Bulging buck ratios, dropping disease problems and improving weather conditions are combining for an outbreak of buck fever in Southern Oregon heading into one of the more promising general deer seasons in years for rifle hunters.
Coming off last year's season, when one in five Rogue Unit hunters slapped his or her tag on a tine, Southern Oregon hunters have plenty of reasons to be optimistic this fall.
"We're in awesome blacktail country," says Mark Vargas, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District wildlife biologist. "If I were a deer hunter, which I am, I'd be excited for the season. I really like black-tailed deer."
The general buck-deer season for rifle hunters starts Saturday, Oct. 3, and thousands of hunters are expected to plunk down the $24.50 for a buck tag — the cheapest ticket to buck fever Oregonians likely will ever see. The Oregon Legislature this summer imposed fee increases for 2016 that will see deer hunters plunking down an extra $4.50 for a license and general-season rifle tag next year.
In the Rogue, Evans Creek and Dixon units, this year's Cascade buck season runs through Oct. 16. Hunters then take their traditional hiatus for the week-long Roosevelt bull elk season for rifle hunters before returning Oct. 24 through Nov. 6.
Applegate Unit hunters fall under the coast buck season, which runs Oct. 3 through Nov. 6, because there is no general bull-elk season to break it up like there is in the Cascades.
With the opener still more than a week away, private forest closures remain intact because of high fire danger, and that will force many opening-day hunters higher into the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in search of bucks.
"As always, it's dependent upon weather and if we get some rain," Vargas says.
But hunters keep throwing sofa cushions at the television when the weather man is on.
Sunny days with temperatures in the 80s are in the long-term weather forecast for opening weekend.
But the buck forecast gives hunters reason enough to shine.
Hunters head into this season with a fantastic ratio of 32 bucks per 100 does in the Rogue Unit, up from last year's 24 bucks per 100 doe ratio and more than twice the regional benchmark.
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.
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 Southern Oregon, but decades of reduced logging have allowed brush to grow high and reduced 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 finding a nice tree or large rock on which to perch themselves and wait for bushwhacking hunters to push bucks their way.
Regardless of what tactic was used, Rogue Unit rifle hunters had plenty of good stories to tell in deer camp last year.
The Rogue Unit boasted 6,899 hunters who logged 46,415 days in the field, bagging 1,392 bucks, according to ODFW's mandatory-reporting data.
Only 464 of those dead deer were forked-horns, meaning hunters appear positive enough about their chances not to shoot at the first antlers they see. Rogue Unit hunters tallied 548 three-point bucks and 380 bucks with four points or better per antler.
One less wild card this year appears to be disease.
The fatal adenovirus seems to be subsiding in Southern Oregon, though it continues to be prevalent in both urban-interface deer and migratory herds, Vargas says.
"We've always had it, and in some time frames, it's worse than others," Vargas says. "We hope it's going to subside for a few years, but we don't know."
Though the region has been beset with mild winters and summer drought, the region's deer are rarely hampered by harsh weather like their mule deer cousins in far Eastern Oregon.
The ratio of 52 fawns counted this year per 100 does in the migratory herd is within the standard range.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.