2003 A-Zone Season review
By Dan Gibson

Another A-zone season has come and gone and it was a good one. Between my brother, my nephew and myself we took three nice bucks. The season started out with a bang as usual and then slowed before picking up again during the last 10 days. The following is a quick recap of this years season taken from my scouting log. Some of the following text may not fit together very well. It was written at different points during the season. Usually while I was sitting on a ridge top in between glassing for bucks. Rather than sterilizing it I thought I would leave it just how it was.

OPENING MORNING. It was very foggy for the first few hours today. At about 8:00 the fog started to break up and we saw the first group of bucks. An average fork, nice 3x3 and a big 4x4, close to 20 inches wide. They were about 300 yards away feeding on an open hillside, only occasionally visible, as the coastal fog rolled in and out. I held off on the bigger buck hoping to get a better view and besides it was only a couple hours into opening day. Because of the thick fog It was very difficult to get good look at him. Twenty minutes later the fog again lifted and we again located the 3x3. This time he was bedded in the tall grass, right out in the open, but we had lost sight of the 4x4. After a while Linda snuck around the back of the ridge to get a better angle, and again found the bigger buck. He was bedded a short distance from the 3 point. I couldn't see him from my vantage point because there were Oaks blocking my view. When Linda returned and described the bucks position we began discussing our options. As we discussed our plan, for some unknown reason the bucks spooked and ran down the hill into the thick brush below. Just like that they were gone.

A while later we moved a short distance to another vantage point where we could see farther down the same ridge. I lifted up my binoculars and started glassing and immediately spotted a buck standing on the ridge line 375 yards away. I wasn't exactly sure how big he was, but he was BIG! As I watched the buck just stood there on the horizon. What an awesome sight he was, standing by himself, looking off into the distance, with the sunlight glistening of his rack and the distant blue green mountains as a backdrop. As long as I live I will never forget that picture. That sight alone made my season worth while and it was only three hours old.

Unfortunately the clearing he was in was surrounded by thick brush and there was no way to get any closer without spooking him and if he took two steps he would be over the ridge. I again decided it wasn't a good situation and let him walk, besides I had the whole season to find him again. It was a tough choice but it was the right one. He was definitely one of the biggest Blacktail bucks I have ever seen during the season. The kicker to the whole experience is that after watching the video it became clear the buck in the fog and the buck on the ridge were the same deer. He had been bedded out of view only 300 yards away for most of the morning.

Early in the year I prefer not to press bucks because the chances are good if you don't push them, they will stay in the same area, and stick to the same routine. As it turned out that's just what he did. I saw the buck several more times in the next few weeks but each time he out smarted me, leaving me wondering where he had gone.

fogged in buck ...
After locating this buck in the heavy fog opening morning, I hunted him exclusively for
the next three weeks. I saw him twice more but was never able to get a decent shot.

LIGHTNING STRIKES. Things have really slowed down around here lately. It's heated up and 95+ has been the norm. When it gets that hot the deer just don't move. Although today was very interesting even though we didn't see many deer.

Only once in a blue moon does it rain during the California's A-Zone season and today was one of those rare occasions. I had it all planned out, I'd be in my spot well before daylight and sooner or later I knew the bucks would start moving. It started out hot but shortly after sunrise huge gray clouds appeared on the skyline, throwing lighting bolts in every direction, and the temperature dropped. It was pretty cool just to watch the lighting, we were actually above most of it. As the front got closer the lighting became more and more intense, with bolts visibly hitting the ground only a mile or so away. Figuring it was a great opportunity to get some video I continued to film as the storm approached. As I was about to learn this is not a wise thing to do.

Before we knew it, it was raining cats and dogs and the thunder claps were incredibly loud. We finally decided this was not a good place to be and headed for the safety of the thick timber. By then it was raining so hard we couldn't see 20 feet and the main part of the storm was directly overhead, cranking out lighting bolts every minute or so. Needless to say we were just a little nervous. We could actually hear what sounded like sizzling electrical lines before the flashes of lighting and the deafening claps of thunder. The lighting and thunder were simultaneous so we knew the storm was very, very, close.

