Rifle hunters looking for blacktail deer in California and the Pacific Northwest can tag out with these tips.
“So, what’s your favorite time to hunt blacktails during rifle season?” quizzed a show goer.
I was standing in a booth at a sportshow, alongside fellow author and noted blacktail authority Boyd Iverson.
Without skipping a beat, both Boyd and I replied to the man, “October 22.”
I don’t know which of the three of us was more surprised with the reply.
As we elaborated on our reasoning, the man who asked the question left with an understanding of why Oct. 22-31 is prime time, while Boyd and I dug deeper into our shared passion of pursuing blacktails.
Learning from fellow hunters is a great way to gain knowledge, but there’s no substitute for being in the field, observing deer and studying their behaviors first-hand.
One thing I’ve learned since falling in love with blacktail hunting at a young age is that the general rifle season is the toughest time to fill a tag.
Early and late archery hunts happen at times when bucks are more visible, thus vulnerable; the same for some late season muzzleloader hunts and youth hunts.
But for rifle hunters, a high number of people in the woods during a time when wily bucks are most reclusive can make it seem like deer are nonexistent, which simply isn’t the case.
Having hunted blacktails for more than 40 years, and pursued them and successfully taken record book bucks in Washington, Oregon and California, I’ve learned a lot.
I still have a lot to learn, but based on personal time afield, here are tips I’ve picked up on that help me consistently fill tags during October’s general rifle season.
Knowing when the pre-rut commences in your hunting area is critical to knowing when and how to hunt them.
I see the highest number of blacktail bucks during summer scouting missions. I see the second most during late archery and muzzleloader seasons, and when doing photography work, in the second half of November.
I see the third highest number of bucks between Oct. 22 and Nov. 4, during the pre-rut.
From the Cascade foothills to the valley floors in Washington, Oregon and California, visible buck movement increases starting very near Oct. 22.
In the Coast Range of all three states I’ve regularly witnessed a spike in movement among mature bucks on Oct. 15, give or take a day.
My biggest California blacktail came on Oct. 22.
Temperatures exceeded 100 degrees that day, but the fact the buck was initially heard – not seen — chasing does speaks for the increased movement at this time.
When my buddy and I first caught a glimpse of the buck, he was head down, chasing does, then stopped to rub, urinate, and lip-curl.
The 152-inch buck went down with one shot.
From Oct. 22 to Oct. 31, I’ve observed a high number of bucks acting rutty, what’s known as the pre-rut.
Little if any breeding takes place during the pre-rut. Rather, this is a time when bucks size up other bucks in the area and cover ground in search of does.
Once does go into estrus — typically around Nov. 7 to the 10th — the bucks want to be there. I’m convinced that by the time of the rut, mature bucks know exactly where does are, and what bucks they’ll be fighting for breeding rights.
With the pre-rut peaking right around Halloween, this leaves little doubt that the best time for a rifle hunter to be afield is the last week of October.
Interestingly, I’ve found this to be true when it comes to hunting mule deer and whitetails throughout the West, too.
Part of the pre-rut process for bucks includes sparring. These aren’t all-out fights to the death like sometimes occur during the peak of the rut.
Rather, this is a time when bucks push one another around in an effort to establish a sense of dominance. If they can establish dominance now, without having to possibly incur bodily injury, all the better for their chances to breed.
Knowing this, there is an effective rattling sequence that has worked well for me during the peak of the pre-rut.
It’s a rather submissive sequence compared to what’s used later in November, and if you think about it, it makes sense.
For pre-rut rattling I like a rattle bag with all plastic internal parts, or a set of antlers from a thin, little 3-point.
These produce high pitch sounds that simulate young bucks fighting. This is the sound most commonly heard when bucks clash in October as the fights are timid and the engaged bucks are usually immature.
Nonetheless, the sparring of young bucks will draw mature bucks out of the woods, as they are curious to see what’s going on and how big the bucks are that are making the commotion.
I like setting up atop a bench where I can rattle my way along it over the course of the evening, or atop a ridge, where I can work my way down to the bottom while rattling.
Start rattling by tickling the tines together, or lightly clashing the rattle bag. Keep it up for 30-45 seconds, then wait, gun ready, for a few minutes.
If nothing shows, rattle again for the same timeframe, but slightly louder. If no buck shows after five minutes, rattle again, this time a bit louder.
