All those November days Josh Schmalenberger spent wandering the woods of Eastern Oregon with a buck hunter's best get-out-of-jail-free card in his wallet seemed almost too wickedly wonderful.

All those November days Josh Schmalenberger spent wandering the woods of Eastern Oregon with a buck hunter's best get-out-of-jail-free card in his wallet seemed almost too wickedly wonderful.

He spied hundreds of mule deer daily and dozens of big bucks standing rut-stupid in his cross-hairs. He saw so many deer it was hard to decide when to pull the trigger and end this fantasy.

"There were some beautiful, beautiful bucks I passed up that I'd normally drool for the chance to get," says Schmalenberger, 31, of Etna, Calif.

"It felt like we were doing something wrong," he says. "My friend called it 'legal poaching.' "

But the big, four-point buck Schmalenberger shot Nov. 16 near Paulina was anything but poaching. It was a present for doing the right thing and an incentive for the rest of Oregon to follow suit.

Schmalenberger earned one of three special tags doled out this fall as incentive to follow Oregon's mandatory reporting rules by supplying information about his big-game hunts.

Simply by phoning in information about his hunting prowess last year as required, Schmalenberger's name was added to a drawing that earned him a statewide deer tag identical to the so-called "governor's tag" that sold at auction last spring for $33,500.

"It's still almost surreal, even now, just to think about it," says Schmalenberger.

The three tags offered through the program represent the carrot approach for luring Oregon's hunting public to the world of mandatory reporting.

The information about days hunted, favorite units and success rates are part of the data biologists use for crafting hunts and tag proposals each year.

ODFW enacted mandatory reporting in 2008, but just 17 percent of hunters participated, and the poor showing was chalked up largely to there being no incentive, or disincentive, to go through the hoops.

Instead of punishing non-participants, agency officials chose to sweeten the pot by making reporting hunters eligible for deer, elk or pronghorn tags that include expanded hunt areas and extended season dates identical to those statewide auction or raffle tags.

That helped boost participation to about 35 percent of the roughly 250,000 people who hunt big-game animals in Oregon annually.

"Word was out there about the incentives, but it didn't really catch a lot of folks' attention," says Tom Thornton, ODFW's game program coordinator. "Most people hadn't heard of it."

By default, Schmalenberger has become the poster boy for the program. He is a Forest Service firefighter and fuels-management specialist for the Klamath National Forest with a background in biology. He willingly followed through with his mandatory reporting last year after hunting elk with family members in Eastern Oregon.

In March, he received a phone call from Thornton saying he had won his choice of big-game tags for this fall.

"I thought somebody was pulling my leg, but it sounded pretty legit," Schmalenberger says.

Since ODFW cannot legally give away tags, he had to pay the $500.50 out-of-state fee for an elk tag, and he planned his hunt.

He took off all of November, intent upon turning his opportunity into a month-long scouting trip of sorts with his father. Hunting with a friend from Paulina, Schmalenberger was astonished at the number of mule deer he saw.

"I was seeing 400 deer a day, maybe 500," Schmalenberger says. "And 40, maybe 60, of them were good bucks, too."

Unlike most governors' tag-holders, he was not looking to shoot his way into the Boone and Crockett record books with his would-be buck.

"That wasn't my mission — to put one in the books," he says. I'm really not into the numbers.

"I was waiting to shoot an animal that portrayed a big mule deer to me," he says.

Halfway through the hunt, Schmalenberger had a line on a buck supposedly sporting 40-inch-wide antlers — one for the books.

He tracked it for four miles, but never caught up to him.

In the same area, though, he spied a four-point that fit his standards.

The tale of the tape: antlers 33 inches wide, 21 inches tall with a green score of 175 inches on the Boone and Crockett standard.

Not big enough for the record books, but plenty big in Schmalenberger's world.

"I'm a big-buck hunter, but I haven't shot anything nearly that big," he says. "It was just a beautiful deer on a tremendous hunt."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail