B-zone Deer Hunting Tips
Deciding to hunt Blacktail deer in Northern California’s B Zones has to be one of the most interesting and frustrating things a person can decide to do themselves. Deer hunting B Zone any portion of it, can lead a person to wonder just why on earth they made that decision. Unless you are hunting the valley floor in the northern most portion of the state, you are destined to find thick timber, brush choked canyons, lots of poison oak, several rattlesnakes, too many hunters to count and the occasional pot grower. Temperatures hitting the hundred degree mark are normal, and if you see days in the 80s, I would have to think you were lost and wandered out of the zone. All these factors, and you have to ask yourself “what were you thinking”.
The truth is, B Zone and A Zone and for the most part C Zone and most of the D Zones are most deer hunters “Plan B” after not being able to draw a more coveted X Zone tag or other Premium deer tag.
Let us imagine that you applied for one of the better tags in California but ended up with a B Zone tag like about 35,000 people will do this year. Don’t feel too bad. B Zone really is what you make of it. It is a zone that you can plan plenty of time to hunt and although you will feel like you are hunting the hottest parts of Africa during the August/September bow season you may find yourself in a blizzard during the last week of B Zone.
I will be honest with you hunting B Zone isn’t for everyone. This zone can truly suck the motivation out of a person. If you don’t listen to yourself and you don’t listen to nature while you are out in the woods, you will most likely go home empty handed.
One of the best things you can do is find an old timer who is willing to hunt with you and share their secrets to success. This can be difficult, very difficult because some people just don’t have the contacts to make that happen or live in an area where the surrounding population has people with similar interests and so we have to seek outside of our comfort zone and ask total strangers on the internet and hope they will actually help and not treat us like idiots or send us off in another direction as a joke or attempt to direct us out of their hunting areas. But that’s what I am here for, maybe I can help, I’m no expert, just an old timer who doesn’t mind helping some people out. I have shot plenty of deer, big ones, small ones, short ones, tall ones, bragging ones, and a few embarrassing ones. So let’s get started.
Hunt with a plan, don’t just wing it. Now is the time to sit down with your maps and your onxmaps programs and your gohunt programs and decide where you are going to. This is based on your physical abilities and the abilities of the weakest person in your hunting party. If you are in phenomenal shape and like to run decathlons you can hunt anywhere you want, but if your hunting buddy isn’t up for it, maybe a little soft around the middle, older or just can't handle high altitude you will have to hunt at their level of physical ability. Plan your hunting strategies by evaluating everyone’s strong points and weaknesses and use them as tools for your hunt.
An example would be if you have four people in your hunting party and two of them are in less physical condition than the other two, allow them to road hunt and use that to your advantage. Have them drop you off in the morning and then pick you up at a specific destination later in the morning. Have them drop you off on the top of the hill and pick you up at the bottom later in the day.
Coordinate between each other, strategies that will work for everyone, and if one guy can't agree to work with everyone else (seems like there’s always one) then let him do his own thing and remember not to invite him along next year. Sometimes you have to just be tough and honest and tell people they can't come along. This is something it took years and years for me to learn, and I am just now finally learning to put my foot down, and honestly since I have been doing this my “hunting stress” is way lower than before.
If you have a guy in your group who is just phenomenal at spotting game, he should not be the one driving. Take him out and put him on a vantage point and let him do what he does best, spot the game.
This goes for the guys who can shoot really well. These guys should be taking the long shots and letting the guys who can't shoot a deer at 500 yards take the close shots. I hunt with a couple older guys who are lucky to see a deer past 300 yards much less shoot one, so they take the close bucks I take the far ones. It usually works out pretty well, you just have to all work together and let everyone eventually have a shot.
You will thank me for this advice because you really don’t want to be chasing around your buddy’s gut shot deer on opening morning while everyone else is killing bucks, because he tried to fill his tag on a 300 yard forked horn, or at least you hope it's a forked horn, because he said, “It looked like a legal buck!”
Evaluate everyone and agree on a plan. Where you will hunt, what mountain range you will hunt and how many days you will spend on the range before moving on. Please don’t get in the habit of just “winging it”. Believe me you will be going home disappointed and thinking about why you didn’t move locations when you weren’t seeing anything.
Trust your scouting, but be willing to change locations, if you’re not seeing bucks, find another spot. Be willing to move to another location and try another tactic. By no means am I saying to leave deer to find deer. If you are seeing bucks, you are probably in the right spot, but if all you are seeing is Does and small forked horns it might be a good time to move. Don’t base a good hunting spot on the fact that you are seeing a lot of Does. This can be misleading, and you end up staring at Does and fawns all season.
