Afterthoughts about My Inyo Mule Deer

While hunting the Goodale Buck Hunt, I met several people who said that the mule deer in the Inyo National Forest were a distinct subspecies of mule deer, separate from the Rocky Mountain mule deer found further north along the Eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

As I watched deer, it did appear to me that the deer were slightly smaller, on average, than the Rocky Mountain Mule Deer I’d been hunting in Modoc and Lassen Counties, but I didn’t give it a lot of thought until I’d killed my buck and returned home.

Rich with buck IMG_6485

He’s not a big deer. His width is 21 inches, and height just under 18 inches. He has all four points on each side and also nice eye guards. Everybody who hunts Goodale wants a monster buck, but the truth is that they are hard to find. I am very happy with this buck.

That’s when I remembered editing a piece for Mule Deer Magazine 1995. Dr. Valerius Geist was the author and he spoke of four or more distinct subspecies of mule deer in California. One of those is the Inyo mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus inyoensis. The other primary species being the Columbian black-tailed deer, the California mule deer,  and Rocky Mountain mule deer.

Readings within recent issues of MDF magazine reminded me that another mule deer expert, Jim Heffelfinger, has studied and researched this topic. His views appear to be similar to Dr. Geist’s, but also divergent.  A significant issue is whether the variations in  mule deer characteristics within California deer are created by evolution or hybridization.

In their 1999 book, A Sportsman’s Guide to Improving Deer Habitat in California, Kenneth Mayer and Tomas Kucera, recognized six sub-species of deer in California. They expanded the listing to include the southern mule deer and the burro mule deer. Here’s what they said about the Inyo mule deer.

The Inyo mule deer occurs only in California, ranging east of the Sierra Nevada in Mono and Inyo counties. Like the Rocky Mountain subspecies, it is migratory, with low-elevation Great Basin winter ranges and higher-elevation summer ranges, often on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada. Although a bit smaller it closely resembles the Rocky Mountain mule deer. Most wildlife biologists believe the Inyo mule deer is simply a southern form of the Rocky Mountain mule deer.

Possibly the most heavily researched issue with regards to differences between blacktailed deer and  mule deer has taken place along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, primarily in the Shasta Cascade Region. Based upon conversations with Dr. Geist, it is clear to me that when he wrote the article in 1995 he considered the variations in the deer in that area were primarily related to evolution. He labeled the mule deer in the Shasta Cascade region as California mule deer.

Many sportsmen consider deer in that area to be either Columbian blacktail, mule deer or hybrids.

As I reread the article written by Dr. Geist, my take away was that he believed that the primary differences between the deer species living in different regions of California was primarily due to adaptation to differing habitats (evolution).

The fact that these various sub-species of deer live in adjacent habitats supports the concept of hybridization. It is logical that the sub-species variations would be blurred by cross breeding. Jim Heffelfinger’s recent articles in MDF magazine and also Fair Chase magazine, Fall 2005,  discuss DNA sampling done for the Boone and Crockett Club. Addressing species boundaries has been an issue with record-keeping groups for years and the Boone and Crockett Club has made progress entering the arena of DNA sampling. Decisions about the species identity of an individual trophy can be made using DNA sampling technology instead of geographical location.

Since I’m not a scientist, I don’t want to go any deeper into the weeds, but I will say that my observations while hunting mule deer in the Owens Valley support the notion that the deer there are different from Rocky Mountain mule deer of Lassen and Modoc Counties in Northern California.

Here is a photo of a of an interesting illustration taken from the Winter 1995 issue of Mule Deer Magazine. In that article, Dr. Geist explains that a “cline” is a “…geographic line-up of forms that vary directionally in their characteristics… ” The sub-species of deer in the illustration fit that definition.

cline illustration from Mule Deer Magaine

This is a photo of an illustration provided to Mule Deer Magazine in 1995 by Dr. Valerius Geist – a recognized expert on mule deer taxonomy.

 

The Longest Deer Season

IMG_6462

In the right-center of this photo is the Taboose Creek Canyon. To the left of Taboose Creek is the northernmost bench within the Goodale Unit. In the upper left-hand corner is the top of the tree-covered bench.

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.

BR sign post IMG_6473

This is a road sign located at the corner of Onion Valley Road and Foothill Road. Independence is a small town on the east-central portion of the unit. The campgrounds to the west are located at an area called Seven Pines. Most of the deer are found along the western edge of the unit, where the mountains meet that valley.

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.”

“Eye guards?”

“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.

Rich with buck IMG_6485

He’s not a big deer. His width is 21 inches, and height just under 18 inches. He has all four points on each side and also nice eye guards. Everybody who hunt Goodale wants a monster buck, but the truth is that they are hard to find. I am very happy with this buck.

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.

 

 

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

 

 

Buck Run 2017

Just got home from Washington. The drive from California to Washington is a long one, especially when you’re solo.

My good friend David Stevens and his son Derek have a great ranch in Washington and I was the benefactor early this week.

On day four of the ranch hunt, I killed the best buck of my deer-hunting career. Here’s a photo.

IMG_3797 Buck Run 2017

More on this later. Almost time for bed.

On the Wall

Plenty to do this time of year; put decoys away;  apply for tags, plan future hunts;  fish; honey do’s; remodel plans; fish;  replant the front yard after killing it during the drought; attend MDF fundraising events; fish; and (last but not least) put last fall’s buck on the wall.

My 2016 Doyle muzzle loader buck is back from the taxidermist and after great debate and lengthy discussions with Linda, the great buck is on the wall next to me as I type. IMG_3106 Doyle buck 2017

For a while he was headed to the living room, but as far as I was concerned he had to have the best spot or nothing. Linda said he didn’t rate replacing the kudu which is more colorful and exotic. Therefore the fireplace spot remains with the South African antelope. In my eyes the antelope is beautiful, but not nearly the trophy that the buck is.

The great buck could have hung over the TV in the family room. But another South African antelope (impala) is there and the small antelope is better suited for that spot.

Hung the great buck next to my desk a few minutes ago. Moved him to the most prominent location in my home office and trophy room. He is the buck I’ve been looking for and he will probably be the best buck of my life, but I plan to keep trying to find another like – him for a while.

He is a beautiful buck and obtaining a buck of his stature has always been on my lifetime list. He is wide (27 1/2 inches wide), fairly tall (18 inches high), symmetrical, colorful (very dark with white face) and his hair is very smooth.

My good friend Jerry Lowery deserves credit for doing a great job of field dressing the cape and my taxidermist, Taff Vidalles (Favorite Feathers Taxidermy) turned him into a great shoulder mount.

There is a band on his right antler. It is the band that shows it was in the local big buck contest and it is part of his story. He won the award for best California buck and would have been in the top five in the out-of-state category.

Ironically I’ve hunted in quite a few states while searching for this buck. Here they are: CO, ID, NV, MT, WA, SD and OR. I’ve also hunted mule deer in Canada (AB, BC). It’s ironical that my biggest buck has been killed in California.

When I exclaimed to Linda that the buck was very beautiful, she replied that he was even more beautiful when he was alive.

Yes he was.

But, animals don’t live forever and she would never have seen him.

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.