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Buck numbers good, but size is down

While southwest Oregon is known for growing some of the biggest blacktail bucks in hunting history, local hunters this year likely should be thinking small.

The fields and forests of the south Cascades are awash in blacktail bucks, but the majority are younger bucks not sporting the record-book antler racks hunters are accustomed to seeing here.

"There were a lot of young bucks last year, so we should have plenty of small to medium-sized bucks for hunters this year," says Mark Vargas, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District wildlife biologist.

"I'd like to say it's a good recruitment year for bucks," he says.

Rifle hunters will start to cash in on that recruitment Sept. 30, with the start of the general rifle season, and thousands of them will plunk down $26.50 for a buck tag.

In the Rogue, Evans Creek and Dixon units, this year's Cascade buck season runs through Oct. 13. Hunters then take a traditional hiatus for the week-long Roosevelt bull elk season for rifle hunters before returning Oct. 21 through Nov. 3.

Applegate Unit hunters fall under the coast buck season, which also opens Sept. 30 and runs straight through Nov. 3, because there is no general bull-elk season to break it up like there is in the Cascades.

With the opener still a week away, forest closures remain in effect across large swaths of federal land due to wildfires, while most lower-elevation industrial forest lands are also closed to the public.

Despite access issues, there is a lot for deer hunters to be optimistic about in 2017.

Hunters in the Rogue Unit head into the season with a ratio of 30 bucks per 100 does, up from 26 bucks the previous year.

"That's a really good ratio, one of the better ones we've seen," Vargas says.

In 2016, 6,560 rifle hunters hit the Rogue Unit for a total of 43,180 hunting days, ODFW records show. They shot 1,306 bucks for a 19.9 percent success rate, up a hair from 2015, records show.

"One out of five people getting a buck is not bad," Vargas says.

Bowhunters also did well in 2016, with 3,198 hunters logging 24,964 days afield to bag 477 bucks, for a 15 percent success rate, records show.

The Rogue 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.

Numbers are only part of the deer-hunting game, however, because deer 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.

During the early season, hunting high ridges in the lower parts of summer range could put hunters into the region's migrating blacktail herds.

In most years, dry conditions make for difficult stalking. That's why many Southern Oregon hunters take cues from their Midwest brethren by finding a nice tree or large rock on which to perch themselves and wait for bushwhacking hunters to push bucks their way.

That approach changes later in the season, when hunters look to intercept deer migrating toward lower elevations.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Southern Oregon is known for big black-tailed bucks, and numbers look good this fall, but size appears to be down. [Mail Tribune / file photo]