Stay mobile, no matter where you hunt, stay mobile. If you’re backpacking in and setting up camp, be willing to relocate, even if it's a hassle. Don’t stay where there are not any deer. The same goes for hunting the low country. If you are going into the same area and not seeing what you want, go somewhere else. Make a Plan “A”, and a Plan “B”, and a Plan “C”, and on down the line until you are satisfied, and stick to it but be willing to go to another Plan until you find the right combination. Making several plans will reduce your stress, reduce unnecessary driving, and allow you to sleep at night between hunts because you will know what the next day’s plans are, and you won’t be tossing and turning all night wondering where you are going in the morning.
Know where to look for deer.
Looking for deer and actually seeing a buck are two different things. You can look for deer all day long but if you are looking in the wrong places you just won’t find them. B Zone is a hot SOB to hunt, very hot, this goes for A Zone and C Zone as well, so any little break from the sun and any little drink of water is a welcome change. Take this into consideration when looking for a buck. They need shelter, water and above all a “Commanding View”. You will notice I didn’t say “Food”. Because I really think that they can almost starve themselves for several days just to avoid being shot. But they must have water, they must shelter or have a break from the direct sun, and they must have a commanding view.
The north facing slopes will give the bucks a break from the direct sun. The north facing slopes also generally hold more moisture than the south facing slopes because the south facing slopes are in direct sunlight all through the day. Imagine if it’s only 60 degrees out, but you’re lying in the sun, wearing a down jacket and you’re about 20 pounds overweight. That’s significant heat stress. You see deer are eating everything they can in August and through September into October prior to the rut and winter, so they are getting fat and their hide is actually thickening (the skin portion) and their hair is starting to fill in, so for these reasons they need shelter from the sun, and they need water so keep this in mind.
The “Commanding View” part is all relative to the terrain and the situation. Blacktail Bucks like to bed with their backs to the wind and looking opposite of the wind preferably downhill. They do this so they can smell predators coming up behind them. They also like to bed in thick brush, or in trees where a predator will have to make some noise to get to them, so they use Sight, Sound and Smell to avoid predators. Take this into account while glassing bucks, look in the least hospitable place for a human to go.
Bugs, bugs and more bugs.
Look close at the next velvet buck you see early in the season. He will be flipping his ears and scratching his head with his rear hoof, and he will be in general frustration due to the flies and mosquitos that are feeding on his antler velvet and the blood oozing from the velvet. This is why you will see bucks in July and August out in the open or up on the side of a windswept hillside as they say “Standing right out in the open” because the black flies are just driving them nuts.
You guys who hunt in the southern portion of A zone know too well exactly what I am talking about, those “Noseeums” black flies (Ceratopogonidae) are the worst, now imagine you have blood dripping off the side of your head, and you can imagine the frustration.
These flies can ruin a hunt, and if they are really bad on a mountain range the deer will move off that range to a more hospitable area out in the wind. If the bugs are bad, really bad, look at some of the windy slopes and wide open windy areas or any place where the deer can escape the bugs if even for a brief period of time.
There are multiple tactics that people use to hunt blacktail deer. I have covered many of these tactics in an article I published two years ago, and they still hold true today.
I will insert a link to this article here: Deer Hunting California B Zone, Unorthodox Blacktail Deer Hunting Tactics. (norcalhunter.com)
I think you will enjoy reading or even re-reading that article along with a few more tactics to help you along.
The “Modified Road Hunt”
I really enjoy walking and just taking my time. What I don’t really like is walking all the way back to the truck after walking one way for miles. I prefer to select a route that takes me in a full circle back to my truck. I prefer a flat walk but will also take an uphill walk that circles back downhill to my vehicle. This works out better if you get a deer, it's usually downhill back to the vehicle.
My preferred method is to have another hunter or non-hunter who is willing to be my driver. I select a route that the driver is familiar with, and the driver waits at the vehicle for about 15 minutes to a half hour while the walker, usually me, walks ahead of the vehicle staying on the route for the entire walk. We agree ahead of time, that no matter what, we both stay on the road and route no matter what. If for some reason you need to leave the route you just stay put until the driver arrives at your location. You don’t leave the route. It works best if both the driver and the walker have radios and cell phones and stay in touch throughout the walk. This method is ideal for hunters who have two different levels of fitness or age but still want to work together to get a buck. This is a great way to get a buck in heavily wooded areas, and as long as you try and stay quiet while walking you can surprise a lot of deer just wandering around in the timber. This is also a great way to get your Ruffed Grouse during archery season.
