California's Back-Country Blacktails
November 07, 2018
After hiking several miles in sweltering heat, I had finally arrived at the predetermined camp site for the next several days; nothing more than a reasonably flat spot near a water source best described as a seep. I dropped some gear, collected and filtered water, and continued hiking.
Now off-trail, I followed a ridge line of talus and stunted evergreens toward a vantage point I had only previously “visited” on Google Earth. It was mid-morning. Despite the fact the mercury was reading in the mid-90s, I had high hopes of spotting a high-country blacktail buck. Upon my arrival, I carved out a comfy spot, set up the tripod and began systematically picking apart the high-country basin. Because much of the basin was in direct sunlight, I focused my efforts on the fringes of timber that outlined the lush alpine grasses and scree fields. I hoped to catch the flick of an ear or the glint of an antler in the late morning sun.
After an hour of searching, I caught subtle movement on the periphery. I quickly panned my binoculars to center the area in question, and, as if it had just appeared, a mature buck materialized from beneath a large lodgepole pine. I watched as he stretched, stood from his bed, and walked sidehill to find a shadier spot before bedding again in plain sight.
I swapped my binoculars for my spotter and studied the buck for a moment before I knew he was what I had hiked all the way in for. He was too far, and above me, for a shot from my glassing perch. Stalking from above is my preferred method, but the craggy terrain features would not allow it, and although the thermals were drifting upward, I had a prevailing crosswind that would cover my scent to a reasonable distance for a shot.
I waited a bit to ensure the buck was staying put, while I devised a plan to cut the distance undetected and get in position to shoot. The approach was mostly across open ground, but a small drainage offered a route of travel to sneak within range, as long as the wind held up.
I ditched my pack and belly-crawled uphill in the slight depression in the topography until I was as close as I dared. I relocated the buck, still bedded, and got behind my rifle, prone, at a steep uphill angle. I spent time to get a steady shooting platform, digging out the earth beneath my elbow until I was solid. I waited intently as the shadows grew thin and the buck was in direct sun. I watched through my rifle scope as he fidgeted; I would have to wait until he stood for an ethical shot.
After what seemed like hours the buck finally stood and began feeding. I settled the crosshairs and squeezed — miss! I missed right! I panicked! The buck seemed unfazed. I chambered another round and quickly touched another one off with the same result! The buck looked uphill, confused, but still stood in place. I took a moment to analyze what was going wrong and noticed the vegetation near him blowing in the wind. I hadn’t realized the left-to-right wind where the buck stood was greatly different than the breeze in my location. I quickly adjusted and squeezed another one off. Hit! The buck jumped on the impact, ran a few yards and piled up.
I scaled the near vertical slope to retrieve my quarry and field-dressed, then quartered, the deer. I loaded the meat and head into my pack and started the tough hike back to camp. I cooked tenderloins on a small fire and reflected on all the hard work that led to this point, knowing that I still had several miles of packing meat back to the truck. There may be easier ways to fill a deer tag but hunting the California back-country has been the most rewarding experience I have found in deer hunting.
PASSION IN THE PAGES OF PAST HUNTS
Like many other California deer hunters, I grew up hunting near roads. Hunting with my father, grandfather and uncle, we utilized drives, still-hunting, and ambush techniques in an attempt to root out wary black-tailed deer. These hunts usually started from one section of road and ended at another. Each night we would return to deer camp for a hearty meal and sleep in a travel-trailer or walled tent.
Some of my fondest hunting memories are of these deer camps and the time spent with family in the woods. We even had some success; I can’t remember a year in deer camp when the meat pole wasn’t used.
As I grew older, my passion for all things hunting increased. I pored over the pages of hunting magazines and sought out books about hunting big bucks. Guys like South Cox, Dwight Schuh and Cameron Hanes were the heroes of my youth. They told stories of finding big bucks in beautiful remote high-country basins, living out of a backpack and testing their skills against both the game and the mountains.
I’m not sure if it was the big deer, the scenery or the adventure that intrigued me most, but I was determined to try my hand at hunting the backcountry. I wanted to find roadless country and deer that felt less hunting pressure. I wanted to spot mule deer above the tree line, wait for them to bed, and stalk in close enough to get a shot.
