2003 Deer Hunting Journal-

Well, this is year three for my online hunting journals. If you're reading this, thanks. For my part, I'm sure enjoying putting it all together... almost as much as I'm enjoying the hunts that make it up.

I suppose the original intent, to collect data and identify trends (such as weather patterns and moon phases) has kind of gone by the wayside. Most of the time, the weather during the CA deer seasons is pretty much identical anyway.

This season promises to be a busy one for hunting. First and foremost, I managed to draw an X3-A tag for California. That'll put me in some prime mule deer habitat. I've been working with a friend on a 7000 acre ranch in that zone, and that's where we'll be hunting. That hunt begins on October 4.

The X zone hunt overlaps another major hunt, a Colorado elk trip that begins on October 11. I'm planning to leave directly from the X zone hunt to make the Colorado trip. That means I need to score early in X zone, in order to have time to drive to CO without marathon driving.

Finally, I chose an Archery Only tag for my second CA deer tag. This gives me access to the A zone, B zone, and all D zones, both during archery and rifle season. Essentially this means I could potentially hunt from July 16 through the first week of November.

As a surprise, I also got the opportunity to go to South Carolina for the deer opener to bowhunt deer and hogs at the Bostick Plantation.

So here goes!

September 06-07 - B-zone Archery Season Close - Kokopelli Valley

With my trip to South Carolina behind me, a visit with the folks in North Carolina, and a ton of work to do when I got home, I didn't get out again until the closing weekend of the B-zone archery season. I was itching to get into Kokopelli Valley, especially after some of the great new spots I discovered there last year. I knew that the odds were slim to get up there for the rifle season, nor did I really want to try to compete with the rifle hunters up there. It was now or never.

I hit the road, as usual, a little later than I wanted to, and didn't arrive at the trailhead until almost 2300. I decided to go on up to the Wilderness Area to start off, in hopes of hiking up onto the mountain where I climbed last year. Rather than unload the truck at the Kokopelli Valley trailhead, I drove on up the hill to get a head start.

The moon was so bright on the way up the mountain, I could practically have turned off my headlights. This didn't bode well, but since I've always had mixed results hunting on a full moon I didn't stress about it. It wasn't going to be too hot for the weekend, and I hoped a cool morning or evening would get the big boys out and about.

09/06 - 0400 -

Morning found me ready to roll. I knocked back a Red Bull, wolfed down a Pop-tart and a granola bar, then grabbed my gear and headed uphill.

The first thing I realized was that it has been a LONG time since the end of last season, and I haven't seen this place since then. I tried to mark the trail I'd used to come down from the mountain, but the regrowth from the fire completely changed the way the place looked, especially in the dark. I cast around for the trail a while, then decided it wasn't going to happen. The hill was too steep to try in the dark without the trail, and I knew that all I'd succeed in doing was to kill myself getting up there, make a huge racket, and spook any game clear out of the county.

Fallback plan... I decided to go along the West Ridge over Kokopelli Valley. This would give me an opportunity to scout the valley and to hunt the beds along the ridgetop. It could be productive, as all the fresh tracks I was finding seemed to run parallel to the ridge itself.

Apparently star-thistle comes in thick a couple years after a big fire. I had never seen it like this before, dense patches, sometimes coming as high as my chest. The sharp spines can penetrate most clothing, and they weren't having any trouble with the thin cloth of my hunting pants. I brought my gaiters, but left them in the truck since I figured to be up in the oaks and pines, not down in this stuff. I was cursing my decision now, though!


Star thistle (Centaurea solstitialis) is a member of the sun flower family. You'd hardly notice the resemblance, though, except for the yellow flowers. See those spines? They're almost as hard as toothpicks, and extremely sharp. They can pierce right through denim and even through some hiking boots. The tips often break off, leaving nasty little festering sores on the skin where they've entered. I HATE star thistle!


In addition to the star thistle, the ground is very dry, and every step is like stepping on Rice Krispies. I found myself moving extremely slowly, but it still sounded like a bulldozer moving along the top of the ridge.

By 0800, I was about halfway down the ridge, and almost to a point over the apple orchard. I hoped the apples were back, but I still couldn't see the trees clearly. Moving along the saddle, I spotted a convergence of three very fresh trails. The confluence crossed into a patch of oaks, just on the edge of the hillside. Below, I could see the escape trails leading out the back of the oaks. This was definitely a buck's bedding spot.

Even as I stood contemplating, I heard the rustle of leaves on the other side of the trees. I stealthily crept around and spotted a deer about 50 yards out on the end of a finger ridge. I didn't need the binoculars to see that he was a nice buck, packing either really huge forks, or a three-point rack. I didn't want to raise the binoculars to spook him, so I watched to see what he'd do.

Obviously he was concerned about me, but I don't think he was sure where I was. He looked around from his perch for a few moments, then locked onto my position. With a flick of the tail, he dove over the edge of the finger ridge and slid down onto a trail. I watched as he slinked in and out of cover along the side of the ridge. With a rifle, I could have popped him several times over. With the bow, all I could do was watch.

