Afterthoughts about My Inyo Mule Deer

While hunting the Goodale Buck Hunt, I met several people who said that the mule deer in the Inyo National Forest were a distinct subspecies of mule deer, separate from the Rocky Mountain mule deer found further north along the Eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

As I watched deer, it did appear to me that the deer were slightly smaller, on average, than the Rocky Mountain Mule Deer I’d been hunting in Modoc and Lassen Counties, but I didn’t give it a lot of thought until I’d killed my buck and returned home.

Rich with buck IMG_6485

He’s not a big deer. His width is 21 inches, and height just under 18 inches. He has all four points on each side and also nice eye guards. Everybody who hunts Goodale wants a monster buck, but the truth is that they are hard to find. I am very happy with this buck.

That’s when I remembered editing a piece for Mule Deer Magazine 1995. Dr. Valerius Geist was the author and he spoke of four or more distinct subspecies of mule deer in California. One of those is the Inyo mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus inyoensis. The other primary species being the Columbian black-tailed deer, the California mule deer,  and Rocky Mountain mule deer.

Readings within recent issues of MDF magazine reminded me that another mule deer expert, Jim Heffelfinger, has studied and researched this topic. His views appear to be similar to Dr. Geist’s, but also divergent.  A significant issue is whether the variations in  mule deer characteristics within California deer are created by evolution or hybridization.

In their 1999 book, A Sportsman’s Guide to Improving Deer Habitat in California, Kenneth Mayer and Tomas Kucera, recognized six sub-species of deer in California. They expanded the listing to include the southern mule deer and the burro mule deer. Here’s what they said about the Inyo mule deer.

The Inyo mule deer occurs only in California, ranging east of the Sierra Nevada in Mono and Inyo counties. Like the Rocky Mountain subspecies, it is migratory, with low-elevation Great Basin winter ranges and higher-elevation summer ranges, often on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada. Although a bit smaller it closely resembles the Rocky Mountain mule deer. Most wildlife biologists believe the Inyo mule deer is simply a southern form of the Rocky Mountain mule deer.

Possibly the most heavily researched issue with regards to differences between blacktailed deer and  mule deer has taken place along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, primarily in the Shasta Cascade Region. Based upon conversations with Dr. Geist, it is clear to me that when he wrote the article in 1995 he considered the variations in the deer in that area were primarily related to evolution. He labeled the mule deer in the Shasta Cascade region as California mule deer.

Many sportsmen consider deer in that area to be either Columbian blacktail, mule deer or hybrids.

As I reread the article written by Dr. Geist, my take away was that he believed that the primary differences between the deer species living in different regions of California was primarily due to adaptation to differing habitats (evolution).

The fact that these various sub-species of deer live in adjacent habitats supports the concept of hybridization. It is logical that the sub-species variations would be blurred by cross breeding. Jim Heffelfinger’s recent articles in MDF magazine and also Fair Chase magazine, Fall 2005,  discuss DNA sampling done for the Boone and Crockett Club. Addressing species boundaries has been an issue with record-keeping groups for years and the Boone and Crockett Club has made progress entering the arena of DNA sampling. Decisions about the species identity of an individual trophy can be made using DNA sampling technology instead of geographical location.

Since I’m not a scientist, I don’t want to go any deeper into the weeds, but I will say that my observations while hunting mule deer in the Owens Valley support the notion that the deer there are different from Rocky Mountain mule deer of Lassen and Modoc Counties in Northern California.

Here is a photo of a of an interesting illustration taken from the Winter 1995 issue of Mule Deer Magazine. In that article, Dr. Geist explains that a “cline” is a “…geographic line-up of forms that vary directionally in their characteristics… ” The sub-species of deer in the illustration fit that definition.

cline illustration from Mule Deer Magaine

This is a photo of an illustration provided to Mule Deer Magazine in 1995 by Dr. Valerius Geist – a recognized expert on mule deer taxonomy.

 

The Longest Deer Season

IMG_6462

In the right-center of this photo is the Taboose Creek Canyon. To the left of Taboose Creek is the northernmost bench within the Goodale Unit. In the upper left-hand corner is the top of the tree-covered bench.

