Deer hunters are heading into this fall's general rifle season not knowing if their favorite haunts even will be open to them.
Dastardly, dry backwoods conditions have enticed commercial foresters in Jackson and Josephine counties to close public access to more than a quarter-million acres, locking some traditional deer camps out until rains finally quell fears of wildfires.
Forecasts don't have that happening before next week's start of the general rifle season, meaning Rogue Valley hunters will be flocking to high-elevation, national forestlands to get cured of buck fever.
"If the private lands are still closed, hunters will be rushing to public lands, which means they'll have to go up high," says Mark Vargas, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District wildlife biologist.
"It's not just here," Vargas says. "It's from the coast all the way up the Cascades."
Hunters will start heading high Saturday, Sept. 29, 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 from Saturday, Sept. 29, through Oct. 12, then takes a hiatus for the weeklong, general Roosevelt bull-elk season before returning Oct. 20 and running through Nov. 2.
Applegate Unit hunters fall under the coast buck season, which runs Sept. 29 through Nov. 2.
Deer hunters head into this season with a ratio of 33 bucks per 100 does in the Rogue Unit. That's way up from last year's ratio of 19 bucks per 100 does and equal to the ratio of 2010.
The unit is Jackson County's most-hunted in part because of easy access and some of the biggest blacktails the West has ever seen.
The Applegate Unit has 37 bucks per 100 does heading into this season, up one from 36 bucks per 100 does last year. The Evans Creek Unit's ratio is 29 bucks per 100 does.
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, hunter numbers and efforts dropped off from 2010, though their overall successes saw a slight increase.
In the Rogue Unit, 5,858 hunters logged 38,005 days afield toward racking up a 17-percent success rate — up from the 13 percent during the dismal 2010 season.
"Last year was more traditional," Vargas says. "The deer did what they normally do, and hunters intercepted deer in their normal places."
That's one reason why 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.
So-called "road hunting" once was popular and effective in places like Southern Oregon. But decades of reduced logging have allowed brush to grow high and reduce windows into the forest.
During the early season, hunting high ridges in the lower parts of summer range could put hunters into chunks of the region's migrating blacktail herds. But conditions will be tinder-dry and difficult for stalking, so hunters could take a cue from their Midwest brethren and find a nice tree or large rock to perch themselves on and wait for the animals to come to them.
"It all comes down to whether the deer behave and the weather cooperates," Vargas says.
Hunters also need to find good food sources to find deer. And this year, that could be a little easier than years' past in the oak savannahs of Southern Oregon.
"The acorn crop in most areas is exceptional," Vargas says. "There should be good forage for deer. I haven't seen an acorn crop like this in six or seven years.
"It's not going to make much difference in the early season," Vargas says. "But later in the season, it'll concentrate deer more in those acorn areas."