Giving Western Deer the Eastern Treatment
September 24, 2010
More and more hunters these days are finding that whitetail tactics work on blacktails. Here's how to make them work for you.
By Mike Schoby
Mock scrapes, 8-pointers, cover scents, pre-rut, post-rut, rattling, grunting.
As a Western deer hunter, I sometimes feel left out of the loop. I was watching outdoor TV the other day, and every hunting show I watched featured a guy perched in a tree stand, spraying scents, creating mock scrapes and arrowing - you guessed it - huge whitetails.
If TV doesn't have enough about whitetail hunting, flip through almost any major hunting publication and you will find article after article on this poster child of American deer hunting.
There is nothing wrong with whitetails; in fact, I spend several weeks each year pursuing them. But it suggests a question: Why aren't more people being encouraged to learn and talk about America's other greats? Yes - I'm referring to mulies and blacktails.
I grew up hunting blacktails, and later learned to chase mulies as well. So it's always bothered me that outdoor media publishes so little information about hunting these Western species.
I hunted them as my father did, still-hunting for blacktails, spotting and stalking for mulies. And that was it: the end. But over the years I have come to realize that neither tactic is the be-all and end-all - not by a long shot. Many modern techniques for hunting whitetails also work well on blacktails and mulies.
Blacktail hunters taking advantage of such tools as rattling bags come to learn the sounds of battling bucks. Photo by Mike Schoby
For me this realization came about through a new hunting partner. All of my life I hunted with Northwest locals who pretty much believed all the same things when it came to hunting blacktail deer. Then, in my early 20s, I met Taro Sakita, who had recently moved from New York (of all places) to the Northwest and was looking for hunting areas. One thing led to another and over the years we became good friends and hunting partners. While I thought I would be the Northwest Big-Game Teacher, what I learned about blacktails from Taro proved invaluable. He came the Northwest with no perceptions or preconceived beliefs about blacktails. He had hunted whitetails all of his life and firmly believed in a scientific approach. "If it works for whitetails why wouldn't it work for blacktails?" he reckoned.
When Taro started hanging stands over game trails, creating scrapes and using scent lines for blacktails, I scoffed. "Listen up, Eastern boy," I told him one day. "That stuff may work for whitetails back home, but it sure as heck doesn't work out West for blacktails."
His response - "Why not? Have you ever tried it?" - stumped me. The truth was that I hadn't tried any of those tactics, and I didn't know anyone who had. I had been told it wouldn't work - coincidentally, by people who had never tried it.
That first year we hunted together, Taro hunted out of a tree stand using scents and arrowed a nice 2-pointer (yes, Western count). As I recall, I got skunked that year.
The following year, I tried his methods. We hunted out of tree stands during the early season, and I was amazed at how much game I saw compared to my still-hunting jaunts. We saw lots of does and some small spikes, but nothing to loose an arrow on.
Large mature blacktails are known to be almost completely nocturnal, except during the November rut - the one time in the fall when they will forgo protective bedding areas during daylight hours. So it was that Taro and I were perched with bows at the ready above a clearcut in the Cascade Mountains on Thanksgiving Day.
Taro, who had rattled in numerous whitetails back in New York, had been wanting to try rattling for blacktails since the previous year, when he'd arrowed his buck using whitetail techniques. I had never rattled before, and was doubtful if the technique would work on what I thought to be timid blacktails.
He tickled the tines together (a term I picked up from an outdoor TV program) and then went into a full-blown fight series, repeatedly clashing the antlers together. From my viewpoint, he was creating enough of a ruckus to scare every blacktail into the next county.
Movement at the far end of the clearcut, possibly 500 yards away, caught my eye. I scanned the area with my binoculars, and through the mist and low-hanging clouds, I picked a deer. Soon it turned its head, and I saw his rack. He was a mature, heavy 3x3 - and he was headed in our direction.
Around 250 yards out, the buck paused to survey the terrain. Taro clashed the antlers together for another loud but brief interlude. The buck marked the location of the noise and ran toward us. Taro quit rattling to let the buck come. He readied his bow and prepared to make the shot. The buck had now closed the distance to within bow range and was cautiously walking between small evergreens. As he stepped behind one, Taro came to full draw, and when the buck emerged, Taro grunted with his mouth as another buck would do in seeing a competitor. The buck stopped abruptly, broadside. The arrow was on its way, blurring over the 25 yards between us and passing through both sides of the buck's lungs. The buck didn't go far before expiring.
So rattling will work, I thought to myself as we started down the frothy-pink blood trail after the buck. In fact, it worked great.
I never imagined blacktails to be as territorial or aggressive as whitetails are, but since then, I have rattled in dozens of whitetails and a few blacktails, and I think in some cases blacktails actually respond better to rattling than whitetails do.
So my use of whitetail methods to target blacktails was not ingenuity on my part but a result of learning from someone who didn't believe what he was told. If you are ready to try some unconventional methods for taking blacktails in your area, here is what you need to know to get started.
TARGETING THE RUT Targeting the rut is the key to harvesting mature bucks. Blacktail bucks are more secretive and more nocturnal than about any other North American big-game animal, and trying to harvest one outside of the rut decidedly stacks the odds in their favor. However, during the rut, which takes place anywhere from the beginning to the end of November, depending upon the region, makes mature bucks susceptible to whitetail tactics. In addition to the main rut in November, I have seen secondary ruts in later months as well.
Once, while hunting the last bit of the archery season in the end of December in wes
tern Washington, I saw four mature bucks fighting and repeatedly dogging one lone doe that had apparently not been bred during the regular rut in November. Three of the bucks were nice 3x3s, but the fourth was a massive 4x4 that would have scored high in Pope and Young.
