California is a beautiful state that is most well known for its sunny beaches and bustling cities. But for outdoorsmen, this state can be home to some of the best deer hunting in the West. There is a wide variety of deer hunting opportunities here, and these animals are easily the most popular big game animal in the state.
In addition to being the favorite, deer hunting in California is important to the state’s economy. Millions of dollars are spent every single year on hunting licenses and deer tags by both resident and nonresident hunters alike. Mule deer of one kind or another occupy around 56 percent of the state, and considering the size of CA, means there are plenty of places to chase them.
Let’s take a deeper dive into all that California has to offer when it comes to deer hunting, from the different subspecies, terrains, tags, and best hunting times and seasons that you can come to expect and enjoy in the sunshine state!
Species of Deer in California
To many people, a mule deer is simply a mule deer. In California, however, there are actually six different subspecies of mule deer throughout the state. These different subspecies live in different areas, climates, and elevations. They all have their unique set of characteristics that make them special. These six mule deer subspecies include:
Columbian Black Tail Deer
These deer are the most numerous subspecies of deer in California. Their habitat ranges all the way from the coastal mountains of Oregon down to around Santa Barbara near the Western slope of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada range. Find out more about hunting blacktail deer in California.
California Mule Deer
These are the second most numerous species, and their habitat runs along the West slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. They cover much of the Northern portion of the state and prefer to live in riparian areas with water available.
Rocky Mountain Mule Deer
The most popular and widely spread mule deer in the country is actually only ranked third in population in California. These deer are the largest deer in the state by antler and body size, however. While found in most western states, in California, they are located in Shasta, Siskiyou, Lassen, and Modoc counties.
Burro Mule Deer
Also known as Desert Mule Deer, this subspecies is primarily found in small pockets in the southern part of the state near the Arizona border. They can primarily be located in Riverside, Imperial, and San Bernardino counties.
Southern Mule Deer
Southern mule deer are very similar in body size and characteristics to burro mule deer. They also reside in the southern parts of the state and can be found in Orange, Riverside, and San Diego counties.
Inyo Mule Deer
This subspecies is only found in California, east of the Sierra Nevada in Mono and Inyo counties. There are some arguments that this subspecies is not actually different from Rocky Mountain mule deer, although many biologists also believe it is simply a southern form of this subspecies.
California Deer Hunting Areas and Zones
Because the state of California is so large, the Department of Fish and Game has divided it into six different deer hunting zones in CA. These regions include:
Region 1 is made up of the eight northern counties along the Oregon border south of Tehama County. This region is also known as the Northern Region and encompasses Del Norte, Humboldt, Lassen, Mendocino, Modoc, Shasta, Siskiyou, Tehama, and Trinity counties. Because it is on the Oregon border, this zone has good populations of Columbian blacktail as well as rocky mountain mule deer.
North Central Region
Region 2 is found from the east to the west side of the Central Valley all the way to the Nevada border. Also known as the North Central Region, this area is just south of the Northern Region and is made up of Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, El Dorado, Glenn, Lake, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Sierra, Sutter, Yolo, and Yuba counties, with Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Yolo counties being split amongst regions.
Bay Delta Region
This region is known as the Bay Delta Region and is located on the western edge of the state. Region 3 is made up of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, Sacramento, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, San Joaquin, Solano, Sonoma, and Yolo counties, with Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Yolo counties being shared with other regions. This region is home to good populations of blacktail deer.
Region 4 is better known as the Central Region. It is made up of Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Stanislaus, Tulare and Tuolumne counties. The two subspecies of deer that you can find in this region are the Columbian blacktail and California mule deer.
South Coast Region
Region 5 is known as the South Coast Region and covers the southern coast from Santa Barbara all the way to San Diego. This region covers Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Ventura counties. In the South Coast Region, you can find and hunt California mule deer, Southern mule deer, and Burro (desert) mule deer.
