Some mistakes while blacktail deer hunting are unavoidable, but here’s a half-dozen miscues you should not make this season.
By Duane Dungannon
It’s one of those embarrassing deer hunting stories I don’t enjoy telling for more than one reason.
Sitting in a small clump of firs in the high country of the Cascades, I got the inevitable opening-morning 911 call from nature. Wonderful. I got up and moved some distance away from my current spot, which took me through the opening I was hunting.
On the way back, I heard the unmistakable sound of bounding hooves and looked up just in time to see a bruiser 4-point blacktail disappear over the rise beyond my stand. I followed, never saw him again, and then traced his tracks. He had walked through the opening just 75 yards from my stand, offering a broadside shot that would have been a slam-dunk, even for me.
Some blacktail deer hunting mishaps are just bad luck or bad timing, while some mistakes can be avoided. I’ve made too many miscues in my time to list, but what follows is a six-pack of snafus that can be the difference between blacktail fortune and fiasco.
(DON’T) SKIP SCOUTING
Blacktails are creatures of habit, and most live their lives within a square mile. Pick out your buck before someone picks him off. Modern mapping and trail cameras make scouting more effective and efficient than ever, so make the effort, not excuses.
You can scout deer in low-lying areas almost year-round, because resident deer rarely leave these haunts. Finding deer, tracks and shed antlers in these lowlands means you’re literally on the right track, but remember that more deer concentrate in the low country during winter, and many of the deer you see in the early spring will head back to the high country long before the season starts.
While some blacktails are homebodies that rarely leave their local bed and breakfast, blacktails in some areas actually migrate like mule deer. Your local wildlife biologists can tell you where the deer in your hunt area summer and winter, as well as what times of the year they return to their summer range and later move down to winter range.
Biologists have studied migration patterns extensively in some areas, using collars and trail cameras to document the movements of deer along traditional migration trails. They have found that storms will spark a flurry of migration activity, but that the annual fall migration will occur seasonally even without weather to push them along. Deer leave some of the high country in the Cascades often before the first snow flies.
If you see deer and tracks all headed the same direction on a trail, it’s a good bet you’ve found a migration trail. You can expect to see good numbers of deer moving along these routes, but keep in mind two important factors: you likely will only see each deer once as it passes through, and most of the movement during the migration occurs during the night. As with any blacktail hunting, the key is to be there by first light and stay until last light, because those are the prime migration times.
(DON’T) IGNORE THE WIND
Whether stalking or stand-hunting, the wind will be your friend or foe. Make a noise, and a buck will turn his ears toward you; make a movement, and he’ll turn his eyes; but let him wind you, and he’ll turn tail.
Here on the West Coast, you can learn prevailing trends of wind direction in your hunt area, and while storms and other weather events can change things in a hurry, you can still get a good idea of where to set up on your hotspot so that the wind won’t ruin the party before it starts.
There are different schools of thought about which way deer will approach a feeding area. Some believe the deer will travel into the wind, while others maintain deer travel with the wind, using their eyes and ears to scan what’s in front of them while the wind warns them of anything following them. In either case, you certainly don’t want the wind at your back where you expect deer to appear.
Washing your hunting clothes in fragrance-free detergent and drying them with an earth-scented fabric softener sure can’t hurt, and cover scents offer a good insurance policy. Later in the season as the rut approaches, attractant scents can actually level the playing field and make a buck’s sensitive nose work for you instead of him.
For the price of a pint of beer, you can buy a small container of wind direction checking powder that will help you detect the direction of thermals and subtle breezes that can be difficult to detect. If it helps you avoid blowing a chance at a nice buck, you won’t need that beer to cry in anyway.
(DON’T) PERFORM MARCH MADNESS
Put an end to your death marches. Unsuccessful hunters often jokingly refer to their hunts as taking their rifles for a walk in the woods, but it’s no joke. That’s a big reason why they’re unsuccessful. If you’ve scouted, you can let the deer come to you, or at least use your optics more than your boots.
I admit that in my time in the blacktail woods, I have seen more bucks while walking than I have when sitting. But seeing bucks is not the same as tagging bucks, and I’ve brought more bucks to the bag by sitting and letting them come to me than I have by making the first move. It’s all about the quality of the shot offered. When you’re sitting on a stand, you can get the drop on a buck that is moving slowly and scanning the area with his finely tuned senses. Often you get a shot from a rest you’ve chosen before he knows you’re even on the same planet, and he literally never knows what hit him. Here in the West, we call that an ambush.
Turn the tables and approach deer that are bedded or feeding, and it’s advantage deer. I know I’ve jumped many deer that I only heard and never saw. That happens less now that my ears aren’t good enough to hear them, but I don’t even want to know how many have slipped away from my approach without my even having a clue they were ever there.
Even if you do get a glimpse at a buck bounding away in cover, that’s likely all you’ll get, and your best hope is a shot at a running deer, which is less than ideal or even ethical.
I used to beat the brush during the afternoons when the deer weren’t moving, but I came to realize I was simply busting deer from their beds and disrupting their routines that I had worked hard to pattern. A deer you blow out of the county in the afternoon will not feed into your nearby meadow or clearcut that evening.
(DON’T) GLASS WHEN YOU SEE SOMETHING
Forget that mindset. Instead, train yourself to glass when you don’t see anything. The bucks most commonly bagged are those that are glassed up, not jumped up. Especially if you’re on the move, any deer you see with a naked eye has most likely seen you first, as well as heard you and possibly smelled you.
It’s a no-brainer to glass large openings you encounter, but it’s a much more difficult discipline to slow yourself down in tighter cover and glass ahead of you when you can only see short distances in any direction. In such close quarters, it’s absolutely essential that you get the drop on any buck that may be nearby. Otherwise, the most you’re going to see is a buck butt bounding away through the brush.
Adding to the degree of difficulty, when you’re looking for deer in cover — especially bedded deer — you’re looking for small parts of deer. The back of a bedded deer visible between two trees 80 yards away in the dark timber doesn’t look much different than a log on the forest floor, so a quick sweep with your binos isn’t good enough.
Even when you’re on a stand overlooking a clearing, don’t simply glass it once and then figure you’ll see anything that moves into it. Many times I’ve picked an area apart with my optics, and a few minutes later glassed up a deer standing in the middle of it. It doesn’t take much cover to hide a deer, especially when they’re lying down.
While binos are must, I also carry a compact spotting scope in my pack. When you spot a deer on the next ridge over, it’s nice to see antlers before you invest the time and energy in a stalk that might use up the rest of your day.
(DON’T) GO TO THE WALL FOR WALL-HANGER BUCK
While it may sound hardcore, going to the wall is the precursor to hitting the wall.
Been there; done that. I can recall a Cascade wilderness deer hunt when I went all out on opening day, walked many miles on wilderness trails, and completely wore myself out. One quarter of the bones in the human body are in the foot, and every one of them hurt that day. I spent a good portion of the next day listening to football on the radio.
On another high-country blacktail hunt, I bailed when rain started coming down in buckets, and returned to base camp on the edge of the wilderness. I sipped soup in the warmth of the tent trailer and waited for the September storm to pass. When it did, I headed back out, figuring the deer would do the same, and was rewarded with a young buck I found browsing in a misty meadow. Then the hail cut loose while I was field dressing the deer. The hunting gods are cruel dudes.
Wearing yourself out can also get you soaked with sweat, which can alert deer to your presence like the guy whose aftershave arrives before he does. In that case, your hard work is actually working against you. Sweating too much also can get you dehydrated and possibly chilled if your clothing stays wet.
Hunting hard doesn’t have to be physically exhausting; it’s more about persistence, and an important part of persistence is simply living to hunt another day.
(DON’T) GIVE UP AND GO HOME
With the exception of certain migrating herds, blacktails don’t leave their habitat, so neither should you. In the last 10 years, my son Tyler has taken a buck on the last day of the season four times — all of them 3 points or better. Twice it came down to the final hour of the final day, when most hunters had gone home. Persistence pays.
Avoiding some of the previously mentioned mistakes will help you here. If you’ve scouted and know deer use the area, it’s much easier to stay confident. And if you haven’t worn yourself out and made yourself miserable, you stand a better chance to stick it out and bag your buck.