So You Have a Late-Season Blacktail Tag, Huh?
September 24, 2010
Put this expert's techniques to the test and you'll fill that coveted late-season permit.
By Glenn Dee Summers
It was mid-November, but you couldn't tell it by the temperature. This section of the Pacific Northwest had been hit by warmer-than-normal conditions. This was the kind of weather the old-timers labeled as salubrious. On the other hand, I had hunted blacktails here during past late-season periods when the snowdrifts were knee-deep, and it was colder than springtime in Wyoming.
Sunshine had been a constant for the previous week, now the days were a more-normal broken, cloudy overcast. The chill wind blowing down off the snow-covered peaks of the Cascades ate through my wool shirt. I yearned for that golden sunshine shunned in days past.
Years of experience have taught me that the onset and duration of the blacktail rut is influenced by photoperiod more than anything else is. With the shortened daylight brought on by those dark clouds I knew those big ol' bucks should be out chasing the does.
The mountain was rugged, laced with basalt cliffs; the terrain was thick pine-oak complex mixed with small dense fir thickets. Potential shots here could range from 50 yards to a comfortable 200 yards, maybe a bit more. It was midday, a time for most hunters to head home, or back to the camp poker game. But when we hunt, we hunt; we can sit around home or play poker while waiting for the next hunting season. Hunting by roaming, spotting and/or stalking is the way to fill deer tags in this terrain and under these conditions.
My partner had opted to hunt off this ridge and down a small open valley to the east while I worked my way on along this main ridge. We had been hunting off and on for the past four days during this special "Thanksgiving" deer season, and our time was running short. Some small movements in a sparse thicket downhill interrupted my thoughts of time limitations. I quickly slipped ahead to a lightning-shattered deadfall and eased to one knee.
Drawing my 8X glasses from my shirt, I began to carefully dissect the cover below me. Gradually I put together parts and pieces of a couple - no - three, four - five does sifting in and out of the oak tangle and finally into the open ponderosa. Then a buck sporting a heavy rack with at least 4 points followed them into view with his nose to the ground. I rested my gloved hand against the snag, palmed the forend and brought my 2X scope's post and cross hairs to bear on his chest while angling the bullet for his off shoulder.
Late-season hunters should check game trails for recent activity. Photo by Glenn Dee Summers
When he walked between a couple of big golden-barked pines and slowed, I gently caressed the trigger. The rifle nudged me as it sent 139 grains of hand-loaded bullet across the 225 yards that separated us at 2,900 feet per second. The buck jumped forward then wheeled to collide with a big pine and reeled over backward, kicking. I quickly jacked another round into the chamber, but a second shot was not necessary. He kicked a few times and then lay still. I waited a bit, and then stood to move down to my deer.
This was a great blacktail, with a spread of 20 inches and a main beam of 19. The beams ran 8 inches in circumference at the brow tines; 3 points off the left beam, 4 off the right. An absolutely wonderful trophy-class blacktail! He was stocky and weighed about 165 pounds hog dressed. All my time and energy had been well spent. Holding a late-season tag that fell within the timing for the blacktail rut and the perseverance to hunt all day after most hunters had quit had turned the trick.
As a guy who has hunted deer (and a lot of other game) from one end of this country to the other, I would offer that a trophy blacktail might just be the toughest big-game animal to come by in the West. And if that is true, then by far the late seasons offer the best opportunity, simply because the rut comes into play. There are late seasons for blacktails that run the gamut from archery to primitive/blackpowder hunts to standard firearm hunts. Archery hunters and blackpowder aficionados often have even later seasons that run through and after the blacktail rut.
I have been living and chasing blacktail deer here in the Pacific Northwest for the past 30 years. During that time I have been fortunate enough to kill some really great bucks during regular and early seasons, but I know that my best (sometimes only) chance of seeing and taking a big blacktail is during the late seasons. That's when the rut comes into play. If you feel I am being redundant, you are right! Hunting blacktails during the rut is just plain smart.
