The eye startles me. Wide, black, unblinking. It glistens like a wet marble, a shiny glint in a dripping tangle of vine maple branches and drooping sword fern. One small reflective clue that a buck is staring at me, hiding in the jungle, hunkering down like a rabbit, frozen in place, waiting for me to pass. I’m caught, midstride, half way over a sopping wet log, straining to avoid making eye contact, but all I can see is that eye. Not an ear, not an antler, not a piece of gray hair. Just an eye and it won’t turn me loose.
And then it simply vaporizes, vanishes, disappears without a blink or a sound. Less than a dozen feet between us and I never saw or heard him go. But he’s gone just the same, swallowed into the dripping green mist and moss. Only his track is left — a wide, square print pushed deep into the soggy duff, the mark of a heavy blacktail buck.
Instinctively, I start to follow, heart pounding, .308 at the ready, nose to the ground, eyes searching, but I find only one or two scuffs in the duff and then nothing. Not a turned fern or an overturned leaf. The buck is gone — again.
This is the third time we’ve gone around, this buck and I, and tomorrow I’ll be back for another go, the last round. Tomorrow is the fourth day of the four-day late buck hunt in western Washington, the last best chance for modern-firearm license holders to pry a trophy blacktail out of the jungles between the crest of the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
Western Washington blacktails grow big and old but never bold. They’re reclusive, nocturnal and practically invisible in the deep cover they call home. Bucks reach trophy class because of three factors: lots of food, sleeping all day while feeding at night and only stepping into the open after legal hunting hours. Throw in their penchant for living in jungles of underbrush that are more likely to be impenetrable than huntable, seemingly more suited to rabbits than big game, and you see the challenge.
In most blacktail country west of the Cascades, temperate winters, long growing seasons and world-class rainfalls grow walls of natural cover and underbrush that can only be described as horrific. Twisted patches of thimbleberry are measured in acres. Blackberry vines swallow entire woodlots. Ferns grow head-high, hiding jackstraw blowdowns of broken gray alders and giant fir logs. Cedar branches droop to the ground like curtains in a maze. Swamps defy gravity by oozing across foothills and sucking along valley floors. Whips of scrub alders grow like switches along old logging paths, crowding in from the sides and hiding the woods beyond.
Washington’s general statewide deer season is the last two weeks of October, when this green wall of west-side brush is still summer-thick with hanging leaves. Visibility is just a dream. Day-time temperatures can bump into the low 70s, limiting daylight deer movement. Tinder-dry ground cover makes even the most Daniel Boone-esque still-hunter feel clod-hopper foolish.
On the upside, late October gives hunters 12 hours of daylight to hunt. On the down side, big bucks rarely come out during daylight in the general season and don’t come out often even in the late season of mid-November after we’ve lost two hours of hunting light to the approaching solstice.
Unfortunately, there’s also a lunar problem this year. The late blacktail hunt will coincide with the rise of a full moon — always a major negative in getting these nocturnal deer to move into open shooting areas during shooting light. All blacktails, and especially older bucks, wait to feed in low light or at night. The enhanced visibility of moonlit nights warns them not to come out until well after sunset. This year, the full-moon will rise on the last night of the late season and may keep bucks in their day beds even later than normal.
Longtime blacktail hunters just suck it up as part of the challenge, and they know, despite the odds, this year’s Nov. 18-21 hunt still offers their best shot to put the scope on a west-side buck.
By mid-November cold snaps and fall wind storms have blown down most of the deciduous leaf cover. That will improve visibility. Rain and early snow have moistened the ground, softened fallen leaves and muffled the sounds of stalking footsteps. Days and nights are colder, and bucks tend to feed more often. And, most important — the rut is on!
This seasonal combination of plus-side factors is why more blacktail bucks are always dropped in the four days of the late buck hunt than during the 16 days of the general season. Big game biologists David Anderson and Eric Holman, of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, estimate that a full third of the deer harvest in southwest Washington fall during the late buck hunt.
Anderson and Holman collectively agree: Successful blacktail hunters must be in position early in the morning near sources of food and in secure cover. Bucks travel more during the rut and cover large amounts of territory searching for does in estrus. This makes bucks more vulnerable as they spend less time hiding and are sometimes found in open habitats — the clear-cuts and meadows.
If it’s possible, success is getting even tougher because of major cutbacks in the amount of timber harvesting involving clear-cut operations.
For decades clear-cutting vast tracts of timber, often entire mountain sides, while environmentally destructive and scenically ugly, was the standing practice of timber companies. Logging companies believe the leave-no-tree-standing policy is the most cost efficient way to log. It’s ugly and controversial, but the fall-it-all-and-let-the-choker-setter-sort-it-out policy is loved by blacktails.