After what seemed like forever the storm moved off to the north, taking the heavy rain and lighting with it. When we came back out into the open we immediately saw smoke and flames coming form an old Douglas fir only 75 yards (verified by my new rangefinder) away from where we had been hiding. It had obviously been hit by lightning and was now a blaze. I immediately got on the phone and called CDF (California Department of Forestry) but amazingly they already knew about the fire and were on their way. Someone had already reported it from down in the valley below.

We spent the next couple hours cruising around looking for more fires and bringing CDF trucks and a D-9 Cat to the fire. It took them a while but they finally got a road cut to the burning tree. The D-9 then pushed the tree over, which was probably 50 feet tall, and the crew on the ground put out the flames, as a chopper circled overhead. It's kind of funny, the same tree had been struck years before and had the top 50 feet blown off. In fact, that section also lay burning on the ground, it had obviously been struck again.

When the fire was under control we did a little more hunting but by then it had warmed up to over 80 degrees and there weren't many deer to be found. Before we packed up and called it a morning we did manage to find three bucks.The biggest being a nice 18 -19 inch 3x3, with 3 inch eye-guards, laying in the sun drying himself.

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Lighting was hitting all around us and the above tree was struck only 75 yards
from where we waited out the storm.

MID-SEASON LULL. Every year towards the middle of the season we sit around scratching our heads, wondering "where the heck did all the bucks go"? This year was no exception. We have several theories about where they go but that's all they are, theories. The most reasonable in my opinion is that they become nocturnal, not because of hunting pressure, but because they're bucks, and that's just what bucks do. Heat might have something to do with it?, getting ready for the rut?, maybe. I really couldn't tell you but one thing I know for sure is it's not hunting pressure. I film on ranches with zero hunting pressure and the same thing happens there, every year just like clock work.

DOUG'S BUCK. My nephew Doug pulled into town last night and we were back at it first thing this morning. The first plan of action was for Doug to try and get a big 21 wide, 18 high 3x3 my brother had located. As usually happens it didn't work out. Doug did see a few bucks the first morning of his hunt but nothing like he was looking for. Even though things had been very slow he was still hoping to find a good buck.

That evening Dave a Doug resorted to plan B. Dave had seen a big fork on several occasions and felt pretty confident he could find the buck again if Doug was interested. This would serve two purpose's. It would remove the buck from the gene pool and give us a good opportunity to film the hunt. The buck they would be looking for appeared to be a big bodied older buck with nothing but forks. It stands to reason that's all he would ever be, a big fork.

Many times I've heard of ranches trying to increase the size of there Blacktails but putting a size restriction of three point or better on their bucks. What they fail to realize is by doing this they are in fact creating more forked horns. Some Blacktails never become anything other that big forks, no matter how old they get. By shooting only three points or better ranches are actually giving the big mature forked horns a chance to live and breed over and over, instead of removing them from the gene pool. Every year they take a few more good bucks out of circulation while leaving more and more big forks to do the breeding. Eventually if they continue this practice long enough, all they will have left is big forks. Remember big forks have a 50/50 chance of producing big forked horn off spring. Which is exactly why in my opinion big nature forked horns should be removed and not saved. I'm not talking about small adolesent forks, I'm talking about what are known in my area as "Pacific forks", four plus year old 2x2's. Ranches that don't remove these generically inferior bucks are pretty soon left wondering where all the good bucks went and how come even though they're practicing deer management, they have so many forks. Many never realizing their well intentioned management practices are in fact the cause.

To get back to the hunt, that evening Dave and Doug set up watching a deep wash with a heavily used deer trail in the bottom. They figured there was a good chance the buck would pass through the area as he moved from one madrone thicket to the next. After seeing several small bucks, the big fork cautiously appeared at the edge of the madrones and headed down into the wash, disappearing into the bottom before Dave could get the video camera rolling. They figured it would only be a short wait until the buck reappeared. An hour later when the buck still hadn't shown they were starting to wonder if maybe he had given them the slip. Suddenly Doug spotted horn tips moving in the wash below. Gradually the big fork emerged from the drainage and headed for the madrones a 120 yards away. Doug had a shot but the buck was going straight away, so he held off, waiting for the buck to turn. Right at the edge of the madrones the buck turned slightly, giving Doug a quartering shot, which he took. A split second later the bucks feet were in the air and he was rolling down the steep hill back into the drainage. There was no need for a second shot.

