Devil’s Garden Archery Hunt

The bottom line. It was a terrific hunt. Had a great time and we all saw bucks.

Yes I got a buck. Here’s the story.

On day six of the season, I had seen quite a few bucks and the numbers seemed to be holding. But, I was a bit worn out when I rose on Thursday. Decided to glass for bucks from the roads.

About 7:30 AM, I spotted three bucks heading up to a mountain top which I was familiar with. I carefully watched as they cleared the rim and took note of the place where they disappeared.

On some occasions I might have gone after the bucks and tried to watch them bed down and then stalk them in their bed. In this case, I decided to conserve my energy and wait until late afternoon to go after them.

About 3:00 PM I parked my truck about a mile from the spot and carefully stayed out of sight of the bucks. After 30 minutes, or maybe and hour, I reached the crest of the hill and stopped to study the area.

Within minutes, a buck appeared to my left. He was walking down wind and cross wind from me. I knew right away I was in a very good position. I raised my range finder and proceeded to range the buck as he neared.

The first range was 60 yards. The next 59 yards, then 42 yards and then 37 yards.

He turned broadside and stepped beside a downed log. There I considered a shot and decided it was good. As I prepared to draw my bow, the buck pawed the ground, circled and circled and laid down.

What a bummer. Now I had no choice but to stand still and ready until the buck stood up. How long would that be?

I found out in almost exactly and hour.

The wind had been steady, coming into my left shoulder. Then, I felt cool air on my right shoulder. The wind was circling and about about to shift direction. I knew the buck would soon get my scent.

That happened almost immediately. I was ready with knocked arrow as the buck stood and looked intently in my direction. But, it did not me.

My fortune was good so far, but the next move was his and it was critical as I didn’t have an open shot where he stood.

Apparently because he could not see me, the buck took two steps forward and again looked in my direction. When he took the first step forward his head went behind a small dead tree and I drew my bow.

With bow draw, he looked directly at me as I place my 30-yard sight pin on the top of his back and released. The buck did not move until my arrow clanked off a rock.

For a moment my heart sank as the sound was probably an indication of a miss.

I struggled up the hill, while dealing with legs that had been motionless for an hour.

When I reached the spot where he had stood, I looked for the arrow hoping that it would be close by.

The arrow was there and it was red. It was the reddest arrow I’ve ever seen. Relieved, I flopped on my back and laid still for what seemed like ten minutes, allowing my body to relax. I knew from the look of the arrow that the deer was probably already dead.

When I stood up I realized that I might be able to see the buck with my field glasses and not have to track him at all. Sure enough, after about five seconds, I saw the buck laying on it’s side.

IMG_3601-1 Rich's 2017 buck

There is more to tell and I’ll be posting again soon, but I just got home and I’m ready for bed.

 

 

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.

Scouting Lassen County

Spent some time, last week, driving 395 east of Susanville. Of particular interest was the area near Doyle where the Doyle muzzle loading rife hunt takes place in late November.

Also of interest is X 5B, north of Honey Lake. Here are a couple photos of the country.

Click to enlarge.

Note the tall bitter brush in the foreground. This country has some of the best bitter brush anywhere. The Mountain in the background (on the other side of Honey Lake) is Skedaddle Mountain. Should be some bucks up there. Heading north from Skedaddle Mountain is oodles of deer country bounded by Highway 395 on the west and Nevada on the east. A late season mule deer hunt in that country sounds very attractive.

Further south on 395 there is tremendous winter range on both sides of the road.

The top photo is of the mountains west of 395, while the lower two photos are of the winter range east of 395. The Nevada border is near the crest of the eastern mountains.

Lots of scouting to do in the process of planning my hunts.

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.

 

Medota Wildlife Area, 1992 (or thereabouts)

Note: There was a time when I offered guided refuge hunts to California Waterfowl  Association (CWA), so they could auction them off at fundraisers. They didn’t raise a lot of money, but it gave me an opportunity to promote the book I was selling and also take inexperienced hunters out for a day of refuge hunting. It was on one of these occasions when Tom Billingsley bid on  and purchased a hunt I’d donated to CWA for use at the annual youth day.

