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.
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.”
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.
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.