Hunters rolling out of the Rogue Valley and hitting the woods of Jackson County in search of black-tailed buck deer have reason for optimism. With good deer numbers and solid buck ratios, about one in five deer hunters can expect to get their bucks during the wide-open general season hunt.
"The success rate always bounced around between 15 and 20 percent, and it's been coming up a bit in the past four years," says Steve Niemela, assistant Rogue District wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "A lot of places with general-season black-tailed deer hunts can't really say that."
The general buck-deer season for rifle hunters starts Saturday, Oct. 4, and thousands of hunters are expected to plunk down the $24.50 for a buck tag in what remains one of Oregon's best and most popular general-season opportunities for big-game success.
In the Rogue, Evans Creek and Dixon units, the Cascade buck season runs through Oct. 17. Hunters then take their traditional hiatus for the week-long general Roosevelt bull elk season before returning Oct. 25 through Nov. 7.
Applegate Unit hunters fall under the coast buck season, which runs Oct. 4 through Nov. 7, because there is no general bull-elk season to break it up like there is in the Cascades.
The opening weekend is six days later than last year's start of the season, which also extends the second half of the season deeper into the rut — which could key greater late-season success and get Rogue Unit successes back over 20 percent.
It also gives hunters six more days to get some wet weather to break up the monotony of extreme heat, raging wildfires and industrial forestland closures that have plagued opening weekend hunting for years here.
With the opener still more than a week away, private forest closures remain intact, and that will force many opening-day hunters higher into the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in search of their bucks.
"You just never know," Niemela says. "Just because the weather's been one way doesn't necessarily mean it will be that way when fall hits."
Hunters head into this season with a ratio of 24 bucks per 100 does in the Rogue Unit, which is identical to last year and far below the 33 bucks per 100 in 2012. Still, the benchmark for the Rogue Unit is 15 bucks per 100 does, so hunters are still solid.
It's even better in the Applegate Unit, which sports 30 bucks per 100 does heading into this season.
The Rogue Unit is Jackson County's most-hunted unit, in part because of easy access and some of the biggest blacktails the West has ever seen.
The buck ratio in the Evans Creek Unit, where small groups of hunters ply largely private lands, is 29 bucks per 100 does.
The most buck-rich area for Southern Oregon hunters is the South Dixon Unit, which lies just west of the Highway 62 border it shares with the Rogue Unit.
Since the Dixon Unit does not have late-season archery or muzzleloader buck hunts like the Rogue and Appelgate units, the bucks there have a better chance to escape hunters and grow another year, Niemela says.
Numbers are only part of the deer-hunting game, however, because deer hunters usually get out of the general-season hunt exactly what they put into it.
Blacktails are brush-lovers, and they prefer not to live along roadways. So hunters need to beat feet for better odds of finding a buck and eschew the all-too-common practice of driving back roads and venturing only after deer that are spotted from the pickup.
"Road hunting" once was popular and effective in places like Southern Oregon, but decades of reduced logging have allowed brush to grow high and reduce windows into the forest.
During the early season, hunting high ridges in the lower parts of summer range could put hunters into chunks of the region's migrating blacktail herds. But dry conditions will make for difficult stalking.
That's why more and more Southern Oregon hunters are taking cues from their Midwest brethren and find a nice tree or large rock on which to perch themselves and wait for bushwhacking hunters to push bucks their way.
One wild card this year, however, is disease.
The fatal adenovirus has reared its ugliness in Southern Oregon again this year, hitting both the urban-interface deer and the migratory herds. Hunters who find dead deer in the woods or who shoot a buck that turns out to have its insides wrought with degradation are urged to call ODFW at 541-826-8774 to report their findings.
It could put a damper on that push to the 20-percent success line.
"We'll have to see," Niemela says. "Putting aside the disease issue, things were looking good. The deer will be there, it's just how the conditions line up. I'm hopeful, though, that we'll have a good season."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.