The California Dept of Fish and Wildlife (formerly known as DFG) lists six sub-species of mule deer in the state of California as follows: 1). Columbia Blacktail (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus), 2). Northwest Mule Deer (O. h. hemionus), 3). California Mule Deer (O. h. californicus), 4). Inyo Mule Deer (O. h. inyoensis), 5). Burro Mule Deer (O. h. eremicus), and 6). Southern Mule Deer (O. h. fuliginatus). In Oregon and northeast California, we’re familiar with the large-bodied, heavy-racked Northwest variety. However, I decided to target the smaller racked, blacktail-sized Southern Mule Deer species in the D16 hunt zone of southern California---the most southern hunt zone in the state which is basically bordered by the Pacific Ocean in the west, the Anza-Borrego desert to the east, Baja, Mexico to the south, and Riverside county to the north. My brother lives in the eastern hills of San Diego county where I’ve hunted predators twice a year over the last several years and, at the same time, kept mental notes of the heaviest concentrations of mule deer sightings and sign. The habitat I would be hunting is a mixture of high chaparral brush country at 4,000 feet elevation, bordering the arid desert.
I knew from research and years of scouting, that taking a legal buck in the D16 zone, where 3,000 tags are issued yearly, would be challenging. Mule deer numbers in southern California were very healthy during the 1960s and 1970s (pre-housing/land development/population boom). Deer populations in the 1980s started taking a nose-dive as critical wildlife habitat was losing ground to massive land development as the California real estate market skyrocketed, as well as other detrimental land management practices. In addition, along with untamed suburban sprawl into the backcountry came the necessity for wildfire suppression, resulting in overly-thick stands of mature scrub that further reduced forage quantity and quality over large tracts of critical deer habitat.
In the first few years of the new millennium dismal deer harvest success rates in zone D16 hovered between 4-7 percent. Then came the massive east San Diego county wildfires of 2002-2003, and the infamous 2007 deadly wildfires that burned thousands of acres of back country. The loss of human life and private property was devastatingly sad. The only silver lining was the benefit to wildlife and their habitat, especially deer. The fires opened up thousands of acres of choked-out canopy, and with well timed rains, produced large quantities of quality deer habitat---and deer numbers flourished. So did hunter success rates. By 2010, deer hunter success in zone D16 climbed to nearly 12 percent, and since have hovered around 10 percent. CDFW states that overall deer numbers are stable to slightly declining.
Due to some family obligations I arrived at my bro’s house on the 17th of November, a week later than planned. I was hoping the rut was still near its peak---I knew if I could find does, a buck would not be far behind. I was out in the mountains before daylight the next morning, at a pre-determined hillside overlooking a large, shallow basin of high scrub oak, boulders and cholla cacti. I found this large, shallow, brush-choked draw last February while fox hunting and noticed two bucks travelling together down the draw out of the chaparral towards the desert, their antlers flashing in the sun as they passed through small openings in the scrub. I knew then that I would return and hunt this spot in November, so here I now sat on the western slope of a cone shaped mound waiting for daylight, spotting scope and binos at the ready. As soon as it was light enough to see, I spotted movement 890+ yards away on the other side of the draw. A big, handsome buck with forks as wide as his ears, and just as tall, was shadowing a doe as she moved and fed. I couldn’t believe my luck at finding a deer already, let alone a legal buck. Scouting really does pay off. I needed to wait for them to bed down before planning a stalk. I glassed the rest of the terrain thoroughly for more deer and found none. Both deer cruised around for about an hour before the doe decided to bed down next to two yucca plants. The buck stood next to her on guard for the next half hour, and with the rising sun now casting light upon his majestic body he sparkled like a diamond in a beautiful high desert setting. The wind was howling and ice cold---I felt like I was back in Montana.
