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Hunting's hard turf

On Mt. Baldy's Wild Side, Odds Favor The Deer.

October 25, 2005|Deborah Sullivan Brennan | Special to The Times

THE day before the deer season opener earlier this month, Arl Farris is scaling a 45-degree slope heading up a 6,250-foot high ridge in the San Gabriel Mountains. Ahead is a gantlet of disintegrating granite, overhead chaparral and thorn bushes that snap his face as he presses through. Behind is a valley of pines and broken cliffs and fog as lovely as an Ansel Adams photo.

Footing is very unstable, but Farris, a longtime hunter and former San Marino police chief, knows this shaky terrain. He moves up the ridge in seamless methodical motion, relying on momentum to keep him from falling backward onto boulders and yucca. From the top, near Mt. Baldy, the 45-year-old hunter can see vast distances and scout for deer he hopes to shoot the next day. It's a needle-in-a-haystack proposition because Farris is in the middle of the worst deer-hunting country in California.

This is hunting zone D-11, wedged up against the Los Angeles basin, prone to drought and fire, comprised of some of the steepest, most impenetrable, most crumbly slopes in North America. Over the last 15 years, hunters report that fewer than 4% who come here actually bag a buck -- worse odds than even in the harsh Mojave Desert, according to the state Department of Fish and Game.

Yet every year thousands of hunters hope to beat the odds. Farris is among them. He has hunted these mountains since his father brought him here when he was a boy, and last season, he too brought his son. In more than 30 years of hunting, in California and other Western states, Farris has killed about 40 deer -- but only four in D-11. That's substantially better odds than the average hunter in these parts, and he prizes deer he takes here more than any trophy hanging on his wall.

"It's exhilarating and exhausting to be in an area where you're pursuing animals that have never seen people before, yet you're within 30 miles of downtown Los Angeles," Farris says. "You could put this place, D-11, against any place in the country for steepness, for roughness, for inaccessibility, and this would be among the worst. That's where these deer are everyday. It really makes you appreciate the animals."

Many hunters come to the Angeles National Forest, where the D-11 zone is, because it's close to home and they can hunt for a weekend or a morning for little cost. Just clear the front ridge of the mountains, and traffic gridlock fades. It's a bit of wilderness solace from the urban fray. For many, getting a deer is secondary; overcoming the punishing terrain, a kind of wily prey of its own, is the real challenge.

An estimated 2,200 mule deer inhabit the vast D-11 zone in the San Gabriel Mountains, said Fish and Game department wildlife biologist Rebecca Barboza. The terrain is so brushy, steep and wild no one can make an accurate count. There are more hunters in this field than deer; 3,655 people bought deer tags this season.

Like Chicago Cubs fans, longtime D-11 hunters nurture a stoic loyalty hardened by years of disappointment. Each season they fail to bag a deer fuels their determination to succeed the next.

It takes a special drive to pursue game here, says Dan Reyna, 55, of Placentia. "It's slim pickings. You have to work hard and be that lucky guy."

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Hours of sitting

FARRIS is the sort of fellow who makes his own luck. Two years ago he chartered a helicopter to scout the mountains before opening day. That's when he discovered prime habitat in a canyon south of Wrightwood. The steep slopes funnel into a wide, sunny meadow tangled with coffeeberry bushes covered in berries -- a deer delicacy. Animals leave the trees and dense brush bordering the meadow to feed. To get a shot at one, Farris knows he must get in position early in the day and seize the high ground. And hope that few other hunters are there to upset the quiet.

Although deer hunting may sound violent and aggressive and action-charged, it's mostly sitting motionless on a rock or log for hours in cold weather high in the mountains. Tedium and shivering are punctuated by gunfire and adrenaline.

By the time Farris approaches the top of the ridge, his flesh is scratched and poked by nettles and yucca spines that pierce his clothes. He hunkers down on his haunches and creeps slowly over the top and down into the meadow. His every motion is measured and steady, no jerky actions that might spook animals or betray his position. For hours until sunset, he sits utterly still, using his Swarovski binoculars and spotting scope to scan for deer. "Glassing," as it's called, offers the boredom of fishing without the boat or the beer, yet it's monotony with a purpose.

This is stealthy ambush work, and hunters try to spot animals before they spot them. As for the impatient yahoo who zooms in for a day in a big four-wheel-drive truck and lingers near the roads? Forget it. Those casual hunters, experts say, are part of the reason for D-11's low success rate.

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