Blacktail Deer Hunting Tactics
December 14, 2010
Tree stands and ground blinds are helpful tools for taking blacktails, but nothing beats knowledge of your quarry.
As the blacktail emerged from a foggy, timbered edge, I could tell he was a mature buck. At just over 100 yards out, it was too foggy to judge his rack, but his massive body and cautious, deliberate moves kept me hopeful.
Two does worked beneath my tree stand while the buck moved toward me. It was December, post-rut, and this buck was looking for last-minute action.
Once he got within 50 yards, his dark, 4x4 rack left no question he was a shooter. Then he looked right at me and I figured I was busted. But, to my relief, he dropped his head and continued in my direction.
Again -- this time at 30 yards -- the buck stopped, looked up and stared right into my eyes. I sat stone still, and after a lengthy stare-down, the buck kept coming. The 18-yard shot was simple, and soon I was admiring a dandy late-season Columbia blacktail.
Tree stands are making their way more and more into the blacktail woods, and it's important to understand why they are such effective tools, especially in the late season. The same goes for ground blinds, as more hunters are turning to these stationary places of cover with increasing success. While it's important to know what to look for when situating a stand or blind, it's also vital to understand buck behavior this time of year.
With the peak of the rut behind them, many big bucks retreat back into their core area. Here they will recover from injuries incurred during the rut and try to regain some body fat before winter fully kick's in. At the same time, some of the more aggressive, testosterone-driven bucks will continue cruising around, searching for does.
When a doe comes into heat, or is receptive to breeding, she has a 24-hour fertile period. During the first estrus cycle is when most of the does get bred. If they miss being bred in the first estrus cycle, they'll come into heat again 28 days later. Interestingly, during the second estrus period, the pH of a doe's hormones changes, which results in a greater likelihood of bucks being born. This is nature's way of population control, for if a doe is missed being bred in her first cycle, it could be due to the fact not enough bucks were around.
In areas where buck densities are high, older bucks may be covering a great deal of ground during the month of December. However, remember that many of these bucks have been pressured by hunters since August or September, so even though they are still rutting, the old bucks are wise. In fact, as the rut tails off, big bucks become more aware of what's going on around them, meaning hunters need to be smart and not get careless. This is where tree stands and ground blinds come in.
To understand why tree stands can be so effective, it's important to look at how a deer sees. A deer's pupils are not round like a human's; rather they are horizontal slits. Combine this with the configuration of rods and cones and a deer's vision is quite different from ours. Deer have a very wide field of view, and their eyes are tuned to picking up movement at a distance. Interestingly, the horizontal pupil orients the eyeball to detect movement on or just below the horizon line, where predators are active.
Because of their eyeball structure, deer are less adept at detecting movement above the horizon line. When standing underneath a tree stand, a deer's ability to detect movement up high is even poorer. While this is no excuse for hunters to get careless and move around, it does explain why we don't get busted as frequently when hunting from tree stands versus being on the ground.
If you're not one to sit in tree stands, ground blinds also have their benefits this time of year for the simple reason deer can't see into them. Whether you're hunting with archery gear or hold a special-draw muzzleloader or rifle tag, the purpose of stand and blind hunting is to get inside deer's comfort zone and surprise them as they approach you.
TREE STANDS AND GROUND BLINDS
Late-season tree stand hunts can be very effective. Tree stands give you the benefit of viewing land and game, from an elevated position. A big advantage here is that your scent is kept off the ground.
Because air travels like water, in layers, the higher you are, the greater the chance of not getting winded. Twenty-five to 30-feet up in a tree stand is not too high. Go as high as you can, within reason, and still be comfortable, remembering to wear a safety harness at all times.
Find a stand that's comfortable and be willing to put in long hours. This time of year, sitting in a stand from daylight to dark should be the rule rather than the exception.
Ground blinds afford a level of comfort, allowing hunters to move around without being seen. If you're one who fidgets or can't sit still for a couple hours, ground blinds are for you. Blinds don't give you the green light to get careless, but they can hide movements that would otherwise be detected in the open.
Good blinds are also nice because they are waterproof, adding even more comfort. They also knock down human scent, to some extent. Be sure to get blinds that are lined with black on the inside, to mask movement. Also, you may need to spray the outside seams and top with a waterproofing agent from time to time.
