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.

Doyle Muzzleloading Rifle Buck Hunt

M3 is the designation for the Doyle muzzle-loading rifle hunt. In general, the hunt location is a portion of  Deer Zone X6b lying in the southeast corner of Lassen County. Nevada lies to the east and the southern and southwestern boundaries are the Lassen County line. The northern boundary is basically the town of Herlong, its access road and Highway 395 to where it intersects the town of Milford.

Time wise, the hunt extends for nine days – November 19 through 27. Either conveniently or invonveniently, depending upon your situation,  the Thanksgiving holiday is in the middle of the period.

This is winter range. Although there are some resident deer, many of the deer seen while hunting will be deer that have migrated from Nevada to the east, Plumas County to the south or maybe Northern Lassen County. Who knows for sure and some of the biggest bucks are in the neighborhood for much of the year.

dsc_04471-doyle-x6b

Highway 395 divides the area in about half with timber-covered ridges on the west and Great Basin style pinyon-juniper and large sage to the east. Much of the sage is so tall and thick that it would be impossible to see, let alone shoot, at a running  buck.

This country also has lots of antelope bitterbrush (https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_putr2.pdf), a favorite food for mule deer – especially in winter.

Sixteen of the twenty tags for last season were filled and I’m sure that the four, that weren’t filled, could have been. According to the California Big Game Hunting guide, over 60% of the deer killed during this hunt last season were 4X4 or better. That puts it near the top of all California deer hunts when it come to success.

Because I purchased an Open Zone Deer Tag, I can participate in this hunt. Needless to say, (but I’ll say it anyway) I’m  looking forward to it.

Without the Open Zone Tag, it is most likely that I would never participate in this hunt., or even put in for it. According the the CA Big Game Hunting Guide, 18 of the 20 people who drew this tag in 2015 had maximum preference points.  Of the 771 applicants, two very lucky hunters were selected in the random draw.

Devil’s Garden 2016

The long-awaited Devil’s Garden hunt opened on October 22. With a two-week season, I elected to wait for the second week as that’s when the mule deer would be most active.

Rain was in the forecast and rain it did, but the hunting was not affected much. Most of the time was spend covering ground looking for groups of does. After three days of rain, the sun came out and Mount Shasta appeared to the west.dsc_05391

While hunting I took as many photos as I could, but made sure that I wasn’t holding the camera when I should have been holding my muzzle loader.

The muzzle loader I use is a T/C triumph, but it’s called the Bone Collector model. It is an excellent rifle as muzzle loaders go. It’s definitely a one shot affair. About the only change I made to the rifle was that I added a peep site as the rear sight. I wanted to modify the front sight as well, but technical difficulties got in the way.

Right from the start there were does and bucks in bunches of 8-12 deer. On the first day the bucks were all small. As time passed the bucks seemed to become larger each day. On the afternoon of day two, I was able to photograph a real nice buck that was very into the does.

DSC_0507[1] Second day buck.jpg

One of the problems with the Open Zone tag is that you know you will likely have many more opportunities down the road as long as you keep hunting. Normally this buck would have been headed for my wall. Even if he had been on the other side of the road, I wouldn’t have shot him, but he wasn’t in the hunting area anyway so it was a moot point.

In baseball terminology, he was safe by 50 feet.

Here are some more photos. With poor light most of the time and plenty of trees to make focusing difficult, I didn’t get as many photos as I would have liked.

One thing I did notice was that people are feeding the wild horses. This became clear as a pair of mustangs ran up to my truck when I stopped near them. I also noticed alfalfa remnants on the road.

dsc_05031-come-a-running-cropped-and-resized

Unfortunately, on day five of the hunt we had a family emergency and I needed to return home. That’s the bad news. No buck in Devil’s Garden for me. It is a great hunt and having to leave just about guarantees that I’ll be hunting again this fall.

Thanks to many friends who helped me figure it out. Next time I’ll be very prepared. Hope there is one.

Next up. Doyle muzzle loader season, November 19.

 

A Look at Devil’s Garden.

Spent four and a half days scouting in the north country, mostly in Zone X2. Covered a lot of ground – all the way into Oregon.

Departed Monday morning and made it to Devil’s Garden (Deer Zone X2) before sunset, but didn’t make camp until well after dark. Woke up at the base of Blue Mountain on Tuesday morning and headed up the Mowitz-Crowder Flat Road towards Oregon.

Found quite a few hunters camped at Janes Reservoir. One hunter, who had filled his tag the day before, said that most of the hunters were finding deer in a nearby burn. That’s where he shot his buck the day before. He showed me a photo of the buck and it was a good one.

Later on I drove to the burn, but (although I did see some deer there) it was too crowded for my comfort. I headed north into Oregon and got lost.

After a stop in Klamath Falls to purchase a motorcycle helmet (needed to get legal before unloading my ATV), I ventured into the desolate country north of Clear Lake and found a quiet spot to spend the night. It was quite peaceful there, but only found a couple does and their fawns.

After a tire-grinding ride over the lava rock of  the Steele Swamp (a misnomer this time of year), I concluded that it was best I to head back towards Tulelake and complete the circle by driving back through the Garden on the south side of Clear Lake and then returned to the Mowitz Road where I headed south and spent the night at the Reservoir F campground.

Got up early on Thursday morning and was parked and ready to go for a walk before sunrise. As the sun peeked over the horizon I climbed a small rise with a great view of the country-side. I could see for miles, but a low fog over clear lake prevented me from seeing the Lake itself. Lots of sage brush, juniper and manzanita.

img_2283-view-of-x2-looking-north-from-mowitz-road

Found a guzzler that was well charged with water and one pile of elk scat, but no deer tracks. At one point I thought I heard a bull elk let out a short toot, but couldn’t be sure.

img_2295-guzzler

One thing that was for sure was that the deer had not yet moved into the area. However, I am quite confident that by November there will be deer and maybe the big one I’m looking for.

Nice to be able to anticipate the possibility of running into what could be a lifetime size buck. Now I need to spend some time shooting my muzzleloader during the next couple weeks.

Nevada Mule Deer Tag

Struck pay-dirt for a deer tag in Nevada. With three bonus points, I figured my odds were pretty good.

Now the rest of the story. The hunt is a muzzleloader hunt and I don’t even own a rifle. I guess I’ll be taking the crash course over the next couple months.

I’ve fired a muzzleloader one time and didn’t do too well. It will be an interesting ride. I’ll be hunting the Cortez Mountains in September. I’m familiar with the territory and there are a few big bucks, but they’re hard to find.