As a well-traveled bowhunter, I’ve hunted a lot of game in a lot of places, but I’m drawn to bowhunting these deer like nothing else — they offer an extreme challenge in rare mountain habitat that I have yet to find elsewhere. Few archers even know these deer exist, other than the local residents that have hunted them for decades. They are considered a unique subspecies of mule deer found only along the western boundaries of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
According to the book “Mule Deer — Western Challenge” by Bob Robb, this deer’s scientific name is the O. h. californicus, which are known to interbreed with the Columbia blacktail found along the northern and western boundaries of the state. These deer have smaller bodies and antlers than the Rocky Mountain muley — the largest mule deer subspecies that is widely hunted across the western United States — with antlers that often achieve only a forked-horn shape.
Also found along the southern California coast, from roughly Los Angeles Country south into Baja California, is the Southern mule deer (O.h. Fuliginatus). “It is about the same size as the California mule deer, but usually much darker,” writes Robb.
Most unique is this deer’s annual rutting period, which varies depending on where they’re hunted, ranging from anytime in mid-August along the coastal regions, to October and even November more inland. A good buck will weigh about 150 to 175 pounds on the hoof.
The California Bowmen Hunters Big Game Club recognizes the southern-coastal range of mule deer as “Pacific Hybrid Deer,” and it takes at least 80 inches of antler to make the record book. This translates into a fairly heavy and wide forked-horn or basic 3x3 buck. The current state record, taken back in 1994, stands at just less than 140 inches — a super stout buck for these rugged, brush-covered landscapes.
The great thing about hunting these deer is that in many locations, where urban sprawl lies close to mountain ranges, most areas are closed to rifle hunting permanently but open to archery. For this reason, great buck genetics do exist and plenty of 100-plus-inch deer can be found for those willing to put in the time and legwork.
Utilizing an effective technique for ambushing these deer is never cut and dry. All traditional hunting methods work well, with spot-and-stalk and still-hunting being most popular. These deer thrive in all sorts of habitat, but along their southern range, mountains are extraordinarily rugged and brushy — lots of scrub, poison oak, manzanita, and honey suckle. In this region, oak trees do exist, but they are sparingly spread out along rock-slick draws and are usually within a good walking distance from any access road or trailhead, which makes traditional tree stand setups hard to acquire.
Also, these deer tend to roam daily, feeding anywhere and everywhere (unless acorns are lying around), only to bed in cover that is nearby. So, in a lot of ways, patterning these deer is a joke. For this reason, run-and-gun hunting is the name of the game.
The basic hunting scenario goes like this — leave the truck an hour or so before light, navigate through waist-high brush for a bit, begin your treacherous 45-degree ascent uphill, and do your best to get to a good vantage point so you can glass at the earliest gasps of daylight. Routinely you “bump” deer along the way, and you do your best to capitalize on the moment, by nocking an arrow and shooting fast. You hike from one ridgeline or ravine to the next as you continue to hunt through the cool hours of the day, glassing and going. Rarely do you sit in one spot and glass for more than 45 minutes — the terrain is just too jagged for an all-encompassing view.
However, if the rut is on and you notice a well-used trail or a bench with lots of doe sign, then you should plan a sit. Makeshift ground blinds or portable tree saddles are just the ticket. Depending on the scenario, you may want to put out some doe-in-estrous lure, too, which will help draw in bucks from afar. Remember, bucks frequently travel long distances to locate “hot” does, especially during the post-rut phase, so if they catch a whiff of estrous doe, they’ll arrive in short order.
Water is a precious commodity in this dry, coastal region. In just about every case, a major creek or stream will run at the base of the mountain chain. Deer routinely drink at nightfall, and then make their way back up into harsh topography where they are found grazing in open areas, only to bed in cover nearby once the heat of the day takes over. Of course, walking several miles in inhospitable country for a deer is easy, whereas for the hunter, traversing the same amount of real estate could take nearly half a day.
In some areas, natural seeps exist, but they are usually found in the steepest, brushiest of all places, making a productive ambush nearly impossible. At best, a bowhunter can set up along the flanks of these watering sites, watching heavily used trails.
However, every now and then you may get lucky and come upon a spring that is easily approachable. Consider this a goldmine, and do your best to hunt this location wisely and sparingly to prevent educating deer.
I took my last coastal buck by hunting over a spring. Coming upon this source was dumb luck. One day while watching a big 3x3 buck rise from his midday slumber, I carefully watched the deer’s movement. At about 11 a.m., in 80-degree heat, the buck disappeared into a steep ravine, filled with oak trees. I waited for 30 minutes or so, but he never ventured out.
About one hour later, after dropping 1,000 vertical feet to reach a large wash below, I still-hunted my way up the draw, toward the deer.
As I snuck around, I could hear oak leaves crunching down below me. I poked my head over a little rise to see. I could see a big spike buck walking. I moved on, rounding a bend. Now I could hear a gurgling sound—water! The big 3x3 is here to drink…that’s what he’s doing. Suddenly I felt the wind fan my neck. That’s about the time when I heard a loud deer snort. The big buck was only 35 yards from me, standing in the shadows.
The following year found me in my tree saddle overlooking the spring. I was in position by 9 a.m. and, within an hour or so, watched a consistent trickle of does and small bucks enter my shooting lanes. It was easily 85 degrees now, but I rested comfortably in the cool canopy of tree cover.
Just after noon, I noticed a flash of antler down creek. A mature buck looked to be scent-checking the area. The rut was on, and with the scent of does all around me, it was only a matter of time.
About three minutes went by before the buck strolled within close view. Standing broadside, steeply down slope at 28 yards, I drew my bow slowly, adrenaline now searing inside me, and let the sight pin settle briefly. The bow thumped and the arrow smashed home.
I have lots of memories hunting these coastal mountain ranges, the same ones that Howard Hill, Jim Dougherty and other legendary bowhunters so commonly explored during the rich heyday of California’s archery days. As a 15-year-old kid, I knew little about these deer or what it would take to claim one. This never stopped me, and I learned along the way, through persistent trial and error.
I’ve come to know that in these hills, difficulty and unorthodox hunting tactics take on new meaning. It’s all about remaining flexible as a hunting archer, hiking hard and making your own luck. There are no rules to hunting these deer. You make ‘em up as you go, using your natural predatory instincts to put game on the ground.
Also, due to the demanding terrain, extreme downhill and uphill shooting are the rule, not the exception, so prepare accordingly. This doubles the challenge. But in the end, the achievement of taking a coastal muley buck is truly one of a kind. That’s the essence behind bowhunting this rare breed of mule deer.
Editor's note: This was originally published in 2008.
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