THE FIRST DEER HUNT IS NOT THE LAST: A FIRST TIME DEER HUNTER’S EXPERIENCE – This last weekend I went deer hunting for the first time in my life. I wouldn’t call this trip “deer hunting”, it was more like a long search for signs of life.
The Start of the Journey
My friend and I had tags for California’s D19 zone. We went just above the town of Hemet into Hemet Valley. Hemet Valley looks like it should really belong in the mountains of Southern Utah. It sits above Palm Springs in the middle of California’s low desert so it isn’t a place one would think holds deer.
My friend Kyle and I are both duck hunters and fishermen. I’ve been fishing trout since I was five in the Eastern Sierras above Bishop, and Kyle has been hunting since he was a kid. I have wanted to hunt deer my whole life, but my dad was not into deer hunting like he was fishing. I didn’t actually get my first duck until I was 23 years old, but now I am hooked. I’ve watched videos on hunting deer, boar, bear, elk, you name it, but I’ve never had the chance due to college, law school, and life in general. This first hunt was going to be an interesting experience no matter what happened.
Each of the last three years we have put in for California’s deer draw, but we never used the tags we got (Side note: no X zone tags were wasted in this time; we would have welcomed the better odds of getting a deer which are usually 50%). With a 10% chance of getting a deer, we parked our car at 6am and headed out into the hills. We didn’t have a spot planned as we weren’t able to scout this last summer. Neither of us own a trail cam (yet) so we just used what little knowledge we had about hunting in general and put it to use.
As we walked, we realized we understood a little of how animals think, but some things specific to deer were not things we would think of to hunt duck. One big new thing to strategize was our scent and how the wind could affect our chances of getting a deer. Wind doesn’t affect duck hunting the same way it does deer. We were definitely more conscious of this as we walked up and over hills, constantly looking to avoid the wind blowing adversely.
Signs of Life
We did have cell-phone service in the Southern California “wild”. The fire road we found was a Verizon cell phone line road for the homes deep in Hemet Valley. This helped a couple of novice hunters because when we saw the first set of tracks, we thought the big part of the deer hoof was the way they were headed. Google taught us quick which way the deer were headed. Had we been somewhere without service we likely would have gone the opposite way from the deer.
When we got to the top of a hill overlooking the Eastern side of Hemet Valley, we stopped to glass the mountain side. Now, what is glassing? We still don’t know if we were doing it right, but it was fun. Both of us had binoculars and would scan the side of the mountain and hills across from us. When we found a spot where we thought deer would be sitting, we would use my spotting scope to get a closer look. We glassed for about an hour and decided on a spot and headed in that direction.
The trail took us back into the valley and we came to a small stream, then a bigger stream. After getting some tips from some EHUNTR staffers, we decided to head back to the smaller stream. With less of a chance for predators near a smaller body of water, we thought our odds were better. The smaller stream had tons of deer tracks, deer scat, and even an area where they bed. Maybe we should have realized the deer weren’t going to take a nap at 11am, but it was the best spot we found all day. We waited for an hour and didn’t see anything. Another hunter finally walked through our spot and we realized if there were any deer they would be long gone now, so we decided to explore elsewhere.
As we started our five-mile trek back to the truck we stopped to check out other locations. Since it was the middle of the day but only 72 degrees, we scouted other areas. We found where deer could be bedded down during the day in heavy cover, and we found areas our early morning glassing didn’t show us. Kyle and I decided we would come back next year, if we don’t draw a better zone, just to try the areas we scouted during that afternoon.
Takeaways from the trip
So, what were our learning experiences? For me it was the need for better gear. I need a different backpack specifically designed for deer hunting. I was using my duck hunting backpack which is much wider than comfortable as it is meant to hold decoys. Lugging that big bag around all day wasn’t necessary.
I think the binoculars I have now are good for glassing purposes. Although zoom in and out feature would be nice. I just have an old pair of Bushnell’s from my Grandma with 40x zoom which did fine.
The spotting scope I have from Harbor Tool and Freight was only $40, but it does the trick for what I need. I didn’t see a need for a $600 spotting scope at this point. Maybe if we go for elk in a rainy/snowy area we would need something more waterproof.
I’s also like a new lighter gun, but who wouldn’t. I love my 1917 Enfield World War I conversion my dad got me for graduation. It’s not a rifle I want to carry more than 10 miles because it weighs close to 20 pounds.
I will start with the new bag for next years hunt. Something that has a better center of gravity would be nice when going up 15% grades. Mine kept making me fall backwards.
As for food and water, I think I over packed. I took about five liters of water with me and hardly got through three. I had cliff bars and protein bars for breakfast and lunch; next time I’ll pack a sandwich.
One thing that definitely saved me was my socks. Wear good socks and avoid blisters. This is really Hiking 101. Carrying all that gear I could really feel my feet more than I do on a normal hike in the forest. I just have the run-of-the-mill Cabela’s hunting boots, so the socks definitely helped.
As for the deer and the location, it was a very good learning spot. You maybe aren’t guaranteed to find deer, but it is a good test of your equipment and skill. The D19 zone is in some truly beautiful country. Southern California’s deserts in the fall are unlike anywhere else. I would recommend it to any Southern California would-be hunter looking to start on their own. You’re likely close enough to your house to where it isn’t the worst thing to not bring something home. You won’t be complaining on a 6 to 8-hour drive home that you didn’t get a deer. You’ll also learn a lot for a quick half-day trip. Just be sure to hike back into the hills. Any less than 5 miles in and you probably aren’t going to see any signs of deer because of the road running through the valley.
I wouldn’t change much about this first deer hunt. For not knowing anything about it when I started, I now feel like I know enough to where we can, and will, get a deer next season! Good luck to other novice hunters!