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Hunters can expect a good shot at bucks

Jackson County's rifle hunters have their sights set on another solid blacktail buck hunt this fall.

Another great buck-to-doe ratio amid herds of migratory blacktails, which continue to bounce back from years of disease problems, gives hunters every reason to believe the 2009 hunt will result in venison in the freezer and a rack of antlers in the garage.

About the only thing standing in the way of a hunter willing to put in the time and miles often required of success in Southern Oregon is the darn critter itself.

"Blacktails are just tough to hunt," says Mark Vargas, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist in Central Point.

"They're secretive," he says. "They're reclusive. They're hard to get to. They avoid roads. They like the brush, and we got a lot of brush. But that's all part of the challenge."

After four straight years of increasing buck-to-doe ratios in the Rogue Unit, the ratio dipped slightly this year, but numbers remain strong.

Hunters head into this season with a ratio of 38 bucks per 100 does. That's a slight drop from last year's record ratio of 47 bucks per 100 does in the Rogue Unit, which is the most popular unit for Southern Oregon rifle hunters who ply the woods around Prospect, Butte Falls and the Dead Indian Plateau for some of the biggest blacktails the West has ever seen.

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

"Considering the benchmark that we manage for is 15 (bucks per 100 does), 38 in incredibly high," Vargas says. "It's just really good."

Better survival rates among bucks appear due, in part, to something that happened in the woods, as well as something Vargas did on paper at his desk at ODFW's Central Point office.

Good deer numbers and the strong buck ratios likely show that the adenovirus, which spread through migratory herds early this decade like it did in the late 1980s, has finally waned, Vargas says.

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 virus remains 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 conditions is a season that has made life a little easier for big bucks, as well.

Recent seasons have seen five days shaved off the end, giving big bucks a better window to escape hunters — especially in the late season, when most of the big bucks are killed, Vargas says.

"We're not going to see the deer population we saw in the late '70s or early '80s," Vargas says. "But it's not bad, especially compared to the late '90s."

Last year's strong ratio seemed to translate into strong hunting success. The Rogue Unit lured 7,048 hunters who logged 45,091 days afield to kill 1,590 bucks for a success rate of 23 percent.

"That's a pretty good success rate," Vargas says. "That's almost one out of every four hunters getting a buck."

In 2007, the success rate was 21 percent, while only 18 percent of hunters were successful in the Rogue Unit in 2006.

Whether this year's success rate echoes that of 2008 depends on two factors — only one of which hunters can control.

The controllable factor is effort.

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.

"You have to get out of your vehicles," Vargas says. "You have to get off the roads and go looking for these animals.

"And don't be afraid to get out when it's rainy and blustery," he says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.