Suddenly, I heard the faint rustle of leaves from the draw below. I sat motionless in my tree stand, straining to hear the slightest sound from the surrounding oaks. For the next several minutes there was nothing but silence.
Then, I heard it again. It was definitely the well-placed steps of a deer slowly and cautiously approaching my stand location. Its deliberate and unsteady cadence was evident as the dry leaves cracked from beneath its hooves.
Just as suddenly, the blacktail deer stopped. Minutes of nearly unbearable silence passed. My eyes scanned the trees searching for the slightest movement. I knew if it continued down the game trail, it would pass my tree stand, providing me with an ideal quartering-away shot at less than 20 yards.
The wind direction was perfect. A breeze blew slowly upward from the draw and directly into my face. I figured I was dealing with a very clever and wary buck. Hopefully it was my buck — the one I studied and patterned for the last few weeks.
As seconds became minutes. The waiting game was miserable. Then, I caught movement as the blacktail deer stepped out slightly beyond a tree. He tested the wind. It was the big 3-pointer with eye guards I had targeted prior to the black-tailed deer hunting season opener. I could see his highly acute defensive senses working overtime trying to detect danger from the shadows beyond.
He began slowly walking down the trail toward me. His chest and shoulders muscles rippled with every cautious step he took. I steadied myself for a shot as he carefully moved past my stand. Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks. His head was quickly erect, and his nostrils flared, testing the wind again for danger. I knew he didn’t scent me because the wind was steadily in my face. I wasn’t sure what had alarmed him. Time momentarily stood still … until he made the fatal mistake. The buck relaxed and began walking down the trail slightly quartering away from me. At about 15 yards, I drew back my bow string and delivered a well-placed arrow in his vitals, claiming my hard-earned trophy blacktail. All my hard work handsomely paid off.
Do-It-Yourself black-tailed deer hunts, with no guides or spotters, is an extremely special and rewarding experience. The most important decision you’ll make prior to your hunting season is whether to harvest the first legal buck you see or hold out for the Big Boy that your pre-season research revealed is roaming those very woods. It’s a very difficult decision for any hunter to make, but you must choose one way or the other and stick with your decision.
The risks of hunting one specific buck are like a double-edged sword. There’s a fine line between the sweet taste of success and coming home with nothing. It takes a great amount of individual determination, dedication and perseverance to successfully hunt trophy blacktails. It takes months of planning, never-ending scouting trips, constant monitoring of trail cameras, planning and selecting tree stand locations, and days upon days of glassing ridges, canyons and saddles. You’ll spend a lot of time in the field — first, trying to locate a trophy buck; then, intensely studying his daily habits and routines to pattern him and place your tag on his antlers.
As a resident of Northern California, I’m fortunate to live near some of the best blacktail habitat in the state.
A couple months prior to the archery opener, I begin an annual ritual of scouting my familiar hunting grounds for a trophy blacktail buck. You should, too. Focus your efforts on areas that have produced big bucks in the past. Once you find an area where past hunts have proved the deer carry great antler genetics, stick with it. It’s not uncommon for this type of spot to produce trophy-class bucks year after year.
Find and Pattern Your Buck
Begin your on-site scouting by locating areas with high deer activity. The most obvious signs will be deer tracks and scat. Then, focus your efforts on well-worn game trails leading to and from bedding and feeding areas or water sources. The most productive trails are usually located within a natural funnel of trees, which offers deer a sense of security and concealment as they move undetected during their daily routines.
Study the tracks and determine whether the trail is being used by blacktail bucks or just a thoroughfare for does. Buck tracks are large. The hooves are splayed and feature rounded worn tips. If the tracks are deep, look for impressions of dew claws, which usually mean you’re on the trail of a big buck.
Use Quality Optics
Now it’s time to establish visual sightings of the bucks in your hunting area. I use two basic methods:
1) glassing with high-powered optics2) setting-up trail cameras.
First, buy the best optics you can afford. There’s no substitute for quality. Next, glass your targeted area using high-powered binoculars or a spotting scope from a safe and far off distance whenever possible. You do not want to alert the deer of your presence. Most deer movement occurs during the first and last hours of daylight, but don’t count out the midday hours. I’ve observed many big bucks slipping through tree funnels for a quick drink or to reposition themselves in their afternoon beds between 12 noon and 2 pm.
