Big Bucks From High Atop the Yolla Bolly

by Cork Graham

For years every blacktail hunter has heard of the Yolly Bolly. It's the land from which the big bucks come from the legends say. And, year after year, the stories seem to come true. The question is whether the California hunter is willing to make the hike in.

ONLY AN HOUR has passed since the sun rose over the ridge to west. The morning should have been filled with the sound of opening day gunshots, but instead there were only a couple near daybreak. I search the canyon below with my 10X50s in the hopes that some hunter traffic on Soldier Ridge has caused a few deer to cross the creek below and toward me.

But, the sun continues to rise and the temperature turns even hotter. Most of all, there are no more shots than the few at daybreak. My almost always successful plan of attack has gone awry. What am I to do?

I think it is poor planning on my part, but I remember the meeting with Jim Runyon, one of a family group that has also come to the Yolla Bolly in search of the big bucks. They too had taken positions in the early morning darkness. They too have had no opportunity for shots.

I pick my spotting scope and binoculars up off the rock upon which I have been sitting and stuff them in my daypack, and then sling my scoped .280 Remington. My thoughts are turbid as I work my way up the shale, and wonder why my "sure-fire" plan hadn't worked.

"Well," I say to myself, "There should be a buck bedded over the on the north side." My body seems to become rejuvenated by the thought enabling me to take large and faster steps for the other side of the ridge.

Suddenly, the sound of a rifle shot echoes out from just on the other side of the shale and scrub pine-covered ridge. A sinking feeling overtakes me.

"What have I done?" I ask myself, knowing full well that I had taken too long to make a decision that might have put me in position to make the shot that I had just heard. In a couple hours I would be sharing deer liver and stories with Jim Runyon and his family as I look in awe at the 5x5, 190lb blacktail hanging on their camp's meat pole.

Interestingly, even with the mystique of the large bucks taken every year from the Yolla Bolly Wilderness Area of the Mendocino national Forest, it doesn't get that much traffic. As it was that opening weekend of 1995, I saw only four parties of hunters. Considering the reputation it had gained through the writing of other writers, I had expected the area to be chock-full of rifle hunters.

Instead the only group that shared my camp near a year-round spring, was a group of four hunters, and they left that very opening day. They felt there simply wasn't enough sign. But, as Santa Rosa resident, Gary Bouldridge, 32, a seven year veteran of the Yolla Bolly told me, 'There aren't that many deer here, but when you find them they're big."

From him I gathered that there are basically three types of genetic characteristic patterns of blacktail. Bouldridge himself had gained this information while talking with a couple of forest ranger who were working in the area when he had taken a buck with one of the "Yolla Bolly looks."

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Bouldridge had taken a scrawny forked-horn, and shown it to the rangers, who then proceeded to tell him that there were two other types, one with the characteristics of medium mass and in the curving-forward shape much like an Eastern whitetail. The third type was one like that which Jim Runyon had shot, large rack with good mass and number of points. And then, of course there is interbreeding between the three different types.

Most of the interbreeding occurs between the whitetail-looking blacktails and the large racked bucks. For while the larger bucks frequent the top third of the ridges, the smaller forkies seem to keep to themselves and work the lower areas of the forest.

The best time to start preparing to hunt the Yolla Bolly is not a few days before the rifle season. Bouldridge and his party always hunt it during bow season; as a matter of fact it was then that they first caught sight of the nice buck that Runyon had taken during rifle season. It was one of Bouldridge's hunting buddies, Greg Tibbets, who had the first crack at the buck. But, because the velvet-horned buck was shy Tibbets didn't get a good look at the buck until he came completely out of the timber to turn and reenter the pines. Definitely not an opportunity to unleash an arrow.

Though bow season is a good time to actually start hunting the Yolla Bolly deer, training to hunt the Yolla Bolly should start in the spring. This will give you the time to prepare physically for the adventure which cold possibly put you in within shooting range of very large blacktail.

