San Diego Deer Hunting – Lessons from Opening Weekend



Contributed by Editor-in-Chief J. Townsend

Not every story you read on this website is a success story because life is not a total success and we like to portray life as it truly is in the outdoors. Our success is not often judged on trophy kills or monster fish. Many times our success lies in the lessons we learn along the way which make us better outdoorsmen. This is one such story.

I honestly think that deer hunting in San Diego County (D16 Zone) is one of the most difficult zones to hunt if you do not have access to private land. California Fish and Game report a success rate of approximately 6% in 2013. In 2014 they decided to make D16 a premium zone which requires you to enter a drawing to obtain one of the 3,000 tags the issue for this zone a season.

I decided to enter the drawing this year despite all of the looming unsuccessfulness of other hunters in years past. A. Fick and I applied as a party and won two tags in the lottery. So our season was going to be a little bit easier because we could now hunt close to home. We both live in San Diego County so we don’t have to travel far to hunt.

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We spent the summer researching and planning our hunt around the one vitally important element in San Diego. Water. For those of you that do not know; California has been hit very very hard by an extremely strong drought this year. There is not much water anywhere above ground. Cities in the Central Valley are completely running out of drinking water. It’s pretty scary.

We planned two backpacking hunts over the course of the 30 day season, one which was opening weekend. We would hike into an area that doesn’t see much access from hunters and find a water source. Then we would wait out the deer by glassing the mountains around the water source. Fast forward to mid-October. The temperatures are slowly dropping at night and during the day. The weather reports that there has been rain in the mountains and valleys. Things seem to be looking up.

The weekend before the season opener arrives and we hike into the area we will be hunting to take a look at the water sources. We also hiked in two gallons of fresh water which we planned to bury near our planned campsite just in the instance that there is no fresh water around. Once we got down into the valley we were going to hunt we discovered that there was not any water around. We buried two jugs of water and hiked around a little bit. There was a lot of sign that deer were still using this area pretty heavily despite that lack of water. We consecutively decided that we would return here again on opening weekend to hunt.

Fast forward to the Friday before opening day. We arrive at the trailhead at 4:30pm and saw a couple of deer feeding while driving. Things are looking promising again. I noted the time we saw the deer so that we could anticipate this behavior the next evening. We gear up and get on the trail by 5pm and carry in an additional gallon of water each.

Jetboil FlashWe slowly move down the trail to our campsite which is about 2 to 3 miles from the trailhead. By the time we get there the sun has dipped behind the western mountains. We are traveling by headlamp now and basically select a location that is near to where our previously selected camp was chosen. Our new camp site looked level and comfy so we setup our tents.

Let’s talk dinner because I like to eat! I recently purchased a Jetboil Flash so that I could quickly boil water for the lightweight freeze dried meals. The Jetboil is probably the most useful piece of equipment I have purchased this year. The functionality of this cooking system is amazing. It will boil two cups of water in literally two minutes. Then there is the French Press accessory which allows you to make fresh coffee while in the backcountry. There are few feelings that compare to sitting in the middle of an amazing scenery, far from civilization, while sipping a fresh cup of coffee.

After dinner we got settled into our tents. It was a little uncomfortable to say the least. The location we choose was on more of a slope than it appeared. Every time I moved I would slide down my sleeping pad until my feet hit the bottom of my tent. I got frustrated in my sleep and eventually just curled up at the base of my tent.

San Diego Sunrise

We woke just before dawn and quietly got ready for the day. Our hopes are at an all-time high as we sit, binoculars in hand, and wait for legal shooting light. This is the time of the morning where every rock looks like a doe and every branch an antler. Finally the sun was up. The mountainside and river valley were visible. I began to slowly glass the gullies on the side of the mountain to look for any movement. Nothing. I scanned the visible areas of the river valley. No sign of deer anywhere. We spend about five minutes staring at a rock in a shadow which we dubbed “rock doe” because it looked like a sleeping doe.

We spent all day glassing the ridgeline and the valley. Movement seemed to be nonexistent. The temperature began to rise and by 8am I was shedding all of my layers except for a t-shirt and pants. It was going to be a hot day. You could see the heat waves rising up from the land as you glassed across the valley. It give your view this weird haze.

Around lunch time we moved camp to a more level site and had some lunch. We continued to glass throughout the day despite the heat. It think the temperature reached the upper 80s or lower 90s. Most of our fresh water supply was consumed that day. We only heard a couple of series of shots from around us. This was weird because there are normally many hunters near the roads where we parked. We expected to hear more shots from the surrounding area.


The day went by and we spent about 8 hours sitting and glassing the ridges and valley. We settled in again at sunset and waited with anticipation. We had seen a few deer around the same time the day before while driving towards camp. We hoped to see some movement coming into the valley. Long story short, nothing was seen.

This was the same story the next morning. After that we realized we wouldn’t make it through the day as our water was depleted to just ½ gallon. We decided to call it done, pack up, and hike back up to the truck. The experience was not a total failure in my mind. This was one of my first times backpacking and I took away some solid lessons.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Hike in earlier in the day to setup camp – you have plenty of time to survey the area for a solid campsite.
  2. Find mostly level ground to setup tent – sleeping on a drastic slope is uncomfortable.
  3. Carry less stuff – keep an inventory and weight list off all your gear. Compare this list at the end to see what you did and didn’t use.
  4. The Jetboil is an amazing tool! Food and coffee in one lightweight tool.
  5. Camp a little farther away from where you plan to hunt that way you minimize your scent and noise which will be present.

While hiking out we were buzzed by a helicopter and I jokingly told AJ that we would probably be met by California Fish and Game at the trailhead. We shrugged it off and kept hiking. Oddly enough, Fish and Game came blazing down the road and DID meet us at the trailhead.

We talked with the officer for a few minutes and learned that they setup a checkpoint at the head of the road that leads to the trailhead we were on. There they check all the hunters who are leaving the area. I asked him if many guys had taken deer. He said that he had only verified one deer which was a little forkie. He said the heat and the drought are keeping most deer from moving much. This all made me feel a little better about not seeing any deer all weekend.

I was still frustrated at spending so much time following the right methods in a good location. But, there is more season to come and some valuable lessons were learned from this hunt. We will be hitting the ground hard again over the next few weeks so stay tuned for more Southern Mule Deer adventures!


Justin Townsend

Justin (Choctaw) is an avid hunter, angler, and chef whose passion for the outdoors lead him to create Harvesting Nature in 2011. He continues to hunt, fish, and cook all while sharing his experiences with others through film, podcasts, print, and with recipes. He also proudly serves in the United States Coast Guard.

One thought on “San Diego Deer Hunting – Lessons from Opening Weekend

  • Jay Baca

    Heres a tip ..if you want to be successful in SD county.Hunt the higher elevations .I have hunted D16 for almost 40 years with about 50% success. I hent above 5000 feet elevation where there is better feed and watZacer. Plus if you hunt the lower brush areas the deer taste like sage. Good luck.If you want mule deer try Mccains Valley BLM land.


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