After stalking to within 100 yards, I used a doe bleat call to see if I could attract the attention of the buck that had strayed slightly away from the group. Upon hearing the call, the buck walked stiff-legged toward where my partner and I were crouched in the tall ferns. When he got to within 40 yards, he stopped and turned broadside, and my partner came to full draw and released. However, the string collided violently with his large hunting parka, and the arrow buried itself in the dirt 10 yards in front of the buck. All the deer bounded away to live at least another year. The buck was not harvested, but it was not the fault of the technique - just the shooter.
Target the rut, use the right call and you will have a good chance at arrowing a mature buck.
CALLS Calls for deer come in two main varieties: buck grunts and doe-in-estrus bleats. Both will work on blacktails, but of the two, I have had the best luck with doe-in-estrus bleats in attracting large bucks. I also carry a grunt tube, and have learned to grunt with my mouth for one important reason: The grunt is the most effective ploy for stopping a buck in his tracks.
This comes in especially handy when you have a buck walking by your stand, or when one is responding to rattling. Grunting when you are ready to shoot gets a buck to stop faster than whistling will and does not have the negative effect of spooking the deer. Grunting works so well at stopping deer that I have even used it with success after I have missed a shot.
When it comes to estrus bleats, my favorite call is the Primos "Can." This call is super-simple to use and remarkably lifelike in tone and inflection. Simply place your thumb over the air hole and turn the can over - it does the rest.
RATTLING Rattling is an extremely effective tool for harvesting mature blacktails during the rut. I don't believe there is any one way to do it, but here is what I have found works well.
Start with soft sparring noises - tickling the tines, if you will - followed by hardcore antler crashing and fighting. Don't forget to scratch up the ground and rake a small sapling in the process. A real deer fight is loud, so in this case, noise can be your friend.
When I first started rattling blacktails, I used real antlers and manmade rattling antlers I bought through an outdoor catalog. However, because of their size, I have switched to some of the newer rattling bags and rattling sticks and have never looked back. The sound from the rattling bag sounds every bit as good as a set of full-sized antlers, but you don't have to carry around a bulky, heavy item.
In addition to weight and portability issues, many times a blacktail will sneak in and will be in your lap before you know he is there. In this situation it is a lot easier to set down a small bag and draw than it is to lay down a full-sized set of antlers. Not only are they easier to set down, but they also require much less movement to operate. A buck sneaking in often will see all the movement associated with full-sized antlers long before you see him, and the game is up. With a rattling bag, movement is kept to a minimum.
SCENTS & MOCK SCRAPES Scents work as well for blacktails as they do for whitetails. Over the years I have used many different varieties of scents and gotten varied results. I believe the difference lies less in the scent itself than in the delivery method.
Most scents are designed for whitetail hunting situations, which, when compared to blacktail hunting terrain, is bone-dry. I believe standard liquid scents run off too quickly in typical Northwest downpours. I have even used them with the hanging-wick type of delivery system, only to come back to my stand the next day to find the wicks completely washed out, looking as if they'd been run through a washing machine.
For this reason I started using the Myles Keller Gel Scents by Robinson Labs. These scents are in a heavy gel and have excellent staying power, even in the worst rainstorm.
Concerning mock scrapes, I will say it up front: I have never seen a real blacktail scrape in the woods - so I was not too sure how a mock scrape would work. However, I hung up a couple of scrape drippers around some of my tree stands and couldn't believe the results. Deer literally tore up the ground around them. I believe they were hitting them at night as I never saw a mature buck at them in the day, but the sign was there, leading me to believe that sooner or later this method will help you hang your tag on a bruiser.
TREESTANDS I am no tree stand lover; in fact, those that I hunt with know that I hate them. I don't like being confined to one area, I don't like sitting for hours at a time staring at brush, and I really don't like being 20 feet up when the wind blows.
There is, however, no doubt that tree stands will increase your odds of success for blacktails. I have used them enough to know that they help keep your scent off the ground, give you a much better vantage point over the thick brush associated with good blacktail country, and often offer you a great opportunity at an unhurried, well-placed shot.
My one bit of advice for prospective tree stand hunters is to buy the best stand available. With this piece of gear, the difference between the best and the worst is night and day. The best are reasonably comfortable, large enough to move around on and stable enough to make you feel safe. The worst have none of these qualities and are often dangerous to boot.
MULE DEER While the bulk of this article has been about targeting blacktails with whitetail tactics, some of these same techniques will also work for mule deer. In most mule deer terrain, you can forget about using a tree stand unless you want to put it on a fence post. But scents, rattling and calling can all work during the rut. Mule deer are territorial, and do fight when looking for a mate.
Whenever I have targeted them in the rut, I have seen them from afar in typical spot-and-stalk fashion, determined if the buck was a dominant buck, sneaked within his zone (generally within 150 yards) and started rattling. Most bucks, even if they are not dominant, will come to investigate the noise. Mature bucks respond to defend their turf or does, and lesser bucks will come running just to watch a good fight.
Use the calls much in the same fashion as you would for whitetails, and remember that the grunt works equally well at stopping a mule deer as it does any other form of deer.
Using scents in mule deer country can be tough, as mule deer often cover large tracts of land, and isolating heavily frequented spots can be dif
ficult. However, once you do isolate these spots, be it a watering point, fence crossing or a bedding area, if you set up and lace the area with scents, more often than not you will arouse his curiosity enough to gain a shot.
Whether you are after mule deer or blacktails this season, it is easy to fall into the same routine. The hard part is trying something new. Don't let another year go by without trying some of these tried and true whitetail tactics in your neck of the woods. The results may surprise you - they sure surprised me.
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