Hunter-friendly buck ratios are a good sign for season

Southern Oregon hunters frustrated by poor elk-hunting trips can take solace in knowing the odds tip in their favor when it comes to blacktails.

Local success rates for black-tailed buck deer in general season, muzzleloader season and even archery hunts range anywhere from 21 percent to 50 percent thanks largely to good deer numbers and a continued surge in hunter-friendly buck ratios.

In short, your buck fever has a good shot at getting cured handsomely in Southern Oregon.

"One out of four or one out of five people getting a buck? That's not bad — especially compared to elk season," says Mark Vargas, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District wildlife biologist.

Buck fever hits epidemic levels beginning Saturday, Oct. 2, which is the start of the general-season rifle hunt in southwest Oregon and the unofficial start of the fall hunting season.

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 Oct. 2-Oct. 15, then takes a hiatus for the week-long general Roosevelt bull-elk season before returning Saturday, Oct. 23, and running through Nov. 5.

Applegate Unit hunters fall under the coast buck season, which runs Oct. 2 through Nov. 5 because there is no general-season elk hunt to interrupt deer season.

Jackson County's rifle hunters have their sights set on another solid blacktail buck hunt this fall.

After four straight years of increasing buck-to-doe ratios in the Rogue Unit, the ratio dipped slightly in 2009 and dropped a tad again this year, but numbers are still strong.

Hunters head into this season with a ratio of 33 bucks per 100 does in the Rogue Unit. That's down from last year's ratio of 38 bucks per 100 does and 2008's record ratio of 47 bucks per 100 does in the Rogue Unit, which is the most popular unit for Southern Oregon rifle hunters who ply the woods around Prospect, Butte Falls and the Dead Indian Plateau — home to some of the biggest blacktails the West has ever seen.

The Applegate Unit has 31 bucks per 100 does heading into this season, up from 23 bucks per 100 does last year and close to the 33-buck ratio of 2008.

Consider that Eastern Oregon's trophy units are managed for 25 bucks per 100 does. The Rogue Unit is managed for 15 bucks per 100 does, and statewide anything over 35 bucks per 100 does is considered a good buck ratio.

"I have one goal — healthy buck ratios," Vargas says.

One of the best ways to get there is with solid overall deer counts, and that's what is happening in Southern Oregon's migratory herds.

During preseason census counts, the biologists in the Rogue and Applegate units found between 10 and 11 deer for every mile traveled. That's significantly better than the 4.5 deer per mile found in 2003, which represented the nadir of deer counts here.

"That's always really encouraging to see good counts like what we saw in our spring routes," Vargas says.

Good deer numbers and strong buck ratios likely mean the adenovirus, which spread through migratory herds early this decade and in the late 1980s, has waned.

Major virus blooms in 2000 and 2002 crippled blacktail herds, contributing to a string of poor deer-recruitment years that saw a crash in migratory deer numbers and hunting success.

The virus remains present in the region, but it's more associated with "city deer" that unnaturally congregate around urban areas, particularly where people feed or place water buckets for the animals.

Along with those improved conditions is a hunting season that makes life a little easier for big bucks.

Five days have been shaved off the end of recent seasons, giving big bucks a better window to escape hunters — especially in the late season, when most of the big bucks are killed.

Still, hunters of every ilk are doing well in the woods.

Rogue Unit hunters last year saw a success rate of 21 percent, while in the Applegate and Evans Creek units, where hunters numbers are lower, the success rate was 31 percent.

Also, the increasingly popular Applegate Unit muzzleloader hunt had a 50-percent success rate, with 95 percent of those deer being bucks.

The late-season archery hunt in the Rogue Unit, which occurs in tandem with the Applegate muzzleloader hunt, remains strong, also. That's when most archers choose to kill their deer, in part because conditions are better and they are not focused on elk like they are during the early season.

"Success in that late-season archery hunt is getting better," Vargas says. "It's always been good for bigger bucks and it will continue to be."

The remaining success factors are weather and effort.

Recent storm fronts have already taken the Rice Crispy-factor out of the forest floor. Rains have dampened and quieted the forest and created mud for tracking, which makes for better stalking conditions.

Now it's up to hunters to take advantage of that by putting in good effort worthy of bucks.

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 standard practice of driving backwoods roads and venturing only after deer that are spotted from the road.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail

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