Long-Range Blacktails

Cover your bases before you head out for a hunt. Then make your shots count with these tips from a longtime blacktail fanatic. (November 2007)

Author G.I. Wilson glasses an Oregon clearcut for blacktail sign.
Photo courtesy of G.I. Wilson.

We eased out of the Jeep at the crack of dawn. The glow of early light was at our backs as we moved to the edge of a landing. Below us, the clearcut -- replanted some eight to nine years ago -- was perfect blacktail country.

Before I could get the binoculars focused, my hunting partner Bill Blackburn said, "There he is! On the right side of the lower landing. In front of that big buckskin log."

I quickly sat down, took a rest over a stump and used my cap as a cushion. At this range, a good rest is a must.

The .30/06 roared. The buck made one short jump, buried his nose in the soft mud and was dead.

"Great shot!" said Blackburn, as he pumped my hand. "How high were you holding? How far do you think that is?" Blackburn was shooting a .35 Remington. For him, a shot like this, of 250 to 300 yards, was out of the question.

"I put the crosshairs dead center behind the shoulder," I said. "I figured it's 250 to 275 yards."

It was Nov. 7, the last day of this Oregon blacktail season. We were hunting the Cascades and had caught glimpses of the big, heavy-horned 3-point the day before. But he had vanished into heavy timber.

This morning, we made sure we were well above where we thought he'd be at daybreak.

This was several years ago. Bill Blackburn had grown up in logging camps of the Coast and Cascade ranges. He and his dad had seen and harvested more blacktails than anyone I've ever known.

Blackburn had spent countless hours still-hunting with his old .35 lever-action Marlin. He had taken many nice bucks at close range.

GREAT GLASSING

In the 1957 Rose Bowl, the Oregon State Beavers played the Iowa Hawkeyes. That game had an influence on Blackburn's hunting style. As a fullback for OSU, he was given 7x35 Bushnell binoculars, which he still uses today.

After trying out those binoculars of his, engraved with "1957 Rose Bowl Participant," I started shopping for anything of similar quality.

It took numerous trials, and all the dollars I could afford, to settle on anything comparable.

Blackburn enjoys watching deer. He'll sit and glass a clear-cut by the hour. He's become very skilled at finding deer.

"It only takes a small opening, or a very small movement, to spot a deer," he said. "Sometimes it will only be an ear, a leg or maybe part of an antler."

He can spend hours searching a promising area. But shooting that .35, he had to find a way to get close enough for a shot. Frequently this led to a fast close-quarters action. Often a buck would detect his approach and slip away.

SHOW ME THE BUCK

When we started hunting together, I was amazed at the number of deer Blackburn could find. If we found a buck within 300 yards, I would kill it. With plenty of time and a good rest, I was very effective with the old Husqvarna .30/06. I'd spent a lot of time practicing at ranges up to 300 yards and continue to do so.

Blackburn soon figured out that he was missing out on much of the shooting. It was time for a flat-shooting, long-range rifle. His .35 was relegated to mantle decoration, and he purchased a Ruger .30/06.

With practice, he became a good shot at long distances.

He doesn't call me to take those long shots anymore. More often it's, "Meat on the table! Get your pack board -- we have work to do."

And just as Blackburn saw the benefit of a long-range rifle, I started learning to use binoculars successfully. I spent a lot of time analyzing Blackburn's method and developing a systematic approach to locating deer.

HERE TO FIND DEER

'¢ How old are reforested clearcuts? It takes fir and hemlock about five years of growth to provide enough cover for deer to feel safe. Trees should be as high as a deer's back for adequate cover. Prime growth-range for hunting is from about six to nine years, depending on the fertility of the soil.

Typically, growth of 10 years or older will be too tall for effectively spotting deer. Ideal hunting habitat is where there is a mix of heavy new growth and open "scabs." In these small open areas, deer like to browse on small plants, or to just be out in the open for brief periods of time.

Some of the most productive areas are where there is a mixture of new trees, nine to 10 years old, and smaller trees that were not cut, such as yews, chinquapins, patches of alder and open scab areas.

'¢ Size of clearcuts. Small clearcuts with timber on at least two sides are your best bet. Blacktails need timber for bedding areas and a place to escape when spooked. Heavy timber also provides warm cover from the cold and protection from the heat of the sun on warm days.

THEN AND WHERE

'¢ Early morning. Start glassing along the timberline. Learn where the deer will likely head to seek cover or bed down. Glass their mostly likely escape routes first, and then work your way back across the clearcut.

That big 3-point I shot made his escape, the first time, by heading into the timber shortly after daybreak.

'¢ Trails and skid roads. Like other hoofed animals, deer prefer the easiest route to their destination. Old skid roads or logging trails become their favored traveling lanes. Learn to find these trails and glass them carefully, starting at the timber's edge first.

Binoculars make it possible for a hunter to trace these travel routes across the clearcut. Fire trails dug along clearcut boundaries are good places to see deer. With quality binoculars and careful study, you can locate well-used trails through weeds and other small growth.

'¢ Benches and ridges. In steep country, deer prefer benches for bedding. Locate these flat areas on the side of mountains, and you have found a prime area for bedding.

Deer like to bed on the lip or edge of a bench where they have a view downhi

ll. Trails will usually lead to and from these benches.

Ridges also are natural travel routes for deer. They prefer to follow contours requiring the least amount of effort. But deer trails rarely follow ridge tops very far. They usually quarter along the side of a ridge, crossing at the lowest point or saddle.

Hunters must learn to glass these trails slowly. Deer feed near the trails, or may bed down just above them.

'¢ Midday hunting. Under normal conditions, deer usually bed down during the middle of the day. Boyd Iverson is the author of Blacktail Trophy Tactics and one of the leading authorities on blacktail bucks.

