Blacktails On Low, Middle & High Ground
September 24, 2010
Improve your game plan this deer season. Recognize the behavior of blacktail bucks at all elevations.
As anticipated, a small three-point blacktail buck walked down the trail, right under my tree stand. He wasn't a shooter, but the one following him was close. He also was a three-point, pushing 18 inches wide. He, too, wasn't the buck I hoped for.
Chris Toy patterned this mid-elevation buck along the edge of a logged unit, then hung his tree stand in the perfect place. The brute buck carried exactly 150 inches of antler -- every blacktail hunter's dream. Photo by Scott Haugen.
I saw these bucks and one more -- a tall, heavy-racked brute at least two years older than the others -- during my midsummer scouting missions. I saw all three bucks together a few days prior to the Sept. 1 opener. They were in velvet then. Now, their antlers gleamed.
After an hour of holding out for the biggest of the three blacktails, I knew it wasn't going to happen. "He should have been here by now," I thought to myself, perched 23 feet up in a tree.
The three bucks had been traveling together since July. Now, something had changed, something more than the shedding of their velvet.
"Maybe he already went nocturnal," I pondered. After all, he was the oldest of the trio.
The following day I found the buck, dead. A cougar killed him 75 yards from my tree stand. As if trophy blacktails aren't hard enough to tag, toss a predator into the equation and the challenge rapidly rises.
During the month of September, the physiology of blacktail bucks shifts, as does their daily routine. The most successful hunters recognize these changes, know what they mean, and adapt their hunting strategies to meet the challenges in the wake of these changes.
Columbia blacktails inhabit a vast range -- from the shores of the Pacific Ocean to the ridges of the Coastal Range through the valley floors to the Cascade Mountains that reach more than 8,000 feet elevation.
Trying to categorize blacktails into a single, neat little package can limit the scope of how we view their lifestyle and, thus, how we go about hunting them. Though they are the same species of deer, how they live and act greatly varies within their individual habitats. Whether you're an early season archer or you hold a special-draw rifle tag, the key to taking your blacktail is focusing on the deer and their predicted behavior.
One constant blacktail bucks share this time of year is the timing by which they shed their velvet. By the third week in August, a buck's rack is pretty much done growing. Once the growing stops, the velvety tissue begins to dry, itch and the bucks can't get rid of it fast enough. Some bucks shed their velvet on a single tree in a matter of minutes. Others take longer, rubbing their racks on multiple trees over the course of a day or two.
By the last week of August, most blacktail bucks have lost their velvet. Sometimes the velvet may hang on through the first few days in September. Of course, in the mysterious world of the blacktail, there are no set rules as to the exact day the velvet is rubbed off.
Once the velvet is gone, bucks undergo further changes. Now, they engage in pre-rut behaviors. They acquire nutritious food, preparing their bodies for the rigors they'll be facing in a month's time. Not only will they be traveling more come late in October; they'll also grow more aggressive toward other bucks. They instinctively know that after the rut the nutritional value in the food they eat greatly declines. This means gathering quality food and staying healthy is important in September, even though the rut may be more than a month away.
BLACKTAIL BUCKS AT HIGH ELEVATIONS
Generally, blacktail bucks at high elevations -- 2,500 feet and higher -- face different needs than those that live at lower elevations. In dry, hot years water can be scarce at these elevations, making water sources key places for hunters to focus their efforts.
Physically seeing bucks at water holes is the best indicator of which ones they are using. Trail cameras can also help figure this out, but it can be tough for many hunters to find the time to set them up and check them, especially when hunting far from home. Deer tracks can often be found, too, along the edges of waterholes.
From my experience, high-elevation bucks are the last to turn nocturnal after shedding their velvet. This could be due to several factors, the most important being less hunting pressure at these elevations, and the fact that temperatures are much cooler late in the evening, through the night and into the morning.
Temperatures -- both cooling and warming -- surely affect blacktail behavior. On north-facing slopes temperatures are cooler and bucks may be active well into midmorning hours. As the month passes and night temperatures cool at extreme elevations, bucks will often shift their feeding activity to south-facing slopes where they can catch warming sunshine.
Into October, bucks are still active during daylight hours. At high elevation, hunters -- including bowhunters -- can often pattern these bucks easily because of the typically open features of the terrain. Try spotting a single buck or a bachelor group and watch them to see where they bed. From there, plan your best stalk into shooting range, keeping the wind in your favor at all times. Be patient, don't push things. If the wind changes, back out and return another day. All other things considered, your buck won't be far away.
Also, deer food resources are quicker to dry up at high elevations, meaning bucks are more likely to stick close to a productive food source once located. When you locate a big buck in the vicinity of a food source, keep working that area. Chances are he won't stray far from fresh groceries.
