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.




California Open Zone Tag 2018

Two years ago I successfully bid on and purchased a California Open Zone deer tag.

Over the course of the 2016 deer season I had some of the most memorable deer hunting of my lifetime. The season culminated in the killing of the largest mule deer buck of my lifetime.

That buck is now on the wall of my office and I admire it daily. The price I paid for the tag was $10,500. I filled my tag on the first day of the hunt commonly referred to as the Doyle Muzzleloader Buck Hunt.

A few days ago I made the decision to bid on the 2018 Open Zone Deer Tag. Once again I was successful. This time the tag sold, in the Santa Rosa Chapter of MDF live auction, for $15,500. Definitely a big increase in two years, but still well worth it. In my eyes this hunt is one of the best values in the universe of mule deer hunting.

During the lead up to the 2018 season and as the hunting season unfolds, I’ll explain why. Sure it’s about the chance for a trophy, but there’s much more to it than that. It’s the hunt of a lifetime, even if you’ve done it before.

IMG_3106 2016 Doyle buck



Why a Habitat Committee to Oversee Public Hunting Areas?

IMG_3909 Sunrise from Blind 2bWetland management is a combination of science and art. A habitat committee should be run by an individual with many  years of experience in wetland development and maintenance.  A year or two of experience is nice, but marsh environments are dynamic. Weather is one of the major contributors to how a marsh grows and weather changes are dramatic and inevitable.

The more years one observes and manipulates marshland, the more they realize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for creating and maintaining a marsh. The managers of individual public hunting areas should welcome advise and consultation with experienced marsh managers in the public and private sector. Marsh managers cannot rely on one technique applied over and over again when managing a wetland.

The habitat committee must be made up of individuals who are passionate about habitat and who are able to work with other people for the greater good. The leader of the habitat committee must be able to nurture a teamwork environment with participants in the agency and public sector.

The major marshlands of the California refuge system are located in areas critical to migratory waterfowl. Intertwined with these public wetlands are many private wetlands and related agriculture. Initially, the California wildlife refuges were created expressly to reduce the impact migratory waterfowl were having on farmers crops.

IMG_4054 December sun burning through fog

Ag lands like corn and rice provide short term food for waterfowl, but a seasonal marsh provides longer-term food as well as other habitat values.

The extent to which the initial motivation for public hunting areas has evolved can be argued. However the existence of private waterfowl hunting areas is a given and how the public areas are managed, especially regarding water and irrigation, has a major impact and direct impact on nearby private lands. This is another reason for a habitat committee with members with varied backgrounds.

One thing that is very clear to me, is that management of public hunting areas is a job that requires an understanding of hunters and the hunting culture. The passion of the hunter cannot be emulated or described by somebody who does not hunt.

The habitat committee should make sure that managers of public hunting areas understand that, for the most part, habitat on public hunting areas is there because of hunters and as a result, hunters want opportunity.

It’s always nice to be able to take photos of sunrises and decoys or observe seagulls, snipe, sandpipers, avocet and stilts, but a marsh without ducks and geese has no use for hunting.

We need a habitat committee in California. Tell the California Fish and Game Commission today. Sign the petition.

Here’s the link: http://chn.ge/2BfeLpd




California’s Public Waterfowl Hunting Areas

California is blessed with numerous public hunting areas. Many of those are waterfowl refuges where acquisition and management of the land has been and continues to be funded primarily with money garnered from sales of federal duck stamps or taxes on firearms and ammunition. This means primarily duck hunters.

In California you can break down the refuge system into four distinct areas. Northeastern California, the Northern (Sacramento River) portion of the Central Valley, the Southern (San Joaquin) portion of the Central Valley and the Imperial Valley of southeastern California.

State Wildlife Areas are managed  by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and National Wildlife Refuges are managed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). With a couple exceptions, the hunting program on all public hunting areas is managed by the State.

Currently there is a petition being circulated by Jeff Kerry, a very dedicated hunter and developer of duck habitat and also good friend of water-fowlers. He is seeking support for a plan to create more oversight by public hunting interests on the lands managed by CDFW and USFWS. A petition for a show of support is being circulated. I have personally signed on.

A few years ago, the California Waterfowl Association supported legislation requiring the CDFW to accommodate a Habitat Conservation Committee to provide public input into how the habitat on hunting areas is managed.

The effort met with resistance from the CDFW staff and an alternative solution was negotiated. The current system requires CDFW to hold meetings for hunters each year prior to the opening of duck season. Although these meetings may be productive in other ways, and they should not be abandoned,  it is unlikely that they will result in improved habitat conditions.

A habitat committee would review plans for annual planting, manipulation and flooding. The committee would be advised as to water allotments and how they would be applied as irrigation is the most important aspect of wetland management. Water is the difference between a seasonal marsh and just plain upland. Water is important before, during and after duck season.

Based upon the information I’ve gathered, I am now even more convinced that a Habitat Management Committee is needed to review how California hunting areas are managed. The committee needs access to management plans and the areas themselves.

I’m continuing to urge public area hunters to sign the petition. More to come as I continue to investigate.

Go to: http://chn.ge/2BfeLpd




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.


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.