Deer Season In California: Everything You Need To Know To Be Prepared


Written by Kristin Hitchcock

Updated: November 6, 2022

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When is Deer Season Open in California?

Deer season in California offers the chance to harvest up to six species of Black-tailed and Mule Deer. The state is divided into five zones, each with different season dates and types. Typically, the Archery season opens first from mid-August to mid-September, followed by a general season from mid-September to late December.

Mule deer buck foraging for grass.

© Hargrove

There are also “Premium” deer zones and hunts where the season dates and the number of hunters allowed are limited. Before hunting, you should review the requirements for a license, tag applications, and other requirements with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).

Hunting License Requirements

Everyone wishing to hunt in the state of California is required to possess a hunting license. If your primary residence is not in California, you must purchase a non-resident hunting license; a license from another state is not valid.

Before you are allowed to purchase a license, you must show proof of completing a hunter’s education course. This course can be taken online or in person, or if you have already completed an approved hunter’s education course from another state, you do not have to take the California course.

There are also discounted licenses available for children and veterans and lifetime hunting licenses available with the cost based on the individual’s age.

Disabled permits are available for those with disabilities. They include Disabled Archer permits that allow the use of crossbows, disabled Muzzleloader scope permits that allow the use of scopes on muzzleloading rifles, and a Mobility impaired, disabled persons motor vehicle hunting license that allows hunting from vehicles.

Also, to hunt deer, you must purchase a Deer Tag. These can be either for residents or non-residents and are called “First-Deer Tag” and “Second-Deer Tag.” These can be purchased online, by phone, or from a state licensed agent.

Three different tags can be purchased for each zone, unrestricted, restricted, or premium. There are only a certain number of tags that are sold each season. Unrestricted and restricted tags are issued on a first-come, first-served basis.

Available tags allow hunting in multiple zones and are not for a particular season (archery or general). Restricted tags include tags for a particular season (archery, for example) or a particular zone. Premium tags must be applied for and issued through a drawing. These must be applied for before the deadline in early June.

Multiple hunts are listed in the California Big Game Hunting Digest, and these tags can be applied for online. Keep in mind that you must purchase or apply for your First-Deer tag before you can purchase your Second-Deer tag. There are other restrictions on what you can apply for on your second-deer tag. See the CDFW hunting guide for details.

Keep in mind that these tags are only good for one deer each. Additional hunt deer tags are available, such as junior deer hunts, military land hunts, and special equipment hunts that can be applied separately.

Deer Season Types

In California, there are two primary seasons, Archery and General.

Archery season typically starts on the third Saturday in August and lasts three weeks. The general season usually starts the following weekend and lasts until mid-October. There are also specific hunts in all zones, typically in the fall and early winter. These hunts can be Archery only and muzzleloader only.

There are also apprentice hunts, in which the hunter must be less than 16 years of age as of July 1, the year the season starts. Apprentice hunters must be accompanied by an adult 18 years of age or older while hunting.

Season Type Regulations

During certain seasons only specific hunting devices can be used. There are also special hunts that may limit the hunting devices used.

Archery Season

In California, archery equipment is defined as any device with a flexible material with a string attached to its ends, used to propel an arrow and held in a firing position by one hand only. This includes compound bows, longbows, and recurve bows.

All bows must have a draw weight of at least 30 pounds. Crossbows are not considered archery equipment and are not allowed during the archery season. Arrows must have broad heads larger than 7/8 of an inch in diameter. Firearms of any type may not be used during this season.

Muzzleloader Only

Muzzleloaders are firearms that include wheellock, matchlock, flintlock, or percussion muzzleloading rifles using black powder or a similar propellant with a single projectile loaded from the muzzle end of the barrel. Muzzleloading rifles of at least .40 caliber or larger may be used, and must have open or peep sights; scopes are not allowed.

Modern firearms that use cartridges may not be used during muzzleloader only hunts.

General Season

Archery equipment, crossbows, muzzleloaders, and firearms are allowed during the general season. Rifles and handguns must fire centerfire cartridges with non-lead soft noses or expanding bullets. Shotguns are allowed, but they can not hold more than three shells and must fire single slugs. In some counties that do not allow the discharge of rifles or shotguns with slugs, shells with size 0 or 00 buckshot may be used. Crossbows with a draw weight of at least 125 pounds are also allowed.