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Doug is shown here with the big fork he took on the second day of his hunt.
THE BIG MISS. The next morning while hunting with Doug I had a great opportunity to tag a beautiful buck. It was one of those opportunities that don't come along very often and to put it simply, I blew it. We hunted hard all morning seeing only a couple small bucks. Then about noon we came across a big bachelor group of bucks. How many, I don't really know, I wasn't counting. But I would say at least six and probably more like eight, feeding in the oaks 125 yards below. At first we only saw two bucks, a big 22-23 inch wide 3x3 and a nice, high, narrow 4x3.

The 3x3 had become my back-up buck since the big 4x4 I was chasing vanished off the face of the earth a couple weeks earlier. I had actually had another chance at the 3x3 earlier in year but at the time I was still fired up about the 4x4 so I let him go. After looking at the video I realized he was a great buck and decided if I had the opportunity again I would take him.

As I said the bucks were feeding in the oaks which were very dense in that particular area. When I first spotted them the 3x3 was looking straight at me, but only for a moment. He then started moving to my left. As he moved I'd get quick glimpses of him through small openings, but never a big enough opening to shoot. Finally just before he was going to disappear over the ridge, I barked, stopping him in his tracks. I know it sounds stupid but it works. When he stopped he was partially obscured by low hanging branches and small madrones mixed in among the oaks, but I could clearly see his front shoulder in the shadows, or so I thought. As soon as my cross hairs were steady on his shoulder I pulled the trigger. At the sound of the shot he took off and bucks started running in every direction. There had been a ton of other bucks with him but we hadn't been able to see them because of the thick cover.

I knew something was wrong when the buck didn't drop in his tracks but I couldn't believe I missed a 125 yard broadside shot. We cautiously went down the hill to find my buck, but he was no where to be found, no blood, no hair, no nothing. After much searching we tried to figure out what could have happened. On closer inspection I realized when the buck stopped there was a 8 inch oak directly between me and his lungs. It was in fact this tree that I had mistakenly taken for his shoulder in the shadows. The dark shadows, low light and dark color of the bucks hide made the tree trunk look a heck of a lot like a piece of buck. I'm not trying to make excuses, there is no excuse for missing such an easy shot but sometimes these things just happen. Luckily that gut twisting feeling of disgust I get after I miss a buck, would be short lived, as I would get another chance at a good buck the next morning.

Later that day we again found the big bachelor group of bucks. This time they were bedded in and around a huge blackberry thicket. The tall narrow 4x3 and another very nice 3x3 were bedded half way in the open at the edge of the thicket and we could make out parts of other bucks bedded farther into the dense growth. If Doug hadn't already filled his tag the 4x3 would have been a good choice. Although only 16 inches wide he was nice and high.

We waited for over two hours for the bucks to get up and move but they never did. Occasionally the 4x3 and 3x3 would lay their heads down and take a nap. Finally we came up with a plan. Dave would circle around and come in from the the opposite direction and try to ease the big 3x3 out of the blackberries, assuming he was there, by softly whistling. We hoped the hidden bucks wouldn't become too alarmed, but would instead become uneasy, and move out of the brush and down the hill. As usually when hunting Blacktails, it didn't work. Instead of coming out of the blackberries, they all headed deeper in and then down the hill out of sight. Why? because a strange sounding bird softy whistled a hundred yards away. It's a wonder anyone ever kills a Blacktail.

