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By STEVE MERLO, Contributing columnist
Back in the late '50s and early '70s, the inland deer season remained open until the middle of November, and that meant we could hunt them during the rut and winter migration periods. Very few special hunts were available at that time and hunters more or less went out and made their own successes. There were a lot more deer then, and it was not unusual to see a hundred a day or more during peak migration periods.
If one happened to see some does while hunting the last two weeks of the season, there was usually the owner of a nice set of antlers somewhere close by, waiting for one or more of the females to come into heat. This rutting period usually proved most bucks' undoing, because they would drop their usual wariness and throw caution to the wind, much to the delight of nimrods like my merry band of hunting friends and me.
My longtime friends Gene Guenther and Bill Lachenmaier from Shafter first taught me about the late hunting period, and then generously showed me their favorite hunting area. Located up the mountain from the Peppermint Creek campground, the beautiful textbook spot had it all. A mountain pass, a ridge saddle, a superb vantage point that covered a quarter-mile square hillside and a tumble of rocks for us to hide in without being seen afforded the best deer hunting spot I'd ever seen.
Eventually, my late friends passed the baton on to me, and for five more years I made the solo trek up the mountain to sit and wait for my buck to come along, which he usually did. Sitting by myself, sipping on an occasional cup of thermos coffee and chewing on homemade venison jerky, the experience was like none other I'd ever known. A usually cold solitude, one often interrupted by snow squalls or biting sleet, mixed with an incredible parade of animals heading to lower elevations made the annual hunt one I would never forget.
Chattering gray squirrels kept me company while Mountain quail by the dozens clucked and whistled within feet of my blind.
The occasional coyote or bobcat cautiously passed below, never knowing how lucky they were that deer were on the agenda, and not them. Many times, herds of 20 or more does, fawns, yearlings and spikes came through the saddle, and often as not, a decent buck would trail behind them.
Over the years, I harvested a total of seven bucks off that rockpile and most of them dropped within 50 yards of each other and all carried three-point racks. A crack in one of the rocks I rested my rifle on made a perfect spot for my empty brass, and the last time I was up there, all were still there right where I had left them, a bit tarnished, but still affording mute testimony of my kills.
After field dressing the deer, I had to drag them downhill for about a quarter mile to the old Dry Meadow Campground, where I would stash them and make my way back to the main road.
I could usually hitch a ride back to camp and the others would help me retrieve my score. Many a night, a dozen or so people would enjoy the camp and the smell and taste of fresh venison liver, onions and strong beverages in the evening.
My deer hunting days up there are now long gone, but it really doesn't matter.
The season closes well before the rut takes place and the animals stay in the high country until the first snows force them down. A paved road now leads into Dome Rock and one could reach my old spot from there in a matter of minutes. To hunt up there during the migration now requires a special draw tag for the Kern River Hunt, and the odds of getting one of the 50 tags are about 800 to 1.
Besides, no one ever ventures to my blind anymore.
Instead, most hunters drive the paved and dirt roads looking for a legal deer rather than hunting them in their natural environment like me and my friends once did. An era gone by, for sure, but the memories are still there and with those, fond recollections of what true friends are and were like.
The inland buck deer season in the D-7, D-8 and D-9 zones begins Saturday morning.
Hunters need a current hunting license and appropriate tag for the area they want to hunt.
The extended drought will probably keep most of the deer in the higher, less accessible, areas of the National Parks or at elevations in excess of 7,000 feet.
Of course, there are always resident California Mule Deer wherever one goes, but for my money I'd hunt high and near viable water sources.