I love deer and deer season. My 2018 deer season ended on Thursday December 6 and that is later than any of my previous California deer seasons have ended.

If you love to hunt deer, the California Open Zone Tag is as close to an endless deer hunt as you can get. Of course you can only kill one buck, but if you’re choosey about what you shoot, the hunt can go on and on. And so it was.

Each time a hunt zone closes, another opens and you have the option of starting another  hunt. Or, you might run out of gas and I can see how that could happen. If you simply want venison, this is not the tag for you.

And, an “endless” season is a little hard on the wife and other family members. Sometimes you just feel like shooting something to end it. I wasn’t faced with that type of decision until the last hunt of the year, The Goodale Buck Hunt, G3.

The Goodale Hunt is like a cross between Mardi Gras and a deer hunter’s cult gathering. When you see a truck full of camo-clad people you don’t know if they’re hunting or just observing. I actually picked up and moved from one location only to find out later that the hunters I was avoiding didn’t have a tag or rifle, only spotting scopes and field glasses.

BR sign post IMG_6473

This is a road sign located at the corner of Onion Valley Road and Foothill Road. Independence is a small town on the east-central portion of the unit. The campgrounds to the west are located at an area called Seven Pines. Most of the deer are found along the western edge of the unit, where the mountains meet that valley.

No matter, there were plenty of locations with deer. I hunted for three days, which is a very short hunt for me. The first day I got an orientation from three hunters from Newhall, California. (Jim, Jim and Darrel) They showed me a bunch of bucks – more than 30. Many of them four-point bucks, but more often 3x2s and forks as you would expect.

I hardly thought about loading my rifle. One of the biggest bucks I saw that day walked slowly across the road in front of my truck about 75 yards away. He was missing one tine probably  broken off while fighting. I would have had a hard time shooting any buck that was behaving that way. I also recalled seeing that same spot on a you tube video.

A nice thing about the Goodale hunt is that you can make of it whatever you want. If you want an easy buck, your hunt will be over in an hour. If you want to trophy hunt, you can watch bucks every day of the season until you either find the buck you want – or not.

If you want to climb a mountain, go for it. They are awesome and intimidating. Not for 69 year old hunters like me. I’d like to think that I can climb those hills, but I didn’t test the theory. I walked very little, but thought about it a lot.

I wanted to climb to the snow-covered benches full of bucks, but figured out that it would only confirm that I’m as dumb as my wife suggests I am. But I did talk to other guys who have hunted the benches and that is where many of the biggest bucks have been killed.

Spotting deer from a mile away and climbing the mountain is what mule deer hunting is about.

So after traveling with a crowd on Tuesday, I hunted solo on Wednesday – spotted a good buck on the bench and considered going up there. Opted out. Not a risk taker, but if I’d had a guide to go with me maybe I’d do it.

A good friend, Rick Escover, who was accompanying another hunter the first few days, became available after this Colorado buddy, Jason, killed his buck on “the bench” Wednesday.

Jason climbed up one of those gullies and bagged a nice buck from the steep cliff surrounding one of the most prominent benches. Afterward, Rick told me that Jason wanted to kill his buck on the mountain, and I applaud him for that. The buck he killed had an interesting cheater sticking out on one side of this main beam. Unfortunately a crash into the rocks as he was dying broke the cheater off.

Rick offered to stay for an extra day or two and accompany me. I was happy for his company. On Thursday morning it was snowing and we decided to cruise the territory in search of spots where the bucks were gathering with does. Rick took me to such a spot and it was a blast.

First one doe appeared on a bitterbrush-covered slope.

Then it was two, three, four, five does. Then the bucks started popping out. First a 2×2, then a 4×4 with a broken tine – then two more bucks, probably 4×3’s.

We moved the truck up the road about 75 yards where we could see the opposite side of the draw. Within 300 or 400 yards of us we spotted another half-dozen bucks.

About half of the bucks were four pointers. We sat for about an hour watching. The largest buck was a four by three. He was tempting as he tended a doe within shooting range, but it was early so we turned around and drove off to investigate another location which turned out to be a bust.

