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.


You Own the Open Zone Tag. Now What?

When I found out I was high bidder on a 2016 Open Zone deer tag, I was ecstatic.

All the places I’d been hoping to hunt were now available to me. But, the tag is only good for one buck. One needs a plan when there are so many opportunities.

I was familiar with a few of the best special hunts, but places like Devil’s Garden, X5B, X5A, Goodale Buck hunt and Round Valley were mysteries. There was no money left to pay guides as I’d already spent my budget.

One attractive aspect of these hunts is that they all take place 100% on public lands and access is excellent.

There is a treasure trove of information available from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. I began to carefully dissect the Big Game Booklet from past seasons. I needed to figure out where to spend my now precious time. There were plenty of special hunts, but most of them took place in November and December. I could only be in one place at a  time.

I decided to rate the top ten hunting opportunities (for me) and evaluate them closely. I compared success rate, convenience, percentage of trophy buck and season dates, among other things. Emphasis was placed on the percentage of four point or greater bucks taken in previous years. Since I’m comfortable hunting with archery, rifle or muzzleloader, method of take was irrelevant. Here’s what I concluded.

How I originally ranked the hunts from top to bottom.

1. G-37 Anderson Flat Buck Hunt (D6)

2. G-39 Round Valley Late Season Buck Hunt (X9A)

3. M-9 Devil’s Garden Muzzleloading Rifle Buck Hunt.

4. M5 Eastern Lassen Muzzleloading Buck Hunt (X5B)

5. G3 Goodale Buck Hunt (x9B)

6. M3 Doyle Muzzleloading Rifle Buck Hunt. (X6B)

7. M4 Horse Lake Muzzleloading Rifle Buck Hunt (X5A).

8. M8 Bass Hill Muzzleloading Rifle Buck Hunt (x6A)

9. M-11 Northwestern California Muzzleloading Rifle Buck Hunt.

10.  A-26 Bass Hill Archery Buck Hunt

This was my original line up. From the point that I formed this list onward, these hunts were my focus. However a few of these hunts had more to offer than I initially realized.

The priority of hunts would change over time as I became more familiar with the hunting locations and gathered information from many sources. I’d only hunted one of the places listed –  Anderson Flat.

I hunted Anderson Flat when I drew a special hunt archery tag, without success, during the 1990’s. I still had a few of the maps from that hunt and I knew a little about the area. What made Anderson Flat so attractive was that it is close enough to home that I could do a day hunt or overnight if I wanted to.

And, Anderson Flat had several seasons. I could hunt that area during archery, rifle, special archery and special rifle seasons. If I hunted nowhere else, I could hunt from August to December.




Why a Fundraising Tag?

The first 25 years of my deer-hunting life were spent trying to kill any legal buck. In the beginning, any success was good enough.

Between 1971 (the year I killed my first buck) and about 1995, I hunted with bow and arrow almost exclusively. During that time, I killed four bucks. Needless to say, I was not a prolific deer killer. But, I hunted every year and each year I hunted at least two deer seasons and often three – counting an out-of-state hunt.

My enthusiasm was not diminished by modest success. I had so much fun hunting deer that I was only slightly disappointed when I failed. And, I was an optimist, a big factor if you are an archer. The largest mule deer buck I killed before 1995 was a 23 inch wide three by three.

There was no need for an open zone tag in those days. Bucks were always around. I just couldn’t kill them. My missed shots per buck killed was somewhere  around ten.

Then I won a Browning Semi-Automatic Rifle at a Mule Deer Foundation event. It was my first true deer rifle. Things changed in a hurry. I learned that deer were not really all that hard to kill if you could hit them and with a rifle they were much easier to hit.

One thing led to another and I was no longer satisfied to just hunt and occasionally bag a buck. I also began to hanging around with serious trophy hunters.

And, I learned that the biggest limiting factor in trophy hunting was access to a trophy buck. I began to pay attention to the hunting zones and as it became harder and harder to gain access to trophy mule deer, I became more envious of those who drew good deer zones to hunt.

Then, in about year 2000, California created a preference point system. Special deer hunts were carved out and trophy bucks were there to be had if you could draw a tag, but only a few dozen hunters were drawn for these hunts each year and in order to draw a special hunt tag you had to be very lucky.

