The Advanced Blacktail Hunter
September 24, 2010
In today's busy world, finding time for scouting is one of the biggest challenges for blacktail deer hunters. Here are some tips for making the most of your field scouting time.
by Mike Schoby
How often have you looked through a hunting magazine, dreaming about shooting a buck like those seen in its glossy photos, only to come home from deer camp to a bowl of tag soup? In the years you filled a tag, if you're like most of us, you did so by slapping it on the spindly antlers of a young blacktail buck more times than you care to remember.
Now, don't get me wrong: I am not dismissing small bucks. After all, our deer herds are made up of far more small bucks than large ones, so it's only natural that we'd see more of them during hunting season. But if your goal is to harvest a mature trophy to hang on the wall, there is probably a better method to use than what you are currently using.
The key, I believe, lies neither in paying big dollars to hunt on ranches nor in finding some secret Valhalla of mighty bucks but, rather, in scouting. Regardless if you hunt with a rifle, bow or muzzleloader, the key to your success is to start "hunting" in the summer. If you do, you will find that filling your tag with a trophy blacktail is a lot easier come fall.
Quite simply, scouting is an investment in the basic tenements of hunting. While some authors wish to glamorize and romanticize the hunter-gatherers of past civilizations, scant little is written about scouting today that can be considered practical for the modern-day hunter. All that the buffalo scouts of various Plains Indian tribes had to do was keep an eye on the buffalo herds. We, on the other hand, have jobs and families to tend. If you can spend 40 hours a week patterning a particular buck, most of the literature you read today may apply, but if you could spend 40 hours afield each week, your wall would be full of trophies.
Unfortunately, most of us have to bring home the bacon and in today's world that means spending time at the office not in the woods. A typical week in most busy suburbanite's lives consists of work, grocery shopping, soccer games and school play recitals. This leaves little, if any, free time for scouting trophy blacktails. But I know many guys who work 40 hours plus a week, have a happy home life, fish quite a bit, hunt birds on several occasions, and still manage to fill their freezers with meat and their walls with taxidermy mounts from animals taken on public land or from private land they hunt just for the asking.
This, then, is how these modern-day hunters use modern-day techniques for an age-old game.
Check out old rubs, as Greg Schoby is doing. This buck may revisit the same area this fall. Photo by Mike Schoby
SCOUTING FROM YOUR LIVING ROOM The living room is where ever hunt should start. When you have only a limited time to spend afield each season, it should not be wasted scouring unproductive areas. Eliminate the unlikely spots and highlight the probable areas from the comfort of your own home. When I am looking for new areas, I surround myself with good quality topographic maps and aerial photos. I start looking for areas that match other known blacktail hotspots I have hunted in the past. Key in on large tracts of uncut timber surrounded by clear-cuts, old abandoned homesteads (those with apple orchards are a bonus), ridge lines and funnels.
If you use these maps in conjunction with a Global Positioning System receiver and some of today's fantastic mapping software, you are miles ahead of the game. It is easy to highlight spots you can see on the topo, plug the coordinates into your GPS and walk directly from your truck to the chosen spot, saving you the frustration of guesswork and, perhaps more importantly, lots of legwork.
Once you have narrowed your list to a half-dozen or so prime-looking spots, it is now time to head afield and look for the proof of your deductions.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR I divide "what to look for" into several categories when I scout. As the seasons progress, blacktails change behavioral patterns. They may not leave the area (blacktails can be notorious homebodies - staying within a few miles of their birthplace), but they will change their habits to match the season. So scout different spots and plan your attack not only for the early season, but the regular and late season as well.
In the early season, you will see more deer, and especially bucks, in large clear-cuts away from the dense undergrowth they normally prefer during daylight hours. It is debatable whether they are less nocturnal in the late summer and early fall or if the nights are just shorter, forcing the deer to remain active well after sunup. In either case, you will usually see more deer during this time of the year than the rest of the season combined.
Look for bedding patterns and travel routes along timber cut lines. Like most wildlife, blacktails are no exception and prefer edge cover. Place stands in these areas well in advance of the opener.
Scout out steep ridges and dense wood lots for use later in the year. This is a bit of a tricky situation, as these areas are hard to access without spooking the animals. For this reason, I scout them early in the summer, learn what I can, sometimes erect stands with easy entrance avenues, then I leave. You will spook deer, but by the time the late season rolls around, your presence will be long forgotten. You probably won't see many bucks in these areas during summer forays, but look for last year's rubs, and other old sign; chances are they will rub there again.
Also look for does. I know many areas that are chock full of does, but you will be hard-pressed to ever see a mature buck in there (during the early season), but during the rut the bucks are attracted to the does like bears to doughnuts. When you find these areas, don't forget them. Hang a stand in the summer and return in November. Chances are your summer scouting time will be well rewarded.
USE YOUR EYES, NOT YOUR LEGS "You kill blacktails with a rifle, but you hunt them with your eyes." This was an old adage told to me as a youngster, and it holds true today. You can walk all the thick undergrowth you want, and occasionally you will kill deer, but for the betting man the odds are low at best. You are much better off to get atop a large rise or logging landing and wait with optics in hand.
