As cagey as a suburban Eastern whitetail, and inhabiting terrain and vegetation as inhospitable, demanding and dense as anything in hunting, the Columbia blacktail deer poses one of bowhunting’s most challenging targets.
Find a man who successfully bowhunts blacktail bucks and you’ve found a “hunter” in the real sense of the term. It’s this innate difficulty to hunt blacktails that has made standard approaches to hunting Eastern whitetails more popular along the Pacific Coast each year. Diligent bowhunters, who scout to find suitable tree stand or pop-up blind sites that guard obvious trails, funnels or feeding areas, install themselves in these stationary positions for the long wait.
Big blacktail bucks are taken via these means by patient bowhunters each season, some of the biggest of the year, in fact. But to my mind this isn’t what true blacktail hunting is all about, not to mention the blatant boredom inherent to these static tactics.
True Western bowhunters get out and make something happen. That’s what blacktail hunting is all about. Like runnin’-n-gunnin’ for bugling fall elk, bowhunting aggressively can net you a trophy blacktail buck, with considerably more excitement than the tedious monotony associated with perching in trees for hours on end or hunkering in a restricting pop-up blind attentively watching a small swatch of earth.
And no time is better for run-n-gun tactics than right now. The dates are upon us that surround the Columbia blacktail rut. Like whitetails that keep Eastern bowhunters awake nights, blacktail bucks also lose a bit of native caution while chasing the ladies, making them vulnerable to aggressive stalking and exhilarating calling ploys.
Late-season archery opportunities abound for blacktail deer hunters in Oregon and Washington, proving less prevalent in California but certainly worth the effort of pursuing.
Overall, Oregon’s late archery season may prove most extensive, with season dates typically running from mid-November through the first week of December — absolute prime dates for hitting the blacktail rut on the head! (Tags must be purchased before season opener in August.)
And Washington game managers are no less generous to bowhunters, with late archery hunt dates normally kicking off the third week in November and running through the first or second week in December, perhaps, even to the end of the month depending on the hunt region. Tags can be purchased any time before or during the season.
Oregon typically produces the biggest blacktails in the business, dominating the Pope & Young and Boone & Crockett record books. This isn’t to say Washington doesn’t produce its share of trophies. Anything is possible in those jungle-like coastal mountains.
California requires more diligence and luck — or available funds — if bowhunting the blacktail rut in the Golden State is something you aspire to. There are a couple limited-entry hunts revolving around rut dates, opportunities such as the Covelo hunt in mid-November or the Lake Sonoma hunt in late October (higher altitude means these deer rut slightly earlier). Both of these hunts require submitting early applications and bucking the odds that run against you in the range of around one-in-four. These hunts are relatively short but well worth the effort, as trophy quality is exceptional.
Bowhunting the rut in California can also revolve around PLM (private land management) programs. Properties enrolled in PLM are able to set their own hunting dates between July and December. This usually involves a guided hunt — with an outfitter like Jim Schaafsma of Arrow Five Outfitters (www.arrowfiveoutfitters.com) in Zenia. None are exactly cheap, but all of them offer success rates near 100 percent and exceptional trophy quality blacktails.
SCOUTING IS EVERYTHING
Blacktails are relative homebodies, although this is apt to change during late seasons when the rut prompts deer to range wide and far, and winter weather pushes deer into lower elevations in the higher regions.
Prior to the early seasons, scouting is all about the bucks themselves. Their range remains predictable. A buck discovered in August or September is likely to stick around through the early season. With the rut approaching or in full swing come November, scouting becomes all about does. Like the bugling bull elk of September, trophy blacktail bucks by late October are hanging out where the gals are found. They’re even more certainly near the ladies by November when the rut really kicks off. Find concentrations of does and bucks are sure to follow!
Other rut-related signs to keep an eye peeled for are the major rub lines blacktail bucks use to define their territories. These aren’t the aggression-displacement rubs, consisting mostly of twisted branches or scarred bark you’ll find randomly during early seasons. These are rubbed-to-the-quick “signposts” visited regularly. Blacktail bucks are downright defensive of highly defined territories and jealously guard against intrusion by other dominant bucks in the area. Find a major rub line and mark it well. Its creator is certain to remain in the area for days or weeks while hormones dominate his existence.
BEHIND THE GLASS
The blacktail hunt, like most Western forays, normally begins behind binoculars. At its most straightforward, spot-n-stalk hunting is day-in and day-out a highly productive approach to blacktail hunting success, most especially during the rut when trophy bucks are more active during daylight hours and range widely while seeking estrous does.
The idea in the habitats of the heavily v
egetated foothills or Cascade Range is to gain a vantage by putting glass to work that helps you overlook available open areas such as a series of sign-littered clear-cuts or a long power-line slash. You really have few other options in these jungle regions other than manmade clearings, although deer certainly gravitate to them and more so during the rut in an effort to keep a better eye on one another.
Of course, productive glassing comes into its own in regions found from west-central Oregon south into Northern California, where relatively open terrain dominates blacktail habitat. But whether hunting open hills and mountainsides or the classic “rainforests” of the Pacific Northwest, glassing can involve poring over miles of terrain from a single point, using powerful glass to find deer before transitioning to spotting scopes to evaluate trophy quality and formulate a hunting plan.