Because of the steepness of ranges that deter many hunter, physical conditioning is very important for a hunter to effectively hit the Yolla Bolly. Too many people, including me, have gone on pack trips thinking that it's just a hike into the hills for a few days. Entering the Yolla Bolly with this mentality only serves the deer by lessening your chances of chances putting in an effective effort.

Many rely on running as a form of training. This is good, but your PT should also include some weight-lifting. Medical studies have shown that proportionate increase in muscle mass only serve an athlete in accomplishing his or her goals. Any workout that strengthens muscles such as working with weights, martial arts, or gymnastics increases ability of the said person to perform during stress situations. This performance in hunting the Yolla Bolly can be such as short recovery time in which to calm breathing for a surgical shot, having the agility to maneuver across terrain that is some times reminiscent of that found in Alaska's Dall sheep country, and finally to pack that meat.

For Runyon and his family, who hunt the area on horse back, the going is not too rough. Their main concern is water. Water has been in great supply for the last three years in the Yolla Bolly, which is great news for those who pack in on a horse. But, for the actual hunting, that supply of water can be detrimental to the tactical use of spot-and-stalk, as many learned in the 1995 season.

Because of a good rain fall during the spring of 1995, the acorn crop was excellent, springs were full, and areas had dense coverings of brush. This permitted the deer to hold tight and not have to move across large areas of land in order to feed and have a safe place of rest, the main needs of deer outside of the rut.

The season was also a good lesson in understanding forest service maps. According to my map of the Yolla Bolly, the area I was hunting had only two water springs. Bouldridge told me that they had found seven in the area. They even camped near one for their own water source because it afforded them the opportunity to move away from the campsites used by those who had not idea how many unmarked springs there are in national forest.

Still, when everyone thought that the year would be a good deer hunting year, they really didn't understand how much the abundance of feed would create such bad hunting conditions. In this situation spot-and-stalk is almost a hopeless technique.

A couple years ago, Gary Bouldridge used a technique which he has found to be very effective in getting those bucks who choose to remain bedded in deep timber. With his .270 at the ready he works his way along a deer trail into the dense timber, moving in and out of the dense timber and the manzanita covered mountainsides.

Using optics, he scans the area ahead, looking for any sign of a deer such as full body movement, the flicker of an ear, or the indication of antlers. His steps are ever so slow that it almost seems as though he's not moving at all. It might take him an hour to move 100 yards.

Through still-hunting he was able to collect a respectable and unique 2x4. The buck had watched him from his bed as Bouldridge slowly made his way along a trail on the south-facing side of the ridge. Bouldridge brought his rifle up and drilled the buck through the left eye from 50 feet away.

The key to this style of hunting is to move in a very slow manner, once heavy sign has been found. This sign can be scat, indication of heavy feeding under oak trees for acorns or around manzanita for there ripe berries, or hoof traffic indicated by trails pounded to dust on brush or pine needle-covered floor.

Too many hunters automatically start still-hunting immediately after entering the woods as thought expecting to soon come upon a game. This can work in the eastern states and Oregon where there is a high population per mile, but not so much here in California, and especially on public land.

On public land, and specifically the Yolla Bolly, the rule of 10 percent of hunters get the deer consistently is very true. These are the 10 percent who find the pockets of deer amid the barren areas. They are the ones who find the acorns or berries and know that they will be ripe when hunting season comes around, and then they concentrate all their efforts to hunting around that point of reference.

These are places which have the feed close by, along with the water, and an area in which the buck will bed that will give him a strong feeling of security. Many times this is an area heavy brush or timber and is also many times on the north-facing side of a ridge, just because that is the area in which snow hangs on the latest. This is the side of the ridge Runyon had decided on hunting before me, and the side from which he took his large 1995 blacktail buck. I prefer to hunt this side while still-hunting.

Bouldridge, on the other hand, has shown a preference for hunting the south-facing side. He has observed that because the southeast facing side receives the first light in the morning, the deer on that side are more willing to move more quickly, giving him the opportunity to get a look and discern if it's a buck worth taking. The deer move because they have warmed themselves in the morning sun are on the move in search of a place of hiding. Also, the morning sun reflecting off antlers makes them easier to see.

