With the Owens Valley in the distant background, Tyler Dennison is more than satisfied with his trophy. A buck this size of this subspecies is the relative equivalent of a 200-inch Kaibab buck.
Tyler Dennison was going against conventional wisdom. The young hunter didn’t buy into the idea that all the big bucks that wintered on the east slope of the Sierra Nevada migrated back over the crest of the mountains and into Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, living there from late spring through fall, staying where they were protected during the early fall hunting seasons. That is what everyone else believes.
Yet, one of the most coveted deer tags in California is the December G3 Goodale hunt. This hunt is held dur-ing the rut, when all the deer have moved out of the high country down to winter range. These are deer that live in the parks most of the year. While the California Department of Fish and Wildlife only issued 35 tags for the 2017 season for this hunt (and just 45 tags the year before), more than 4,300 hunters applied for the G3 hunt. What is lost on most hunters is that G3 is located in the X9b hunting zone. To get drawn for a December tag, it takes an incredible stroke of luck. Not only do hunters face steep odds, it gets even worse for most deer hunters.
California has a preference-point system for high-
demand, big-game tags. For the Goodale hunt, 32 of the 35 tags are in the preference pool, and if a hunter does not apply with the maximum number of preference points (which was 14 for this past season), he or she will not even get a chance at those 32 tags. Those 32 tags were drawn from a pool of 488 applicants who applied for the G3 hunt with 14 preference points. That means that nearly 4,000 hunters were competing for just three tags.
Hundreds of hours were spent hiking and glassing the remote basins and meadows near timberline in California’s X9b hunting zone. The hunters found the big 6x6 muley buck in July and watched it all through the rest of July, August and early September.
The 23-year-old hunter hadn’t been hunting long enough to collect the 14 bonus points needed to really have a shot at a G3 tag, but he knew how to read a map. He and his hunting buddy Cody Darling asked themselves a simple question: Do all the deer that winter down in the Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada really cross over the crest into the national parks?
“I knew most of the big boys went up into the park, but there are places on the east side that have good water, shelter and feed,” said Tyler, who knew the zone produces about 100 to 140 bucks a year, proving that not all the deer slip over the crest. Tyler then decided to put in for an X9b tag with the three bonus points he was holding.
He still wasn’t sure he’d get a tag for X9b. The state had reduced the tag quota from 420 to 325 permits for 2017, because of some moderate winter losses caused by massive snowfall in the Sierra Nevada. With 293 of the 325 tags in the preference pool, it was just a matter of how many hunters with more points applied. Tyler was lucky. The minimum number of points needed to get a tag in the preference pool was just one.
With a tag in his pocket after the June drawings, now came the long hours of scouting. Tyler and Cody starting scouting the high-elevation meadows and basins five to seven miles from the end of the road where they thought a few big bucks might be hanging out.
Cody Darling points out what he thinks might be the best route to use to get in on the big buck after it was spotted opening morning. The hunters abandoned three stalks when deer in the group with the big buck got edgy. The fourth stalk was the charm.
“We ended up finding that exact buck (shot on opening weekend) back in July, and we had been watching him ever since. That kind of worried me. I didn’t have a back-up plan because we spent so much time watching him,” said the young hunter, who lives in nearby Ridgecrest, California.
“I was also worried the archery guys would find this buck, but we never saw any bowhunters up in this country,” he added.
The rifle season couldn’t arrive soon enough, but at dawn on September 16, the pair was glassing and using spotting scopes, looking at the hillside where they had seen the trophy buck every other morning during their scouting trips.
Anticipation on opening morning turned into concern and worry. The pair didn’t see the huge buck or the six other bucks it had been hanging with all summer. The two hunters felt like they had the buck’s routine wired, so when they didn’t see the trophy – or the other deer – in their usual morning haunt, they almost abandoned the spot to effectively start over and look in other areas. But they stuck it out, believing and hoping the bucks were still there. Perhaps they had just changed their pattern as summer was turning into fall. So the hunters stayed behind their 15x56 Vortex binoculars and Vortex Razor spotting scopes, scanning the hillsides, hearts jumping into their throats when they saw the twitch of an ear only to find it was a doe.
Late in the afternoon a parade of bucks finally fed out of the tree line – one, two, three, four . . . Of course, the big one was the last of the seven to come out of the trees. The deer were 1,200 yards away.
The hunters made three stalks but were seen or heard by does, or one of the bucks, in the group each time. So rather than spook the deer, they backed out and looked for a different route. They finally made a long, circuitous stalk from a different angle and were able to get within 138 yards. After one shot from Tyler’s Remington Model 700 .300 Winchester Magnum, the buck was down.
With their hunting area a long hike from the truck, the young hunters decided to hunt out of a spike camp much closer to where they had seen the big buck during preseason scouting.