This is as true for successful hunting is it is for successful scouting. Summer is the prime time to spend every opportunity you can glassing distant hillsides and wood lot openings. You don't have to make a scouting trip last all day - in fact, I have done some of my best scouting by simply getting up a couple of hours earlier bef
ore work and heading up to the mountains to watch the sun rise and look over some promising spots. If you do this same technique once a week every week of the summer, you will find that harvesting a decent buck becomes much less of a chore come opening morning.
While I use binoculars for most of my work, a good spotting scope should be used to judge the trophy potential of a buck. This past season I used a variable 20X-60X with good success. I find that eye strain is less, detail is better and it is much more productive picking every bush apart one by one instead of overlooking them like you tend to with binoculars.
It is no secret that a spotting scope and tripod are not a joy to pack over every mountain in the West, but I feel the advantage they provide for a blacktail hunter is worth the extra effort and weight.
As much as I like using a spotting scope, I never leave home without a set of binoculars. They are fast to use and relatively easy to carry with a good, thick carrying strap. I prefer good glass combined with good light-gathering ability, in a full sized 8X-10X.
WORKING THE CROWDS In times long forgotten, the only factor hunters had to deal with was an animal's habits and natural instincts, but in today's world, if a hunter doesn't figure in other hunters' patterns and movements, he is missing a vital ingredient.
Consider yourself extremely lucky if there is no pressure in your area during the general season. Trust me when I say that is generally not the case. But all is not lost so long as your plans include the presence of other humans.
In my opinion, most people fail in this regard by trying to escape the crowds. In 90 percent of the circumstances, this is impossible and yields nothing but a gripe session on the tailgate of the truck with discouraged buddies later that day. Put it this way: If you are willing to walk three miles, there is another equally dedicated guy willing to walk four. The bottom line is, hunting pressure is an eventuality that needs to be planned for.
It is better to do as a hunting partner of mine often did. He played the crowds for all they were worth. He regularly hunted an area that was close enough to an urban population center to get a large amount of pressure. However, this area held a good number of nice blacktail bucks. It took him a few years, but instead of patterning the deer he patterned the people.
There was a thick stand of reprod timber in the low valley that was a prime bedding spot for blacktails. There was always lots of sign in there, along with beds and rubs, but most people, instead of avoiding the area, tried to still hunt through it in the hopes of getting a crack at a buck as it bounded from its bed - a low percentage chance to begin with. However, along the ridge that bordered the lowlands there was a heavily used escape trail. A couple of months before the season, my partner had his stand strategically placed along this trail. Seldom was it long after legal shooting light that he would be hanging his tag on a respectable buck while the rest of his unsuspecting "beaters" were still flogging the dense undergrowth!
No matter where you hunt, this type of tactic can be employed with great success. On pre-season scouting trips, look for areas that have a good amount of public access combined with a concentration of quality animals. Those deer survive in these heavily used areas by having a good escape route. Find it and you have found your ticket to filling your tag.
SCOUTING TIPS FROM A PRO I consider any mature blacktail a trophy. Their secretive nature and the country they inhabit makes tagging a real wallhanger akin to winning the lottery for most folks. But there are a dedicated few who have better personal relationships with blacktails than they do with most people. They understand the country and its difficulties and through years of dedication and hard work are dyed-in-the-wool blacktail trophy hunters. Most don't do it for the racks or the bragging rights, but because it is probably the epitome of the ultimate deer hunting challenge.
Cameron Hanes is one of these few. Most hunters would be satisfied shooting a "book" blacktail once in their lives. Cam makes it a regular practice, and the fact that he lives in the middle of Lane County, Ore., the top county for producing record-book blacktails in all of the Columbian blacktails' range, according to the most recent Pope and Young Club listing, is just the first part of his success. He still relies on scouting throughout the year to find blacktails with impressive headgear.
I have known about Cameron's blacktail prowess for quite awhile, but after seeing his most recent trophy photos in his new book Bowhunting Trophy Blacktail (available online at www.crhpublishing. com), it became apparent that I and most other blacktail hunters, have a lot to learn when it come to trophy blacktails.
"In the summer I concentrate on open, logged-off areas, as bucks with delicate velvet covering their antlers will be out in the open more than normal," Hanes said. "This open feeding tendency usually continues into the first part of the early archery season in my unit.
"Beginning in July, I will spend hours behind my (binoculars) searching for big bucks. I attempt to locate a vantage point that affords me a commanding view of a number of different units. I make great pains not to alert any animals to my presence, so I seldom get any closer than 500 yards. I simply want to watch the animals in their natural setting and attempt to determine travel tendencies that I can exploit when the archery season begins.
"When archery season begins, more often then not, I know what bucks are where and what they are likely to do throughout the course of the day. Last season all of my scouting came together for me and I was able to arrow a bruiser that flirts with Boone and Crockett minimum of 135 points, as he fed on fireweed in a 5-year-old logging unit."
I have always believed once is lucky, but Hanes has enough trophy blacktails under his belt that his success cannot be dismissed as luck - it must be attributed to his meticulous preseason scouting and glassing. If it works for him, I believe it should work for the rest of us as well!
Smart Scouting All Summer Long Can you imagine scouting for blacktails, fishing, camping and spending quality time with your family in one weekend? Sure it sounds hectic, but you'll learn more from multiple short exposures to different areas than you will over a long weekend of crammed scouting with your buddies a week before the season opener.
Here are some tips:
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