Slashing away huge swaths of timbered mountainside opens up large tracts of forests to sunlight, which generates a tremendous growth of native deer food and enough cover to hold deer all day. Big cuts give blacktails everything they need. Some deer, mostly does and fawns, rarely leave these sanctuaries. Deer numbers rise and fall with clear-cutting operations.
Hunters love the fact that the logging cuts are stitched with rutted two-tracks and skid trails that are quiet and easy to hunt, provide vehicle
and foot access, offer decent visibility, and are magnets for hungry bucks.
Generations of Washington blacktail hunters have never been more than 10 yards into the woods, investing 100 percent of their hunting time into walking, glassing and road hunting cuts. The Northwest version of a Texas deer stand is parking the pickup on a log-loading landing at the high-end of a downhill cut and glassing for deer through the windshield — warm, dry and full of hot coffee.
In four decades of late-buck seasons there’s only been a handful of times when I have encountered other hunters “in the woods” that were still-hunting off-trail by more than a few hundred yards from clear-cuts, where new-growth alders, Douglas fir and cedar jungles create ideal bedding areas.
Blacktail numbers started to drop when clear-cuts went out of vogue. That coincided with a succession of tough west-side winters that were followed by low fawn production. Then herds were hammered by 15 years of lice infestations that caused hair loss syndrome. While not directly fatal to deer and harmless to humans, HLS infections leave deer open to several nasty and often fatal complications.
The seemingly-unstoppable HLS infestation started in 1995 and has hit blacktail populations especially hard in the once-prime deer country in the northern foothills of the Cascades. Deer counts in Skagit, Whatcom and Snohomish counties — once considered top blacktail hunts — have dropped so dramatically that the WDFW closed the late buck hunt in that area. They blame the drop in northern blacktails on a combination of fewer new clear-cuts and re-occurring outbreaks of HLS.
The problem with HLS, according to biologists, is that infested blacktails develop a hypersensitivity reaction to the skin irritations that promotes excessive grooming that crops protective guard hairs. Hairless areas appear yellowish white, can become infected, and allow cold to penetrate an infected deer’s insulating coat.
Surprisingly, Washington’s most heavily populated county, King County, is also producing some of the largest bucks of late. It’s an unintended consequence of suburban sprawl, a bump in posted property and tree farms that have started limiting hunters through high hunt fees. More blacktails than ever are growing old behind “No Hunting” signs. Hunters who stalk the edges or can sweet talk onto a mini-ranch are likely to find one of the biggest blacktails of their hunting life.
Another hot area this year will be Mason County in the Hood Canal region.
According to the WDFW, good buck counts are reported on Green Diamond timber company lands south of the Olympic Mountains and in the Skokomish GMU, which has a 2-point minimum on bucks and a lot of industrial clear-cuts to hunt.
Another late-season hotspot for jungle deer will be newer clear-cuts on the mountainous slopes of eastern Pierce and Thurston counties. The WDFW reports, “Branched antler, spike, doe and fawn increased significantly over previous years” in this area, especially in cut areas.
Next to glassing, hunting edges and staying in clear-cuts, the best advice a big-buck hunter can follow for the four days of late-season magic is to “scent up.” The rut is on, and big bucks can be wooed out of their hidey-holes by a big whiff of doe-in-heat scent.
One of my most memorable blacktail bucks erupted at lunch in an eastern King County logging area. Four of us were hunting. I was hoping to find a good first buck for my youngest son, Brandon, then 13. We had still-hunted hard all morning picking along deer paths on a steep, thickly forested hill with a standing mix of firs, big-leaf maples, vine maples and alders. We knew it was a bedding area that adjoined a 3-year-old cut that was plump with deer food. Scrapes and antler rubs were everywhere, and the trails were heavily-tracked. We saw a few does and heard a couple of big deer on the run, but we couldn’t put horns on hide.
All of us were thoroughly doused in doe-in-heat scent, and after the morning push we met and followed the same deer trail up a long draw to the landing where the truck and lunch were parked. About halfway into the salami, peanut butter and cheese I glanced up and was stunned to see a big 3-point blacktail, nose in the air, following our scent up and out of the draw. The buck was broadside in the open less than 30 yards away obliviously looking for love.
Brandon snatched up his .30/06, bolted in a 150-grain round and got on the buck just about the time the deer figured out that my truck was not a cooperative doe.
