Ode to Rocky

Just one of many standing in a booth selling his wares. Rocky couldn’t have been more comfortable.

It was as if he’d known you all his life and he had.

Nothing to sell, but plenty to talk about without saying much Rocky had nothing to prove even though his living depended upon it.

My first day of hunting with Rocky seemed routine. We dismounted at a spot new to me and known to him.

We climbed a hill in a foot of snow. I placed my boots in his tracks. We sat against a ten foot tall spruce in a  two foot snow drift. I sat on my coat.

Rocky told me where to look. Then he told me not to shoot at a medium-size buck that trotted out below us.

“There may be elk coming.” he said.

We sat in windless silence and watched.

Finally two rag-horn bulls stepped out of the timber about 200 yards below us. I placed the cross hairs of my scope on the bigger of the two and it seemed to fall into the timber out of sight. Rocky said it looked like a hit.

We climbed down through drifts that were deeper than they looked and came upon the bull.

“I’ll help,” I said.

“No, sit down over there in case a buck comes by,” said Rocky.

So I sat, until another hunter appeared on his hike from below. When I returned to Rocky and the bull, it was quartered and ready to be dragged down the hill.

I couldn’t imagine that anybody could quarter a bull so fast.

Now, after a few more hunts in the Bob, Rocky Heckman is gone. But, like all special people, he cannot and will not be forgotten.

Rocky Heckman

Rocky was standing  next to where I shot my Montana bull when I snapped this photo.

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.

dsc_05791-ruttinh-buck

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:

img_2381-richs-doyle-buck-adjusted

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.

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.

dsc_05031-come-a-running-cropped-and-resized

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.

 

Open Zone Tag, Too Much of a Good Thing?

California has some great hunts. They are great for several reasons. First of all they have some giant bucks. But, they also have very limited hunting pressure. Where are these places? They are everywhere, but they have very limited access.

In each of these units, wide antlered 4×4 mule deer bucks are killed each season.

That’s a big part of why they are so good. There are basically four ways to get an opportunity to participate in these hunts. Perseverance is one. If you are able to spend a lifetime waiting and applying, you may get drawn for one of these great hunts.

x12buckphotos0009

This is my largest mule deer buck from California, taken with bow and arrow in zone X12.

Or, if you are willing to purchase lottery tickets for a drawing for one of these tags, you may be successful.

If you become a California Hunter Safety instructor, you will get an opportunity to draw for one of these tags within that group of volunteers.

Or, if you are willing to pay a significant sum of money at auction, you may be able to purchase one of the tags that will allow you to participate in one of these hunts.

IMG_1470 Rich and buck

I’ve never killed a truly large buck. But, the Bob Marshall buck pictured above is one that I’m proud of. It would be quite exciting to bag a large California buck.

I personally participated in two of the above-described methods for obtaining an Open Zone Tag, but after doing so for many years, I finally grew impatient and decided that there was very little chance that I might obtain a tag in that manner and therefore I concluded that purchase of a tag at auction was my only option – the other option would be to grow old regretting.

Now, an Open Zone Deer Tag is in my possession. But what next? There are about a dozen hunts that are very exclusive and attractive that I can participate in as long as I haven’t filled the tag.

One advantage I have is that I am willing and able to hunt with several types of deer-hunting equipment. Archery has been my number one choice for hunting over the years. More recently, I’ve begun to hunt with a muzzle loading rifle and a high powered rifle.

These later options are very productive, however, hunting with archery equipment is still a viable option as some of the archery seasons are very limited and provide for a significant success rate.

Although I haven’t finalized my plans, I do plan to hunt a couple of the most productive archery units during August. Two of them may well be X5b and X2. X5b is located in eastern Lassen County and X2 is located between Alturas and the Oregon border.

It will be tempting to spend a few days in some of my old haunts where I haven’t been able to draw a tag for years.

There are several muzzle loading hunts that have high success on big bucks. Among them are the Doyle Muzzle loading hunt in zone X6 and the Devil’s Garden Muzzle Loading hunt in X2.

As for rifle hunting, the Anderson Flat Hunt, the Round Valley Hunt and the Goodale Rifle Hunt are exceptional. The good news is that they are all options. The bad news is that I can’t be everywhere at once.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Open Zone Tag Strategy

Drove for a couple hours today and had some time to ponder strategies for using the Open Zone Tag. My first effort took place yesterday and that was to identify specific hunts that I’d really like to do.

Hunts like Anderson Flat, Goodale buck hunt and Doyle muzzle-loader hunt are well known and the statistics show that they are productive.

But it is a bit intimidating to choose a hunt in a location where you have never been. Scouting will be necessary and these places are a few hours away from home.

I finally concluded that maybe I should focus on one unit – and hunt the area on all the seasons. For example, each of these hunts takes place in a specific hunting zone and they are open to hunting during archery, muzzle loader and rifle seasons. Therefore I could start hunting and scouting a unit during the August archery season and then return during the muzzle loader hunt and the rifle hunt.

By doing this, I’ll reduce the amount of time I’ll spend in unproductive locations.

There was a time when everybody could do this,  and it’s still possible to do it in the A, B and D zones to a limited extent. It will be like a trip back in time.

It’s a thrill to have this type of anticipation.

 

California Fundraising Tag

There are many fundraising tags made available by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). These tags are a product of legislation passed by the California legislature and signed into law by the Governor.

Many conservation organizations supported the creation of these tags including, for one, The Mule Deer Foundation (MDF). So it’s appropriate that I made my fundraising tag purchase at MDF’s Santa Rosa banquet last weekend.

CDFW made the tag available and authorized that MDF Chapter to sell it at the banquet. My high bid was $10,500. Five percent will go to MDF to cover the cost of selling the tag and the remaining 95 percent goes to the Department to be used as funding for deer-related conservation and associated expenses.

Now for the good part. The tag, called an Open Zone Tag,  is basically a season pass to hunt for deer during California’s numerous seasons. With that tag in hand, I can hunt any of the hunts that I’ve drooled over for years.

For about two hours this morning I looked over old California Big Game Booklets and listed the places I’d like to go. And, I can go to many of them if I don’t pull the trigger too soon.

Yes, I could have kept on putting my name in the hat for these tags, but at my current rate of success I would probably have died without hunting any of them. Finally impatience won out.

Or, I could have made trips and photographed deer without a tag, but that wouldn’t be nearly as exciting.

I plan to set my sights high and pass up a bunch of bucks before I pull the trigger. However, I’m not passing up Mr. Big even if he’s the first deer I see.

I’m making my list which will likely include hunts in X2, X5, D6, X9a, X6 and maybe even a B zone. In search of nostalgia, I’ll probably visit a few of my old haunts. I’ll probably hunt a couple zones during the August archery season while also scouting the country  in preparation for the late season opportunities.

This is a very full plate of activities, so we’ll see how much I can actually pull off, but I’m not making other plans. I’ll likely hunt with my bow, muzzle-loader and rifle before it’s done. The early archery seasons start in mid-August and rifle opportunities continue almost to the end of December.

I plan to keep notes and post them here. That will be part of the fun.