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.

dsc_05051-buck-and-doe-day-two

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.

img_2325-montana-2015

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.

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.

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.

dsc_04471-doyle-x6b

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.

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.

 

Final Week of A-Zone Hunt

A little late reporting. Been traveling north looking for a big buck in Devil’s Garden, X5a, X5b or X6. More on that later.

Bucks were in the rutting mode during the last week of the season, but the number of bucks in general was disappointing. Son-in-law, Brett shot a young buck on the next to the last weekend of the season.

img_2275-brett-2016

It was the third buck of his still young deer hunting career after staying home last year to be with his young family. However, this year he was back and made a nice shot from 280 yards to take this buck, which was chasing a doe.

On the last Friday of the season, Joe DiDonato found a buck chasing a doe and stalked in pretty close to shoot this nice 3X3. He took this photo of himself using the timer on his camera. Came out nice in the late afternoon sunlight.

img_4743-joe-2016

The rest of the weekend was relatively uneventful, but Rob did find a big buck late on Sunday, but obligations at home called for a premature end to the hunt. At least we know there’s one big one left for next season.

 

 

 

A-Zone Opener

Saturday August 13th was opening day for the California “A” Zone – the Central California Coastal zone for blacktailed deer.

The hunting in this zone takes place mainly on private ranches like ours. Standing on our ridge, we can see San Francisco Bay, Mount Diablo and to the east the Central Valley. On the clearest of days, the Sierra Nevada mountains can be seen.

Hunting takes place in weather that averages in the 90’s and it was that way this last weekend.

Our deer herd is down in numbers to about 20 percent of the population from four years ago when five of us could likely kill a buck on opening weekend. It was expected that we would see a half dozen or more bucks apiece.

Weather patterns, especially the drought, seems to be the reason behind the decline. This weekend, my deer count was seven. Two spike bucks, three does, one fawn and one legal buck.

However, the excitement did come about mid-day on Saturday. While still hunting through a likely bedding area, I came upon a buck that was sneaking along about 50 yards from me. For some reason, it seemed like he had not seen me when he stopped and bedded down facing generally in my direction, but not focused on me.

Frustrated that he had not stood still long enough for me to get off a broadside shot, I began to worry a little more than I should have. While generally pretty patient, for some reason, I got antsy and began to look at the buck though my scope. I realized that if I moved about a foot to my left, I might have a shooting lane.

I looked again through the scope and could see his brisket, head and horns clearly. It looked like an easy shot, but a little jolt of buck fever was brewing in my mind. For no good reason I rushed the shot and saw the bullet hit the ground just below the buck.

He was so surprised that he didn’t even move, but stared in my direction looking for me. As I looked through the scope at the buck, I realized that he was giving me a chance for another shot, but as I worked the bolt, he pinpointed my location, rose and sneaked off. I nearly had a chance at him walking, but then he was gone.

This was the closest rifle shot I’ve ever missed, but it points out the fact that shots at lying-down bucks are not as easy as they may appear. My only previous success at a buck while lying down was from a tree stand  where elevation created a much better angle at the deer’s body.

Case of temporary buck insanity was a good thing to get out of the way and I didn’t have to get bloody. Nice to know that I still get excited by a nice looking buck at close range.

 

 

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.