Don’t get too aggressive with the rattling; if a buck is in earshot, you don’t want to drive it off by sounding too dominant. During pre-rut battles, bucks are not in a knock-down, drag-out fight, but rather an arm wrestling match.
Repeat the rattling sequence again. If no buck shows within 15-20 minutes from the time you started, move down the ridge or bench.
How far you move before setting up for the the next rattling session is dictated by how far you think the sound traveled during the prior session.
If the woods are calm, your sounds may have traveled 200 yards or more. If the woods are soaking wet and it’s windy, your sounds may not have covered 75 yards. Once to the next spot, begin the rattling session as described above. If no bucks respond within 20 minutes, keep moving.
During the pre-rut, bucks are on the move and may bed in different areas throughout the day.
A great deal of buck movement at this time is horizontal, not vertical. Rattling along the same horizontal benches bucks travel is a good way to find them, as is bisecting their horizontal movements by rattling your way down a ridge, all the way to the bottom.
GLASS, GLASS, GLASS
Most mature bucks bed toward the upper portion of a ridge, usually in the top third or so. However, during the pre-rut, they may bed anywhere.
This is because if they find does, they often keep with them to make sure they don’t enter an early estrus state.
Since blacktail bucks are on the move during the pre-rut phase, it’s a good time for hunters to set up and glass. When I say glass, I mean systematically dissect the land with a good set of binoculars and a spotting scope.
Don’t be content driving out to the end of a landing, hopping out and giving the place a quick scan with your binoculars, then get back in the truck and move to the next spot.
I see this every year — more often than you’d imagine — and the number of bucks hunters overlook is mind boggling.
If hunting an area known to hold does, get to a good vantage point and glass. Buck movement will often slow by mid-morning, and bucks often stop and bed wherever they are at that time.
Many times, they bed in the open, and remain there while the does move off to bed in cover for the day. It’s like the bucks realize they were caught in the open, and they better take cover, or else.
Glass for parts of bucks, not the whole deer. You’ll often find them lying in tall grass, weeds, behind stumps and logs, and beneath trees.
Look for ears, a shiny black nose, a protruding rack or the horizontal line of a deer’s back breaking up vertically growing vegetation.
If you’re confident bucks are in the area, break out the spotting scope once you’ve looked over the land with your binoculars.
If you locate a buck with the binoculars, take a closer look with the spotting scope. If you didn’t pick up anything with binoculars, strategically grid the land with your spotting scope, making sure to cover every inch.
It’s nothing to stay in one spot and glass for four hours or more. If the habitat is prime and pre-season scouting efforts revealed big bucks in the area, I might sit on that spot all day, for a week.
The window of when a mature blacktail makes a mistake and is in the open is very small, and you have to be ready.
If you can only hunt on weekends or evenings after work then consider setting up multiple trail cameras. Trail cameras can reveal a lot and are your eyes in the woods when you’re not there.
During the pre-rut, set cameras on main trails. Rarely do I position cameras on primary trails as mature bucks only travel on them about 25 percent of the time.
However, during the pre-rut, big bucks will use them. But they don’t usually stay on them for very far.
Try to situate cameras where multiple trails intersect. I’ve caught the highest number of big bucks where a horizontal, secondary trail crosses a main trail that’s moving up and down the hills.
Does move down these trails in the evening to feed and back up them in the early morning to bed. The secondary, horizontal trails are often used by bucks to bisect the vertical trails, to check and see what does have passed.
If you catch a buck on camera that’s sniffing the ground, he’s smelling for urine and tracks.
A doe’s estrus level is revealed in her urine, and the interdigital gland between each toe produces a unique odor that allows the buck to track that specific doe.
When you see this behavior you know the peak of the pre-rut is on.
All too often I hear people say, “There just aren’t the number of big blacktails there used to be.”
In reality, there’s not the amount of public land access there used to be, there’s not the amount of logging that creates prime habitat that there use to be, and general rifle seasons don’t run well into November like they used to.
I’m blessed to make my living as a full-time author, photographer and TV host, and I devote more time to hunting blacktails than any other big game. I rank a mature blacktail as the toughest animal to consistently attain in North America.
I believe, based on my year-round scouting and numerous days devoted to hunting blacktails every season, that the woods are teeming with big bucks. The hard part is finding them, even during the pre-rut.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For signed copies of Scott Haugen’s best-selling book Trophy Blacktails: The Science Of The Hunt, send $20 (includes S&H), to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489 or order online at www.scotthaugen.com.