Inland Deserts Region
Region 6 is called the Inland Deserts Region. It is made up of the 5 easternmost counties in the state, including Imperial, Inyo, Mono, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties. This region has a large variety of deer, including Burro mule deer, Southern mule deer, California mule deer, Inyo mule deer, and Rocky Mountain mule deer.
Each region is very different in habitat and terrain, so knowing which region you plan to hunt will help you plan your approach to hunting.
For example, if you are deer hunting in California’s southern region in a desert climate, then you should be aware that there is little rain and sparse vegetation. The overall population of deer will be relatively low when compared to other areas, and the animals will be scattered around solid food and water sources. It is not uncommon for hunters to go an entire day without finding a trace of deer in this type of country, although many big deer can be taken in these arid mountain ranges because of the isolation.
If you find yourself hunting near the coast, you will be pleased to hear that these zones offer some of the earliest hunting anywhere in the West, and these deer will also rut earlier than most of the other deer in the state. But if you plan to hunt archery in July or the general season in August, be aware that it is an extremely warm time of year. The heat challenges hunters in California every year, even later during months like September and October.
From low, sparse deserts to the coastal ranges, deer can also be found in large, green forests made up of lush vegetation and towering redwoods. This is what makes hunting deer in California so special, as a hunter can choose the type of area that they prefer to hunt in!
Deer Hunting Tags and Licenses
In order to hunt any type of deer in California, you must first obtain the appropriate tag and license in order to do so. Any hunter must first get a hunting license at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife sales office. Be sure and remember to bring a valid form of identification such as a government issued ID or a birth certificate. The license fees will vary depending on your age and state residency, but the fees are still relatively low when compared to other states. A few notable license fees include:
- Resident: $54
- Nonresident: $188.74
- Junior: $14.30
- Disabled veterans: $8.24
- Recovering service members: $8.24
- Duplicate hunting license: $11.88
(All prices are based on 2022 pricing) Current pricing can be found online at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife sales page.
Once you have your license, you will still need to obtain a deer license in order to start hunting in California. This state allows hunters to have two deer tags each season. For residents, a deer tag will cost you $31 for the first one and $39 for a second. For non-residents, both first and second deer tags will cost $277 each. Deer tags are required to legally kill a deer, and you can only have two deer tags per year.
There are many different varieties of deer tags, and this will determine where, when, and with what weapon you can hunt deer. In California, a hunter can use weapons such as muzzleloaders, centerfire rifles, shotguns, crossbows, bows, and authorized pistols. The state is broken up into “zones,” and each one will have certain rules pertaining to these weapons and where and when they can be legally used.
Where to Find and Hunt Deer in California
Although this state offers plenty of opportunities to hunters, this does not mean it is easy to find and kill big bucks. Mule deer and blacktail live in a large variety of different terrain and in entirely different locations depending on the time of year and the weather. For example, some populations of deer in the state will migrate during the different seasons and can end up miles from where you originally see them.
In California, most of the deer found high in the mountains are migratory populations. If a solid early storm rolls in, they can come streaming out of the high country, sometimes moving as much as 12 miles in a single day. This can make for some great hunting if you put yourself along their migration routes. If you don’t, however, it will leave you without any deer to actually hunt.
Down in the lower elevations, especially in the desert, deer will be concentrated around water sources. Whenever these water sources dry up, deer will tend to travel in search of a new water source, so if you are not finding any suitable water, you will likely not be seeing many deer. No matter where you find yourself hunting, however, deer need food, and a solid food source should help you to find where the deer are hanging out.
Deer Hunting Tactics and Methods
So you have the license, tag, and a good location to start looking for deer. So what now? How do you actually go about finding and killing a big buck? Turning up a mature deer can be a challenge anywhere you are, even in California. Here are a few different hunting tactics that can significantly increase your odds of tagging out on a buck, including:
The biggest piece of advice that experienced hunters will give is to scout as much as possible before a hunt. Scouting will give you time to learn the area, find where the deer live, and be more prepared when the hunt finally starts. Scouting helps to kill more deer than any other tactic, as you don’t have to waste valuable hunting time to find the deer.
