Blacktail hunters looking to rebound

But weather could bring a repeat of 2010's poor hunt

The anomaly of spring 2010 and its persistently cold, wet weather acted like a major reset button for West Coast flora and fauna reacting to such strange conditions, and Southern Oregon's deer population was stuck in the middle of it.

Cool and wet weather through May caused near failure of low-elevation acorns, created a mushroom explosion at higher elevations, wiped out year classes of tree frogs and other amphibians and triggered as much as a two-week lag in black-tailed deer migration from their high-elevation haunts.

"It threw everything off," says Mark Vargas, the Rogue District wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "It was crazy."

And hunters, likewise suffered. Success rates last year for general-season rifle hunters in the Rogue Unit plummeted from the normal 20 to 25 percent to a lack-luster 13 percent.

"From Northern California up through Washington, hunter success was terrible. Deer weren't acting like they normally did."

And that might pose a reason to worry this year, because 2011's wet and cool spring came close to imitating last year's weather, and hunters in Jackson County's Rogue Unit will see the lowest buck-to-doe ratio in five years.

"Who knows what that means?" Vargas says. "It could mean the same thing."

Hunters will start answering that question Saturday, Oct. 1, when the general buck deer season for rifle hunters opens, triggering the unofficial start of the fall hunting season.

Thousands of hunters are expected to plunk down the $24.50 for a buck tag in what remains one of Oregon's best and most popular general-season opportunities for big-game success.

In the Rogue, Evans Creek and Dixon units, the Cascade buck season runs Oct. 1 to Oct. 14, then takes a hiatus for the week-long general Roosevelt bull-elk season before returning Saturday, Oct. 22, and running through Nov. 4.

Applegate Unit hunters fall under the coast buck season, which runs Oct. 1 through Nov. 4.

Deer hunters head into this season with a ratio of 19 bucks per 100 does in the Rogue Unit. That's down from last year's ratio of 33 bucks per 100 does, and it's the lowest ratio since 2006, when a meager 12 bucks per 100 does were recorded in the Rogue Unit.

The unit is Jackson County's most-hunted unit in part because of easy access and some of the biggest blacktails the West has ever seen.

The Applegate Unit has 36 bucks per 100 does heading into this season, up from 31 bucks per 100 does last year.

Consider that Eastern Oregon's trophy units are managed for 25 bucks per 100 does. The Rogue Unit is managed for 15 bucks per 100 does, and statewide anything over 35 bucks per 100 does is considered a good buck ratio.

During preseason census counts, biologists in the Rogue and Applegate units found between 10 and 11 deer for every mile traveled. That's significantly better than the 4.5 deer per mile found in 2003, which represented the nadir of deer counts here thanks largely to disease outbreaks.

Major virus blooms in 2000 and 2002 crippled blacktail herds, contributing to a string of poor deer-recruitment years that saw a crash in migratory deer numbers and hunting success.

The viruses have remained present in the region, but it's more associated with "city deer" that unnaturally congregate around urban areas, particularly where people feed or place water buckets for the animals.

Along with those improved health conditions is a hunting season that makes life a little easier for big bucks.

Five days have been shaved off the end of recent seasons, giving big bucks a better window to escape hunters — especially in the late season when most of the big bucks are killed.

Conditions fluctuate annually, and the yearly success rate for Rogue Unit rifle hunters in general seasons hover around the point where one in four or five hunters tags a buck.

But last year, 6,215 hunters logged 41,019 days afield to kill just 804 bucks for a 13 percent success rate, statistics show.

The increasingly popular Applegate Unit muzzleloader hunt resulted in a 50-percent success rate last year, with 95 percent of those deer being bucks.

This year, Applegate Unit hunters start off with a robust rate of 36 bucks per 100 does.

"We've been seeing really good hunting in the Applegate, especially that late-season muzzleloader hunt," Vargas says. "It's been a tough tag to get."

The late-season archery hunt in the Rogue Unit, which occurs in tandem with the Applegate muzzleloader hunt, also remains strong. That's when most archers choose to kill their deer, in part because conditions are better and they are not focused on elk like they are during the early season.

The lingering question remains what kind of weather and hunting conditions will the rifle faithful find next weekend. And here they have an ally by the name of Megan Woodhead.

Woodhead is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Medford, normally the source of opening-weekend weather reports that favor sunbathers and waterskiers over deer hunters.

Woodhead says the high-pressure system that has kept armpits sweaty and sunglasses on this past week could start to break up around mid-week, possibly allowing a storm system over the eastern Pacific to move inland. If it does, lower temperatures, cloud cover and even some rainfall could turn the crispy forest floor into something a little more quiet for blacktail stalkers.

That said, hunters usually get out of the general-season hunt exactly what they put into it.

Blacktails are brush-lovers, and they prefer not to live along roadways. So hunters need to beat feet for better odds of finding a buck and eschew the all-too-common practice of driving backwoods roads and venturing only after deer that are spotted from the road.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.


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