As the years went by, I heard stories about the different special hunts and wished that I could draw, but that never happened.

About the time that the preference tag program came about, another way to obtain tags was created. Each year a very limited number of deer tags for specific areas were sold at auction.

As I attended fundraisers I watched as hunters bid what seemed to be exorbitant amounts of money for the right to hunt a deer. The cost of such tags was way beyond my means. Anyway, I was still hunting and having a good time doing so.

As time went by, my income grew and I would occasionally hire an outfitter for some of my  hunts. Soon I realized that the cost of some of my outfitted hunts was nearly as much as the cost of the fundraising tags. I might be able to afford to purchase an open zone tag at auction. And, if I did, I wouldn’t need an outfitter, as the hunt locations were close to home.

The deer hunting season would be practically endless.

I’d purchased landowner tags for as much as $4,500 and guided deer hunts for more than $7,000. Why not stretch a bit more and pay $10,000 for a tag that would allow me to hunt all the places I’d dreamed about for years.

At the age of 66, 45 years after killing my first buck, I finally had the funds to bid on a tag that might give me a shot at a buck of a lifetime. The only thing stopping me was myself.

Scouting for Mule Deer

Scouting can take many forms. A very important aspect of scouting is reading the California Department of Wildlife (CDFW) Big Game Hunting Digest. The statistics they provide regarding success rates for the various hunts is very telling. The way you utilize the Hunting Digest should have a significant impact upon your hunt selection

Because I had an Open Zone Tag last year, I scouted three Units. First I scouted during the archery season. I had my bow in the truck, but I wasn’t interested in hunting unless I came upon something that absolutely caught my eye. That didn’t happen and I never took the bow out of its case.

My main objective was to prepare for the muzzleloader seasons. Therefore the scouting I did during the archery season and rifle season was mainly to learn how to access the three areas.

The first step in scouting was acquiring maps and gathering information. I started with a Delorme Gazetteer. This map book is reliable, current and comprehensive within Northern California.

National Forest and BLM maps were significant, but cumbersome to use and not as accurate. Other special purpose maps were helpful for details of a specific area. I would include CDFW and 7.5 ‘ topo maps in this category.

On their web site, CDFW provides maps of every hunt unit.

Significant parts of the early season scouting were driving the access roads and speaking with people on site. Occasionally I found a hunter or rancher who was willing to spend some time telling me what they had seen recently,  such as good habitat, water sources or deer sign.


One of the issues with scouting for a late season hunt is that the deer are probably not where they will be during October or November dates which likely fall during or after the migration. Learning the location of a big buck in August or September may or may not be valuable. You won’t find out until your hunt season begins.

On the other hand you may be able to find our where and when the deer migrate or where they congregate for the rut. Game wardens and biologists can be a good source for this type of information. You’ll have better luck contacting them if you do so prior to the opening of deer seasons.

Since the units I hunted last year were completely new to me, I tried to drive the boundaries of units (or close) to know generally where they were located. Last year I never got stuck, but almost. It’s a good idea to check out some of the side roads, but remember that once October and November comes there may be mud. Swamps are dry in September, but might not be later on.

A very valuable resource is a reliable hunter who has experience in the unit you are hunting. Talking to other hunters and building relationships can be a great asset. Ask your friends and acquaintances if they have hunted the unit. You’ll find that other people may have hunted several of the X-Zones regularly forty years ago. Although times have changed, good spots then are probably still good spots today. Having contacts can make a huge difference.

The most valuable information you can have is gained by personal experience. That is why hunting the same unit as frequently as possible is an asset. If you’re hunting with a party, of three or four people, you may be able to combine your scouting and contact resources. That could be very helpful.

The group I hunt with is planning a fishing trip in the unit where we’ll be hunting during the August archery season. We’ll also have our bows along so we can do some archery practice. It’s also a dry run for planning purposes. Getting the kinks out of camping equipment, trailers, ATVs etc.

Stay patient and alert. Know what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a good one, the odds tell us that you’ll be lucky to see one shooter buck.

Good luck.











Finding a Deer Hunt You Can Afford

Got an email from a reader of my blog. He expressed a sincere desire to find a way to hunt deer with his son. He was vague about his means and may have had more resources that he let on, but because he was vague, I decided to respond with a range of options and the letter back to him formed a basis for this post.


