Shake, Rattle And Roll

Tag a late-season migrating blacktail buck looking for action by rattling, calling and following the does.

I'd been watching blacktail does for several months. Now that it was late November, I knew the big bucks would be moving into the area at any time.

Last season, author Scott Haugen arrowed this dandy migratory blacktail from 28 yards away.

Photo courtesy of Scott Haugen.

Late season is one of the best -- and sometimes, the only -- times when hunters can get a good look at the bucks in an area and see what's really out there.

Better yet, this is a time when blacktails are on the move, and big bucks are no exception.

Last season I hunted at about 500 feet of elevation. At this level, deer live year-round, but there's also an influx of bucks coming down from the hills to check on potentially hot does. This is why it's crucial to keep track of the does at all times.

My first three days of hunting revealed only smaller bucks, but they were acting rutty.

On Day 4, a handsome buck caught my eye. But he was on the trail of two does and wouldn't leave them for the rattle bag. I couldn't get a shot with my bow.

The next day I was back, searching pockets for does and any big bucks that might have moved in. That afternoon, I spotted a good buck, in the same place I'd seen the one the day before.

A closer look through the binoculars confirmed it was the same buck. Though he was following does, it was obvious none of them were in heat.

I broke out the Jones Calls rattle bag and tickled the sticks ever so slightly. It worked. The buck immediately lifted his head and cocked his ears back, trying to locate the source of the sound. As soon as the buck took a step to continue following the does, I hit him again, this time a bit more aggressively.

He snapped his black face in my direction, stared into the dark timber where I sat, and came trotting in. The moment his head passed behind a fat fir tree, I reached full draw.

The 21-yard shot was a slam-dunk, and my hunting season came to a glorious end.

RUT AND MIGRATION
The most interesting aspect about this buck was not that I'd seen him on two consecutive days, although that itself is quite uncommon in the world of brush-country blacktail hunting.

The most interesting part was that he was taken within 50 yards of where I'd arrowed a rutting buck the year before. Both deer fell on the first day of December, and both bucks were rattled in.

Based on my 33 years' experience of hunting blacktails, I honestly believe the rut is one of the least understood behaviors of these deer. I've seen black-tailed bucks chasing does in mid-October, all through November and well into December.

The timing of the rut can be unpredictable. It only goes to show that though the bucks may be ready to play both early and late, it's the does that ultimately decide when breeding will take place. (Continued)

This is where targeting migrating bucks comes in.

Bucks do seem to move into some drainages at specific times. In one valley I've hunted for years, for example, I know the bucks will start moving in around Oct. 25, give or take a day. Until around Thanksgiving, I don't even think about concentrating on that area where I killed that previously mentioned buck.

It all comes down to does, the rut and migration or movement.

In the high country, blacktail migrations are largely driven by waning daylight hours, what's called photo-periodism. But even at high elevations -- say 5,000 to 6,000 feet -- the timing of deer movement can vary.

Take last season, for instance.

I know of several inland blacktail hunters in California who spent time in the high country, only to find the deer had moved out earlier than normal, or so they concluded. But based on my conversations with long-time hunters and biologists in those areas, they claimed the deer normally start to move from that high country around mid-October.

Last year in Oregon's and Washington's late-season hunts, heavy snow blanketed much of the high country. While many hunters focused their efforts below the snow line, it was those who headed higher into the hills and deeper snow who tagged the big bucks. And there were some whoppers taken last November and December!

Despite the heavy snow, the lack of deer movement at these higher elevations comes back to photo-periodism.

If the deer's internal clock doesn't tell it to drop down in elevation, it won't. As long as the top layer of snow hasn't frozen, deer can dig through surprising amounts of it to get at food.


Based on my 33 years' experience of hunting blacktails, I honestly believe the rut is one of the least understood behaviors of these deer.
 

Last year, a buddy rattled in and arrowed a 150-inch-plus brute. There was more than a foot of snow on the ground. That same day, his partner scored on a handsome 4-point.

Both bucks were taken at over 3,000 feet in elevation, in the first few days of December. Does still remained in the area and were actively feeding. With food and does around, the bucks had no need to drop in elevation.

The Timing
Bringing together the timing of the rut and blacktail migration depends on the habitat you hunt.

In the relatively low elevations of the Coast Range, blacktail bucks will undergo a seasonal shift, not an actual migration. Because this area boasts a mild climate, plenty of water and lots of food and cover, deer don't need to migrate. But this time of year, bucks will go on the move and look for receptive does.

The same holds true on valley floors -- a habitat far different from the Coast Range. Here, resident deer don't migrate, though they may gravitate to different food sources during the course of the year. Then again, if there's enough of what a deer needs, it may spend the whole year, or even its whole life, in one small area.

But

when the rut comes on, valley-dwelling bucks will cover considerable ground in search of does. During the rut, bucks in the surrounding foothills of the Cascades, Coast Range and Sierra Nevadas will also move into these lowland zones to look for does in estrus.

