I grew up in the Golden State, and during that time — the 1950s through the 1970s — deer hunting in California was decent. However, it never approached the Fantasy Land hunting found in states like Colorado and Utah. Today, the truth is that California deer hunting is a tale of two worlds — public vs. private land.
As they say, the numbers don’t lie. According to the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, in 2019, while hunter success varies by zone — and the state has lots of them — it’s dismal. In 2019, the DFG reported that of an available tag quota of 214,199 tags, 177,124 tags were issued, and hunters reported they killed 301 does and 21,032 bucks. However, the state “estimates” that 357 does, and 27,6986 bucks were killed, for an overall success rate of just 16.4 percent. This total does not include deer killed under the Private Land Management (PLM) and Section 554 Landowner programs, where hunter success rates run closer to 80 percent or more, depending.
In terms of antler size, the DFG reports that forked-horn (2-points per side) bucks accounted for 48.5 percent of the overall harvest. 3-points made up 31.9 percent, 4-points 16.7 percent, and 5-point or better bucks made up 2.7 percent of the total harvest. Thus, Californians, for the most part, shoot young bucks.
What happened? In the late 1970’s I was editor of Western Outdoor News, the leading weekly outdoor newspaper in the state. Twice during that time, I accompanied the state Department of Fish and Game (the agency has since been renamed to take the word “hunting” out, what does that tell you?) on winter deer counts on the winter range along the face of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. We saw hundreds and hundreds of deer. Today, those numbers have plummeted.
Why? Mismanagement is one reason. Harsh environmental conditions, such as persistent drought, have had an effect. Increased development along winter range and deer travel corridors is another. But none had the deleterious effect like the 1990 passage of Prop. 117, funded and supported by so-called “animal rights’ groups, that made the mountain lion a “specially protected species,” and thus outlawed mountain lion hunting in the state. Since that time, deer numbers have continued a precipitous decline in many areas.
Deer in California
California deer hunting is challenging, as well as adventurous. According to the DFW, six subspecies of mule deer are found in California: Columbian blacktail deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus), Rocky Mountain mule deer (O.h. hemionus), California mule deer (O.h. californicus), Inyo mule deer (O.h. inyoensis), burro mule deer (O.h. eremicus), and southern mule deer (O.h. fuliginatus). Deer of one sort or another occupy roughly 88,000 square miles of habitat, or 56 percent, of California’s land. Some of the state’s deer herds are resident animals that spend their entire lives in a particular area where everything they need in the way of food, cover, and water is available all year. Other herds are migratory. They range high into the mountains during the summer and migrate down to winter range in the fall. Summer range for migratory deer is usually high in elevation (from 5,000 to 10,000 feet), under public ownership, and is typically vast. By contrast, lower-elevation winter range, some public and some private, is more limited in scope and more susceptible to the type of alterations — particularly human development — that may make it unsuitable for deer. Simply put, the amount and quality of winter range generally determine the size, health, and future of many state’s deer herds.
A law passed before the 2015-2016 season requires that every purchaser of a deer tag(s) must report their harvest, even if they were unsuccessful or did not hunt. For successful hunters, the report must be made within 30 days of harvesting a deer or by January 31, whichever date is first. Unsuccessful hunters (or those who did not hunt) must report no harvest or did not hunt, respectively, by January 31. Hunting licenses are valid from July 1-June 30. Nonresident cost is $178.20, and a nonresident deer tag application is $299.95. The draw period is April 15-June 2. Only non-toxic ammunition is allowed.
More information regarding California deer hunting is available at https://wildlife.ca.gov/Hunting/Deer.
Where Can You Hunt?
There are a lot of public lands available for deer hunting in this crowded state. Most hunt zones offer adequate access to national forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands with few exceptions. State forests and some private timber company lands are open to the public. There’s plenty of public land, but state game refuges and national, state, and city parks are closed to hunting. Roughly 45 percent of the Golden State consists of federal public lands. There are 17 national forests with a grand total of nearly 20 million acres, including 4 million acres of designated wilderness areas. Suppose you want to hunt deer in the mountains of southern California (the Southwest Region). In that case, there are the Angeles, San Bernardino, and Cleveland national forests. The southern portion of the Los Padres National Forest also comes into play in the northern portion of Ventura County. In the Eastern Sierra Nevada, you’ll find the sprawling Inyo and Toiyabe national forests. In the Central Coast Range, the Los Padres National Forest offers public access. In the Northwest Region, there are the Mendocino, Six Rivers, Klamath, and Shasta-Trinity national forests. In the Western Sierra Nevada, there are the El Dorado, Stanislaus, Sierra, Sequoia, and Tahoe national forests. In the Cascade and Northeast regions, there are the Shasta-Trinity, Plumas, Lassen, and Modoc national forests.
In addition to national forests, the BLM manages nearly 19 million acres of land in the state. Much of it is located in the Southern California deserts. Still, there is an impressive amount of BLM land all along the eastern edge of the state from Mexico to the Oregon border. A smattering of BLM land is also scattered throughout the rest of California. Although some BLM land has no deer, areas that do are a real boon to hunters. If you find yourself hunting burro mule deer in San Bernardino County, you will be on BLM land. If you hunt Rocky Mountain mule deer in the Sagebrush Steppe Province in the Northeastern Region, you will be on BLM land, and if you hunt the foothills of the Eastern Sierra Nevada or Great Basin areas, chances are good that you’ll be on BLM land again. The BLM has campgrounds in some locations, but you usually can expect to have to bring your own water. Check with the BLM for maps of their areas.
Because conditions change, hunters new to any California deer hunting region should get updated information on the specific areas they plan to hunt, as well as the current status of the deer herds within those areas.
Ammo for California Deer Hunting
Non-toxic ammunition is required by California law.
Federal Premium Trophy Copper