You’ll have a better chance for big bucks if you can hunt during the rut.

After some editing, this is what I told him:

There is no easy solution to your problem. It isn’t hard to get a chance to hunt mule deer and it’s not too difficult to get a shot at a legal buck. But, even that is not a slam-dunk these days.

Budget has a big impact upon one’s chances. With a budget of $500-$1000 per person, you’re pretty much limited to a California hunt with a good chance of being drawn for a good chance at a mule deer buck within three or four years if you retain preference points. Or, if you’re lucky you might get drawn in Nevada which uses a weighted lottery system and you may get drawn on any given year. If you go the Nevada route,  the price will go up somewhat.

My buck where he fell

Here;s a buck I took on a do-it yourself California hunt in X12. Unless you’re lucky, it takes about four years to draw in this unit.

Idaho has a first-come first-served basis for many of its mule deer hunts and it also has enough deer to give you a reasonable chance of success. The cost of a do-it yourself hunt in Idaho would probably be $1000-2,000 per person, mainly because out-of-state tag prices are higher and travel is costly. If you camp out you reduce your cost, but for late season hunting it can get almost unbearably cold.

Oregon  and Utah may be places where you can obtain a tag and hunt for a price similar to Idaho. Travel will vary depending upon the cost of gasoline, and once again non-resident tags aren’t cheap – maybe talking $1,000-2000 for travel and tags.

If your budget is in the $4,000-$10,000 per hunter range, you may be able to find a landowner tag and camp out in Nevada, but you need to be resourceful to find a tag for sale. Landowner tags are in demand. Contact Nevada Department of F&G for a list of landowners who have tags.

IMG_0028 Rich with buck angle view cropped and resized

Killed this buck on top of a knob in the Cortez Mountains of Nevada. The landowner tag cost $4,000, but that was about ten years ago.

Guided hunts in Montana and Wyoming tend to be less costly, but tags and travel will get you into the $5000-$7000 range.

For a really good guided hunt, you will probably have to spend between $6,000-$10,000 per hunter plus the cost of travel and tags – maybe $1500 added on. Colorado and New Mexico are places to consider.

On any hunt there is a chance you’ll come home empty-handed. I’ve hunted with guides for mule deer three times in Montana, once each in Nevada (muzzleloader) and South Dakota (archery) and twice in Canada. (Once each in British Columbia and Alberta AB.) I killed a nice buck in Montana and had chances on the other two Montana hunts. (Passed on one buck and missed the other.)  Although I didn’t have a chance at a buck on the guided Nevada hunt, I did kill a buck each time I purchased landowner tags. Never got a shot at a mule deer in BC and missed a great buck on an Alberta archery hunt.


I really like this Bob Marshall Wilderness buck killed three years ago. The total cost of the hunt including travel was about $7,000. It was a true wilderness hunt.

The greatest hunt of all was last year when I purchased a California Open Zone tag in an auction. The price was $10,500. I spent another $1500 on travel and scouting. In the end I killed a buck near Doyle on November 19th. It is clearly the biggest buck I’ve taken.

IMG_3106 Doyle buck 2017

This is clearly my best buck. Killed it last November in California during a muzzle loader rut hunt. It was also my most expensive hunt when you add in the cost of the Open Zone tag.

So there’s the picture from my view. Most of my life I’ve hunted cheap, but often. Now that I have more resources, I spend the amount of money I need to spend in order to make sure I hunt in good deer country, but money is no guarantee.

If you’re willing to part with the money, I’d suggest the option of a Nevada landowner tag program. It requires some leg work or you may want to call it sweat equity.

I bought a deer hunt in Alberta for next November (2017). The hunt is very popular. I had to put a deposit down three years in advance. The total cost of the hunt is $13,000 and that doesn’t include travel to Calgary (Call it another $1,000).  Last time I was there I saw some of the biggest mule deer bucks ever. Hope they survived the 2016/17 winter.

Note: I didn’t bear down hard while coming up with these numbers so they are meant to be just a ballpark estimate. Be resourceful and you may do better than my numbers. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have friends who own a ranch.

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.