This is my 8th season mule deer hunting in California. I shot my first california mule deer buck in my 3rd season and have been unsuccessful since. However, after that 3rd season, I’ve been expecting a premium zone, public land tag that historically only took 4 to 5 preference points to draw. Between wildfires, an influx of interest in this zone, and Covid, it has taken me 8 years to draw. This is my X12 deer tag story.
Public Land Hunting in California – The Eastern Sierras
Known to me as the promised land as a Southern California hunter, the Eastern Sierras is known for great populations of mule deer and in the recent decades, has become a premium hunt zone. My friend Mike has hunted this zone his whole life and has told me about it since we started hunting together. People have purchased full residency property there just to hunt here. Now that it has become a premium zone, we’ve heard stories about people moving away to more consistent pastures.
For me, this is a new world to hunt. Having spent most of my hunting time in low-success zones like Angeles National Forest with a D11 tag, or Los Padres National Forest with an A-zone tag, this X12 tag in Toiyabe National Forest is like my first time seeing the West. While older hunters lament on the good ole days of hunting this zone and its decline, this is my new frontier.
Day 1: Hunting Motel
Friday night we stayed at a motel. I booked this motel for a day as the RV we planned to stay in wasn’t available until Saturday check-in. We pull into the motel parking lot and immediately, I know it’s booked to capacity. There were big trucks, boats, and even a Fish and Wildlife warden truck parked in the lot. Mike had mentioned that the warden was checking people’s plates before my arrival, likely to exchange pleasantries on opening morning in the field.
I have my family and two dogs in tow. A 3 and a half year old child, a geriatric mutt, and my 6-month old puppy who terrorizes us at all hours. We the puppy crated, but as he’s a full-throttle lab, he’s entirely vocal about his preferences on where to be. Our motel is a tight 2-bed with just enough room to walk sideways to the bathroom. I had slept in my driving-clothes with my rifle near the door, hoping to sneak out before daylight without waking the family – unlikely. With dogs in an unfamiliar space, I was up every few hours to walk, water, or scold. That morning, my attempt to sneak out failed and I ended up taking my puppy with me so my wife, kid, and older dog could sleep in – this was appreciated.
Mule Deer Season Starts: Opening Morning
Our first stop was the gas station where we saw other hunters filling up. I didn’t know the regulations about hunting mule deer with a dog, but learned from another hunter in his truck that each hunter is allowed one dog by law in California. However, if the warden see’s your dog chasing deer, he’s in his rights to shoot your dog. I’m relieved to know that I can legally keep Bruce in the car with me in these cold temperatures without legal concern. He’s simply with us to relieve my family from his incessant barking.
Opening morning was a zoo. Saw a lot of trucks in our first planned location, including hunting camps and road hunters. This was most likely a bust, but we did see a doe and her fawn crossing our headlights in the dark as first light approached. We stayed for a bit to watch her and take photos but optioned to road hunt back to our next destinations with this amount of traffic.
The rest of the morning was mostly uneventful. We saw a few more doe and fawn groups, as well as a spike buck while road hunting. I spend more minutes behind my binoculars than moving, glassing up tree stumps, rocks, and bushes every few yards. It turns out Bruce gets car sick and vomits in Mike’s new Bronco. I apologize for my buddy getting sick and Mike tells me he’s happy he bought the hose-out package. After cleaning up and more driving, we head back to the motel to meet with the families before moving to our new RV camp.
The First Evening Hunt
After eating breakfast leftovers, we packed up our motel things and headed to our Twin Lakes camping spot. The view in our spot was amazing, overlooking a meadow and mountain range with no backyard neighbors. We unload and spend the rest of the afternoon getting our new camp situated. Before dinner started, Mike and I were back in the truck and wheels up.
We hunt local and are into deer – lots of deer. The doe and fawn that we see are varying in color. I see red-brown coat as much as I see the grey-ghost variety that I’m used to. It’s much easier to pick out those rich brown coats on the hillside as we drive.
