Thanksgiving Ducks

Now that my deer season is officially over, it’s time to hunt for something else.

So yesterday I drove down to the Kerry Club which is next to Volta Wildlife Area and scoped out the situation. Almost all the hunters had left by the time I got there and the take was not so good.

The two hunters that were still at the club had killed 14 teal, but they stayed in the blind for nearly six hours and they had one of the blinds that traditionally shoots best.

Other hunters killed a few ducks. Not one sprig in the entire bunch.

I sat and glassed the ponds from camp for about an hour. I never saw a teal and most of the pintails I did see were way high. About a dozen sprig came in and landed. That was it.

Before leaving, I took Lola for a walk. We saw lots of shore birds like curlew and ibis, but almost no ducks. First time I’ve driven all the way to the grasslands and not bothered to try hunting.

Heard from my brother who hunted Friday and yesterday in the Delta. Four of them killed two pheasants, one greenhead and one honker. At least they had something to shoot at.

Time of a change. The one thing about duck hunting is that it seldom stays lousy for the entire season. It’s not even December yet.

Open Zone Tag in Retrospect

Here are some questions you may have about the Open Zone Tag. Of course I am biased, as I’ve coveted this tag for years.

Question #1. How much did your Open Zone (OZ) tag cost?

A: $10,500. When considering price, the purchaser may want to take into consideration the fact that most of the tag cost is a donation. It is a donation because the proceeds go to the CDFW for project funding.

Since I have a lifetime deer tag, I will write off the entire cost of the tag as a donation. I’d recommend you run this by your accountant before you spend the money.

Question #2. Where did you purchase your OZ tag?

A: Santa Rosa Chapter of MDF Banquet.

Question #3. Did the OZ tag live up to expectations?

A: Yes. For a trophy hunter, having the opportunity to hunt in Zones that have a significantly high rate of success on big bucks is always expensive. An added bonus is that, unlike a lot of week-long trophy hunts, an OZ tag holder has the entire season to work with. However for some people, hunting any legal buck gives them as much excitement. If that is the case, the OZ tag is worth little more than any general season tag.

If there is a great tag that you’d like to draw, having an OZ tag solves the problem. After spending half a lifetime wishing, I decided to take things into my own hands.

Question #4. Is there a down side to holding an OZ tag?

Yes. It’s difficult to quit hunting. It was especially painful for my wife who wanted me to stay home. For that reason, I tried to be judicious in the number of days I hunted.

Question #5. Of the zones you hunted, which was your favorite?

The Devil’s Garden hunt (M9).

Question #6. Did you hire a guide?

Not exactly, but I did pay almost $1,000 for information such as maps and other written material. When friends helped me I tried to cover their expenses, like gas money or lunch.

Question #7. Who helped you?

Several friends provided assistance. Rick Bullock was especially helpful regarding the Devil’s Garden hunt.He spent of day of his valuable time showing me around. He drove me around for an afternoon and morning. We counted 199 deer during that period. After that, he traveled to Colorado and bagged a 29 inch typical.

Susanville MDF Chapter Chair, Pete Holmen allowed me to stay in his spare bedroom for several nights and drove me to some of his favorite hunting areas. Pete’s girlfriend, Tara, provided amazing hopitality.

Local guide, John Simpson, provided access to some places where I wouldn’t have been able to hunt and he also had an impressive ability to spot deer.

My long-time friend and former MDF Director, Jerry Lowery drove over from Reno to help find the buck. He was also invaluable in taking care of my buck after it was down.

These four hunters are on the short list of the most knowledgable people on earth when it comes to mule deer hunting in California and Nevada. They also have great credentials. I’ve seen them.

Question #8. What size buck were you looking for?

The buck I shot was exactly what I was looking for. If he had been larger, I would have shot him anyway. He’s (by far) the largest buck I’ve killed.

Question #9. Will you purchase an OZ tag again?

A: I’m not totally in control, and I cannot guarantee that I’ll be able to afford one again. However, now that I’ve done it once, I can’t help but believe that there is another OZ tag in my future. In the meantime, I also enjoy hunting forked horn bucks and maybe I’ll stumble on another great buck. Killing a great buck is not impossible, but it is very difficult.