Along with Jim Schaafsma, Oregon’s Ken Wilson of Spoon Creek Outfitters (541-396-2726) in Coquille hunts these regions. He takes advantage of scattered cover and quality optics to spot deer from afar before planning a sensible route of approach to intercept rutting bucks during late seasons. Between the two of them they likely own more 150- to 160-class blacktail bucks than 100 serious blacktail hunters combined!
For the most part, locating a trophy blacktail buck, even in open country (and, especially, in thick terrain) is the most challenging aspect of this enterprise. Stalking rutting bucks, especially on lightly-hunted private lands, proves surprisingly easy, but let’s be sure not to understate the difficulty found in hunting a blacktail buck any time of the deer season. I say this with some trepidation, because I’ll certainly offend dozens of blacktail aficionados. I say this only in relation to bowhunting trophy Coues whitetail or mule deer, which seem to stay on edge even during rut periods. Certainly, this isn’t saying blacktails are pushovers. It’s just that in my experience, the blacktails I’ve bowhunted on private land have proven quite approachable as long as I watched the wind carefully and moved with an acceptable degree of stealth. But I also recognize that for every firsthand observation, there are exceptions.
Where late-season blacktail hunts really get downright, heart-pounding exciting is when your spotting and stalking is combined with rattling and calling techniques. This is really what run-n-gun hunting is all about!
CALLING ALL BLACKTAILS
No deer, with the exception of a lightly hunted Midwest whitetail, are more responsive to rattling and grunting — in fact, deer calling in general — than Columbia blacktails. This is what makes rut dates so attractive to bowhunters, with results posting some of the season’s most impressive bucks.
Calling a blacktail buck to within bow range is also part of the formula that makes success with archery gear possible at all on those brush-loving blacktails of the foothills and Cascade Range. Combined with the spot-n-stalk approach, calling a blacktail buck comes to resemble calling to silent spring gobblers! And the results can prove just as deadly.
The typical approach to taking a blacktail buck during the rut begins with a still-hunt through likely habitat — partly covering ground and partly engaging in the reconnaissance necessary to discover areas with copious deer sign. Most especially, you’re looking for rut-related sign such as rub lines or good numbers of does. This can become a rambling, all-day affair when typical cool, overcast and drizzly weather prevails. Ideally, while still-hunting thick cover silently and diligently, you spot a buck hounding a doe or traveling in search of doe scent or contact. You immediately throw down on the spot and attempt to divert him to within archery range with antler tickling or grunt calls. A buck’s reaction in such situations can be immediate and dramatic!
More likely, you’ll be calling blind while trying to remain sane in an area that simply reeks of deer. You’ll set up to accommodate the prevailing wind, watch the most likely approach routes and clear available shooting lanes. In overgrown areas this can prove tricky. Responding deer are more likely than not to swing downwind to scent-check your position before strolling in for a closer look. The smart bowhunter looks for areas that make it difficult or impossible for a buck to circle downwind while responding to calls. These include a sudden decline in the topography, where scent is carried safely into open space, or a swatch of ground backed by impassible pick-up-sticks deadfalls, for instance.
The calling bowhunter begins subtly just in case a buck is close at hand. This might look like gentle antler tickling, like two bucks sparing without much enthusiasm, combined with low grunts. Deer pick these calls up from greater distances than you might believe, so give it 10 or 15 minutes before elevating calling frequency and volume.
After this initial period you can safely lay into the horns, feigning a couple bucks really going at each other, issuing longer, deeper grunts between rattling. Beat your rattling sticks or antlers on the ground to imitate pounding hooves. Rake the trees to simulate bodies being pushed into brush. Simply put, don’t be shy and give it at least 45 minutes before moving on.
Once a deer is seen approaching, lay off completely. Make him hunt you, your bow at the ready with a dent in the string. Take advantage of the very first shot opportunity that develops.
You might also take a lesson from the Eastern whitetail hunter, especially when the rut has yet to really blast off or in areas with intense hunting pressure where bucks might prove a bit more hunter-leery. This tactic involves non-aggressive social calls such as antler tickling that imitates two bucks sorting dominance without outright fighting. Mix it up, too, with short, low contact grunts or doe and fawn bleats.
For sure, these social calls don’t include the snot-slinging, wall-eyed responses of an approaching pissed-off buck. Instead, be vigilant. Watch for a deer — buck or doe — slipping in silently and cautiously. A deer approaching the social calls can require more time to arrive, as he or she typically is “swinging by” out of curiosity instead of intent on blood. Give them at least an hour to show before moving on. You might also alternate modes, using aggressive calls on one stand, while growing more subtle with the calls on the following stand, until you have a good idea what calls the deer will respond to best.
Finally, be persistent. Believe in your efforts. Like calling coyotes in overrun territory, not every call results in a buck crashing into your position. If you’re lucky, one in eight will result in a buck investigating your calls (and many of these will not result in a clean shot opportunity).
But it only takes one, with luck on your side, to tag the West’s toughest archery trophy during what is arguably deer hunting’s most exciting encounter.