That evening we saw many does and a herd of 15 does walking together before last light. I took a solo walk past where we were comfortable driving as the earlier season heavy storms have decimated many roads. I spot does and glass up anything deer-like – no bucks.
Returning to camp, my wife lets me know that she didn’t expect Mike and me to be out hunting for 10-hours a day leaving the family at camp. She asks that we consider limiting the hunts to the morning to spend time with our families. I’m torn between so-badly wanting success but also understanding that this is also a trip for our families. I agree and we limit our hunts to the morning.
Day 2: Opening Day Bucks are Down
Day two, the pressure is on to get a buck down. We’re here to hunt for a week but have now cut our hunts in half. I get a text from a buddy I had met at my local rifle range in the 8am hour. He tagged out on a great 3×3 the evening of opening day and got to sleep in on day 2 of the season. This buck had been jumped during their evening hunt and chased up the hillside at full sprint before punching the tag. I’m stoked for him finding success, but also wondering if I’d find as much luck this week.
We haven’t seen any legal bucks on day 1 and he found this 3×3 in a herd with two fork-bucks, a spike, and two does. The doubts start rolling in and I start making contingency plans in my head to come out solo after this week while working remotely in my new pop-up camper. I figure I can hunt the mornings and evenings while working, so long as I’m camped in a reliable 5G site.
We see nothing the morning of day 2 – not even a doe. It makes sense, considering the pressure is on. We book it over to my now-tagged-out buddy’s spot where he connected the previous evening. The intended purpose of our exchanging of numbers was that we both learned we’d be hunting the same zone. The chance that two Temecula hunters would be sighting in their rifles a week before a premium tag hunt is pretty slim, considering only ~300 tags were allotted this year. We made a deal where if one of us found success, we’d alert the other and provide details that would help lead to the other’s success. Mike and I drive the full loop where the provided dropped-pin sits. We see nothing but free-range cattle. I remember thinking it’s strange that such a large, dark black animal can somehow hide itself in desert sagebrush.
We spend the evening hunt at camp roasting marshmallows and making s’mores. Dinner was barbacoa, rice, beans, and vegetables. This was the first time the hunters ate real food. Mindlessly, we left our trash bag on a tree and I hear a bear in my camp that night, tearing up the trash bag and rolling around my empty cooler that smells of raw chicken liquid.
Day 3: Buck Fever
Day 3, Monday, the pressure is on. Mike leaves tomorrow but I’m here until Friday. Still with lack of sleep, waking up just over hourly from the excitement of the hunt, we drove through a meadow and saw two does on the hillside. They’re in the sagebrush hills over the mountain from our camp. Two does turned into 5 deer, and 5 into 10 — mostly does. There was what appeared to be a fork buck amongst them but his rack was taller than his ears and had a medium-small body. He’s legal but small. Another spike buck walked 6 yards in front of our truck in double-time. I like to imagine that this little dude had slept in and woke up in a panic realizing he was left behind on Christmas morning. I’m calling this one Kevin McCallister.
As light grew stronger, I could see a small tine off of one of previously-fork-buck’s forks. At least a small 3×2. His rack is thin, his body is small, but based on time pressure, I decided to go after it. It took awhile for me to make this decision, as when we first spotted the buck, he was at the bottom of the hillside. He’s now 300+ yards away and only a few yards away from cresting over the hillside into the thick stuff.
My heart was racing getting out of the car, enhanced by a 5:30am Monster Energy drink. I opened the door, stepped off of the side rails, and got behind the truck. I sat on the ground with no rest, and kept switching between my binoculars and scope. It was like pointing a laser pointer at a specific ant on an ant hill. I could find the buck in my binoculars but kept losing it in my scope amongst the does.