I followed along the ridge, hoping the buck might try to cut over and circle back, but no luck. I finally lost him in a dense thicket of pines, about 500 feet down, and practically unapproachable. I decided to hunt on, and maybe try to set up for this guy on the evening hunt.

By now, I was directly over Kokopelli Valley. I sat down with a bottle of water and a sandwich, and glassed the canyon and surrounding area. I saw several deer moving through the brush down near the Kokopelli Valley trailhead. None of them sported antlers, but I made a mental note of the area where they were moving.

As the sun moved higher, the heat became unbearable on the open ridgetop. Finally, around 1100, I decided I couldn't take it anymore and hiked back to the truck, giving the buck's bedding area a wide berth.

Back down the hill, I jumped in the truck and drove down to the creek for a swim and a nap. What a change a little elevation and shade can make! Around the creek a cool breeze was blowing, and after a quick dip I was actually quite chilled. I grabbed a shirt and my hammock, and stretched out between a couple of trees for a two-hour nap.

At around 1600, I decided to hunt Kokopelli Valley instead of trying to get back up on the ridge. I humped into the apple orchard, and was disappointed to see that only two trees really had any leaves on them, and there were no apples at all. However, the blackberries were exploding, and fresh deer trails carved the meadows.

I set up north of the apples, near an apparently busy crossing. There are three distinct "meadows" running north and south through Kokopelli Valley, and they all start at this point where a year-round stream comes down from a high spring. The north end where the stream enters is also a major traffic area. I found a good spot with some cover and got comfy.

Just at sunset, I spotted a lone doe moving down from the west ridge. I watched her for a while, then continued glassing. A few minutes later, I heard the telltale sign of deer running full-bore through the brush. I wondered what had spooked it until I realized that it was two youngsters playing tag. They would tear along the ridge one way, then turn and come tearing back.

After a few circuits, the two suddenly entered the first meadow, crossed it, and charged directly toward me. I knew that neither deer was a shooter, but it was exciting anyway. They passed within a few yards and darted off through the fig trees and blackberries. Shortly afterward, a doe (not sure if it was the same one I'd spotted earlier) moseyed through, swivelling her head as if she were looking for errant children (she probably was).

Nothing else moved as it got dark, so I picked up and headed back to camp. I bumped one more deer in Surprise Meadow, but it was too dark to see antlers.

09/07 - 0430

Too much tequila with dinner last night, apparently. I did NOT want to roll out of the bed. But this was it, probably my last hunt in Kokopelli Valley for this season, and I didn't want to spend it laying in the back of the truck.

After a Red Bull and something to eat, I didn't feel much better. Still, I grabbed my gear and headed down the trail. I figured I'd circle around and go up on "Katbird Point" for the morning, to see what was moving there. That would also allow me to glass the west ridge where I hoped to spot that buck again.

Besides some distant does, the morning hunt didn't deliver much of anything. By 1000 I was ready to go back to camp. A nice breeze was coming up, and the temps were reasonably cool. I decided to drive up to the highest peak in the area, and look around for new places to hunt. Maybe all the big boys are up high.

On the walk back to the truck, I kicked up another deer, a spike. He was bedded less than 100 yards from the truck! I love archery season, when the pressure is so light that the deer are willing to ignore a human camp! Of course, if this guy lived long enough to grow serious antlers, he'd probably never be that naive again.

The drive got fairly exciting as I reached the very peak. There's a radio relay tower there. This is also where the hang gliders like to launch. The wind was whipping pretty good, and the view was incredible. As I glassed across the wilderness area, I spotted a plume of smoke. Not a great sign in this dry season.

A CDF helicopter was in the area, and I spotted a small plane circling near the area. At least someone else had spotted it, and I didn't need to drive down to the ranger station and call it in.

I drove back down to the trailhead and decided a nap would serve me well before heading in for the evening hunt. The wind carried a little coolness, and I actually slept very well in the back of the truck, at one point actually pulling a light blanket over myself. Hardly typical for early September, but I sure enjoyed it.

I crawled back out for the evening hunt, and decided to go back down behind the orchard again. As I slipped into the meadow, I caught movement about 30 yards away. I hunched down behind a bush, and watched as a doe and two youngsters browsed in the edges. Shortly, the little threesome wandered off and I was able to get into the spot I wanted for the evening hunt.

The evening fell slowly, and most of the time was spent watching the firefighting aircraft circle over the fire area.

While the fire had to have been at least 15 miles away, the wind whipped the smoke and my eyes were beginning to redden and burn from the particulates. I figured I'd be reading about this fire in the paper on Monday morning.

Just before dark, a single doe came poking across the end of the clearing where the little family had gone earlier. I kept hoping to see a buck, even a little forkie, come out with her. But no go. She meandered away into the woods as dark settled and it was time to go home.

This is the view from the peak of St. John's Mountain, looking back across theSnow Mountain Wilderness. Near the middle of the picture and to the right, you can spot the smoke plume. Between the time I spotted this little smoke and the end of the day, the smoke was already so thick it was burning my eyes. Helicopters and firefighting aircraft were busy, but the wind was really kicking.

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Copyright 2003 WPL