The process also enlightened me about some hunts that are underrated and achievable in the general draw, but you’ve got to have at least a few preference points – or be extremely lucky.

Day One-Doyle Muzzleloading Rifle Buck Hunt

Met up early with my three hunting partners. A long time friend,  Jerry Lowery drove over from Reno. He couldn’t resist the chance to help find a big buck. He has personally taken some great Nevada bucks. He’s also a former guide and dedicated muzzleloader hunter.

Pete Holman, Chair of the Susanville MDF Chapter and John Simpson a native of the area with lots of local knowledge created our game plan. Both John and Pete guide on the side. Being a stranger in the area, I welcomed their presence and their humor.

We started out by hunting along the Nevada-California border in a howling wind and spotted several four-point bucks with does. But,  a buck with large antlers did not show. We drove back to 395 and shifted our search to the south near the Lassen County line. There we found deer and a few rutting bucks, but nothing of size.

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Noon found us again on the north side of 395 gaining elevation in order to spot something to go after, but the howling wind seemed to be keeping the deer holed up. Not sure exactly how hard the wind was blowing, but I bet it was well over 50 MPH near the top of that ridge.

We continued to bounce around at the higher elevations, encountering winds that seemed to be of hurricane force. Eventually the weather improved as we headed out into the sage north of Doyle.

About 3 PM we found a great buck in an unlikely spot near the valley floor.

I managed to squeeze the trigger and was optimistic about the shot. The buck ran about 40 yards and tipped over.

My best buck ever:

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He’s 27 1/2 inches wide and 18 1/2 inches tall, with massive bases and great character.

I’m indebted to Pete, Jerry and John for their eagerness to help me succeed. You’d have a hard time finding three guys with more enthusiasm for buck hunting. The day was more than successful, it was just plain fun.

Although November 19th was the first day of the Doyle muzzleloading rifle hunt, it was the 14th day for me scouting and hunting deer in the X Zones. The 14 days encompassed portions of four hunt zones (X2, X5a, X6b, X6a) two special hunts and three of the methods used for hunting deer in California. However, I primarily scouted during the general and archery seasons.

Doyle Muzzleloading Rifle Buck Hunt

M3 is the designation for the Doyle muzzle-loading rifle hunt. In general, the hunt location is a portion of  Deer Zone X6b lying in the southeast corner of Lassen County. Nevada lies to the east and the southern and southwestern boundaries are the Lassen County line. The northern boundary is basically the town of Herlong, its access road and Highway 395 to where it intersects the town of Milford.

Time wise, the hunt extends for nine days – November 19 through 27. Either conveniently or invonveniently, depending upon your situation,  the Thanksgiving holiday is in the middle of the period.

This is winter range. Although there are some resident deer, many of the deer seen while hunting will be deer that have migrated from Nevada to the east, Plumas County to the south or maybe Northern Lassen County. Who knows for sure and some of the biggest bucks are in the neighborhood for much of the year.

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Highway 395 divides the area in about half with timber-covered ridges on the west and Great Basin style pinyon-juniper and large sage to the east. Much of the sage is so tall and thick that it would be impossible to see, let alone shoot, at a running  buck.

This country also has lots of antelope bitterbrush (https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_putr2.pdf), a favorite food for mule deer – especially in winter.

Sixteen of the twenty tags for last season were filled and I’m sure that the four, that weren’t filled, could have been. According to the California Big Game Hunting guide, over 60% of the deer killed during this hunt last season were 4X4 or better. That puts it near the top of all California deer hunts when it come to success.

Because I purchased an Open Zone Deer Tag, I can participate in this hunt. Needless to say, (but I’ll say it anyway) I’m  looking forward to it.

Without the Open Zone Tag, it is most likely that I would never participate in this hunt., or even put in for it. According the the CA Big Game Hunting Guide, 18 of the 20 people who drew this tag in 2015 had maximum preference points.  Of the 771 applicants, two very lucky hunters were selected in the random draw.