BLACKTAIL BUCKS AT MIDDLE ELEVATIONS
Blacktail bucks living near the 500 to 2,500-foot elevation range can behave differently than those living above and below them. Of course, elevation varies depending on where and in which valley or drainage in Washington, Oregon or California you're hunting.
During September, these mid-elevation bucks can be the toughest of all blacktails to hunt. Typically, the hunting pressure is greater, which sends the bucks deeper into their core areas, where they feel safe and can be all but impossible to find. Vegetation also is dense at middle elevations, making it a challenge to locate blacktails even if they are moving in daylight hours. Likewise, food resources are more readily available at the mid-elevation ranges than in the higher, drier country.
This means bucks won't have to move as far or as often to find food, and they have more varieties to choose from.
The lack of logging these days is, perhaps, the greatest detriment to middle-elevation blacktail hunters. Not only does logging open the ground, whereby making it easier to find deer; cutting away the canopy also spurs the growth of much-needed deer forage. Unfortunately, when areas are logged these days, land managers frequently spray vegetation killers that eliminate any possibility for valued food sources for deer (and other big-game animals) to grow in the clearings.
Because moisture levels at middle elevation can vary greatly, it's important for deer hunters to pay attention to rainfall patterns and ground-water resources. September can be seasonably dry along the West coast and into the mountains, and waterholes can pay dividends for hunters. But beware that when there's enough moisture in the air or on the ground in the form of dew, blacktails may not even go to water, getting all they need from the vegetation they consume. Look closely to see what the case is in your area.
Amid the thick habitat of middle elevations, "spot and stalk" hunting tactics can be tough. Patience can pay off when you work the edges of forest openings, as well as bedding areas, but where deer are using waterholes, get off the ground and into a tree stand. Mid-elevation wind currents can swirl around variably and are far less predictable than air motion at high elevations. Getting above those wind currents can mean the difference in filling a tag or not. I like being at least 25 feet up in a tree stand.
BLACKTAIL BUCKS AT LOW ELEVATIONS
Terming blacktails as low-elevation bucks includes all those bucks that live on the valley floors. In some areas, the "low" elevations can be well above 1,000 feet. In other habitats, the deer may be living only a few feet above sea level.
Low-elevation bucks are born, live and die within a very small area. They are non-migratory, meaning they know everything about all the deer in their area, as well as their habitat.
Low-elevation deer are also more conditioned to humans. Still, they can be patterned. Many low-ground hunts take place on private land, which -- if you're an archer who has permission to hunt such properties -- can be a hunt of high success early in the season. But where low-elevation blacktails are not too pressured, the bucks can be patterned. Their bedding areas are usually no secret. Locate one, and from there it's just a matter of figuring out where they're feeding and then intercepting them.
However, blacktail bucks quickly can turn nocturnal after shedding their velvet. They may enter feeding zones well after dark and leave well ahead of first light. This means hanging tree stands or situating ground blinds should be done with care and close --sometimes within 100 to 150 yards -- to the bucks' core areas to increase the odds of getting a shot during daylight hours. It's a good idea to hang multiple stands in such areas. If the wind is wrong in one spot, you can quickly relocate.
Spot-and-stalk tactics also can work to intercept deer on the move. You should expect hot, dry, noisy conditions in the early season, however. Remove your boots and proceed in your stocking feet. You may want to take an extra pair of thick socks to slip on, not only to cut down on noise, but to further protect your feet.
Compared to big blacktail bucks living at higher elevations, individual bucks in the lower elevations tend to use a lot of trails. Patterning these bucks, especially in thick river bottoms and in areas where multiple food sources flourish, is a challenge. From grape vineyards to hay fields, acorns to wild flowers and numerous types of brush, lowland blacktails utilize dozens of food sources. Trail cameras can help you determine what they like best. Big bucks may not access the foods via the same routes every day, but they will usually keep going to them as long as someone or something doesn't run them off.
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Your odds rise for filling your blacktail tags this deer season when you focus your attention on the deer, their routines and their needs. From one elevation range to the next, your success hinges on narrowing down deer movement and adjusting your approach.
Keep in mind, too, the ever-shortening daylight hours will cause a blacktail buck to shift his routines, no matter what elevation he lives at. Observe, adapt, be patience and be persistent. What you learn will make you a better hunter of Columbia blacktails no matter how, when or where you hunt these glorious deer.
Author's Note: Signed copies of Scott Haugen's popular book, Trophy Blacktails: The Science of The Hunt, can be ordered at www.scotthaugen.com. You can also order the book through the mail by sending a check for $20 to Haugen Enterprises, PO Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489. Tell them you read about the book in Washington-Oregon Game & Fish or California Game & Fish magazines, and receive a free DVD of a blacktail bowhunting show Scott filmed for television.