I have used this method for years and it's another good way to quietly maneuver through the forest without disturbing animals. For some reason deer are not very worried when they hear or see a bicycle and will let you get very close to them before spooking out. An electric bike would be the way to go and believe me I would love to have a Quietcat or a Bakcou electric bike or something similar, but I just can't swing that right now so if you’re a Rep for an electric bike company “I need endorsements” send me a bike!!!
The bicycling method is another great way to meld two different hunters who have different levels of fitness or health together for a successful hunt. You can also combine this with the ‘Modified Road Hunt” method and cover a lot of ground and probably have great success. Even if you didn’t get something you probably had a great time just cruising around.
Learn to see Deer.
Don’t wait to retrain your eyes and brain to spot deer. Have you ever noticed that the longer you are out on a hunting trip the better you get at spotting deer. For those of us that live in an area where we are seeing deer in the woods on a regular basis, we kind of have it down when it comes to spotting deer in the thick woods. But if you live in an area where you don’t see deer and other wildlife on a regular basis it may take you some time to get used to spotting deer in the thick woods. To remedy this I suggest you take a couple trips prior to season and just look for deer. It will help you establish the size and the color of the deer you are looking for in comparison to the fall and summer colors of the foliage, terrain, trees, and distance while out in the field during season. Several times I have seen groups of deer and observed that there are several different colors of deer within one family group. Going out before season will help your eyes and mind adjust to the overwhelming combination of colors, size of the deer and distance while trying to spot a buck who doesn’t want to be spotted.
Scout it out!
Do your research, study the terrain you want to hunt. Try and go up before season and scout the area, not just for deer but for a place to camp, collect water and relax while hunting. I can't stress scouting enough, (I know I’m repeating myself here but it's important) If you only have a week to hunt, and you can't scout the area beforehand, instead of arriving and hunting opening day for 7 days, arrive two days early and scout before the hunt, even if you have to forfeit two days off the end of your hunt. Use this time to make plans and strategize, and to get your head in the game. Trust your Scouting!
Safety and Self Rescue
Always tell someone where you are going and when you will be back. Be as accurate as you can and if possible, leave a grid coordinate or a road number or something besides “I’m going hunting”. You could be the most in shape “Stud Muffin” to grace the national forest, but nature does not care and will swoop in and own the situation if you make one too many mistakes. Vehicles break down, bones snap, knives cut, bees sting and rattlesnakes bite. But it's more common for several small mistakes in a row to add up and take you out of the game. Low on gas, forgot the map, took the wrong road, blew a second tire, had a bad breakfast burrito, sat on a bee, and your cell phone went dead, and you forgot the charger! It really doesn’t take much.
I always have my cell phone and a Zoleo which is a very affordable satellite communicator similar to an In-Reach. I also have a two-way radio and back at the truck I have a handheld CB radio and Onstar.
This may sound like I’m paranoid or afraid to be out in the woods by myself. The truth is, I have been stranded so many times, broke down or had to assist another person that I know what happens when you don’t take the right gear. Just this year in 2023 in my area there have been 5 missing hikers and loggers, and three of them have been found dead. All without their back up communications (radio , Zoleo etc.). The other two haven’t been found yet and that’s just the ones we know about.
Stop Just Deer Hunting
We focus so much on deer hunting that we end up losing focus on deer hunting. We look just for deer and forget to look for food, water shelter and anything that nature would tell us that would make the area we are hunting a good spot for deer. Hunting birds like grouse and quail while deer hunting especially during archery season helps take the edge off and makes you look for small more delicate movements. It forces you to slow down and take in the sights and sounds.
Learning about nature will also help. I take a couple small paperback books with me that help me identify plants and trees. The more I know about plants (food for animals) the more I know about the animal I am hunting. Again this will help you to expand total hunting knowledge. I believe this is why seasoned biologists, these old coots who can tell you what every plant in the forest is, can also spot game animals faster than everyone else and these guys get their bucks more often and usually bigger bucks. It's all about total knowledge.
Hunt the way you want to hunt.
Finally, don't listen to other disgruntled hunters or others who are just not having a good time. If you like the areas that you are hunting stick with it. If you see 10 trucks at a trailhead and it looks like it will be a difficult place due to pressure, or knuckleheads who think they own the place, it's okay to just go somewhere else. Find a spot no one else likes and get out of the truck and go hunt the area like it's the best spot in the state. You don't need all those people around anyway, just find a spot and start hunting. Those places that no one goes are the places the bucks hide, it could be just about anywhere but it's there if you look for it.
If you want to hike in and hunt, hike in. If you want to road hunt, road hunt. If you want to shoot a little buck or any legal buck go ahead and shoot one, it's your hunt, not anyone else's hunt, hunt the way you want to hunt and to hell with the experts!
Enjoy your hunt this year, stay safe and hunt like it might be your last time out, because it just might be!