How can we improve our local deer hunting?
By JIM MATTHEWS
There have been photos of some tremendous bucks come to me electronically this year. These are big, four-by-four bucks with heavy antlers and wide spreads. They are not photos from Idaho or Colorado or Utah (although I’ve seen a few of those too), these are bucks from mountain ranges in Southern California’s deer zones.
Most of the hunters have spent decades finding the best spots and then long hours getting into these places during the deer season. They haven’t shot the first legal buck they’ve seen. Burns and upticks in rainfall have led to terrific antler growth, and these hunters have taken great examples of mature California and Southern mule deer (the two primary subspecies we have in this region). These bucks don’t get as big as Rocky Mountain mule deer from other Western states, but the photos I’ve seen have proved to me we are seeing some of the biggest deer of these subspecies taken in a long time. The hunters have been patient and dedicated, and most have asked me not to write about their deer or where they hunt. I respect and understand that.
What I want to write about is how we can have more big bucks and better deer hunting overall in our local mountains and how the Department of Fish and Wildlife has simply abdicated its role in trying to improve our deer herds. All I hear from the state biologists – and many of these guys are long-time friends – is what they can’t do instead of coming up with tweaks and fixes that can be done. The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the ground where most hunters in this region hunt, whines they can’t do anything to help deer, either. They have a book of administrative roadblocks, but no one with initiative and a butter knife to cut through the mush and get a few little things done.
This seems to have become an annual story, a story of ideas from hunters like you or actions by agencies in other states. It is a favorite conversation among hunters, especially in Southern California where our deer herd populations seem to teeter between slim and none. Oh, there are pockets where deer numbers are healthy, but between habitat where they are hard to see and places where deer numbers are dispersed and low, most hunters in this region can frequently count the total number of deer – including does and fawns – they see on a couple of hands. Many go for seasons without seeing a buck. I have been asked more than once this year why bucks with spike horns over 12 inches long aren’t legal deer.
Here are some simple, good ideas:
IMPROVING DEER NUMBER: A lot of state game agencies have worked with federal land managers to close dirt roads and OHV trails for a month or two during the spring fawning season. Believe it or not, our DFW has good information on where and when the bulk of the fawning takes place in our deer zones. It would be a simple matter to reduce the human stress on does during the fawning cycles by keeping noisy vehicles out of these specific areas during fawning. This would improve the health and survival of both the does and fawns. Even if it’s a small increase of just four or five percent, that has big benefits over a few years.
Sure it would be nice to have more controlled burns and habitat improvement projects, but they are nightmares for the Forest Service and they simply never get done because of all the administrative road blocks. But road closures are simple stokes of a pen by a district ranger or forest supervisor.
IMPROVING BUCK-TO-DOE RATIOS: To improve buck-to-doe ratios, you have to reduce the number of young bucks killed. That’s pretty simple. Since something like 70 percent of the bucks killed in Southern California are yearling deer each year, we need to keep more young deer in the herd until they reach older age classes. (Look at the 2016 California Big Game Hunting booklet. You will see that in the D12 hunting zone, a third of the bucks killed are forked horn, a third three-pointers, and a third four-pound are better. While the number of antler points is not a sure indicator of age, it’s pretty clear indicator that zone has a more even spread of young and mature bucks. Compare that to D11 or D14.)
There are several ways to reduce harvest of young bucks. First, you can cut tag numbers so much it impacts the young buck harvest. Second, you can shorten the season. Both of those things dramatically reduce hunter opportunity. Third, you can go to trophy (quality deer management) regulations that only allow for the take of older-age class deer. Kill numbers drop dramatically the first couple of years of these regulations, but then climb back up as the buck component of the deer herd consists of more, older deer.
You can also use a combination of these things to improve the age structure of bucks in a herd. You can even increase hunter field opportunity while doing this (special weapons hunts, extended seasons, etc.), but the DFW refuses to tinker with any of these ideas.
There are a lot of ideas and theories about to improve our local deer herds, and with all the deer zones in this region we could try a lot of them to see what works. Instead, we don’t do anything. I’d like to see our herds healthy enough so the really good hunters have a chance to see and shoot bucks like those big four-pointers each year – instead of those being one-in-a-lifetime bucks.
This is the first year we ALL must return our deer tags – whether we shoot a buck or not – or face paying a penalty when we apply next year. So I’d like to encourage all deer hunters to send their tags in by mail and include a letter, telling the DFW how many deer you saw where you hunted, and asking the DFW to improve deer numbers. If you want to see more and bigger bucks, tell them that. If you just want to see a lot more deer, tell them that. If you have some ideas on how to make that happen, tell them that.
We have had essentially the same deer seasons and tag numbers in Southern California zones for years and our deer herds have been in a long, downward spiral since the 1980s. Our hunting could and should be as good as in the X zones or other Western states.
Editor’s Note: Jim Matthews would like to hear your comments and feedback on how improve local deer hunting. Contact information below.
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.]