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feature By: Roehl Villarin | September, 19
California is the only western state that offers over-the-counter deer hunting as early as July. During July, hunters are just getting started with scouting throughout other states. If lucky in the draw, Nevada’s archery mule deer hunts open as early as the second week of August, but California has a guaranteed jump by one month. Antsy bowhunters that have been training, shooting and researching are guaranteed to get the first crack at California blacktails. After all of the anticipation between seasons, there is nothing like an opportunity to hunt velvet bucks with archery equipment during July. This is the ultimate warm-up season for bowhunters, and the chance to punch their tag before other hunters head afield.
California might be a sleeper state for bowhunters. With a four-week archery season starting as early as the second week of July, nonresidents can pick up a deer tag for $280 and a license for $170. California also has a draw system. Whether a resident or not, avid hunters might as well apply for the draw, or at least buy the $8 preference point. Not to get too much off topic, but California also provides the best chance to draw a Tule elk tag. Currently, the state’s A Zone and a portion of its B Zone offer deer hunts during July. To give a better geographic perspective, the season’s boundary lies west of Highway 99 and contains rolling-oak grasslands and rugged costal woodland terrain.
For deer hunters who would like to get warmed up, there’s no better way than to pick up an over-the-counter deer tag and bowhunt California deer. I’ve never stepped foot in axis or Coues’ deer country but have heard how extremely “jumpy” these two species are, which reminds me of blacktail bucks. I’ve spent a good amount of time hunting mule deer in high-pressure units and have observed a significant difference in behavior between mule deer and blacktail. By nature, all mature bucks are wary, but I’ve noticed that black-tailed deer are extremely jumpy and will not stop running when spooked. It seems like blinking an eye will catch their attention, which makes it difficult to even pull up a rangefinder. I’ve had plenty of encounters bumping mule deer that would run less than 100 yards, stop and look back or settle under a tree. I have yet to see a blacktail stop out of curiosity. On this very same note, hunting any deer species in velvet has its advantages, especially when it comes to blacktail.
Other than the rut, hunting bucks in velvet gives bowhunters the best chance for success. During the first two weeks of July, California blacktail bucks can be found in velvet. It’s common to find bucks exposed in open pockets, as they don’t want to bump their sensitive velvet against obstructions in the timber. Hunting during midday can certainly be as productive, if not better, than during first light.
Most deer can be found feeding under low-hanging trees and sometimes standing up to rebed in the shade following the shift of the sun. A bowhunter would do well to glass below each tree for deer throughout the entire day. The tall grass hides bedded deer very well so I sit on high glassing knobs and let the sun do the work, which forces bucks to make the mistake of getting up to reposition under the scorching July sun.
The thought of running out of water during the early season is terrifying. Water management is the most important factor when hunting in July. In most cases, you can bet that most hunters are filtering back to their vehicles by 11:00 am. A smart water plan in areas where water is not obtainable will separate a smart hunter from others. There are usually two reasons for this, heat and thirst. My tip for July hunters is to stash water in the timber and stay on the mountain. Hunters impatiently anticipate hunting season, so don’t let water be the reason for cutting your hunt short!
Most memories I’ve made have been while hunting alone. It’s hard enough to find blacktail bucks, and when you finally do, it’s difficult to not get picked off by one. Increasing movement or sound by roaming around the country with buddies is not conducive to success. On this same note, there is no better feeling than creating your own success on a hard hunt. The ability to make your own decisions, move at your own pace and not have to wait or depend on others creates a worry-free mind on these hard hunts. Minimizing scent, sound and movement is extremely important, which is why I choose to hunt alone. There have been times when I’ve stumbled across a nice buck that my buddy didn’t spot and stop for, and the buck went bounding off. Being alone during these situations eliminates the chance of getting busted. Stumbling into bucks is not my style of hunting, but if I have a slam dunk, I take it!
I prefer to backpack hunt, but in some areas it’s easier to set up a convenient car camp complete with water and food. This setup allows me to go in extremely light, as opposed to going in heavy and possibly coming out heavier. Over the course of three days I can keep my pack light and hike into my spots in the dark each morning, and water will already be stashed in the timber.
Without getting too deep into gear, July bowhunters who hunt in vehicle-prohibited areas should use a frame pack and hike in with as little gear as possible. A few must-haves that never leave my pack include field-dressing equipment, a long-sleeve shirt and bucket hat, food and water and a lightweight tripod for my binocular. During this time of the year it’s extremely important to wear snake guards.
My 2018 July archery season was as memorable as can be. The waist-high golden grass muffled each step against my snake guards as I hiked to the first glassing point. Some overcast and heavy winds were present. Even during bow season, these public-land deer are on high alert. I kept back and away from previously known deer areas, positioned on a high shaded knob from which to glass. With a 12x50 binocular on a tripod, I spotted a group of deer at 5:30 a.m. As hours passed, no bucks were seen.
By noon, no other hunters were in sight. After a long day of glassing from different knobs I finally spotted the first buck at 1:00 p.m. It was a velvet forkhorn trailing two does and a spiked buck. As they fed off the branches of the trees I sat back and devised a game plan. I had a good idea of the general direction in which they were headed for food, so I made my move. As I got closer, I bumped a hard-horned buck along the way. That buck ran out of the country. At that point, I couldn’t relocate the previous group of deer so I hunkered down in the timber. Still, I had no luck of relocating the deer. Things weren’t looking up, and I’d be lucky to get on another buck at that point.
From a new vantage point, I immediately picked up two bucks while glassing. Both were nice 2x2 bucks that had already stripped off their velvet. The smaller buck fed from the low-hanging trees while the other buck was bedded. After setting my binocular on the tripod, I figured out which was the better of the two, and it had nice, deep forks. When it seems like things are looking down, opportunity can change in an instant!
I panicked for a second as I was unable to relocate the bucks. They suddenly moved to the next grove of trees, so I bolted down the finger ridge. I finally had my binocular glued on both of them, but they continued to move as they fed. By this time, it was 2:30 p.m., and they had moved to the edge of the timber. Between us was open country and there was absolutely no way that I could make a move toward the deer without getting busted. With so many folds and pockets of timber in the country, I felt certain I had lost my opportunity.
My heart was pumping and my mind was racing. Eventually, the bucks dropped into the trees, so I decided to side-hill around and use a rock at the edge of the timber as a backdrop. The wind was absolutely perfect. In fact, it howled so loudly that I used it to my advantage and closed the distance during each gust. I made a final move as the deer disappeared into one of the folds of the landscape. With the sun at my back, I peeked over and down into the timber and was able to see both bucks feeding. With a perfect crosswind and uphill thermals, I had everything working in my favor.
With the amount of limbs hanging in my shooting lane, I had to make a quick and smart decision. I found the perfect window through which the bigger buck presented a perfect broadside shot. The wind gusts surrounding the pocket of timber muffled sound perfectly as I crept in 10 yards closer. I ranged the buck at 60 yards, nocked an arrow and dialed my floater pin down to the 60-yard mark.
With the pin settled tight behind the buck’s shoulder, my sight bubble sat perfectly level. All my dedication to daily shooting during the off-season lead up to that very moment, and I didn’t want to mess it up. The shot felt perfect! My arrow punched through the lungs of a public-land blacktail. Better yet, I punched my over-the-counter deer tag well before August. Any bowhunter can get his first crack during this early season.