After the purchase, Tom suggested that we hunt Mendota and he’d bring his son Luke, who was interested in duck hunting. Recently, while cleaning out my office, I found this record of the hunt and I’m posting it here just as written back in the early 1990’s.

Mallards are a step above the average duck.Large in size and majestic in appearance, most hunters would rank them on a par with the pintail as the most sought after of puddle ducks. Mallards often come in gliding, but only after tantalizing the hunter with passes on the edge of range, before finally committing to the decoys.

A mallard responds to calling more readily than perhaps any other species. There’s nothing that compares to that final approach. Luke Billingsley had never bagged a mallard,until Sunday at Mendota Wildlife Area. His father Tom had been high bidder for a guided hunt on the refuge of their choice, at the Youth Outdoor Fair that was held at Camache HIlls last year. I looked forward to guiding them, knowing that their duck hunting experience had been limited.

As we passed through the check station and headed out to parking lot #2, Tom asked a few questions about my choice of hunting location and the gear we would carry with us. He and Luke were eager to learn so they would be prepared to hunt on their own in the future.

I had scouted the area, on Saturday, the afternoon before and had selected four potential blind sites – just in case the area turned out to be crowded. My concerns were unfounded and we had almost no competition for the limited number of ducks in the vicinity. We selected a large pond with a tule patch big enough to hide the three of us. The patch was located just to the north of the center of the pond, ideal for the north wind that clew steadily, but not with as much vigor as we would have preferred. Our three-dozen decoys were spread on the leeward edge of the blind.

After two unsuccessful attempts at passing ducks, Tom suggested, ” Show us how when the next opportunity arrives.”

Hoping that shooting a duck would be easier to demonstrate than describe, I agreed to his suggestion.

Shortly thereafter, two mallards passed by and I called to them. They swung in just out of range. After they had passed, I called again. Immediately they banked and returned towards the decoys. As they passed directly overhead, at about 25 years, I pulled up on the closest. At the shot, both birds froze in mid air as if hit by a bolt of lightning. After a moment’s pause, I realized that Luke and I had fired at exactly the same time. We had been a deadly duo.

We had a couple other close calls and one large flock of teal left us feeling silly, but the morning hunt held little excitement after about 9:00 Am. We did stick it out until nearly noon, but finally we decided it was time to eat lunch and shift to our afternoon hunting site.

The area near parking lot 17 is located south of and adjacent to the closed zone. We decided to give it a try. About 3:00 PM, ducks began to work. For about an hour the activity was fast, but most of the birds stayed just outside our shooting range. Finally a drake mallard responded to the call and passed overhead. Luke unloaded with Tom and I firing for good measure. The bird flew about 150 yards before it fell dead. Although the greenhead was the last duck of the day, the remainder of the afternoon was interesting, as duck after duck tested the area, but refused to come within range.

When we were done, Tom and Luke exclaimed that they were anxious to return and conduct a duck hunt on their own. In addition to having a good outing, we had also accomplished our main objective.

Postscript: During the twenty plus years since this hunt, Tom Billingsley and I have remained frequent hunting partners. We currently share a private blind near Volta and occasionally hunt the public areas together. Luke lives near Tom in Lemoore and has two children of his own.

Duck Hunting Franks Tract

Floating duck blinds on Franks Tract as viewed from the Webb Tract Levee looking across False River

Floating duck blinds on Franks Tract as viewed from the Webb Tract Levee looking across False River

(For a better view, click on the photo)

Thirty years ago, Franks Tract was open to free-lance duck hunting. During the early season we periodically pulled my Boston Whaler up to the berm and hunted ducks – mostly mallards. We killed a few, but the action was slow (only for those who were really motivated). Eventually the State took more control over the hunting and now it is strictly managed as a State Recreation Area.

I haven’t heard many reports lately about the quality of the hunting, but I frequently hear shooting from the direction of these blinds. Here’s a link that will provide information about drawing a permit for a blind on Franks Tract.

http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=490

http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=490