"Between 10 a.m. and 12 noon," he said, "bedded blacktail deer will stand up, stretch and maybe turn around a time or so, before lying back down."

* * *

It's early November. My son and I have hiked into a clearcut in the Cascades that is ideal habitat. We've seen good sign here before, and located several deer beds across a steep canyon. The access road has been blocked by blowdowns. These deer are not disturbed by vehicle traffic.

It's cold with a few snowflakes floating down against the green background of 7- to 8-year-old firs and hemlocks.

"I see a buck," Gary whispers. "I see a gray nose and one antler."

He directs me to the buck's location. The spotting scope at 20X confirms a branch buck bedded below a big fir stump.

"That's a long, difficult shot," said Gary. "He's facing us, too. Not much target."

Gary digs the range finder out of his pack. "Farther than I thought," he adds. "Three hundred and 38 yards."

We had just been talking about Iverson.

"It's 11 a.m.," I say. "Let's sit down and get a good rest across this log and watch."

I am shooting a Model 70 Winchester in 7mm magnum. Gary is shooting a Remington 700 in .25/06. As if on cue, the big buck stands, turns broadside and stretches.

"Crosshairs on the top of the back, on the count of three," I say.

Two shots are one. We hear the ka-thump of the hit. The buck stumbles, takes two steps and rolls over dead.

We learn later that one bullet passed straight through the boiler room. The other passed through the brisket -- hardly a killing shot. Chalk one up for Iverson.

'¢ Glass for beds. Obviously, between 10 a.m. and 12 noon is a good time to be glassing any area that contains beds. Blacktails love to bed down in decaying wood.

Hunters need to spot these rotting logs and stumps, generally red in color. Deer will form a circular nest-like bed in the soft wood.

'¢ Late afternoon. Deer become more active during the last hour of daylight. Glassing timberlines is a way to spot them leaving bedding areas and heading for clearcuts to feed.

"Does and fawn will come out first, followed by small bucks," said Iverson. "Big bucks usually will not show until the last 10 to 15 minutes of shooting light."

'¢ Think before you shoot. A word of caution: If you plan on shooting a long distance just before dark, make sure you can make it to that exact spot in the darkness. You will need well-defined landmarks to guide you.

You will also need a good source of light to find your animal.

On two occasions, my friend Blackburn shot big bucks just before dark and couldn't find them until the next morning.

On one occasion, he had located an area used by a big buck -- a brushy pocket where the only vantage point was a steep rock cliff some 150 yards away. Just before dark on the second day of hunting, the giant buck appeared. Blackburn and his wife, Gail, heard the impact of the bullet. He knew it was a solid hit. The buck jumped into the brush. By the time they worked their way around the cliff, it was pitch black.

Landmarks take on a totally difference appearance at ground level after you've scoped them through binoculars at 150 yards. Add darkness and artificial light, and the problem is compounded.

That's what Bill and Gail were up against, and they couldn't find a trace of the buck.

The next day at first light, Blackburn walked straight to the spot they thought it went down. And there they found it: a monster 4-pointer that was very close to making the record book.

They were able to salvage some of the meat. Thanks to the help of cold night temperatures, it was edible but marginal.

'¢ Best time of the season. If you've done your scouting and found a concentration of deer, opening weekend can be very productive.

You usually get a chance at a good buck before other hunters spook him into heavy cover.

My favorite part of the season is the last week of October when the bucks go into their pre-rut mode. They become much more active and leave more sign, such as fresh rubs, that advertise their eagerness for the rut to begin.

The days in November become "bonus" days. Hopefully, storms will have brought down some of the leaves and beaten down the tall weeds. But it varies. Some years, bucks will in their rut the first week of November; other times, they won't begin until after the season's end.

'¢ Patience is a must. It takes time to systematically glass an area. Using binoculars, I have glassed an area for 20 to 30 minutes, feeling there was nothing there -- when all of a sudden, there was a deer! It was hard to believe I hadn't spotted it sooner.

I have watched blacktails stand without moving for as long as 45 minutes. With binoculars, we have often found "objects" that end up being deer bedded in brush or deep shade.

Or we may know it is a deer, but cannot determine the sex. A good spotting scope will usually answer that question.

Early one morning, I was glassing a deep, shaded canyon filled with deer beds. I found two bedded deer and decided they were does.

Two hours later, I came back that way and decided to try out my new tripod for the spotting scope. One bedded deer was actually a nice buck!

The Bushnell range finder read 314 yards. With a good rest, I killed the buck with one shot.

SCOUT FOR SUCCESS

You can make sure you are glassing areas being used by deer by scouting. I like to scou

t at three different times of year.

July, when bucks are in velvet, is a good time to spot them in the open. Bucks need to protect their soft antlers from the brush.

Late August and September are good times to locate concentrations of deer. The weather is usually dry, and the tracks are usually easy to find in dusty roads and skid trails.

In September, I like to take a shotgun and hunt grouse while I search for concentrations of deer sign. Rubs, where bucks have recently rubbed the velvet from their antlers, can also be found.

Late November and early December are good times to locate big bucks. The season is over, and the rut makes them less cautious.

Rubs are much easier to find because most of the leaves are gone and tall weeds, such as fireweed, have been beaten down by frost and rain. If there's fresh snow on the ground, tracking, of course, is much easier.

PRACTICE YEAR 'ROUND

To hit targets at these distances, you have to practice a lot. And not just from a shooting bench. You need to practice at distances of at least 200 yards, from positions that closely resemble situations that you will face in the woods.

The big buck on the buckskin log that I mentioned earlier could have disappeared like the mist had not my shot been dead on at the range. It was no fluke that he dropped like a stone. Hours at the range, and a perfectly sighted in, familiar rifle, had brought that meat to the table once again.

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