The only problem … I live in blacktail country! Sure, there are mule deer in California, and the Sierras offer classic high-country destinations, but they are a long way from home, and, at the time, I had limited resources. While blacktails are similar to mule deer in a lot of ways, they typically do not bed in open country and are often quite nocturnal, especially once pressured. They also typically inhabit dense forested areas that are not conducive to spot-and-stalk hunting. Still, I wanted to hunt them in the back-country, and I wanted to apply the spot-and-stalk techniques I was reading about. In order to do this, I had to find areas that both hold deer and offer enough open country to allow for glassing from afar. Between scouring Google Earth and contacting local offices of the U.S. Forest Service, I was able to find the terrain I was looking for in numerous wilderness areas throughout the blacktail’s range in California.
CALIFORNIA’S RUGGED BACK-COUNTRY BLACKTAILS
From the Marble Mountain, Trinity and Yolla Bolly wilderness areas within the B zones up north, to the Snow Mountain Wilderness and the Los Padres National Forest at the southern end of California’s blacktail range, there is a lot of rugged country blacktails call home. Google Earth does, indeed, make a great search tool, easily displaying remote basins, avalanche chutes, alpine meadows and burn areas (in recent images) that hold the food, water and cover necessary to hold deer but is open enough for glassing. CalTopo.com has been another valuable resource, providing fire history layers and information on burn areas within the wilderness. Burns are one of my favorite areas to scout, where increased visibility pairs with ample feed.
I learned pretty quickly that I needed to update my gear in order to have any luck with spot-and-stalk tactics. Quality optics are imperative for this style of hunting, because you must scout beyond the satellite-borne eyes of Google Earth; you will spend hours looking through both binoculars and spotting scopes.
Blacktail bucks are most active in early morning and evening, so low-light performance is a major factor to consider when selecting a pair of binoculars. I prefer to use a lower power binocular (9x45) on a tripod for most of my glassing. This allows for a wide field of view and excellent low-light performance. In addition to binoculars, I pack a spotting scope both to field-judge animals from afar and to grid-search distant ridges. My optics system is the heaviest part of my backcountry gear, but also the most valuable. And a tripod is an essential piece of the system; a stable platform allows you to pick up even the slightest movement.
GLASSING FOR BUCK COVER
Learning to effectively glass an area takes time and practice. I prefer to get to my glassing perch before daylight in order to be set up and ready to take advantage of every bit of daylight as it fills the basin. Because blacktail bucks are so wary of being in the open, they are typically moving from feeding to bedding areas quite early; your window of opportunity to spot him is small, so make the most of it. In the first half-hour of daylight, I am franticly scanning “bucky- looking” areas on the edges of cover, hoping to catch a wary, old buck sneaking into the timber before things heat up.
Always quickly scan the area before you start your grid-search, so you don’t miss the obvious deer by focusing too acutely. Then, utilize the tripod to systematically cover every part of the basin. When you think you’re done with the first pass, start over, until you find a buck or are ready to move on to the next glassing location.Once you have spotted a buck, assuming he is not within range, keep tabs on him and pay especially close attention as he approaches cover. If you are lucky, he will bed within sight, although with blacktails, this is not often the case. I have watched countless black-tailed deer move into the nastiest, thickest cover imaginable and counted them lost until once, when I decided to just spend all day watching the area I had last seen a buck disappear.
It was around noon and hot, but to my surprise the buck in my hunt materialized on the edge of the timber and fed for less than 10 minutes before moving to a new bed, only this time, I could see him. Most of the bucks I have taken on these hunts have been late in the morning or early afternoon. If you spot a buck heading to timber in the early morning, do your best to mark his last known location and make a note of where the shade will be as the sun gets higher in the sky; then, try to get within range and wait it out, keeping in mind wind direction and changing thermals.
Another option that has worked for me in the past is stalking feeding deer and trying to anticipate their movements to cut them off, if you’ve done your homework in the pre-season and have patterned the deer’s movements. In the early archery season blacktail bucks can be patterned so long as they are not pressured. Once you bump them, all bets are off.
It's a thrill from afar. !The techniques I have developed for hunting back-country blacktails over the years are not the true spot-and-stalk hunting I aspired to when I started, but my tactics have proven effective both in archery and rifle seasons. The excitement and anticipation that comes with finding your quarry from afar and devising a plan to get closer undetected is thrilling. When paired with the sense of adventure of hunting remote back-country and living out of a backpack, the sense of accomplishment rests with memories made that are hard to beat.