Overall Regulations and Safety

Listed below are some fundamental rules and regulations for hunting in California to keep in mind. This is not an exhaustive list; everyone should review the CDFW hunting guide before hunting.

  • It is not allowed to hunt with lead bullets in California. Any projectile must not contain more than 1% lead by weight.
  • Hunting hours for deer are restricted to one-half hour before sunrise and after sunset.
  • You cannot pursue, herd, drive, or take a deer from any motor-driven vehicle, including boats, aircraft, or land vehicles. You can take a deer from a boat as long as the motor is off and the forward movement has stopped. There are exceptions to this rule for disabled persons with a Motor Vehicle Hunting License.
  • Feeding or baiting deer is not allowed at any time.
  • The use of lights of any type to illuminate a deer or draw the attention of deer is not allowed.
  • In California, deer are defined as antlered or antlerless, which is not necessarily the same as bucks and does. Antlerless deer are defined as a deer with an unbranched antler on one or both sides that is no more than three inches in length.
  • The use of dogs for the pursuit and taking of deer is not allowed during archery season. It is allowed in some regions of California for the general deer season.

Safety should always be in the front of a hunter’s mind when firearms are involved. Always respect your hunting weapon and be sure of your target. Just as important, be aware of what is beyond your target. If you miss your deer or your projectile goes through your deer, what are the risks? Is it possible that there are people beyond your target? Is there another deer standing just behind the deer you intend to take?

You could accidentally take two deer at once, or the wrong sex of deer for the season you are hunting. Also, if you use a tree stand or an elevated position for hunting, take care of any fall risks. Use a safety strap in case you lose your balance. Hunting accidents from falling are more common than accidents with firearms.

Chronic Wasting Disease Concerns in California

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a fatal neurological disease that has affected the deer, elk, and moose population in the United States. The main symptoms are weight loss over time, resulting in deer that look malnourished and thin. Also, deer may have difficulty moving and appear confused, nervous, and unaware of their surroundings.

Chronic Wasting Disease has not been detected in California as of 2022. Some precautions are in place to help prevent the disease from entering the state. If you hunt outside of California, you cannot bring a whole carcass to the state. It must be processed out of state first.

Specifically, you cannot bring a harvested animal’s skull or backbone. If you want your deer head mounted, the taxidermy must be done in the state where you harvested your deer.

What to do After a Deer is Harvested?

After you harvest your deer, dress it quickly to preserve the meat. Also, immediately fill out all portions of the tag, including the report card, and cut out or punch out the notches for the month and date of the kill. The tag should be attached to an antlered deer’s antlers or an antlerless deer’s ear.

Before transporting your deer to its final destination for processing, the tag must be countersigned by an authorized person, typically a wildlife agent or a representative at the deer processor. The tag should remain attached to the deer during the season and for 15 days after the season.

Everyone that purchases a deer tag must submit the harvest report portion of their deer tag, even if they did not harvest a deer. The harvest report must be submitted within 30 days if you successfully harvested a deer. Anyone that did not harvest a deer with their tag must submit the report by January 31. The report can be submitted online or by mail.

Fines for Not Following Regulations

Stealing a deer in California can result in hefty fines, especially if you take a “trophy” deer. A trophy is defined as any deer with four or more points on either antler and a spread of 16 or 22 inches, depending on the zone. If you are convicted of illegally harvesting a trophy, the fines are not less than $5,000 and up to $40,000.

You would also be responsible for court costs and lawyer fees incurred during the conviction process. Before hunting, be sure you have reviewed all the regulations and are hunting legally. Not knowing or understanding is not an excuse and could be a costly mistake.

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About the Author

Kristin is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering dogs, cats, fish, and other pets. She has been an animal writer for seven years, writing for top publications on everything from chinchilla cancer to the rise of designer dogs. She currently lives in Tennessee with her cat, dogs, and two children. When she isn't writing about pets, she enjoys hiking and crocheting.

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