I was making circles around the buck when I did find him. Between heart and breath, tried to time my shot as my reticle spun around the deer like a ceiling fan. Click. What’s the problem? Battery round. I shuck that cartridge out and reload while struggling to close the bolt. Something’s broken between my whiskey-shaking hands and the cold grease on the bolt of my rifle. The buck meanders over the crest of the hill out of sight. Buck fever.
We decide to formulate a plan and chase to see if we can get into that buck. We follow the herd for 90 minutes coming within 10 yards of a doe and her fawn staring directly at us. I freeze and become invisible due to my outstanding matching camo and orange hat. We have good wind according to Mike’s cigar. When her head went below a bush, I knelt to the ground to let her pass. I motion to Mike to also lower as he puffs his smoke. No alarm.
We walk further uphill and see a spike buck who picked up our scent and paced off, but not at full clip. We’re probably safe and press forward. We crest the hill to a steep slope overlooking the lake. We keep searching and find no sign of the herd. My knee reminds me of our time mountain quail hunting years ago. We track back over the hill and the stragglers are gone.
Driving back I was mad at myself for hesitating based on size. The pressure is real and I’ll need to tell my wife that we’re empty handed upon coming back to camp. I waited far too long let that deer slide. I told myself I would have shot it tomorrow so I should shoot it today. Mike admits as the non-tag-holder that he likely would have done the same, although he’d like to think it could have hopped out and taken that 300 yard shot off-hand.
When it happens, it happens fast.
As we’re driving, puppy in back calm and defeated, I message my successful buddy and tell him about my morning chase. I tell him of my fumbles that morning at 9:05am and he responds with “lol buck fever.” I light a cigar as we drive.
My next text to him is at 9:34am:
“Deer on the ground right now”
“Haven’t gone to lol yet”
“Wide and thick at least a fork”
“3 on one side”
“Lol what you got one???”
My once dexterous fingers spasm and thrust at my touchscreen keyboard as a result of adrenaline and dehydration.
Road Hunter goes Spot and Stalking
As puffing on my newly-lit cigar, we spot a lone mule deer butt in the sage brush. In our binos, it looks like a wide and tall fork buck. I beat myself up about the morning’s hesitation and wasted time chasing a small 3×2 buck never to be seen again. As soon as I saw legal antlers on a big bodied buck, I forced Mike to hold my cigar and I was out of the truck.
I exited the truck and popped in a magazine below the berm on the road. Mike continued to drive away. I hopped up the berm and kept the crest of a hill and bushes between myself and the buck. I walk in a hundred yards, not directly at the buck, but keeping the same distance between us. Learning my lesson from this morning’s hunt, I aim to find a shooting rest. My secondary intent was to get a better angle than directly at his ass.
The morning jitters gone, I find a bush to rest my barrel and fore grip on. It’s a Coyote bush but too low, and barely a rest. The branches are thinner than a small screwdriver. I can barely see him in my scope over the crest between us. He’s easily wider than his ears. He looks back towards my direction but pays no mind. The wind is good. I move again, further, to cut more distance. The sun is high in the sky I move every time he puts his head down to scrape his teeth on foliage. These coyote bushes make for great cover to keep him in my vision while moving fast.
No matter how much distance I cover I still see butt. Texas heart shot? No. “You’re better than that,” I tell myself. Move more and find an angle. I close another 30 yards quickly behind the crest. There’s another coyote bush with a fork to rest my rifle on no bigger than the last. I put both hands on my rear stock and push in tight. The buck is in scope and I’m moderately comfortable, though still moving my poorly perched barrel. I could see him now, front shoulder visible, but not a fully quartering away. I tell myself to wait for broadside. He raises his head to lip a small sapling tree.
I hear another truck coming down the road at hunting speed. I’m worried the road noise will spook this buck. Worse, what’s the etiquette on this? Will they pop out and shoot in some sort of quick draw match? I’m still convinced it’s a huge fork buck with thick antlers. I see the truck stop in front of mikes truck — a standoff? I prepare to shoot, not the best position, but within 100 yards. I’m sighted high but forget that fact. Bead on his right quartering away rib cage, assuming I can hit and disrupt vitals with an exit out the brisket, I breathe out.