This time of year, blacktails can be hunted anywhere from sea-level to thousands of feet in elevation. How you go about hunting each area can greatly vary, thus the importance of knowing the habitat you hunt and the behavior patterns of the deer within those respective areas.
If hunting migratory deer, remember that they'll keep dropping in elevation as the season progresses. I've heard of more than one late-season hunter who packed a tree stand into the Cascades and hunted from it all day without seeing a single deer, only to discover the deer had already moved out of the area, or hadn't begun migrating yet.
Likewise, if hunting close to or within the wintering grounds, remember that a constant influx of deer means herd dynamics are always changing. This also means, depending on doe population, that several bucks may concentrate in a single area. Be careful not to put stands or blinds in the central area of where does bed or even feed, rather along the travel routes that get them there. This will ensure a less invasive approach for hunters. If you can set up where does fee
d, do so along brushy fringes to stay hidden, or brush-in the blind to breakup its outline.
If hunting resident deer, try to situate stands and blinds near travel routes. The more travel routes that connect with one another, the better the chances of finding deer. This time of year I'll actually set blinds and stands along primary travel routes, even though bucks don't normally use them. The reason is that in the late season a buck's primary concern is finding estrous does, and to do that he has to smell where they've been. Since most does travel along main trails, it only makes sense that bucks will do the same.
Keep in mind that bucks aren't using these trails to travel long distances, but are simply checking them to see what messages may have been left by does. This means bucks will likely inspect these trails where most does travel along them, namely near the entry or exit point leading into or out of brushy cover or where multiple trails converge. Be careful not to position your setup too far out in the open, for a big buck might not come that far into a clearing.
Regardless of hunting method, look for fresh sign and let that help determine how you should hunt the area. Photo by Scott Haugen.
During the late season, one of my favorite places to situate ground blinds is where the territory of resident and migratory bucks overlap. In a few areas I've hunted, this has roughly come at about the 1,500-foot elevation range. Of course, this range can fluctuate depending on the land and the deer herd being hunted.
At these sites, I like putting blinds on the ends of benches, ideally where multiple trails meet at the convergence point of two or more drainages. By positioning blinds where trails, migratory routes and feeding areas intersect -- often on these benches -- odds of success increase.
Look for benches along west and southern-facing slopes that offer food -- greening grass and ceanothus (buck brush) bushes -- this time of year. These food sources keep local deer coming to them and will attract newly arriving deer. Such places are designed for hunting from a blind, as they can be next to impossible to stalk in on.
Remember, most big bucks rarely use primary trails, even during the rut. But this doesn't mean they won't inspect them for does, doe urine or scents left behind from various glands of does.
PUT IN THE TIME
Even in December, scouting and using trail cameras can lend a great deal of direction when it comes to figuring out where to hang stands or erect blinds. Look for signs of increased deer activity and pockets of does, then go from there. Keep an eye out for tracks that splay wide and dig deep into the dirt, for this is a good sign that a rutting buck is in the area. Look for fresh rubs, urine spots on the ground and anything else that confirms deer are using the area.
When you put all the pieces of the information puzzle together, you'll be better prepared to figure out where to place your stands and blinds. Proper placement of these hunting tools is vital, for if they're not in the right place, you won't see deer.
Once you've closely studied an area and the deer within it, you may conclude a better approach to filling a tag is to cover ground. If buck ratios are low and they're not on the move, you might want to go search for them.
Don't be afraid to mix things up. If stands or blinds don't seem to fit, and spotting and stalking has you leery about busting a trophy buck from his comfort zone, try rattling to draw him in. Rattling and calling can be quite effective when done from a tree stand or ground blind, too.
Study, think and make logical decisions based on what information you've gathered. Above all, keep an open mind, stay positive, practice patience and be persistent. You can never give up when in pursuit of a big blacktail buck.
Editor's Note: Signed copies of Scott Haugen's popular book, Trophy Blacktails: The Science of The Hunt, can be ordered at www.scotthaugen.com. Or mail a check for $20.00 to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489. Include this clipping and receive a FREE blacktail hunting DVD, a copy of one of Scott's TV shows.