Ferruginous Hawk

For a while I’ve been seeing a ferruginous hawk along ranch road and I’ve been hoping to take a good photograph of the hawk. A few days ago I took some photographs of a ferruginous hawk on my way to the ranch. I’m not sure if it was the same hawk, but it probably was.

The ferruginous hawks belong to the broad wing family and are buteos  as are the red-tailed hawks and red-shouldered hawks. They hunt from the air or from perches and they glide in the thermals along with the eagles and vultures.

These photographs are not great, but they will clearly show the marking of a light morph ferruginous hawk.

For comparison, here are a couple red-tailed hawk photos.

In California habitats red-tailed hawks are usually the most common large raptor.

Family Emergency

A family emergency. That’s what ended my Devil’s Garden muzzle loader hunt. My 93-year-old dad came down with pneumonia. And, the pneumonia nearly killed him with fluid buildup in his lungs. When he entered the ICU and took a turn for the worse, I knew they needed me at home.

I had a lot invested in the Devil’s Garden hunt, mostly emotion, as it was the hunt that I prepared for the most. In order to come home, I had to put on my emotional blinders. Maybe I’ll buy an Open Zone Tag again. We’ll see.

One of the problems with hunting is that you are usually very limited by season dates. I’ve made it a personal policy to only cancel or return from a trip due to dire circumstances. If you’re a hunter you know that you need to make your hunts a high priority if you plan on continuing. My wife and I discuss this about once a week.

Dad is doing better now and we hope to have him out of the hospital in a few days. I’m continuing to plan the Doyle muzzle loader hunt as if there is nothing wrong. That could change, but I believe things will work out. They usually do.

The other good news is that, if something goes wrong with the Doyle hunt, I can still hunt Anderson Flat and Goodale. Sooner or later I’ll probably take a shot, but if not I’ll be thankful for the opportunities.

In a lifetime of hunting I’ve only returned home early twice, not too bad when you figure how many times I’ve gone hunting.

Devil’s Garden 2016

The long-awaited Devil’s Garden hunt opened on October 22. With a two-week season, I elected to wait for the second week as that’s when the mule deer would be most active.

Rain was in the forecast and rain it did, but the hunting was not affected much. Most of the time was spend covering ground looking for groups of does. After three days of rain, the sun came out and Mount Shasta appeared to the west.dsc_05391

While hunting I took as many photos as I could, but made sure that I wasn’t holding the camera when I should have been holding my muzzle loader.

The muzzle loader I use is a T/C triumph, but it’s called the Bone Collector model. It is an excellent rifle as muzzle loaders go. It’s definitely a one shot affair. About the only change I made to the rifle was that I added a peep site as the rear sight. I wanted to modify the front sight as well, but technical difficulties got in the way.

Right from the start there were does and bucks in bunches of 8-12 deer. On the first day the bucks were all small. As time passed the bucks seemed to become larger each day. On the afternoon of day two, I was able to photograph a real nice buck that was very into the does.

DSC_0507[1] Second day buck.jpg

One of the problems with the Open Zone tag is that you know you will likely have many more opportunities down the road as long as you keep hunting. Normally this buck would have been headed for my wall. Even if he had been on the other side of the road, I wouldn’t have shot him, but he wasn’t in the hunting area anyway so it was a moot point.

In baseball terminology, he was safe by 50 feet.

Here are some more photos. With poor light most of the time and plenty of trees to make focusing difficult, I didn’t get as many photos as I would have liked.

One thing I did notice was that people are feeding the wild horses. This became clear as a pair of mustangs ran up to my truck when I stopped near them. I also noticed alfalfa remnants on the road.

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Unfortunately, on day five of the hunt we had a family emergency and I needed to return home. That’s the bad news. No buck in Devil’s Garden for me. It is a great hunt and having to leave just about guarantees that I’ll be hunting again this fall.

Thanks to many friends who helped me figure it out. Next time I’ll be very prepared. Hope there is one.

Next up. Doyle muzzle loader season, November 19.