Again as always, the key to getting any game animal is finding it at disadvantage or putting said game animal in a place of disadvantage. To make such a concerted effort, in the Yolla Bolly, you can use a drive to put yourself in very much the advantage. Using a drive in the Yolla Bolly is much the same way it's done all over the United States, and especially using the technique used in hunting open country mule deer: Stagger a few hunters along a ridge line and then have your drivers work their way down and around the area you want to drive the deer out of.

If your one of those on the ridge, you're basically glassing the area below with your binoculars, until you are sure you have a legal buck and you have a safe lane of fire. If you're one of the drivers your job is to work your way as though you were still-hunting, except not so slowly. Remember as in still-hunting to keep your eyes and ears open for deer that might be holding tight, waiting for you to walk right past them, giving them the chance to bolt back and away. Most of the larger, more wise bucks have done this and survived so long because of it.

Because shots can range anywhere from 10 feet to 300 yards, the lever action .30/30 is best left at home when making a foray into the Yolla Bolly. An accurate scoped, bolt-action that shoots a flat-shooting cartridge such as a .270 WCF, .280 Remington, or .30/06 is perfect. If you're taking your wife or child on a first-time hunt you'd do better arming then with a .7mm-08, .257 Roberts, or .243.

Though it can be a tough hike, because of the magnificent beauty of the area, the Yolla Bolly is a great place to take a hunter on his or her first deer, or even a bear hunt. Because of its remoteness,. the Yolla Bolly has one of the largest populations of black bear in California making the purchase of a bear tag worthwhile, especially because the later part of the deer season is concurrent with the opening of bear season.

For those planning on using a hike-in/drop camp, a good pack frame is a necessity. Watch the weight what you pack or else you'll be setting yourself up for a death march. Last year I carried in a treestand and other too heavy equipment and ended up carrying for three hours in and three hours out, enough weight to bend the frame--I've always been one to learn my lessons the hard way.

Boots and water filter are the next most essential pieces of equipment to pay attention to. I've found the Airbob sole produced by Danner to be fantastic for this type of steep hunting. They have so great traction, I sometimes feel intimidated into thinking my boots will stay glued to the hillside while my body will shear off at the knee. Not only is the traction of the sole important, but the fit of the boot helps make the trip more enjoyable. Whatever you do, don't forget your water filter. There are springs in the area which have great tasting water, and I've even drunk from a few without straining it first, and haven't become ill, but I don't recommend anyone make a habit of it.

In preparing to pack into the wilderness don't forget to make sure there will be room for your deer once you get one. Since you'll probably want to hike in at least a couple of hours to set up and camp and then hunt in farther at least another three or four hours, you'll want to bone out you deer when you get one. After all what's the point in packing out bones when the most you'll probably do with them is feed them to you dog when you're done.

Also, I've learned that you can cut down the gamey taste of venison by not only making sure the meat is cooled as soon as possible, but by also not cutting or sawing into the bone marrow and contaminating the meat. So, once you've skinned the deer, just work a fillet knife along the muscles and rest of the flesh and separate from the bone.

There many trails from which to hunt this area five hours north of San Francisco, called the Yolla Bolly. To name just a few there are Haynes Delight, Waterspout, Yellowjacket, Morrison, Boundary, and Devils Hole. Solomon Peak and Wright's get a lot of pressure, and pressure is what you want to stay away from, unless of course you want to use it to your advantage.

To plan any hunt you must first get your map. You'll need your Mendocino National Forest map, and Yolla Bolly Map--Middle Eel Wilderness map from the USFS(415) 705-2874. Customized maps which show areas of deer populations in relation to hunter populations can be ordered through Big Game Hunting Maps 6288 Marlborough Drive Goleta, CA (805)967-4482.

Game and Fish Magazine 1996

Jim Runyon and his nice Yolla Bolly buck
Gary Bouldridge and his unique 2X4 Yolla Bolly buck