where the success rate was about 24 percent. This is the largest deer zone in the state, stretching from Willits in the north to Los Angeles in the south. As expected, the best hunting will be in the northern section of the A zone. Here, the deer numbers are actually increasing in some areas. Counties like Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake have a stable deer population and this year there is plenty of water and food. The deer will also be widely scattered. As you go farther south, even with a wet spring, the deer herds have been suffering from drought conditions that occurred in previous years which makes for fewer legal bucks.

The B zones are the one bright spot for California deer hunters. This year there is plenty of water and the herd is in good shape and even increasing. If I was allowed only one deer tag, I would choose a B zone tag. Last year, hunters enjoyed a 24 percent success rate. Northern Lake and Mendocino counties hold some monster blacktail bucks and one of the top areas is near Covelo. Every year bucks that will have 16- to 20- inch racks are taken from this area. Early in the season, the bucks will be at the higher elevations, but with the first rain they will head downhill to their wintering grounds. If I only had one week to hunt then I would pick the final week of the season. Not only will the deer be on the move, the does will be going into rut and bucks will chasing them. Plus, the weather will be cooler making hunting more comfortable.

Hunters who opt for a C zone tag are hoping for early storms to get the deer on the their migration path which will up the success rate. The C zones stretch from Butte County to the Oregon border. Overall, the DFG predicts the hunter success will be similar to last year where there was a roughly a 15 percent success rate. (Reminder, C zone tags are considered "premium" tags in regard to the DFG draw process)

Swinging over to the D zones, the hunter success will vary from as high as 15 percent down to a miserable 4 percent. The D3 zone will offer some of the best hunting. As in many of the zones, weather will play a critical role in hunter success.

As for shotguns the most popular are the 12 gauge pump or auto in either the 2 3/4- or 3-inch shell size. A few hunters use 3 1/2-inch shells but they tend to give a kick and you really don’t need a gun that powerful. You want to use either a full or modified choke and the best shells are the turkey loads in size 5 or 6 shot. Most sporting goods stores sell special turkey loads that come in a box of 10 shells.

For the hunters who lucked out and drew one of the coveted X zone tags ("premium tags") the chances of bagging a trophy mule deer buck are good. But, even here there are some areas that produce few deer.

The hunter success rate can also be misleading. It goes without saying that the hunters who know the areas will be the most successful. It’s also the old story of the hunters who do their homework end up having a better chance of bagging their buck. If you’re hunting a new ranch then use the first two days of your hunt to familiarize yourself with every square foot of the place. You should be able to locate the area you plan on hunting in the dark. Most hunters wander on a new area and just start hunting. If they haven’t jumped a buck by 10 a.m. they get discouraged and go home and say the area has little or no deer. You should plan on hunting most of the day, not just a few hours in the morning.

Another critical fact is the time of the year that you plan to hunt. The opening weekend always draws the bulk of the hunters, but is normally the worst time to hunt. Plan on doing most of your hunting the last two weeks of the season. Weather is another major factor. If a storm hits, even a minor one, the hunting can change dramatically. Bad weather always puts deer on the move, especially the bucks. Instead of bedding down early, they will be out feeding most of the day. That’s when you should be hunting. Deer hunting is much more than just shooting a buck. It should be a total experience of camping, enjoying the woods and companionship of your fellow hunters. Bagging a buck is the bonus.

Terry Knight Articles

Terry Knight conducts several training seminars annually on hunting wild turkeys throughout Northern California. He was instrumental in organizing the first Wilderness Unlimited Wild Turkey Seminar in 1994, the success of which led to partnering with the California DF&G and the National Wild Turkey Foundation, in 1996, to form the Wild Turkey Expo. He is also the past-president of the California State Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

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