Covered Up In Blacktails
September 24, 2010
From dense cover to foothills to high-elevation hunting, these proven tactics are sure to help you put venison in the freezer this deer season.
Photo By Chuck & Grace Bartlett
I'd worked my way along just below a brushy ridgeline that is carpeted thick in manzanita, then finally knelt to take a pull from my water canteen before finally topping out. It was early August and the mercury was boiling its way to another 100-degree day, but that's what we call "deer season" out here in the far west as I wiped the sweat from my eyes then got my feet heading for the rim.
The very instant I peeked over into the little box canyon, a stunning, thick-antlered 3-point blacktail buck exploded from a copse of dark, green "pepper trees," lunging directly away from me and straight up a ridge. At only 75 yards I knew I couldn't hardly miss. Whipping my light lever gun to my shoulder, I put the crosshairs right on the tip of the buck's nose and pressed the trigger.
After tagging and gutting the deer, I backtracked into the bottoms to discoverer a tiny pool of spring-fed water bubbling to the surface in a hole no bigger than your kitchen sink only finger deep. But for Western blacktail hunters in the vast brush lands that cover so much of this lower deer range, it points the way to one of the most important and successful keys to finding and taking these cover-loving animals. Water now is king.
I would also make the claim here that anyplace you find a water source during the broiling hot summer blacktail season -- be it tiny spring, seep, rainwater creek or backcountry cattle trough -- you will also find deer someplace near it. They may lay up in steep, brush-lined side hills, shady canyon bottoms, or seek relief under a canopy of trees along some rocky ridge where they can catch an errant breeze, but sooner or later they must come to water and often it's far sooner than you ever thought.
Blacktails also make for some of the toughest rifle hunting for antlered big game anywhere on the planet. And even though enormous tracts of public land blanket the West, such as national forests, state lands, Bureau of Land Management properties, and even military reservations, buck hunters here must ply their trade in withering heat. Here are some thoughts on how to narrow those odds, based on the 35 years I've spent hunting them.
Thick cover that runs endlessly for miles suits these deer right down to the ground. They are sneakers and peekers that live their lives in smothering cover of every kind. The species has prospered because of it. Water is the real key to concentrate your efforts around, either by setting up on stand near it; walking lightly and quietly, carefully hunting as you parallel it; and knowing when and where to do both.
You must learn to match your hunting techniques on the deer's habits and timetable, and resist the urge to plow through endless miles of brush where all you'll ever get is a flash of hair or bone as a buck bolts away. When I first started hunting them years ago with an old octagon-barreled .38/40, that's how I tried to catch up to a set of antlers. Eventually I got smarter.
Another important point I've noticed over the years is that blacktails will often get up from thick bedding cover and go to water about mid-morning -- right when the heat of the day is really beginning to build. Ironically, most rifle hunters have returned to camp to wait out the heat of the day. Remember that buck at the beginning of this story? I caught him out at 10:30 a.m.
Just above the smoldering brush lands lies a different world of higher elevations laced with canyons and ridges, a more open country with scattered stands of pines, valley oaks, chemise, buckbrush and oat grass. Here also hunting becomes a different proposition simply because you can either see or look across and down into cover with elevation and spot deer moving through it. One of the very best ways to take a buck in this land is by using deer drives, yet for some reason, few hunters apply them. I've never understood why.
Driving game animals is as old as man himself, and depending on the size of ground to be driven it can be successful with as few as three or four hunters, or as many as a dozen and sometimes even more. Driving game gives the hunter a tremendous advantage in this sense: It puts animals on the run, fleeing from the danger that put them out, yet moving head-long into riflemen on stand someplace up ahead.
Successful drives require three major ingredients: careful timing, stand selection, and advancing in unison.
By timing I mean that all participants are "on the clock" in their proper place at the appointed time.
Standers, what my hunting sons and I call being in the "gunner's chair," should carefully choose locations in which bucks will try to sneak out when pressured by those driving them. For example, side canyons that go all the way up to a saddle or ridge, where deer can sneak over then drop down into another drainage, are always solid choices on which to position a rifle. These can be anywhere along the line of the drive wherever they're found and not in just one specific place or at the end of the planned drive.
Dry creek or stream beds deep in canyon bottoms always have deer trails following them because of sheltering natural cover, and a gunner should be situated here at the end of the drive waiting until pushers come into view. Someone on stand should cover small gullies or draws lined in oaks, madrone, bay trees or just tall brush angling up from bottoms. Blacktails on the run will use any and all of them trying to escape unseen.