Trophy whitetail hunters will tell you that without the rut's influence, trophy whitetail hunting often becomes a study in futility. The same is true with blacktails, simply because big blacktail bucks are nocturnal animals by habit.
An Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife photo study conducted in the mid-'90s confirmed what experienced blacktail hunters have known all along: Some 80 percent of the bucks caught by camera were on the trails between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Large numbers of those deer were big, trophy-class, heavy-antlered bucks, too. (Far more than were believed to inhabit the study area!)
Too, migrations of big bucks took place far earlier than suspected, with most having moved to lower elevations by the middle of late blacktail seasons. Like big, burly whitetails, mature blacktails sporting big antlers normally limit their movement to the hours of darkness. Only the does and younger bucks move around during daylight hours. But the influence of the rut causes every big buck to cover every doe he can find. And that requires a lot of movement, more than their habitual nighttime traffic allows. In short, the rut changes normal lifestyles.
On another late-season hunt, my partner and I had spread out across the upper part of this ridge to take our stands long before daylight. As the faint saffron light of dawn crept under the cloud cover, the occasional cold tremors had long turned to downright shivers. The snow-covered terrain below me looked as cold as I felt, but I felt a flash of warmth flow through me when I spotted a long string of deer working across a wide opening.
We were hunting along the upper section of a small ranch we had permission to hunt. Behind me and slightly uphill was a fenceline and a stake that marked the beginning of an extensive acreage of Forest Service property. At that, we were on the lower slopes of the Cascades and should have been neck-deep in deer beginning the rut. There was the normal resident population of blacktails that lived on this ranch all year long, and the added numbers of deer that should be migrating into this area from up above made this a hotspot for blacktails.
The open valley below us held a few s
cattered clumps of white oak saplings and was sprinkled with isolated bigger oaks and snow-covered cheatgrass. Shots here could run to barrel-stretching distances. This open country offers the opportunity for spotting deer from a distance and then planning the stalk into decent shooting range.
The light finally gave me enough definition to sort out the train of deer working their way back up to the heavy timber. As I suspected, there was a buck with them, but he was a small, thin-antlered 3-pointer. As this was the last week of the season, he warranted some consideration, even though he was what I call a "last-day deer." There were bigger, "black-horned" bucks hereabouts, and all I needed was patience and a little luck to shoot another wallhanger.
That little buck was the last buck I saw that morning. I met my partner about noon, and we moved up to the mixed timber to grab a bite of lunch and start some one-man drives through the trees. We ate quickly, had a cup of tea and put our plan into action. He would give me enough time to hike ahead around the timber to a stand about a quarter-mile away. At that point he would slowly zigzag through the timber toward me. His movement and scent would push the deer past me, hopefully within shooting distance. Then he would take a stand and I would do the driving. In that way we would work our way through the bedding cover.
From past year's hunts he knew where I would be standing, and that I would not shoot directly into the timber toward him. It is a safe way to hunt and surprisingly effective. I had no sooner taken my stand and was looking toward where my partner would appear when movement off to my left about 150 yards and slightly to my rear betrayed the presence of a buck. This was not a deer my partner had moved. I raised my rifle ever so slowly and leaned across the old blowdown tree I used for a stand. The view revealed a big, heavy-antlered 3-pointer slipping through the trees. I quickly found an alley slightly ahead of him.
He was moving slowly, and when the front of his chest filled the opening, I squeezed the trigger on the .338. A 210-grain bullet knocked a shower of bark from a pine, and the buck started trotting off at an angle. I found another, wider alley ahead of him and when his side showed I plowed a shot into his flank. At that shot, he really sped up, disappearing out of sight through the trees and over the contour. I jacked another round into the big rifle, rolled it over, fed the magazine full and walked slowly over to follow his tracks and the profuse blood trail that led to him lying just over the edge of the ridge.
