SCOUTING IS VITAL IN THIS GAME.
Along with patience and perseverance, another word should be added to the lexicon of all deer hunters to further the alliteration: planning.
Hunters who scout an area in advance will be more likely to bag a deer than those who simply show up on opening day, according to state Department of Fish and Game biologists.
``The key to success is to research the area first by making phone calls to local biologists, then to scout the area yourself,'' said Ken Mayer Sr., the state deer program supervisor for the DFG in Sacramento. ``Know where you're going and what to expect. If you don't know what you're getting into, you're going to be disappointed.''
Sage advice for anyone planning on stalking regional game during the general deer-season openers set for Sept. 27 and Oct. 11 in Los Angeles, Ventura, Kern, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
Mayer, who prefers to scout areas during the summer, suggests hunters visit their intended spots at least a month in advance to observe the animals' behavior. In other words, hunters who haven't done so already had better get scouting now.
Because deer are dependent on habitat, which can change from season to season because of drought, fire or other forces, it is imperative that the prospective hunter know where the deer eat and how far they must travel to find water.
``We've had two really dry years, so the (normal) springs available to the deer have dried up,'' said Jim Davis, DFG associate wildlife biologist for the D14 deer zone, which includes portions of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. ``This causes the deer to spend more time moving back and forth looking for adjacent water sources.''
Therefore, traditional hunting spots in that zone will not be as prolific as in years past, Davis said. The hunter will need to know where those deer will be migrating in search of water, which could be as much as 80 miles away. For example, desert deer in San Gorgonio recently traveled 30 miles to the east and west slopes of the Santa Ana River drainage.
(Note: It might be too late to do an adequate job of researching hunting areas in the Santa Ana Mountains, where the season opened Sept. 6 and runs through Oct. 5, and the coastal zone from Los Angeles County north, where the season ends Sunday.)
Even with proper scouting, the D hunting zones, which include the Southern California counties, San Joaquin Valley and Western Sierra, generally are not famous for hunting success, according to Davis. From 7 percent to 12 percent of D Zone hunters return home with a deer, while the others merely ``have a lot of fun trying,'' he said.
Meanwhile, the X Zone of the Eastern Sierra and the B Zone in the northwest corner of the state have the highest rates of success, boasting 40 percent to 50 percent chances of bagging an animal.
Because of its popularity and propensity for fortuitous hunts, tags for the X Zone are limited and are distributed randomly by means of an automated drawing. All allotted 11,273 tags were appropriated by June 12. (The X Zone seasons run Saturday through Nov. 9.)
By contrast, more than 50,000 of the 85,100 first-come, first-serve D Zone tags were available as of this week; however, some sections have sold out. Quotas have been met for zones D6 (much of Tuolumne and Mariposa counties), D7 (parts of Fresno, Madera, Mariposa and Tulare counties), D12 (most of Riverside and Imperial counties) and D14 (San Bernardino Mountains). The final day of deer season in Southern California is Nov. 23.
In the B Zone, where seasons run from Saturday through Nov. 2, some 22,500 of 55,500 tags remain unsold.
Hunters seeking good fortune shouldn't dwell on the stats, however, Davis advised. Extra homework will increase the odds of getting a deer in any zone. After scouting an area a few weeks prior to the season opener, try a ``dry run'' before the actual hunt.
``The first time into a location, don't kill an animal, but observe it instead,'' Mayer said. ``Make your first trip an initiation, another part of the planning.''
There's a lot to be learned from examining animal behavior.
Because deer are good survivors in their environment, hunters should be in good physical shape and willing to stalk their prey patiently to get close enough for a clean shot. Get situated in an area, then spot and stalk the animal. Look for the right habitat - chaparral, grass, forbs or acorns - and remember they will never stray too far from water.
Sometimes the pursuit requires a hunter to walk for miles in the backcountry or ``creep along a road,'' Mayer said. Even then, nothing is guaranteed. The wind can suddenly shift directions, wafting your scent toward the animal and off it goes. Of course, one can always opt for the shelter and transportation of an off-road vehicle, where allowed, to better track the animal. (Note: Carrying a loaded weapon in a vehicle and shooting from a public road are illegal.)
The inability to bag a deer can many times be attributed to its cunning. Although the deer can often be seen munching on thick, low-growing chaparral during the early morning hours, they quickly change their eating habits once they become wary of hunters. They become nocturnal grazers, Davis said. Deer often prefer the cloak of darkness for all activities during hunting season.
With guarded optimism, some biologists are predicting many large deer will be taken this year in the D Zone.
``We had a very good winter, with a long period of low moisture,'' said Kevin Brennan, a DFG associated biologist in San Bernardino. ``The Devil's Fire we had north of Fawnskin (near Big Bear Lake) produced some good conditions for new growth of brush.''
Experts note the best time to stalk is often the last week of hunting season, when deer come into rut, or mating season.
``The big bucks will move around more then, becoming more visible,'' Mayer said. ``They also become more aggressive at that time.''
During the general hunting season, rifles, shotguns, pistols, muzzleloaders and bows may be used. Most hunters prefer rifles, which afford accuracy from great distances. DFG officials recommend a .30-06-caliber rifle with a 150-grain bullet, a .270 with a 140-grain bullet, a .240 with a 120-grain bullet or a .308 with a 150-grain bullet.
There are several muzzeloader-only and archery-only (no crossbows) hunts allowed at areas and on dates specified by the state hunting regulations, which are available at sporting goods store, other licensing agents and DFG offices.
Shooters are required to have a state hunting license ($27.05 for adults; $6.85 for ages 16 and younger) and a deer tag ($17.85 for residents; $162.50 for nonresidents). In areas where a second tag is permitted, the cost is $22.60 for residents and $162.50 for non-residents. (Of course, to purchase a hunting license, one must pass a state-certified hunter-safety course.)
As with any big-game hunting, 90 percent of the deer harvested is taken by 10 percent of the hunters, according to Mayer. Still, there are always exceptions to the rules.
``Some people are luckier than hell when it comes to hunting,'' Mayer said. ``Me, I'm not so lucky; I've got to scout first.''
A deer of a different color
There are six California subspecies of mule deer (in descending order of abundance):
Columbian black-tailed deer
Smallest mule deer is found on the coast north of Santa Barbara and on western slopes of Sierra Nevada-Cascade chain.
California mule deer
Migratory except in coastal Southern California and foothill areas where snow does not cause range shifts.
Rocky Mountain mule deer
An inhabitant of mountains and desert plateaus, its breeding season is late - mid-November to late December.
Southern mule deer
Most darkly colored of subspecies, its range is restricted to San Diego, Orange and Western Riverside counties.
Inyo mule deer
Similar to Rocky Mountain brethren but more yellow; white markings more restrictive. Found in Inyo, Southern Mono and Northeastern Kern counties.
Burro mule deer
Resident of southeastern deserts, traveling back and forth across the Colorado River into Arizona following available forage supply.
2 Photos, Box
Photo: (1--color) Hunters who know how deer's habitat changes - because of drought, fire or other forces - will find it easier to bag one during the season.
Kelly Mitchell / Special to the Daily News
(2--color) Biologists urge hunters to visit intended spots at least a month in advance to observe the deer's behavior.
Dan DeBusschere / Special to the Daily News
Box: DEER OF A DIFFERENT COLOR (see text)