It’s time to improve our deer herds and increase opportunity
By JIM MATTHEWS
Most of the good Southern California deer hunters I know were peering through binoculars at a buck or two the opening morning of the deer season. They’d put in the time and effort scouting and applied years of experience to be in the right place at the right time. Most of these hunters turned down the opportunity to hang a tag on that first buck they saw, or even the second or third buck, for two reasons. First and foremost, they didn’t want their hunting season to be over. A distant second, they would prefer to harvest a bigger, older-age-class deer.
With that in mind, I have a proposal for the Department of Fish and Wildlife on how we can improve hunter opportunity, extend the deer season for hunters willing to play by different rules, and improve the make-up and health of our deer herds in the process.
First, it requires a little background. There is a trend in deer management, especially in the South and Midwest, called Quality Deer Management. Used mostly with whitetail deer, it entails not allowing the harvest of young bucks, forcing hunters to only take older age class animals (or does) when the population is steadily growing. The result is simply more and older bucks in the population and a healthier deer herd. Most Western states, including California, have a modified version of QDM in which they simply limit tag numbers. This also keeps buck numbers as a higher percentage of the herd, but it greatly reduces the number hunters who can participate in hunting seasons.
In California, our deer herds are at probably their lowest ebb in history. Between long-term drought, increasing human population growth that continues to negatively impact habitat, and the DFW’s inability to implement habitat improvements or management efforts to improve deer numbers, population numbers are low. But that doesn’t mean deer herds are threatened. Where there is good habitat, deer numbers flourish when conditions are favorable. I have buddies who are hunting some recent burn areas on local National Forests who are calling with glowing reports.
So how would it be possible to increase hunter opportunity in Southern California and improve the herd health?
It’s simple: Offer QDM deer tags for Southern California deer zones.
Hunters who buy these tags would face a number of requirements. First, they could only purchase one tag per season (many of good hunters shoot two bucks per year). Second, they would only be allowed to shoot older deer. Third, they would have to agree to take a QDM class to be able to identify older age class deer (it’s not all about number of antler points, it includes gauging mass, too). But in return for buying this more expensive tag and following tougher restrictions, they would also be allowed to hunt in the special QDM season that extends the time allowed in the field by three or four weeks. Instead of the season opening in mid-October, it would open in mid-September. Instead of being able to shoot any forked-horn or larger buck, he would have to shoot only older three-point or bigger deer. As another bonus, the tag might also be valid in more than one zone (like the current D-11, D-13, and D-15 tags are valid in all three zones). Bottom line is that the best hunters will opt for this tag, even if it means no venison in the freezer at the end of the season.
The net result will be fewer young bucks shot each season during the “regular” season because the best hunters who shoot deer every year will have opted for more time in the field. This will improve the buck ratios in our chaparral and mountain habitats where low buck ratios in areas can be a problem. In a short time, it will have the same effect as an overall reduction in tag numbers or a full-on QDM program (which the DFW has never tried because they are handcuffed when trying to set antlerless seasons -- in fact, the reality is the DFW is almost banned from setting antlerless hunts).
I have been lucky to hunt outside of California, and I can tell you the dedicated Southern California deer hunter is the best deer hunter in the country. He struggles against low deer populations, heavily pressure bucks, difficult-to-hunt habitat, and low buck-to-doe ratios on public lands. But the good ones get one or two bucks every year here. The first time he gets drawn for a specialty tag in the Sierra Nevada or hunts out of state where mule deer populations are generally much higher, he finds the hunting incredibly easy, marvels at how many critters he sees, and usually comes home with a good buck. I’m not a particularly good deer hunter, but for years I have been mentored and spent time in the field with a number of really good Southern California hunters. A little has rubbed off.
A lot of years ago I was drawn for a deer tag on the Kaibab in Northern Arizona, probably the most coved deer tag in the West. I should have shot the 180-point class mule deer I saw the first evening, but he was already the third buck I’d seen that evening. I passed him up. Over the next three days, I glassed over 50 bucks, including a tremendous buck I conservatively estimated was 36-inches wide and had non-typical points all over his head. He was way bigger than the first-evening buck. So I spent the rest of the trip looking for that huge buck in rifle range. While I never saw him again, I had a wonderful time glassing dozens of bucks each day, including a few more good, mature deer nearly as good as that buck I saw the first evening. Finally, during the last hour of my last evening of hunting, I settled for a yearling buck for the freezer. I had used up every hour of every day in pursuit of deer.
Like a lot of other hunters in Southern California, I would apply for a QDM tag each year in California to extend my time in the field.
Share this idea with your deer hunting friends. Ask them if they would be interested in being able to hunt D-11 or D-14 or D17 from Sept. 5 through Nov. 1, but being restricted to shooting a heavier-racked buck. Have them get in touch with me. Would they be willing to pay $35 or $40 for that one tag? I want to hear what other hunters think. We can take this idea to the DFW the hunters are behind it.
Editor’s Note: Hunters may contact Jim Matthews via his office telephone at 909-887-3444 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.