He was a dandy 3-point blacktail with a 22-inch spread and heavy 21-inch beams: a wonderful trophy-class blacktail of the first water. He was well into the rut, with a swollen neck, lean and lank, he weighed about 150 pounds hog dressed.
I want to quickly note that a .338 Winchester Magnum is not required to hunt blacktails. On the other hand, I don't believe there is any such thing as being "overgunned" as long as the hunter can shoot the rifle accurately.
Any of the classic deer cartridges are good for blacktails. I feel that the 6.5x55, the .257, 7x57, .270 or .30/06 have been adequate for deer hunters for nearly a century, and they still are. And, sure - any of the new short, fat, long, thin beltless Magnums will do the job, too. But keep in mind you don't need an elephant rifle to shoot blacktails. I would also offer that any low-powered scope from 2X to 4X is more than adequate; a low-powered variable is a reasonable option. Sewer pipe-sized variables are unwieldy, heavy and unnecessary.
Most of the blacktail states now require application for some or all late-season tags; the varying regulations and timeframes are so complex it would take a small magazine just to describe and explain all the complexities and ramifications. Information is readily available from state wildlife departments. But here is the important point: In most cases some tags or open hunting areas are available to hunters that are not successful in drawing their chosen areas or times. Scrutinizing seasons, time frames and questioning deer managers can offer alternatives.
A few years ago, my application for a mule deer tag in my chosen area was unsuccessful. But I had the option of hunting western Oregon for blacktails. The latter part of that season generally falls within the beginning or middle of the rut for blacktails and thus offers great potential for taking a trophy-class blacktail.
Thirty years of hunting everything from desert pronghorns to Roosevelt elk in the Pacific Northwest gives a guy a lot of knowledge of the country. It was no great feat to recall some good blacktail hunting spots "over on the wet side" and revisiting some of those places soon had me gazing at some absolutely huge blacktail tracks that led out of an abandoned farm orchard and away from the fallen apples he had been feasting on. It was a beautiful setup, and ideal for the stand I had selected and the hide I had built out of a fallen tree. There was a light drizzle falling as I worked my way back to my rig. Things hadn't changed all that much since my last hunt there.
My available three days were soon eaten up on my stand watching exit trails or slipping through the bedding grounds in the adjacent jungles of alder and Douglas firs. It drizzled, rained or just flat-out poured virtually every day I hunted. I would rather hunt dry, but I can hunt wet. I was in my stand long before dark and returned to stay until it was legally safe to shoot. My big buck never showed, but I decided to put one more morning into that good stand.
Early that morning, long before daylight, I slipped into my hide I had built out of fallen brush at the edge of the old orchard. I had just readjusted a seat heater as the light coming through the misting rain revealed the vague form of an antlered deer on the far edge of the orchard. The mists floating through the ghostly trees gave the scene an ethereal feeling.
Gently folding back my poncho, I ever so slowly raised my ultralight .30/06, flipped the scope covers off and centered the deer in the scope. I could see a small branch-antlered rack that made him a sure-enough trophy for a last-day, last-hour buck. I stroked the trigger, and the 130-grain Speer hollow point made a thud that echoed back as he jumped, kicked his belly and launched into a stumbling run that lasted only yards. I had slammed another round in to my rifle before he fell, so I waited for a minute or so - but he never moved. Then I stepped off the 120 long steps that separated us.
This was a good buck with 4 small points to a side, a 16-inch spread, 15-inch beams - a better buck than I had originally thought, and certainly nothing to be sneezed at. Under the circumstances, I was tickled pink. He weighed about 135 pounds hog dressed. The rain had settled in to a steady drizzle but somehow the sky seemed a little lighter as I dragged him to my rig.
Perseverance can make or break a hunt. More than that, a late-season blacktail tag is the best (and perhaps only) sure ticket to big antlers on the wall and venison on the table.
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