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Weather should help deer hunters

LAKE CREEK — The blacktail-rich hills around this central Jackson County outpost are normally so crackling dry for the opening of the buck-deer season that rifle hunters say they don't eat their Cornflakes for breakfast ... they walk on them.

But the forest duff could contain some unusual fluff as cool and possibly even soggy or snowy conditions greet rifle hunters Saturday when they begin the general season for blacktail bucks in Western Oregon.

Weather 30 degrees cooler than just last weekend — and the chance of showers Friday evening and Saturday — means unusually favorable hunting conditions for what is widely considered the start of the fall hunting season.

Coupled with a relatively late start to the general season and this week's first high-elevation snows of the year, blacktails are on the move toward winter range amid conditions that should help mask the presence of hunters.

"Anybody who's used to hunting migratory trails should have a little better chance," says Eagle Point hunting guide Mike Kaiser. "And for high-country people who hunt the edges of wilderness, it's got to help them, too," he says.

"It only helps. Anything's better than the 100-degree weather we've had during archery season," he adds.

Just how much help comes from above is the focus of hunters heading into opening weekend. The first part of the season runs through Oct. 16. After the traditional one-week break to allow for the general elk-hunting season, deer hunting resumes Oct. 24 and concludes for the year on Nov. 6.

For hunters who prefer the Applegate Unit or other areas that fall under the coast-buck seasons, hunting opens Saturday and runs through Nov. 6, with no break for mid-October elk hunting.

Despite the disappearance of Friday night's tag-sale deadline, hunters continue to lollygag.

Last year, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife sold more than 102,000 general rifle-season deer tags, but through Monday about 41,500 were sold, says Michelle Dennehy, the ODFW's Wildlife Division spokeswoman.

"As far as tag sales, Friday will be the busiest day of the year for us," Dennehy says.

When the hunters get busy Saturday, they should find plenty of reason for optimism.

Coming off last year's 23-percent success rate, Rogue Unit rifle hunters head into the season seeing good deer numbers with a very good ratio of 38 bucks per 100 does, according to ODFW statistics. 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 in the West.

In typical years, the ODFW numbers are less important than those furnished by the National Weather Service. High temperatures, low humidity and nary a rain cloud in sight can trump even the best preseason predictions.

"Usually, you come into opening day of deer season and everything is so dry you can't move without causing a racket," says Steve Niemela, an ODFW wildlife biologist in Central Point.

Giving hunters a chance to put the sneak on bucks, however, may be the most relevant way to read the weather forecast, Niemela says.

For more than a decade, ODFW biologists have used cameras set on game trails to monitor blacktail migration. Records show that, regardless of weather conditions, the peak of migration on the studied trails is the second week of October.

"The deer are pretty much on a schedule," Niemela says. "They're moving, overall, in response to weather. But I don't know what a single storm will do."

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