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."