There is no doubt that buck was tracking our scent trail, and it’s a tactic that I’ve used often ever since. When I hunt out of a stand, I make it a point to spray scent liberally on a bush or tree on the nearest deer trail. I’ve never seen a buck trot past a scented branch without stopping long enough to give me a clean standing shot.
Another trick that works, especially at the front and back edges of daylight, is to take a stand where several trails merge near a clear-cut, but I hide in deep cover a few hundred feet back inside the timber of a bedding area. Big bucks will often move out of the worst of the jungle as evening approaches but hold at the edge of the woods and wait until full dark before stepping into the cut.
When I do it right, wary bucks backlit by the light in the opening appear in silhouette between me and the clear-cut, and I’ll squeeze the trigger before the end of shooting hours. If I was on stand in the cut, it’s doubtful those bucks would ever come out while there was enough light to shoot, and I’ll never see them back in the dark timber. Of the three species of Washington bucks, blacktails are the most likely to hunker down and watch a hunter slip past. Many times I’ve been pussy-footing along a deer trail and happen to see a deer standing off to the left or right, frozen in place, watching me look for it. That’s what happened at the beginning of this story, and I wish I could report that the fourth time was the charm. As far as I know, that buck is still growing bigger antlers.
One of my favorite tricks for spotting sneaky trail-watching deer is to have my hunting partner follow at least 100 yards behind me as I still-hunt. We’re never in sight of each other. Secure in their natural camo and invisible in the brush, blacktails often stand stock still, watch a hunter pass, and then walk into the open to keep him in sight. When it works the buck is in plain sight, facing away when the second hunter arrives. This trait is all the reason a solitary hunter needs to turn around and look behind him every few minutes. I’ve had deer show themselves by ducking behind a large stump and disappearing for awhile. Blacktails are curious. Most want to see where I went. Curiosity can kill a buck. However, before you touch the trigger, make sure you know where your lead partner is.
In some parts of the country deer drives are productive. In the Northwest, more likely than not, a big buck will drop to the ground and let drivers walk obliviously past. They have no problem hiding in 3-foot high ferns or behind logs and blowdowns. I’ve seen blacktail bucks creep on their bellies under fallen log
s and disappear into tunnels through the brush that are barely big enough for a rabbit. I tell hunters that if they’ve got an area they really need to drive, if there’s more than 10 yards of cover between drivers, they’re just wasting valuable hunting time.
Glassing with good optics is productive anywhere anytime. But with blacktails that means glassing clear-cuts. You don’t glass too many clear-cuts before you realize the folly of looking for a deer. Instead, look for pieces of deer — a pointed ear, a foreleg, the white between its back legs, the black of the tail. Most often, what you’ll see is the horizontal line of a deer’s back. Trees and weed stalks grow “north and south,” deer backs go “east and west.” It’s startling how often a straight line turns into a deer in the binoculars.
When glassing with my 10×42 Alpens, I make it a point to steady the binocs on a log or tree or my pickup window, mentally divide the clear-cut into segments, and then search each segment slowly. I pay a lot of attention to trails, especially along the edge of the cut, and to the base of big cedar stumps. Blacktails have a penchant for bedding in the crumbling red residue at the base of rotting cedar stumps.My son, Chad, makes it a point to carry a spotting scope with a portable tripod in his daypack. After he glasses an area with his binocs, he goes back over it in fine detail looking for suspicious bits of white, a backline, a wiggling ear, the glint of an eye.
I can’t overemphasize how tightly blacktails will hold.
Case in point. Several years back, my sons and I were shooting clay pigeons off a log landing over a clear-cut. We’d shot one round of 25 each (that’s 100 booming reports) when a blacktail doe stood up directly beneath us. Her bed was under the shattering clay birds. She walked off, unconcerned, stepped behind a flowering clump of foxglove, and we never saw her again.A non-hunter who worked heavy equipment sorting logs at a remote pulp mill laughed when he told me how a towering 4-point spent the entire late buck hunt bedded beneath a cedar blowdown in front of the mill just a few yards off the asphalt road The hunkered buck watched for four days as hunters parked their trucks and walked past him on the gated road. Some were still loading their rifles when they went by, and not one of those hunters saw the buck.
Blacktails aren’t whitetails that bolt with waving flags. They aren’t mulies that survive by putting distance between themselves and predators. Blacktails are “rabbit deer” that live in jungles and rarely panic. If you expect to find one in your scope, you’ll be in the western Washington woodlands for the late buck hunt — early and late, quiet and watchful, surrounded by scrapes and antler rubs, wearing more scent than a bad date in a good bar.