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This is part of the bachelor group of bucks mentioned above. The big 3x3 is on the left.
These stills were taken from video I shot a couple weeks before my miss.
THE RAIN BEGINS. The next morning started out cold and dizzily with occasional rain showers. Dave and Doug started the day by looking for the big 3x3 that was Doug's original target and I decided to still hunt an old skid road at the edge of thick timber. After about an hour I was easing my way along in an area where I had seen several bucks in the recent past and caught a slight movement to my left, it was a doe. I had a feeling there might be a buck nearby and decided to wait a few minutes before moving on. It was one of those feelings you get when everything is perfect, it's as if you can sense a bucks presence without seeing them. This was definitely one of those times! After a minute or two a decent 3x3 appeared on the skid road, 75 yards in front of me, totally unaware of my presence. Before he disappeared into the brush on the opposite side he glanced back over his shoulder in the direction he had come from, giving me hope another bigger buck might be bringing up the rear. Almost on cue a beautiful dark horned 4x4 stepped from the wet vegetation and walked out into the open. I raised my rifle and with one quick shot put and end to my A-zone season. The buck turned out to be a heavy bodied, 4x4 that measured 18 3/4 wide and 16 high. Not the awesome B&C buck I had chased for the first three weeks of the season but a very nice buck non the less.
Click photos for larger view... Click photos for larger view
I took this buck while still hunting a skid road on a rainy morning.
STEVE PARDINI'S BUCK. A few days later while following my step daughter down the hill on her way to fill up my jeep with gas. I ran into our neighbor, Steve Pardini. He was obviously very excited as he told me about the big 4x4 he had just killed. As he went to get his 4 wheeler to bring the buck out of the steep canyon it was in, I ran to the house a grabbed my video camera. When I returned with my video camera Steve had already retrieved the buck and was on his way out of the canyon on his 4 wheeler with his buck tied on the back. We pulled over in an open area and shot some video of his buck in the headlights. The stills below were taken off of that video. His buck was a real beauty, a perfect 4x4 with long eye-guards and a heavy 17 x 16 rack. Definitely a buck to be proud of.
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Steve Pardini's exceptional 4x4 was taken after several close calls with the same buck.
We didn't score him but I would guess he scores very close to 130 B&C.
DAVE'S BUCK. With only a few days left in the season Dave was starting to feel the heat. If he was going to get a buck he better do it quick. On the last Friday of the season Dave and my wife Linda headed off in search of a good buck. Linda was along to capture the hunt on video should Dave find a buck of his liking. They hunted hard all morning with no success, in fact they hardly saw a deer.

Later that evening just after sunset Dave snuck to the top of a rise as Linda filmed from below. Dave immediately spotted a very shootable buck, dropped to his knees, took a rest with his rifle and waved Linda up the hill, hoping she would be able to get video of the buck when Dave shot. As Linda neared Dave with the camera rolling (still out of sight of the buck) the buck, which was bedded with a smaller one, jumped to his feet and headed for parts unknown. Dave had no choice but to shoot, he knew bucks of this caliber don't come along very often. At the sound of the shot the big buck crumpled and disappeared from sight. As Dave and Linda approached the downed buck it just kept getting bigger. As it turned out it was the same buck I had hunted exclusively for the first half of the season and my estimate of his size had been pretty close. He ended up being a long tined, 19 wide by 17 1/2 high, 4x4, with good eye-guards and mass. The buck unofficially green scores 138 7/8 B&C. Beating Dave's last buck, another beautiful 133, 4x4, by a few inches.

.Click photos for larger view ... Click photos for larger view

After hunting for 41 days Dave's finally tagged this great 4x4 with only three days left in the season.

THE SEASON. All and all this was one of our best seasons. Of course it could have been better, we could have all killed B&C 4X4's but the chance's of that happening are pretty low. Please don't get the wrong impression, our bucks didn't come easy. I think lots of the time private land hunters get a bad rap simply because hunters without access to private property mistakenly believe there are big bucks behind every tree. I can tell you from experience, this isn't the case.

I came across a post on another message board recently by a hunter who referred to A-zone as the easy zone, obviously this guy has never hunted A-Zone. He then went on to say he wouldn't hunt a private ranch in California's A-zone even if he had the chance, because there's no challenge involved. I'm not sure how someone so obviously out of touch with the realities of hunting A-zone comes to such a conclusion, or maybe its just jealously, but let me assure you there is nothing easy about hunting A-zone

We probably hunted more this season in order to get our bucks than many hunters will hunt in the next ten years. Dave, for example, hunted every day for 43 days before taking his buck, this is not an exaggeration, it's the truth, and believe it or not, I did the same. We didn't hunt from daylight till dark everyday but we at least put in a few hours, ever single day of the season

Yes it's true we probably see more bucks than many hunters do during the season but there's a reason for that. We try to practice sound deer management. We're not experts in deer management but it doesn't take an expert to realize, if you let the little bucks grow up, at some point there will be more mature bucks . However, just because there are a lot of small bucks around doesn't mean the big ones are any easier to tag.

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