Trail cameras are accurate time-saving devices used by many hunters to monitor their hunting spots 24 hours a day. Most important, the high-resolution photos reveal the animals, but they also display time and date stamps that can help you pattern a trophy buck. Sometimes, wise old bucks become nocturnal, making it impossible to glass them during the day. If you know he’s nocturnal, sometimes your only chance at him will be when he begins to move during the last 15 to 20 minutes of daylight.
There are certain precautions that must be taken when using a trail camera. Every time you enter the woods to retrieve your camera’s memory card, you take a big chance that your presence will be “busted” by the deer in the area. Stealth movement and scent control is the name of the game. Access your camera during low-activity hours and be sure to wear rubber boots and latex gloves when checking
it for photos.
SINGLE OUT A DANDY
Once you’ve thoroughly done your homework and have singled out a specific buck, focus 100 percent of your efforts on him. Yes, there is a chance you could be eating tag soup at the end of the season, but that’s the risk you must take when targeting a single buck.
Transition zones are semi-concealed spots, usually located between bedding and feeding areas, where deer congregate and feel comfortable letting their guard down. During the early season when bucks are still in velvet, it’s not uncommon to find small bachelor groups within these transition zones. This is a good time of the season to observe the caliber of bucks inhabiting your hunting area.
Because they are not yet hard-horned, the velvet-covered antlers of early season blacktails are extremely sensitive as they continue to grow. Bucks tend to congregate this time of year in open areas away from thick brush and branches. When they strip their velvet, they begin showing their dominant traits according to their established hierarchy.
Big Buck Territory
A sure sign a dominant buck has laid claim to an area is your discovery of tree rubs and rub lines. These are telltale signs a buck has marked that specific area as his own and will aggressively drive out intruder bucks with a vengeance. These rubs are usually made later in the season during the months of September and October when bucks are in the pre-rut. Don’t count out old rubs and rub lines from previous seasons. For some reason, I’ve found that big blacktail bucks tend to use the same specific areas generation after generation.
I’ve always believed that during a full moon, deer move all night long while eating and drinking. Then, just before sunrise they bed down, leaving hunters with a pretty bleak morning hunt.
Recently, I realized this may be a misconception. I’m sure deer do move under the light of the moon, especially on private properties that have no predatory pressure. It’s likely too, that deer move under a full moon in open country, like those vast areas where mule deer live and predators can be easily spotted. But I’ve found the full moon quite differently affects blacktails that live in dense cover.
Knowing the majority of trophy blacktails become nocturnal, five years ago I began studying the effects of moon phases on their behavioral patterns by gathering data from my trail cameras. I performed these studies on private and public lands in Northern California where predators were extremely prevalent. The results were exactly opposite of what I anticipated.
During a new moon, big bucks seem to wait until after dark before beginning their routine of traveling on game trails throughout the night. Because of the total lack of moonlight, their movements are concealed from predators that are also out looking for a meal. I think blacktails feel more comfortable moving around in complete darkness. Because of this, a hunter’s chance at encountering a big buck moving during the last hour of legal hunting time may be very limited.
During a full-moon phase, big bucks seem to use game trails extensively during the last 30 minutes of daylight and the first two hours of darkness. They move with what seems to be a dire sense of urgency to eat and drink before the full effect of the moon’s light shuts down all movement. Once the moon totally illuminates an area, deer activity drops off dramatically, probably due to the fact they can now be easily detected and targeted by predators. My cameras have captured more photos of trophy-class bucks during the last 30 minutes of legal shooting time during a full moon, than during any other moon phase. In fact, I’ve killed most of my largest bucks during this time period. It may be just the edge you need to tip the scales in your favor.
For me, the most successful method of hunting trophy blacktails is from a well-placed tree stand. Most blacktails prefer the security of thick cover. Trying to outsmart a trophy buck on the ground is extremely risky. A much better tactic is to lie in ambush from an elevated tree stand while remaining undetected. Make sure to place your stand at least 15 feet from the ground and downwind of your intended target area.
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Whether I’m backpacking into a designated wilderness area or hunting on private property, I always meet the challenge to hunt trophy-class blacktails head-on, with a never-say-quit attitude. I truly enjoy matching wits and trying to outfox mature trophy-class bucks. It requires countless hours of hard work to pattern one specific buck and know his behavioral patterns extensively.
Despite all the information you can gather through scouting, the two most important factors for a trophy hunter to be successful are patience and perseverance. Without these essential personality traits, you’re chances at filling your blacktail tag with a trophy buck are slim to none.