After lunch we checked out a “sleeper” spot that Rick knew about. As we headed up the access road, I commented that I was a bit nervous. The road was narrow and crossed a very steep hill. There was just enough room for one vehicle. I commented to Rick that I wouldn’t want to meet another truck head on.

Within five minutes a truck appeared in front of us backing down the hill. Oh #$%^&.

I let Rick take over driving and walked down in front of him as he backed my truck down the hill. In the end, no damage. The other hunter had reached a switch back covered in snow and didn’t have enough traction to make the turn. I’m glad he went first.

At this point it was 3:00  PM and time to quit cutting bait and start fishing. We discussed our options and decided to return to the area with a bunch of bucks.

During the middle of the day the snowing had stopped, but in the late afternoon it started again. The road was covered in snow, but passable. As we approached the spot where we’d found bucks in the morning, a doe crossed the road about 200 yards ahead of us. We watched for a few minutes and a small buck appeared, and then a bigger buck appeared.

Rick said, ” I think we should put the spotting scope on this guy.”

I agreed. As Rick watched the buck I asked him, “Is he a four by four?”

Rick replied, “Yes.”

“Eye guards?”

“Yes,”

As the deer appeared to pick up speed and move up the draw in to the tall brush, we decided to drive past the deer and re-approach them from a knob overlooking the draw into which they had disappeared.

I loaded my rifle for the first time during the trip and grabbed my tri-pod shooting rest. Rick told me he’d wait at the truck, unless he heard a shot in which case he’d follow my route through the snow.

After I climbed the knob, I realized that our choice of approach was a good one. On top, I couldn’t see the deer, but knew they were somewhere down there. I hung my rifle on the tri-pod and glassed the draw.

After a short while, the deer began to pop out of the brush near the top of what I could see of the draw. I looked at the buck and was satisfied that he was a shooter. He was at 175 yards, walking.

The rifle felt good on the rest. I had adjusted the tri-pod for a standing position as the brush was tall. After a minute or two the doe led him into a broadside position. With the crosshairs solid on this chest, the rifle fired. It felt good and sounded good.

The deer exited the draw, no buck seen. I hoped that meant that he was down.

I mentally marked the spot and waited for Rick to arrive. When he got there I pointed out the spot where I believed the buck had been standing. I decided to walk around the spot where he had been and then work back towards Rick.

After arriving at the location where the deer had stood, I found the trail of the does, but no buck tracks. This was good as it supported the idea that the buck was down, but didn’t prove anything.

As I worked my way back down hill towards Rick I heard him shout. “Found your deer!”

Always a relief when the kill is confirmed. Instead of following the other deer, the mortally wounded buck had run directly down hill about 50 yards and crashed. The hunt was over, except for a short drag and photos.

Rich with buck IMG_6485

He’s not a big deer. His width is 21 inches, and height just under 18 inches. He has all four points on each side and also nice eye guards. Everybody who hunt Goodale wants a monster buck, but the truth is that they are hard to find. I am very happy with this buck.

The Goodale Buck Hunt was as advertised. Lots of deer and many bucks. From the beginning, my helpers had let me know that there would be lots of bucks to work through – bucks with broken horns or genetic variations.

Having never been to the winter range south of Goodale Creek, I had no idea of what to expect. What I found was plenty of deer. What I didn’t expect was to be told that the population was way down from previous years.

Several theories were given. One was that the deer sometimes migrate in a westerly direction based upon weather patterns, and that this was one of those years. Another was that there was a massive deer die off during the winter of 2017/18 – apparently from extremely cold weather and icy conditions that created hazardous icy slopes where deer slid from the mountain and either died instantly or later due to injury.

This theory is supported by findings of deer bodies/bones found by hikers in canyons where the deer fell. We’ll never know for certain.

Maybe the herd has declined. But, if the habitat remains in tact, the herd will rebound.

 

 

Personal Preferences for Goodale

Getting ready to depart for Independence on Monday.

You say, “Opening day is Saturday. Why are you waiting until Monday?”