It’s Surprising How Little Rifle Noise Affects You When You’re Focused
I put consistent pressure on my trigger and break off a shot – the buck drops and the twig-rest holds. Reload. The buck stands up and starts limping away. I see blood pouring out as he’s walking, rear legs not of much use. Spine? Single lung? 40 more yards and it’s a long day tracking a wounded deer over a steep drop off to a creek a few hundred yards down. I shoot again.
He’s on the ground again, but raises his neck and head. I shoot at the bush where his body should be. Miss. Another. I’m reloading and shooting faster than I ever have while keeping my scope locked on. Even at the range, I tend to lose sight and need to re-center. I pay no attention to my ringing ears despite the unused hearing protection wrapped around my neck. While not the best marksman, I’m shooting like a hunter and shooting wildly different than when I shot my first buck.
4 rounds to empty, I run back and call for Mike to provide additional ammo. He asks, “How far are we tracking it?” I tell him that the buck is down but for who knows how long. I load 3 bottom-of-his-pack rounds. They appear very old and stone washed. Mike tells me he thinks there’s 3 tines on one side of that buck. Really?! I’m happy assuming he’s a big bodied and wide 3×2.
I hop back to where I was and move higher to find the buck in my binoculars. I see red on the ground but think it’s a bush and keep scanning. Mike joins me. “Where’s my cigar?” I ask. “Long gone,” he responds. I remember imagining I’d be actively hunting with a cigar in my mouth a week prior. I’d live by the motto “what would Arnold do?” I guess not.
We wait for 15min and look around for my spent shells. I chug a bottle of water. I take a look again to where I think he is and as the adrenaline and tinnitus reduced, I could see that the red bush was his rear and tail, blood soaked. He’s certainly down.
First Looks: Bigger Than Expected
We walk over talking about it being at least with 3 points on one side. He tells me the hunters that stopped to watch me shoot said they’ve been scouting for weeks and haven’t seen a buck. I’m glad they stopped to watch instead of blowing the buck out. The blaze orange hat that my wife hand embroidered during my sons first weeks of daycare gave them a signal that there was someone on a stalk. It’s pretty cool that there were a few people watching me on this stalk. Bruce didn’t flinch at my gunfire — he may be a bird dog yet.
As we walk through the sage brush, Mike and I flush mountain quail. We see a total of 4 flushes and regret not bringing our shotguns, not that we’d be using them in the moment. A mixed-bag hunt would including a California mule deer would be glorious.
We get to the buck. What I thought to be a large fork turns into 4 points on one side. I walk more and see 4 on the other side, with a broken tine. And sweet eye guards to boot. Holy hell. This guy has been fighting and rubbing — a badass early season boxer. This is the buck that I said I’d wait for and even though I didn’t, I got him anyhow.
After The Trigger Breaks
I wasn’t the best shot, but I was effective. I was more concerned with getting the buck down than meat loss. The idea of a wounded animal being tracked for hours doesn’t sit well in my gut. Luckily and unluckily, I’m a bad shot. From what I can tell, there’s two wound channels.
I’m guessing the first shot hit femur on his hind leg and expanded. This could have explained both the disabling of his rear leg as well as the blood loss as an expanding bullet would likely rupture major arteries. We have a busted hind quarter but it’s not too bad and will grind fine. The second shot expanded from ponch to top of other hind quarter, round roast damaged. Perhaps it was a third shot that caused the highly visible damage on the rump, but I can’t tell entirely. All said, at least 2 hits and buck down not more than 20-yards from the first shot.
I text my wife about getting this buck down and she tells me she knows the gender of our brewing baby. The day got even better, though I won’t find out until the next day when she surprises us. Mike and I both have our number 2s cooking. This is happiness.