In the higher elevations of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada ranges, the situation is different. Here deer, especially bucks, may spend the summer at 5,000 feet or more. These deer will also undergo the largest migratory movement in the blacktail world, and if the timing coincides with the rut, the hunting action can be nothing short of spectacular.

The Hunt
Hunting the blacktail migration -- or in lower elevations, the "movement" -- can be exciting. This is when large numbers of deer come together at common food sources, and when bucks make the rounds, checking out all potentially receptive does.

In the higher elevations, a common approach is finding a game trail and sitting in wait. Keep in mind that whether you're holding a special-draw muzzleloader, rifle or late-season archery tag, the approaches are largely the same, and based on deer behavior this time of year.

CALLING AND RATTLING
No matter what weapon they're using, for hunters looking for an up-close and personal experience with a blacktail deer, calling and rattling are likely the best ways is to bring one to you. This is my favorite way to hunt blacktails, simply due to the challenging thrills created.

Calling Options
Calling and rattling white-tailed deer is something that's been done for decades. The tactic works on blacktails, too. I brought my first blacktail to a call 29 years ago, and have done so with numerous other bucks since.

When it comes to calling migratory deer, I like taking an approach that capitalizes on deer behavior. This breaks down to calling and rattling in two different manners at this time of year.

Personally, when I'm targeting deer on the move, I like being able to visually spot them first so I can see how they are behaving. But this isn't always possible.

Most of my time is spent at 3,000 to 4,500 feet, where large concentrations of deer are known to move. If does are marching downhill and bucks are following, nose to the ground sniffing every scent they can take in, then I'll usually start by calling, not rattling.

This is because the use of doe bleats and grunts are less intrusive than the rattling. My objective is to bring a deer to me, not scare him off.

The first sound I like to make is a doe bleat, or what's often referred to as an estrous-doe or doe-in-heat call.

A short two to three note series is all it is. If a deer can't hear you, move closer and give it another try. Always keep the wind in your face or work your way into a crosswind.

By being able to watch a buck while you call, you can see how he behaves. If he's interested but not committing, give him some more of the same sounds. If he glances your way, but keeps following the does, hit him with a grunt.

If you know he can hear you but ignores your calls, go to rattling.

Though many hunters do extremely well solely on doe bleats during the migration, buck grunts also play an important role. The only time I've ever personally seen and heard a blacktail buck grunt is when he was chasing does. I've never seen a buck grunt when locked in battle, though I have watched insubordinate bucks grunt when trying to steal the does of two fighting bucks.

Try two to three sets of doe bleats. Make each set be of two or three individual calls, Follow it up with two or three grunts.

Don't overuse the grunt tube. Blacktails that I've heard grunt, do so sparingly. They're not an overly vocal species. If the more aggressive grunts fail to bring in a buck, step it up and go to rattling.

Rattling Tactics
Again, one of the benefits of hunting migratory bucks is the distinct advantage of being able to see them.

This is a very important learning tool, for rarely do we ever get to observe how these secretive deer react to calls. During the migration, buck behavior can range from following does contentedly to picking fights with one another that sometimes result in death.

If a buck appears contented, start with gentle clashed. Do the same if you are rattling blindly.

Start out the sequence with a gentle clashing and rubbing of the tines. This is a non-threatening way to let bucks know there's something going on. Continue this for 45 seconds or so. Then wait a couple of minutes to see if any deer respond.

If nothing happens, make your next sequence a bit more aggressive. This sequence should last from 45 seconds to a minute.

Wait two to three minutes. Have your weapon at the ready should a buck materialize in front of you.

If no buck has come in by your third or fourth sound sequence, get very aggressive. A loud clashing and intense locking of the tines, combined with kicking the ground and breaking branches, often does the trick.

In this case, your objective is to mimic an all-out battle. If you've never seen two mature blacktails fight, it's surprising how brutal the battle can be. It's a noisy sprawl that often results in death -- and those sounds are what you're trying to mimic through your actions.

Before assuming a calling position, gather a bundle of branches that you can break during your rattling sequence. Try situating yourself next to the base of a tree or near thick brush, so you can generate realistic sounds by beating against it.

When rattling, get down on your knees to keep your profile low. This position also allows you to kick the ground with the toes of your boots while simultaneously rattling. This creates the realistic sound of deer's hooves tromping on the ground during combat.

Another step I'll take is to find a branch about the size and thickness of a baseball bat. With this, I'll throw in an occasional pounding on the ground. The purpose behind this is to simulate a nervous deer who is on the outskirts, observing the battle. Often, such a deer will pound its front foot on the ground in alarm.

This sound carries a long way through solid ground, and alerts deer that something's going on. Curious blacktails will come to investigate.

If no deer are coming in, how long should you spend rattling before moving on? Typically, I'll give it 30 minutes, but then, I've sat in one place and called in multiple bucks over the course of three hours. This is more common with migratory bucks where deer are continually moving through an area.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Signed

copies of Scott Haugen's latest book, Trophy Blacktails: The Science of The Hunt, can be ordered at www.scotthaugen.com.

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