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For Jayson Collard, the wild peaks and forests around Lake Sonoma offer the near perfect hunting grounds in the otherwise crowded Bay Area.

"There are so many no-hunting, no-trespassing signs going up everywhere," he said, bounding up a rugged road this week in his pickup truck in the middle of the 5,000-acre wildlife preserve that covers almost a third of the land around Lake Sonoma. Finding hunting grounds "is getting really hard, especially if you don't know somebody with private property."

The hunting clubs and public lands that are open to hunters, he said, tend to be unpleasantly crowded.

Collard, an avid bow hunter, is part of the opening up of the mostly wild Lake Sonoma preserve to hunters more than a quarter century after it was partially closed to the public when the Warm Springs Dam was constructed.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the land, and the nonprofit Friends of Lake Sonoma are in the first season of a program to control the deer population in the preserve by allowing a handful of hunters to explore the rugged hills, deep ravines and thick forests that line the northeastern side of the lake. Hunters are restricted to bows, and they have to be escorted in and out of the preserve by Collard, who will offer them tips on the best ways to hunt on the scenic landscape.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which regulates hunting even on federal land, will allow hunters to take a total of just six bucks from the preserve this season. That means only a handful of hunters will be allowed in, so anyone willing to fork over the $500 fee will be virtually alone on the land during the hunt.

The hunter "has got that all to himself," Collard said, standing atop a high peak and surveying a sea of fog enveloping the preserve below. "You couldn't cover half of that in a day, it's so wild."

The fee will be donated to the Friends of Lake Sonoma, which helps the Army Corps of Engineers run tours and educational programs at the park and associated fish hatchery at the reservoir.

"Park budgets are getting cut everywhere and we're just trying to take up the slack wherever we can," said Jane Young, the group's executive director.

The organization already makes about $20,000 per year by managing hunts for invasive wild pigs, both on the closed wildlife preserve and in the areas open to the public, charging $30 per pig for hunters. The deer hunts on the preserve will add a few thousand dollars more to that total, but it's not clear yet how much, since hunters can add additional days to their trip for $150 per day if they don't get a buck on the first day.

So far, Collard has guided two hunters on deer expeditions, but only one managed to get a buck, leaving five more available before the season closes at the lake. Collard is leading hunts today and Saturday as well.

Customer Ian Tawes, a financial trader from San Francisco and an avid hunter, said he read about the new program online and was eager to give it a try.

"It was phenomenal ... it was really cool to get in there," he said. Because it was bow hunting, which requires a more patient approach to animals, "you're not zipping around, moving very slowly and taking it all in."

How fast have home prices climbed?

The median price for a single-family home in Sonoma County has climbed 131 percent in the last nine years since prices bottomed at $305,000 in February 2009. Key milestones:

$305,000 - February 2009

$435,500 - April 2013

$507,000 - July 2014

$600,000 - June 2016

$705,000 - June 2018

Source: Pacific Union International senior vice president Rick Laws

Tawes didn't get a buck on the first day, but arranged to come back the next day and managed to bring one down.

Army Corps of Engineers District Park Ranger Joel Miller said the hunts are part of an ongoing effort to control wildlife populations. The wild pigs are the main concern, since they breed prolifically and eat indiscriminately, tearing up the landscape and crowding out native animals. But if the native deer herd gets too large, it can lead to starvation and a major crash of the population. The small hunting program will help keep the deer herd to a healthy and manageable size.

Miller said the corps discontinued shotgun hunts for pigs several years ago, largely because of complaints from neighbors. Some neighboring landowners were worried about the prospects of armed hunters near their property lines, and others objected to the idea of killing animals at all.

Bow hunters are quieter, Miller said, and because bow hunting requires so much skill and practice, it tends to attract the best and most dedicated hunters, people who are not likely to cause problems for neighbors.

"It's a more holistic experience," Miller said. "In more instances, they aren't going to get an animal, and the fact is, they are happy about it."

Indeed, Collard said the difference is substantial between bow hunting and using a firearm. Where rifles are accurate for hundreds of yards, bows are accurate to only a few dozen yards. Also the arrows tend to do less devastating damage than bullets, meaning a poorly placed shot has a much higher chance of simply wounding an animal, allowing it to escape and needlessly increasing its suffering.

The upshot is that a bow hunter has to get a great deal closer to the quarry than a rifle hunter, moving slowly, being patient and waiting for the perfect shot.

"You have to be a lot more conscious of your elements," he said, such as your movements, your appearance, and the wind, which can push arrows off course or give away your position by allowing the animal to smell you.

"You have to stalk out your animal, particularly deer," he said. "They are really in tune with their environment."

Pigs are somewhat easier than deer, he said, because they don't see well, but their sense of smell is extremely keen, making it imperative that the hunter stay downwind while approaching, a difficult matter near Lake Sonoma, where the water and the rugged terrain can cause unexpected wind eddies and shifts.

Hunters at Lake Sonoma have to follow normal game rules, meaning they must have state licenses and tags for deer and pigs. The deer hunt will run through the fall. The pig season is open year round, but Lake Sonoma limits hunts to the winter, November through March, when there are fewer visitors in the park, Miller said.

Ian Tawes said he's already planning on a return visit.

"If this program is in place next year, I told Jayson, I want to be first in line," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)

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