I know a family of dedicated hunters who make the same drives year after year through the same series of canyons, and they tag bucks almost every season. They've done so literally for decades, and it points the way to another important lesson about successful drives: Once you find a piece of country with bucks in it, it's likely you'll find other antlered deer there in following years. The conditions, elevation, location of water and density of cover all make certain places "natural attractors" that will draw wary deer. The opposite is also true: There is a good bit of country in which deer rarely spend any time at all or just travel through heading for someplace more to their liking. Learn the difference and find that gem of a hotspot. It will produce for you for years.
Take another step up in elevation and we find ourselves hunting in timberlands. This is marked by yet another change in temperatures, the types and amount of cover (or, in some instances, the lack of it), and how deer live and move through it.
Because of moderating and often even cooling temperatures, blackta
ils in timber country can be found out still feeding or moving much later in the morning than in lower, hotter country. Water does not take on the importance it did earlier because almost every canyon has a small stream or creek running in its bottoms. Deer here also tend to leave bedding areas earlier in the afternoon to move out and feed, so literally seeing game is also generally somewhat easier.
In this more expansive land of big canyons, broad side hills, deep bottoms, and pine-studded plateaus, you'll discover one of the finest hunting grounds anywhere on earth. One productive way to hunt on foot here is with two or three riflemen paralleling side hills but on opposite sides of a canyon from each other. Now each can literally look cross-canyon at the other's progress, often see into cover because of the steep angles, and see deer moving ahead that the man on that side cannot see because of cover or pitch of the ground. In a real way you could say each hunter is driving deer for his partner.
Timber bucks like to bed down after a night of feeding in what I call "cover breaks," and not just timber for timber's sake. I try to get above my targeted area, then move along searching for such spots as little side hill terraces where the land levels briefly in stair steps, or where tall timber and small openings meet. Bucks like to lay up in cover but where they can look out onto more open ground up high or catch the scent of intruders on rising thermals.
By being above these you can move down either through them or force bucks out on the run where you can get off a decent shot.
Another important product of this approach to hunting here is to set up where you can glass deer in certain spots at each end of the day. Generally that means climbing into higher areas laced with greensward parks or meadows surrounded by taller cover of either brush or timber and in rifle range.
Conversely, the hunter who is sitting down and still looking for animals on the move has given himself an enormous edge. Deer pick up movement before anything else as their first line of defense, but by being parked behind his spotting scope or binoculars, the hunter takes that advantage away from the deer and he can also see them at much greater distances than when he is moving.
The highest ranges in blacktail country, sometimes up to about 8,000 feet or higher, are another world entirely from all others. This is a land of icy streams with darting little silver-sided trout and winter snows that never melt. It's also a land these days in which you can hear the September bugle of bull elk. It's hunting at the top of the world!
Often this can be situated in wilderness areas where only foot travel or horse stock are allowed but hunters can certainly go into them on long day hunts as I have many times and left the majority of other hunters behind.
Weather and its sudden changes at these elevations affect deer like no other zone. Early storms sweeping in with their freezing rains and howling winds will force blacktails to move downhill en masse. A day or two of rain might not stir the deer, but those that last longer than that trigger a changing of the season, and hunters can capitalize on it in a big way.
When the first cold storm of the season arrives, riflemen will want to do three things.
First is to scour the country searching for well-used deer trails leading down off the tops. Second is to situate yourself on stand where you have a good shooting lane. And third is to be prepared to spend the day in that exact spot. Blacktails typically use these seasonal trails after the season has closed and snow drives them down, but an early storm will trigger the same reaction from them.
Sometimes you may be able to set up where you can see more than just one trail or even the confluence of two or more trials, which is even better. This is also the only time I've ever experienced this kind of migration hunting and it's something special to witness in progress.
What's interesting to note is that blacktails tend to use the same drainages -- and oftentimes the very same trails -- year after year in migrating down to winter range. Find a major migration route, mark it on your maps, and you'll know where to be anytime that early storm hits during deer season.
If you go before weather has changed, look for high canyons with little basins or pockets under their surrounding peaks, and that have abundant supplies of the low cover blacktails love so much to eat. Like all mountain hunting, not every canyon or side hill will hold deer but if you move, use a good pair of binoculars and move again. Eventually you will find the areas in which they are holding and take advantage of it.
The time to catch bucks out here is at both ends of the day. That means being there before first good shooting light and once again from late afternoon until the end of legal shooting time. This may require a long hike in the dark, but that's what flashlights were invented for. Besides, blacktails are most active during those periods of time, and the last thing you want to do is be moving while they're moving.
For the hunter who have the time and money to spend, outfitters and guides are available to take you deep into the highlands in horse camps where hunting pressure is the lightest of all.