That’s a good question. My personal preference is to not hunt on opening day. I don’t like the feel of competition when hunting and during the process of scouting for opening day and then hunting on opening day creates a hyped-up feeling that is not attractive to me.

But, there are other good reasons. There will be good bucks, because that’s the way it is at the Goodale Buck hunt, but this year the numbers of good bucks will probably be higher than usual.

I’m basing that on the fact that the weather is ideal. It has been raining and snowing in the mountains and the temperature is dropping and along with that, so is the snow line. The deer tend to be found right below the snow line. This is commonly accepted and intuitive.

Given the current trend, the good hunting conditions should continue on past the first weekend. Therefore, I feel no pressure to get there for the start of hunting. Assuming many of the hunters will bag a nice buck on Saturday or Sunday, the number of hunters will be reduced.

On special hunts, like G3, many hunters bring friends along to scout. This creates the feeling that there are more hunters afield than are actually there – compounding the feeling that the hunt area is crowded. And, I don’t want to feel the hype, as it increases the chance that I might shoot a buck too soon.

Once again my preference is to wait until some of the hunters and their friends go home.

It may be that some of the larger bucks will join in the rut later than the young bucks. This is another reason not be in a hurry. I’d like to hang in there and see if this theory plays out.

I’ve also checked the moon phase and the best hunting days are Tuesday through Friday.

These are the thoughts that have been running through my brain.

Why not be patient?

Maybe all this will add up to an extra special buck. Or, maybe not.

We’ll find out soon.

G3 – Goodale Buck Hunt

Didn’t expect to hold out this long, but G3 might be worth the wait.

In case you don’t already know, the G3 hunt takes place in the X-9B deer zone. The hope is that deer will migrate out of the surrounding mountains into the valley along interstate 395 which is the eastern boundary of the Hunt Zone.

The highest peak in the vicinity is Mt. Whitney (yes that Mt. Whitney). It’s over 14,000 feet up. The valley floor is at about 4,000 foot elevation.

Here’s a link to a map of the area:

https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=83618&inline

The season is from December 1 through December 16. When weather conditions are right, numbers of bucks show up from the nearby peaks and parks of Inyo National Forest. I’ve never been there, but I’m getting as educated as I can.

I’ll probably get a room in Independence. That would create the most comfort. The town is located right in the middle of the zone.

The weather appears to be cooperating. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Modoc Deer

Spent nine days in Devil’s Garden. It was a great time. Morning temps ranged from 8 degrees up to 11. The Cargo Trailer worked well, but I would like to have had a heater.

The propane lantern and one-burner stove took the edge off, but that was about it. Went to town on day three and purchased a big sleeping bag that saved my life. I was freezing at night in my light down bags.

IMG_6378 cargo trailer

The cargo trailer was roomy for one person. Had a table set up at the front and rear with my cot in the middle. The solar panel supplied plenty of power to keep the battery working the lights and fan. The Rhino ATV fit nicely inside and towing was no issue for my 2013 F-150 with Eco-boost engine.

There were plenty of deer, but I didn’t find a shooter buck. Here are my best deer photos.

The horses were there as well.

DSC_0690 horses

On the final day of the hunt, I wanted to sit by a tank and wait for deer. This is what showed up.

Between the skittish horses and swirling wind, it became  clear that it was a bad day to hunt the water hole, so I passed. It was time to head home anyway.

Next up, Doyle.

The (MDF) Caribou

caribou resized

My first outfitted big-game hunt was an Alaska barren ground caribou hunt that took place about 20 years ago. Bought the hunt at the Mule Deer Foundation Convention in Sacramento that took place in 1998. The caribou tag says 1998, so that validates the year.

The donation to MDF was set up by Gary Williams, MDF Chairman of the Board. At the time Gary was working for Leupold-Stevens and Leupold paid some of the trip costs as a donation from them.

The hunt went to sale at auction and I was the high bidder for $1700. The hunt took place in September and the caribou we hunted were part of the Mulchatna herd.

