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.


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



A Time to Speak

Much of my most serious time in the woods is done while hunting. That’s when I’m as quiet as possible. Often that is so quiet that a stick rubbing against my cap makes me jump.

Sometimes the woods are so quite that I stop and notice wheezing emanating from my own lungs or the pounding of my own heart.

The sounds of my trousers rubbing against brush or the snap of a twig, are not foreign to the woods. They could be produced by a number of critters or physical events.

On occasions, I have been so silent in the woods that special things have happened.

A little over 35 years ago I arose early during an archery back-pack deer hunt on a mountain in the California coast range. It was August and the trails were covered in two or three inches of dust. At first light, I moved cautiously and slowly along one such dust-covered trail not far from the top of a ridge that led to the mountain top.

The area was perfect deer habitat and I was feeling optimistic as everything seemed to be falling into place and the possibility of sneaking up on a buck was quite real.

Then a deer snorted from about 75 yards away uphill from me. “How could he have smelled me?” was my first thought.

Then another deer snorted and I heard it run off.

“So close, ” I thought to myself, not knowing what could have gone wrong.

I remained absolutely still as I stared up towards the ridge top.

I was standing in slight depression created by a minor drainage. The drainage led directly up the hill and my line of sight while watching was directly up said depression.

Then I caught movement about fifty yards up the hill. Something was coming down the drainage. It was a lion, a male lion with a very square head. He was lying low, but moving fairly quickly. I had little time to react before he would be right on top of me.

Obviously he had no idea I was there. Within seconds he was only 20 yards from me and still coming in a silent, slinking but ground-covering way.

I could only react. “That’s close enough pussy cat,” I heard myself say.

Stupid? Maybe, but that’s what I said.

In a flash the cat was out of sight. He covered the 10 yards between him and the closest thicket in almost no time at all. I never saw him again and I was thankful for that – except that the minute he went out of sight, I was somewhat terrified because I had no idea what he was doing.

I moved down the trail expeditiously and I believe he did the same. Neither of us wanted to become better acquainted.

Now, more than 30 years after that event, it is clear to me that the human voice is a valuable defence mechanism. Virtually all wild animals that live with humans are afraid of them. Sometimes our best defense is the sound of our own voice.




Last Day of the 2017/18 Waterfowl Season

My conflicts and my blind partner’s work prevented either of us from hunting the last Saturday, so we postponed the hunt ’til Sunday.

Started off pretty good when a few teal buzzed us early at blind C. We had three birds in the first hour and were thinking that things might turn out OK.

early retrieve last day IMG_4187

Unfortunately many hunters were eager to finish picking up decoys, so after 8 AM, the hunting completely turned off with ATVs on every levee.

We still had three birds and hadn’t fired a shot for some time when the last of the other hunters pulled out. About that time a gaggle of snow geese broke up and headed our way. We put in some #2 shot and each of us dropped a snow goose.

Last day snow IMG_4189

Tom had quite long chase while Lola retrieved my goose.

We sat it out for another hour and a half  and Tom dropped a teal before giving in and picking up the decoys at blind 4.

Every season is unique as was this one. Had more limits than goose eggs, but a fair number of each.

Lola was rejuvenated this season and I’m hopeful that she’s got a couple more years of hunting left. Could say the same for me.



Late-Season Waterfowl Hunting


Waterfowl hunting is dynamic. Here are some of my thoughts on late- season duck and goose hunting.

1.) Location is always important, but in late season hunting, the locations change and are impacted by the history of local hunting pressure. If you must, get out of the usual blind and build a temporary blind where there has not been one before. When you’re done with the temporary blind, tear it down so others won’t ruin your new spot. You can rebuild it later if you choose. Nooks and crannies can hold waterfowl. 25 feet of hog wire and wooden stakes covered with natural material makes a good two-man blind and takes only an hour to build.

2.) Weather is extra important. Late season ducks and geese are educated. Wind and fog are two of my favorite weather events. Winds in the ten to fifteen miles an hour range are good, stronger can cause the birds to sulk. As for fog, not a ground fog, but a high fog with cloud cover that forces birds to fly beneath it.

3.) Shooting. Keep in mind that these are experienced birds. They will fly faster and flair sooner. Shots will be longer and therefore leads will often be longer. Use the right choke tube and bring a couple types of loads for changing conditions.

4.) Food sources. Look for areas newly flooded, where new food may become inundated. Remember that invertebrates can become a new food supply. Cold weather forces waterfowl to feed more often.

5.) Bring your dog, but also bring an old yard chair or other type of stand if you’re freelancing. A chair is easy to camo up.  And a dog vest is extremely important in cold weather.

6.) Choosing your shotgun. If longer shots are necessary, bring your long-barreled gun. On the other hand if shooting ducks over decoys, you will probably prefer a short-barreled gun, like an over/under as the birds will probably not slow down over the decoys like they may do earlier in the season.

7.) Decoys. You need only a few decoys during the late season. Make them as realistic as possible and place them I spots where you have seen ducks or geese feeding or resting recently.  A jerk string may be effective during still weather, but don’t overdue it.