Scouting can be done in various ways, including using trail cameras to find deer.
Related Article: How to Choose a Trail Camera for Hunting
If you are hunting in more open areas, glassing can easily be one of the most effective tactics for finding deer. This involves sitting upon a good vantage point and using optics to search and find deer. One of the best ways to use this method is to put your binoculars on a tripod to stabilize them. A solid pair of binoculars on a tripod can be used to scan hillsides and ridges, searching for the movement or shapes of deer. Once found, you can devise a plan to get closer and hunt them.
Sit a Treestand
Some areas do not lend themselves well to being able to use optics to spot deer, so many hunters will utilize an “Eastern” tactic of sitting up in a treestand and waiting for the deer to come to them. Treestands can be set up on well-used trails, funnels, food, water, or bedding areas that deer frequent.
Having a good pair of hunting binoculars can prove to be useful in treestands. Using binos to spot potential game at long distances is easier and less invasive than using your rifle scope. Not all binoculars are created equal, though, learn how to choose the right hunting binoculars for your hunting style.
Sitting a Groundblind
Hunting out of ground blinds is extremely similar to hunting out of a treestand. Ground Blinds can be placed in areas where you suspect the deer of being and passing by, allowing you to sit and wait for them to show up. They are also often used in the same types of areas and are more of a personal preference to which one you would want to use.
You can read our best pop-up hunting blinds article to help make the right choice for you.
Still hunting is one of the least used tactics but can be quite effective when used correctly. This method involves slowly moving through the deer habitat until you see or hear a deer. To do this right, you must move as slowly and carefully as possible in order to see the deer before they see or hear you first. Also, keep the wind direction in mind as you are moving!
Use handheld GPS units to determine where water sources are, canyons, dirt roads, and other features that may help you still hunt. Be careful not to move too quickly. I prefer to take three steps and stop for at least 30 seconds. Be careful when still hunting, as it’s easy to get sideways and lose track of your location. Hunters get lost every year in areas they are familiar with. Having a small emergency GPS unit can prove to be essential in regard to safety.
Choose Your Weapon
The state of California allows hunters to use a wide variety of weapons to hunt deer. Each of these methods of take will generally have its own set of season dates and unique regulations, but the state of California allows you to hunt deer with the following weapons:
The most common weapon used to hunt both big and small game, rifles are the most powerful and accurate weapon that you can use. Thanks to their grooved bores, the bullets shoot straighter and travel faster, allowing amazing accuracy at long distances. For deer hunting, try and stick with something like a 270 Winchester or larger caliber in order to effectively and efficiently put down your quarry. California currently has no minimum size or caliber, but most deer hunters will opt for something plenty big enough to kill a deer.
A muzzleloader is a firearm that is loaded through the muzzle. These weapons require much more patience and skill in order to use and kill deer, making them more of a challenge than a typical rifle. You must keep your muzzleloader cleaned on a regular basis to ensure that it works properly and get much closer to a deer in order to shoot it. Muzzleloaders have smooth bores, so they lack the accuracy out to longer distances. Most muzzleloader hunters tend to favor shots that are 100 yards or less.
Archery and Crossbows
Archery equipment has been used for millions of years to pursue game animals, although today’s modern bows and crossbows look very different thanks to technology. The state of California requires bow poundage of 40 pounds in order to legally hunt, ensuring that hunters have enough power to get a clean kill. Bowhunting California’s deer requires exceptional skill, as you must get extremely close to a deer to get a shot (generally 60 yards or less).
While hunting with specialized, large caliber pistols is not as popular as the other methods, it does require the same amount of patience and skill as a muzzleloader or archery equipment as you must be very close to a deer in order to make an accurate shot.
Deer Hunting California – Final Thoughts
Deer hunting in California is often overlooked and overshadowed by everything else that this great state has to offer. For the hunters who do know about it, California can be a deer hunter’s paradise with great seasons, plenty of land, and lots of animals.