Finally, he bedded down within 10 feet of the doe, and I planned my stalk. I picked my landmarks and knew that I would have to take a shot from an elevated position on my side of the draw. If I passed over to their side of the draw, the tall thick brush would totally block any view of the deer, and trying to weave my way through the noisy scrub would spook the couple long before I could make my way to their position. It took me one and a half hours to cover the 600 yards to the boulder patch I planned on making my stand. The last 200 yards of that stalk was on hands and knees, and I praised my decision to wear my thick wool pants and gloves that morning---“jumping cactus” is hard on human skin. I glassed often to maintain a visual on their position, trying to remain hidden from the ever vigilant buck who was facing me the whole time; and I kept the sun and wind in my favor. Upon arrival, I peeked between the crevices of the boulder patch and finally spotted the buck’s antlers poking over the brush 283 yards away. I couldn’t see the doe , but I knew they were both still bedded and this was as close as I would be able to get for a chance at a shot.
I set up a firm, steady platform for my bipod, dialed in my scope and waited for the deer to stand. The wind seemed to be gusting even harder, funneling left to right down the draw and it had me a bit concerned. Like Montana, if/when the moment of truth arrived, I would wait for a lull in the wind gust to squeeze the trigger. That moment arrived a half hour later. The doe decided to stand and stretch and, of course, the amorous buck followed suit, standing broadside. The crosshairs were solid behind his shoulder and I waited for my lull in the wind. When it came, I squeezed the trigger and instantly heard the ricochet of the bullet off a rock, and not the satisfying “thwack” of a bullet on hide. I re-acquired the sight picture in my scope as I jacked in a new round. The buck was still in the same position, but the doe began to move. Before I could squeeze off another round the buck followed after the doe over the adjacent ridge. A boulder was directly in front of the buck and I knew this was probably the rock I hit, the strong wind on their side of the canyon pushing my bullet clear of the animal.
I packed up my gear and made my way to their bedding site. No blood or hair. I began tracking the couple in the white sand. A half hour later I climbed a house-sized boulder to get a better view. Several hundred yards away I spotted the pair pass through a small opening as if nothing happened---the buck was still shagging the doe with no apparent malady. I was thankful for the clean miss. As the morning progressed, I tried to cut them off once more for another chance, but I got busted by the doe and the hunt was over. During the long hike back to my vehicle, I jumped a small “sporky” right at my feet, but the brush was so thick and high I only caught a fleeting glimpse as he disappeared. Still, I was stoked---two buck sightings the first morning, a great stalk and a clean miss---I was very appreciative.
I made it back to my pickup, had lunch, and then decided to head back to my hillside perch to glass the rest of the afternoon. An hour later I spotted the sporky buck I jumped in the brush earlier. He fed along, then bedded in an opening around 350 yards from my nest. I placed the spotting scope on his position and used my binos to scan the rest of the canyon. Another hour passed when the sporky got up and disappeared in the maze. Soon after, while scanning to my right, I saw a bedded buck’s white face peeking through a mass of scrub oak at over 500 yards. Wow, three bucks in one day in a zone that has a less-than-stellar reputation. As he turned his head I could tell he had a fork on one side and a broken antler on the other. Nonetheless, his facial features gave him the look of an old buck, and when he stood his blocky body convinced me to try to take this deer.
Luckily, he fed in my direction and, with the sun going down over the Pacific, it was good timing. The wind had died down and with a little over an hour of shooting time left, the old warrior worked his way into a huge boulder and brush patch 281 yards directly below me. When he emerged broadside and paused to scan the area, I placed a Barnes TSX bullet right through both shoulders, taking out the top of his heart and both lungs. He lunged 20 yards and landed head-first into a huge cholla cactus.
I couldn't have been happier if it was a huge four-point---I had now taken a deer in the most northern boundary of Washington State, Oregon, and now within sight of the border wall with Mexico. The old buck was truly a warrior. Not only was his right antler broken off just above the fork, but his face had the scars and scabs of many fights past and present---a good deer to take out of the pool.
After dressing the buck, I hiked back to the pickup and called my brother. I thought it would be special to share the pack-out duties with my brother who doesn’t get the chance to do that kind of thing very often (he’s helped me pack out a bear and elk over the years). He arrived an hour later as I was coming back out with the hind quarters. Together in the dark, he helped me quarter and pack out the rest of the animal and, to me, it was special hiking out of the desert with my brother, under a star-filled sky and a full moon rising.
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