8.) Calling. Use specific tactics. Don’t call any more than is necessary. If a bird is heading your way, let him come. If he turns away, give him one short toot. On the whistle, test different sounds and see what works. The sounds that waterfowl make during the late season may be different than what you’ve grown to expect. Listen to them.

9.) Make a game plan before the hunt. Consider all of the above and be prepared with the right gear when you arrive at your hunting destination. Have a back-up plan in case other hunters mess up your primary plan.

10.) As the season passes, waterfowl shift patterns continuously. They will probably stay in a pattern until hunting pressure or habitat changes force them to change. Think back to previous seasons to recall patterns you observed in past seasons and be prepared to exploit your knowledge when you see them occurring again. Once hunting pressure forces the birds to shift, they may not be in that pattern again until next year.




Green-wing Teal and the Curse of Seven

DSC_0034 teal and other ducks in a closed area near the KDC

Teal have always been a contributor to my duck harvest. However, until the last three years, they have been a minor contributor. Things changed when I decided to join the Kerry Duck Club, located near Volta in the North Grasslands.

Teal are about 90 percent of the take at KDC. You can try as hard as you like, but you’ll never shoot a limit of ducks at KDC that doesn’t have a majority of green-wing teal. They are dominant.

Because of the order of the draw, I didn’t have a chance to start out with one of the better blinds so I decided to hang around until the first wave of hunters was done and then fill in. It was probably ten and eleven o’clock before I made it to the blind and I was by myself.

I chose the same blind that I hunted last Saturday and my reasoning was that I might have a chance to shoot a goose (hopefully a white-front) as the geese have been present.

As I should have expected, The birds that were present were mostly green-wings. For almost an hour I watched them as they flew by, dive bombed my decoys and sometimes even landed in them. I waited and watched without shooting.

As long as I didn’t intend to shoot them, they looked like easy meat. Then, I finally decided to shoot teal as there didn’t seem to be any other options. On the first shot, the drake I was trying to shoot bobbed just as I pulled the trigger and I missed him, but surprisingly I hit the hen teal that was with him.

I was one for one – sort of.

The next teal came in about regular speed and he should have been a dead duck. Bang. bang – he flew off. At least I was still one duck for three shots – sort of.

And so it went. I wanted to hit them all and prove to myself that I could hit teal. After sixteen shots I had six teal. I was feeling OK about myself. Then the lull struck. The teal either wouldn’t fly at all, or they flew around the blind just out of range.

Every hunter on the club had killed seven ducks in the morning. I couldn’t quit until I had seven – I’d be shamed.

Every time I reached for a sip of water or a bite to eat, two teal would buzz by before I could get a shot off. Then two teal flew directly into me and I wiffed on two shots. I felt weary. I couldn’t leave.

Then came the shell count. Two in my gun, two in the box and four more in my pocket. Certainly I would get the last teal before they were gone.

I drake green-wing flew by along the edge of the decoys. I could hit him. Boom, miss – boom, miss.

Now six shells were left. The pattern repeated. Confidently I pulled up on the next bird. Boom – no joy.

More time passed and once again I wished that I could just quit with six teal and be happy. If I did, I’d never live it down.

A teal came in low on the water, I swung on it and missed. Then it turned skyward, presenting a unmissable shot. I held slightly in front of the bird’s beak and fired.

Down he went. I sent Lola and watched her retrieve the bird.

image2 Lola with teal

Lola with green-wing teal. Photo by Brett Kelly

I would not be the hunter responsible for lowering the KDC average for the day to below seven. That’s right, everybody got a limit of ducks. Without counting, I’d guess that to be about 25 hunters. When I reached camp I marked ’em down in the book. Rich Fletcher, blind BB –  7 green-wing teal.




The Greatest Chase

I’d been standing next to a cattail patch 30 yards long and ten yards wide for more than 10 minutes when I thought I might have seen a glimpse of the duck Lola was after. I moved to improve my view.

Lola was in a frenzy. She’d been running ever since the green-wing teal I’d sailed had hit the water. When my eleven-year-old retriever first caught up with it, the bird made it into the air with feet dragging.

After a 50 yard chase, Lola and the bird disappeared behind a large cattail patch. I knew I’d have to shoot the bird again if Lola was to retrieve it, so I waded the 150 yards from the blind to the patch as fast as I could.

Now I was trying to confirm the presence of the bird that Lola knew was there. Getting a glimpse of the little duck was important. Because once I saw it, I would be as determined as Lola.

That’s when the bird swam out of the cattail about 25 yards from me. I raised my gun, but Lola was in the way. And, she hadn’t seen it with anything but her nose.

I moved quickly to the other end of the cattail with renewed belief that the bird would soon be dead.

Another ten minutes passed before Lola circled my end of the cattail. With Lola thrashing cattail with her body and tail, the duck was forced from its hiding spot and popped into an opening.

“Pow,” the chase was over.

Lola picked up the bird and began to slow-walk towards the blind – her best home run trot. For a moment I considered taking the duck from her, but she needed to carry it back herself.

The entire retrieve had taken about 20 minutes and Lola was running almost the entire time. My reaction was over the top. Funny how the energy of a dog can transfer so easily to a human.