The buck was a trophy Inyo mule deer with a nearly perfect 4x4 main frame with kicker points on each of the front fork tines. It is 26-inches wide and carries good mass in the bases and out into the rest of the antler. It is one of the best bucks ever taken during the general rifle hunt in the zone and rivals bucks killed during the coveted late-season Goodale buck hunt in December. While it hasn’t been scored using the Boone and Crockett method yet, several rough estimates place the buck with more than 170 inches of antler.
Cody looks at the trophy buck later shot by his hunting buddy. They spent most of their time at around 10,000 feet.
For hunters unfamiliar with the different mule deer subspecies, California has six different deer. Rocky Mountain mule deer inhabit the northeast corner of the state while blacktails live all along the north coast. Along the western Sierra Nevada and across most of Southern California’s transverse mountain ranges is where the California mule deer lives. The deserts along the Colorado River hold the state’s only desert deer, the burro mule deer. The Southern mule deer’s far northern range extends into the mountains of San Diego county. And the east slope of the Sierra Nevada south of Lake Tahoe is home to the Inyo mule deer. There is hybridization where the ranges overlap.
Tyler took a number of photos of his trophy deer through the spotting scope. It is clear this buck had both spread and mass. This is about as big as the Inyo mule deer gets.
A notch or two below the Rocky Mountain mule deer, Inyo and burro deer grow the next largest antlers of California’s deer. Only a handful over history have made the Boone and Crockett record book, for which they must qualify as Rocky Mountain mule deer, competing with bucks from the Kaibab and other monster-deer-producing areas. Bucks that score 170 or more points in the Inyo or burro deer categories are considered the equivalent of a 190-plus Rocky Mountain buck by California hunters.
Seeing the X9b buck up close, the two young hunters knew it was a tremendous Inyo mule deer, rivaling the best bucks taken in the region. They also realized the work was just about to begin. The buck was shot early in the evening, and after a few photos were taken, they set to work on quartering-out the buck and lashing it to their pack frames. The pair was hunting out of a spike camp, and the deer was killed at an elevation of about 10,000 feet, seven miles from where their truck was parked. They headed for the spike camp, now in the dark, and quickly broke camp down and added it to their already laden backpacks. With each pack weighing more than 100 pounds, the pair didn’t reach the truck until around 1 a.m.
After the shot, and with darkness closing in fast, the young hunters had to quarter the deer and lash it to pack frames for the seven-mile hike back to their truck. Cody holds the backstrap of the big buck before stashing it on his pack.
“It was all worth it,” said Tyler Dennison.
While Cody Darling didn’t have a tag for X9b, he was along for all the scouting and the hunt. “Cody was my pack animal,” laughed Tyler.
But the season wasn’t over for the pair of hunters. Cody, who is 26, had a tag for the D9 zone near his Bakersfield home on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Just as they had done for the X9b hunt, the pair had also spent time scouting the highest, most-remote parts of this zone and had another big buck patterned. The opener for D9 was the weekend after the X9b opener.
Tyler Dennison (right) and his hunting buddy Cody Darling show off the tremendous X9b Inyo mule deer shot on opening day of the 2017 California deer season after more than two months of backcountry scouting.
Would the pack animal favor have to be returned just a week later? Well, that might just have to be another story.
Inyo Mule Deer
The buck Tyler Dennison shot was not a Rocky Mountain mule deer. It was one of six mule deer subspecies that live in California, which includes the Rocky Mountain, blacktail, California mule deer, Southern mule deer, burro mule deer and Inyo mule deer. Dennison’s buck was of the Inyo subspecies, which never get as big as the biggest Rocky Mountain bucks from Nevada or Idaho, or even the extreme northeastern part of California, where true Rocky Mountain deer live.
The Inyo deer is the second largest deer subspecies in California. Yet, the absolute biggest bucks of this subspecies ever taken from the slopes and valleys of the Eastern Sierra Nevada rarely score more than 180.
Avid California deer hunters know all the subspecies and where they live in the state, and they know what constitutes a trophy buck for each deer – even if the Boone and Crockett Club lumps them into just two categories – blacktail and Rocky Mountain. That lumping explains why a state that produces over 25,000 bucks each season has only a handful of Rocky Mountain bucks in the all-time record books.These are some of the most coveted hunts for California deer hunters, and odds of getting tags for the most popular of these zones is difficult, with most hunters accumulating four or more bonus points before getting drawn. In the 2017 drawing, the odds were even worse because of concerns over winter kill.
Odds for drawing one of the few late-season hunt tags in these zones is even worse (see main story). Hunters in X12 and X9a get a tag once in five years if they put in for that tag as a first choice each year, and nonresident hunters face the same drawing odds as residents. (In spite of what some hunters might mistakenly believe, there are no restrictions on bringing hunting rifles into California.) These hunts represent a unique opportunity only available in California (and perhaps a couple of deer zones in Nevada) to shoot an Inyo mule deer. While all the final draw odds for 2017 haven’t been crunched yet, below are the 2016 drawing odds and minimum number of bonus points needed to get a tag in the “preference pool,” which contains the most tags in the these zones: