Bagging early season archery blacktails is one of North America’s most challenging hunts.
I was watching the blacktail buck. He slithered into his bed at the first glimpse of daylight, just as he had done the previous two mornings.
He was below some rim rock overlooking an open draw and opposing hillside. There was only one place from where I could get a shot at the buck, and there was no way of reaching it that day unless the wind changed.
On day four, the wind switched in my favor. I hiked a mile and a half to my glassing spot, confident today would be the day, but when I looked through my spotting scope, the big buck was nowhere to be seen.
I glassed all morning but never saw that buck again. When the wind changed direction, the buck apparently sought another, more protected, bedding area.
Filling an early season archery blacktail tag is one of North America’s most challenging hunts. Blacktails have incredible eyesight and acute hearing that can detect the slightest of sounds. Their nose is said to be up to 1,000 times more powerful than ours. With so many strikes against us, what can we do to increase the odds of putting some great-eating, early season venison on the table? Here are five steps that have helped me take black-tailed deer over my 42 years of hunting them.
HUNT WHEN IT’S HOT
One of my favorite conditions when hunting early season blacktails is when the weather is hot. The hotter the better, for multiple reasons.
Hot days mean humidity levels are high, and the higher the humidity, the less human scent hangs in the air.
We’re usually sweaty and smelly early in the hunt because covering ground to simply get into hunting position is strenuous work in the blacktail woods. But on days when temperatures exceed 75 degrees, the air thins out and our scent rises and dissipates more quickly than when air molecules are denser in colder weather.
Hotter temperatures also mean thermals stabilize more quickly in the morning and remain constant throughout the day. For hunters, this means you can make a move on a buck early in the day or watch where it beds, wait for the air to stabilize, then stalk.
On hot days, I also find blacktails move to higher elevations to bed. Blacktails, especially mature bucks, have multiple bedding areas, and where they bed this time of year depends on many factors, not the least of which are wind direction and temperature. Because rising thermals gain speed with elevation, air moves more quickly on the ridges.
This is why you’ll often find deer beds atop ridges and knolls, where winds cool them on hot days. Typically, these beds are beneath trees that offer shade, or they’re found against rocks that block the sun. If the accompanying grass is too tall, or the beds are situated near rocks where getting a shot is impossible, try to get into shooting position and wait.
Track the sun’s movement and know that once it starts beating down on the deer, they will eventually rise to their feet, then bed again in a shady spot. When this happens, that’s the shot opportunity you’re looking for.
If the bed is situated in a place that’s impossible to reach, anticipate the buck’s exit route, then set up accordingly. Often the buck won’t move until right before dark, which is why being close to his bedding area is key.
TAKE A TREE
While more blacktail hunters are discovering the benefits of treestands, I’m still surprised by the number of Western hunters not taking advantage of these efficient tools. What I like most about treestands is that they get your scent off the ground. Air travels in layers, much like water.
The higher you can get, the better for keeping your scent traveling and rising above the deer.
If you’ve been scouting and know where bucks are bedding on hot days, consider hanging a treestand near the bed or along the travel routes that connect the feeding and bedding areas. Since these beds are high atop ridges, it can take deer the better part of the morning to reach them. I’ve seen mature bucks not enter these high-elevation beds until 10 a.m. or later.
Hanging a treestand toward the top of a knoll or ridge ensures that as thermals rise and stabilize, your scent will be carried away from approaching deer. Getting to a high-elevation stand also eliminates your need to walk where deer will follow you amid the draws and benches; thus, spreading your scent across the hunting scene is minimized.
Treestands also offer an elevated view for the hunter. Gaining the high ground is synonymous with efficient hunting. What you can see from a treestand will surprise you. Watching deer go about their daily business, totally unaware that you’re sitting above them, is an experience to behold.
While deer have eyes far superior to ours, their pupils are shaped in such a way that they struggle to decipher detail when looking up at a steep angle. This explains why deer may stare at you in a treestand then go back to feeding as long as you’re perfectly still.
If you’ve not hunted from a treestand, be sure to practice shooting from one. Always use a safety harness and practice shooting at 3D targets from both sitting and standing positions. Shots from treestands come at close range, so practice those shots.
HUNT THE COVER
If the day isn’t going to be hot, hunt thick cover. Rather than chase deer up a hillside on cooler days as they move from feeding to bedding areas, try and get inside the cover early and let the deer move toward you.
The key is paying close attention to the wind.
Time your arrival in a prime hunting area with the changes in wind direction. Don’t get in the cover too early, when the air is cool, heavy and still sinking. Instead, hike in as close as you comfortably can to get to the deer’s bedding area; then, wait for the wind to start rising. From there hunt downhill, to where the deer are moving, bedding or still feeding.
Should rain and high winds be present, get aggressive. Rain makes the forest floor quiet, allowing you to move quickly and silently. Rain also knocks down your scent. Wind will move brush and tree limbs, making them the perfect cover for moving through them. The biggest challenge on these days is getting a steady wind with which to work, so be patient.
Put those trail cameras to use to learn where blacktails feed, travel and bed. Just because the season has started doesn’t mean you should quit using trail cameras. You’ve done all that work scouting in July and August and, hopefully, you have found some bucks to hunt. Now that the bucks have shed their velvet, and their movements have become more restricted, the challenge lies in figuring out where they are.
This time of year, bucks will be near where you initially located them in summer, but they have likely retreated into thicker brush and possibly into shaded draws near water. Trails in these areas are where you want to hang your cameras to discover where the deer have relocated.
A big blacktail buck rarely uses the same trail on consecutive days this time of year.
They’ll likely bed and feed in the same area, but they’ll typically get to these points on different routes. If you’re after a big buck but are only capturing small bucks on your trail camera, remember that these insubordinate bucks often move ahead of a big buck. The big buck will follow, but he’s often several yards behind and to the side of them on a different trail or on no trail at all.
CALLS AND SCENTS
Calls and scents are tools many blacktail hunters equate with pre-rut and peak-rut hunting. Typically, calls and scents aren’t used until late October, through all of November, and into December.
However, once a blacktail buck sheds the velvet from his rack, he’s entering a state of pre-rut.
As daylight hours continue to dwindle and testosterone production rises, bucks start paying closer attention to other deer around them. They know the bachelor herd of bucks they hung out with all summer are there, but they also know more bucks might show up, especially if doe densities are high.
If doe numbers are high, and fawn recruitment is solid in your hunting area, the early season is a great time to employ fawn distress calls. These calls will sometimes bring in concerned does on the run. Curious bucks often will follow. Use a fawn decoy in conjunction with the fawn distress sounds to bring deer right to you. Montana Decoy Co. makes a great-looking fawn decoy that’s light, easy to carry and works on blacktails. Using calls and a decoy from a treestand optimizes your visibility and shot opportunity.
Adding deer urine to this setup can also be effective in helping attract bucks to within shooting range. As with calling, urine is usually looked at as a late-season hunting tool, but with bucks already entering pre-rut mode, an estrus blacktail urine can be just what it takes to arouse a buck’s interest.
I worked two years with chemists to develop a gel-based blacktail urine that features built-in stabilizers. This means the urine will smell fresh in the bottle for years and, when placed in the field, will be active for days, not hours. On wet days the gel will keep the scent fresh for at least four days. On hot days, the gel slows the evaporation process, meaning it works longer than straight liquid urine.
This September, play the wind, monitor blacktail movements throughout the season, and think outside the box. One thing I’ve learned through decades of hunting blacktails is, there’s always something to learn, no matter when or where you hunt these grand deer.