Camp was on the Nushagak River and we hunted up and down the river by boat. We found this caribou along the King Salmon River, a Nushagak tributary.

Although the Mulchatna herd was supposedly at an all-time high, I believe it may have already been in decline. We didn’t see many caribou and the one on my wall was probably the largest that my guide, Robert Nelson, or I sighted. Today the Mulchatna herd has still not regained the stature it had during the early 1990’s.

Robert and I stalked to within 60 yards of a small band of caribou and the I shot was the largest bull in the group. We killed him about two miles from the boat and the boat was about 30 miles from camp. The next day we brought a meat packer back with us to make the pack out a little easier.

I had two caribou tags and could have shot another smaller bull, but decided to pass. It was a good decision because I ended up using my second caribou tag on a Sitka blacktail deer on Kodiak Island about a week later.

I killed the bull with a Browning Automatic Rifle in 7mm. It was the first hunting rifle I owned with which I bagged a big game animal. Prior to that time, I hunted big game with bow and arrow only. The rifle was a raffle prize a San Jose MDF banquet in 1995 and it has an inscription on it: CENTRAL COAST CHAPTER, 1995, Fifth Annual Banquet, The Mule Deer Foundation. It was the model and caliber used by John Leonti the original chapter chairman of the San Jose Chapter. He was a nice man who passed away some time during the year before the banquet.

I purchased only one raffle ticket that night because I didn’t want to stay for the end of the banquet. I handed my ticket to David and Rose Stevens before I left and asked them to watch over it. David called me the next day and told me I had won.

I tanned the original cape from my caribou, but never mounted it, probably because I couldn’t afford the price of taxidermy work in those days. Last year I decided to find capes for a few of the animals taken on some of my past hunts. This is the only caribou I’ve killed so it is definitely a trophy to me even though just another caribou to anybody else.

My taxidermist and MDF supporter, Taff Vidalles, searched for a proper cape. Early season capes were available, but they did not properly represent the bull I had killed. Eventually he found a cape with characteristics of the bull I killed and purchased it for $650 wet-tanned.

I ended up paying $1,250 for the mount. $900 was Taff’s normal price. He added $350 (of the $650 cost of the cape) to his regular price and estimated that the $300 credit was appropriate because he normally would have had a preparation and tanning cost of about that much. I agreed.

Here’s me and the bull the way we looked in 1998.

Rich and Caribou

 

Looking Ahead to the “Open Zone” 2018 Hunt

2016 is over now. I got my buck and it is hanging next to me on the wall. The minute I saw it step into the open it was a shooter. The finish of the 2016 hunt took place on opening day of the Doyle Muzzleloading Rifle hunt. You can read all about it on previous blog posts.

The decisions I’ll make for 2018 will be similar to 2016, but probably a bit different as well. In 2016, I didn’t hunt seriously during any of the early hunts. I just scouted, but I did carry a bow or firearm most of the time. This year I may hunt the Devil’s Garden archery hunt, A4, as I drew a tag for that hunt last year and really enjoyed it. I also saw some big bucks.

Assuming I’m still with tag during the Devil’s Garden muzzleloading rifle season, I’ll probably have to do that hunt again. Last year’s hunt was cut short when my dad became ill. I went home and was present for his recovery. I have some unfinished business in Modoc.

The Doyle hunt is a tough one. There are several hunts going on at that same time. I’ll have to think hard about the Round Valley hunt has a high probability of seeing a big buck. Anderson Flat is also a hunt that conflicts with the Doyle hunt and there are often  big bucks that migrate from Yosemite Park. Right next to Doyle is the Bass Hill Archery Hunt in X6A and it takes place during peak rut time.

But before I make definite plans, I’ll follow my own advise and check the Big Game Digest from 2017 and also 2018 when it comes out. There will probably be some information there that will influence my thinking.

Whether I follow a path similar to 2016 and enjoy revisiting the great places I hunted previously or invite new adventure by hunting some of the remaining places I’ve not seen, the 2018 hunts are likely to reveal another impressive mule deer with an outsize rack. When I see the right one, I’ll know it’s time to shoot.

Anticipation is half the hunt.