Scouting for deer in southwest Oregon

by Jeff Barnard, AP environmental reporter for SW Oregon for 30+ years (now retired)

The most intimidating thing about hunting for me is the idea of finding a buck. Black-tailed deer may be eating my wife’s flowers, and a nice buck may be taking his midday nap behind my boat barn, but finding one out in the wild during general rifle season sounds very difficult.

After 33 years of fishing the Rogue and Applegate rivers, I know where the fish are.

But I really don’t understand deer. And the forest is a lot bigger than the river.

But I was encouraged to find that once I went out in the woods with a plan and started actually looking, I found a lot of deer sign — trails, tracks, droppings, and brush with the leaves eaten off. Now I have to figure out where they will be in October, when general rifle season starts.

I have been looking at websites, reading books, and talking to biologists, and what I have learned is you can reduce your potential area a lot if you understand that deer have three basic needs — food, water and shelter. And like people, they would rather walk across flat ground than the steep slopes that are so common in southern Oregon. Food is mostly brushy plants, forbes and grasses. Those plants need sun, so can be found along roads, in clearcuts, burned areas, open ridges and meadows. Shelter means a shady spot to spend the hot part of the day and a place to hide from predators, including people. So that means the edges of dense forest. Finding game trails and walking them between bedding and feeding areas should be a good way to find deer.

Here are a couple money quotes from the Oregon Black-tailed Deer Management Plan:

“Black-tailed deer have been described as especially well adapted to dense, high-canopied conifer forests, but research in western Washington and northwest Oregon found that early successional habitats created by logging or fire had higher deer densities (Brown 1961, Hines 1973) Early successional forests have more diverse and abundant understory vegetation and provide substantial and nutritious forage for black-tailed deer.

“Black-tailed deer are an edge adapted species using dense hiding cover during the day, emerging in the morning and evening to feed in more open areas (Moser et al. 1981) Throughout much of western Oregon, black-tailed deer reside year-round in relatively flat areas at mid to low elevations, on south-facing slopes dominated by vine maple (Acer cirinatum), huckleberry (Vaccinium spp), and salal (Gaultheria shallon) plant communities.”

Also, many black-tailed deer migrate in the fall, coming down from the high country to lower elevations. These deer probably do not include the ones around my house.

Another way to narrow things down is to look at statistics for past hunter success. ODFW posts them online here:

For southwestern Oregon in 2015, the Rogue unit had the most bucks harvested (1,272) during general season.

The stats show muzzleloader hunters do well. This season comes later than general rifle, during the rut, when bucks are less wary. In 2015, muzzleloaders took 18 does and 159 bucks from the Applegate unit. You need to have drawn the tag and you need a muzzleloading rifle that meets Oregon game regulations, but you can buy the tag right up to the day before the controlled hunt starts, Nov. 14.

In Josephine County, we don’t have the high elevation mountains, so the deer don’t really migrate, says ODFW assistant biologist Dan Ethridge.

As a first step before going scouting, I called Dan Ethridge, the assistant wildlife biologist for my part of Oregon. He was happy to advise me on places to scout, and explain the migration patterns of deer in his area.

He said my goal of hunting within an hour’s drive of my home in Grants Pass was reasonable.

As for where I might find a buck, he suggested that if I was hunting the Cascades east of Medford, in early rifle season I should look high, above 4,000 feet. Around Oct. 10 or 13 I should start looking lower, below 3,500 feet, because those deer are migrating to lower elevations as winter approaches.

In Josephine County, we don’t have the high elevation mountains, so the deer don’t really migrate, he said.

During the migration, I should look for trails the deer will use to come down the mountain. Trail cameras that take digital photos of wildlife passing in front of them are useful for understanding the traffic patterns. Try to find a spot where trails converge.

When it comes to finding flat areas to hunt, I think topographical maps are the best bet. To see the clearcuts and burned areas, Google Earth works. I am planning to buy a hand-held GPS to be sure I don’t get lost in the woods, and to mark what I find on the ground. But I plan to use maps for overall scoping out the landscape.

One area Ethridge suggested could be productive is the Bear Camp Road area between Galice and Agness. This is a paved one-lane road through the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. Originally a logging road, it is used a lot to shuttle boats floating the Wild and Scenic section of the Rogue River. There are a lot of gravel spurs off it that lead to old clearcuts and burned areas, including parts of the 2002 Biscuit Fire, which burned 500,000 acres.

I am pretty familiar with that area from hiking and driving it for rafting and fishing trips with my family, reporting on the Biscuit Fire, and also writing about the deaths of two people who got lost and stuck trying to drive through after the snow started to fly.

This nice buck may be taking his midday nap behind my boat barn, but finding one out in the wild during general rifle season is a different story.

I have driven it countless times with my family and never gotten lost, but this time I headed off the main track. I plan to get some USGS topo maps of the places I want to hunt, which are far more detailed than the hunting unit maps, national forest maps, and U.S. Bureau of Management maps that are easily available. I haven’t found a local place to buy S maps, so I will be ordering mine from the USGS website,

For my first scouting trip, I relied on a collection of Forest Service and BLM maps we have collected over the years, and while most of them don’t all offer topographical lines, we were able to know what roads we were on, down to little logging tracks overgrown with trees that did a number on the paint job of my pickup. I did a little preliminary scouting using Google Earth, looking for flat ground, clearcuts and burned areas. I also took along my wife, who is much better at spotting wildlife than I am.

Knowing that deer need food, water, and shelter, we went looking for those three things. We also focused on flat areas, bypassing the steep slopes that account for most of the landscape around here. A lot of people recommend setting up on a ridge and scanning the opposite slopes of canyons to spot deer in the morning and evening. I didn’t do that, yet.

On one spur along a creek, we found an old clearcut with lots of brush. Where the road cut into the hillside, we could see places deer had run up and down from the road into the clearcut. Hiking up a game trail, I found some old dried out droppings, and some prints that were probably from the spring, when the ground was soft, because they were deep and crusty. We also saw where deer had munched on trailing blackberry, some young alders, and ceanothus. None of the salal seemed to have been eaten. Farther up the same road, at a saddle, my wife spotted lots of tracks on the dusty shoulder, which looked pretty fresh. There were no tire tracks over them.

We followed one old road that apparently had been built for logging, but the timber had never been cut. I figure it was one that a court had blocked over northern spotted owls, marbled murrelets, or salmon and steelhead. In the woods, we found a big pile of bear scat and deep tracks where his claws had dug into the crusty duff. Young Douglas firs along the road were nipped off. But the forest itself was the closed canopy with little brush underneath that is not supposed to be favored by deer, except for shelter.

So unlike fishing, I have a lot of country to consider, and I will have to go back several times to become familiar with it and try to puzzle out what the deer are doing. And like fishing, I will be looking for places deer want to feed and rest.

I have to say, spending time in the woods looking for deer sign was a lot more fun than just hiking. I am starting to think I might have a chance here.