We start field dressing in the 10am sun.
One antler in each of our hands, we drag him hundreds of yards over bushes after field dressing. We have about 10-yards worth of energy in each burst in this terrain. I ask Mike why I’m more often in a spikey bush on this deer drag. We’re spent, malnourished, and dehydrated. We’re living on empty stomachs and energy drinks like we’re on Warped Tour.
California Deer Hunting: A Family Affair
We finally make it back to the truck and I show my puppy the buck. He sniffs, barks at the buck, and starts licking the wounds while taking nibbles of sun dried rump meat. I imagine he thinks its pretty cool.
We load the now-4×4 buck into the truck, head back to camp, and show the kids. They’re intrigued but only so slightly. They’re happy to see it, but have better things to do. I show Jackson my buck and he shows me his cool jet that he recently acquired from the campground gift shop.
We load the crew and take my buck to Ken’s for a photo. After the photo, we drive two doors down to the butcher thinking I could drop off my buck and come back in a few weeks. As it turns out, health regulations now disallow the butcher to skin, hang, and place game animals in his freezer. However, he welcomes us to use his gear to do that part. We spend time waiting our turn to skin and talk to other hunters who found success — mine was the biggest there. Third in line, our families decide to spend time in town getting ice cream while Mike and I wait. We’re still hungry.
California Fish and wildlife’s biologist showed up to collect samples for CWD. They asked all who were willing to allow for them collect samples. I had mentioned to the butcher that I wanted to make a euro mount, so he mentioned he’d skip me. Later, the biologist came and chatted with me and mentioned they can test without damaging the skull. The most current method for collecting samples is entering through the neck. No problem, I wasn’t worried about the cape.
He sliced the neck open at the chin and collected lymph nodes. We chatted as he collected his samples and aged my buck at about 4 and based on the area we found this buck, identified him as part of the Mono herd. The biologist wasn’t worried about CWD in this one, being a big healthy looking buck. CWD hasn’t appeared in California yet but there is concern. Our biologist tells us that CWD has spread to Idaho and has been found in two mule deer so far. His assumption is that CWD will get here eventually — it’s only a matter of time. I take my sample confirmation card, he countersigns my tag, and he’s on his way.
Wrapping It Up and Throwing It In The Freezer
I didn’t expect to have to skin this buck myself, but having done it before, I wasn’t concerned. The most excruciating part was waiting in line while other hunters skinned their bucks. It’s hard to keep your mouth shut when waiting and observing, but I did my best not to interject on how I’d approach things differently. I waited patiently, moving my buck every few moments to knock off the flies and meat bees.
While waiting for the other hunters to finish up, I started preparing my opening skinning slices and exposing the bones of which I’d use to hang this deer. I watched the pair in front of us struggle to remove skin while their buck was hooked up, so it only made sense to do it now.
Buck on the hanger, we get to business. I make quick work of getting the skin off quickly as my wife, Mike’s wife, and our kids scurry around town. Additionally, the storm is coming towards us both in sight and sound. The thunder gets louder with every clap.
We wrap up my buck in a game bag, throw it on hooks in the community freezer, and place the head and cape in a box beneath the body. I make my order with Tracy, share quick stories, and leave my info to await my call to return.
If you’re wondering, Bridgeport doesn’t have a bloody shoes or bloody shirt service policy. We head across the street for a much deserved meal in wet attire prior to the storm arriving. We order beers and steaks — a fitting meal.
I’m happy in the most tired way possible. Our success is rewarded by the thought of sleeping in tomorrow. Mike and family will be on their way home after lunch, leaving my family to spend quality time together. We spend the remainder of our vacation hiking, fishing, and exploring. I’ll show Jackson how to harvest dirt clods to throw at trees for good explosions. Jackson will show me how he understands leverage by launching rocks from a pivot. We will put sticks in sap, use grass as calls, and use construction toys to uncover buried treasure in camp. Life is good.