Late on an October afternoon, with an unused deer tag in pocket, a hunter’s moon is a reason for hope, but it also provides an excuse. The deer feed all night and go to bed before daybreak.
There was a “blood” moon the night before, a full lunar eclipse when the moon turned red. The scarlet satellite did not bring me luck. I’d seen deer but not the buck I was after.
The Upper Deschutes Unit stretches from U.S. Highway 126 on the north to state Highway 58 on the south. The eastern boundary is U.S. Highway 97. I hadn’t hunted the Upper Deschutes for most of two decades.
Twenty years ago, I’d hunted up high where the hemlocks bend beneath the weight of winter snows. This time, I wanted to hunt low, close to fields and farms.
Now it was day six, time for the hunt to be over. I was headed to Washington in a few days. The moon was a copper-colored disk, and there were does and a few bucks ahead.
For the next 20 minutes, I moved slow and kept folds of the earth between me and the deer. For 20 yards, I went on hands and knees to a perch in a jumble of rocks. Out in front of me, with the shadows of the Cascades thrown across the sage, the pines and the croplands, I could count 30 does with five bucks among them. Under a hunter’s moon.
Deer numbers didn’t bounce back after the winter of 1992-93 when brutal cold and ice locked down the winter range. This year I wondered, was it my imagination or had populations improved a bit?
“Numbers are rebounding slightly in the upper northwest part of the unit,” according to Corey Heath, the district wildlife biologist. Heath attributes the increase to recent large wildfires that have helped open up understory, “creating some really good summer range.”
Although it is fragmented by subdivisions and plagued with poachers and predators, its summer habitat and winter grounds divided by highways on the east and the north, the Upper Deschutes Unit is still a great place to hunt. Most of the best habitat is on public land, but harvesting a deer is difficult. Success rates have averaged 16 percent in recent years.
A 16 percent success rate is far from the ideal, but there is still a surplus of bucks. Heath said the successful hunters are the ones that hunt productive habitat, of which there is still quite a bit. “I think the ones that do best focus on bitterbrush in the understory.”
It takes commitment.
“I see a lot of guys quit after the first two days. They wait a year or two or three to draw a tag, and then they hunt the first two or three days and go home. Mule deer numbers are down and competition for older male deer is up, and guys have to hunt harder than they used to.”
Or you can blame it on the moon.
Statistics show poachers take a significant number of animals. A recent study with electronic collars suggested the number of deer that poachers take is at least as high as the legal harvest.
Other negative factors are an uptick in disease (the adenovirus hemorrhagic disease), and disturbance and harassment on the winter range.
Hunters can help make a difference for mule deer, Heath said.
“Get involved with county planning departments, the Forest Service and BLM agencies to make sure deer habitat is a priority for those planning entities. The trouble is that mule deer and habitat are seldom a priority because rarely do those planning departments hear from hunters,” Heath said.
Winter range closures are important for mule deer when they are most vulnerable, from December into April. For Upper Deschutes deer, the Tumalo winter range is critical.
Over the past 20 years, a lot of people have discovered it. “That part of the unit,” Heath said, “is Bend’s playground year-round. A lot of those people aren’t really attuned to game management. They just want to run their dogs or ride their horses or drive around. So the road closure gates are a deterrent.”
Snowmobilers, trail-riders, hikers and, in the early spring, shed antler hunters — each can put stress on deer without realizing it.
“If it sees a mountain biker, a deer doesn’t tip over dead,” Heath said, “but it will run and burn up energy. Now it has to leave habitat where it wants to be, and it is more vulnerable to predation. The thinner it becomes, the more energy it burns and the more susceptible it becomes to a disease like AHD, or ‘scours’ in the spring.”
The other thing hunters can do, Heath said, is follow the rules. “Don’t tolerate people in your hunting party borrowing and lending tags or hunting outside of seasons. And if you see poachers, turn that information in to the state police.”
— Gary Lewis is the host of “Frontier Unlimited TV” and author of “John Nosler — Going Ballistic,” “A Bear Hunter’s Guide to the Universe,” “Hunting Oregon” and other titles. Contact him at www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com.