By Scott Haugen
When it comes to tagging a trophy blacktail, no surefire method exists, but narrowing your tactical approach to fit the time of year can pay off.
Depending on what tag you’re holding, applying the following techniques will help put meat in the freezer, just as they’ve done for me over the past three decades.
There’s no substitute for preseason scouting, especially if holding an early-season tag. Finding where bucks spend the summer, on what foods they’re feeding and where they are bedding and watering is critical to success. You can chance it, of course, and hope to stumble across some telling sign after the season opener, but knowing where the deer are before that time is what you’re after.
July and early August are some of the best times to observe mature blacktail bucks. At this time they avoid dense brush, for it’s too discomforting on their tender growing antlers. As a result they can often be seen in the open, feeding and watering, or on the move between those areas.
Because bucks largely shy away from brush at this time, they can often be found bedding in open terrain. Logged units, meadow fringes, grassy knolls and boulder country – virtually anything except thick vegetation and dark, dense timber – can hold deer. Finding bachelor bucks before the season will allow you to plot a solid plan of attack, taking into account wind, topography and other hunters.
Early-season archers can greatly benefit from preseason scouting. Knowing exactly where bucks are living, what they are doing throughout the day and when, will swing the odds of success in your favor. This time of year can be very hot and extremely dry, which makes closing to within bow range seemingly impossible at times.
By knowing where bucks feed and bed, hunters can often slip in to intercept them as they move from one place to another. If this daily movement takes deer through a patch of timber, having a tree stand in place may be the ticket. If the deer are bedding and feeding in the open, try moving into the bedding area while they are feeding, and wait out their return.
Still-hunting along known trails can also pay off. Keep on the downwind side of such trails, and simply wait out deer as they move along these travel corridors. Again, it is crucial that you know where deer feed, water and bed. Constantly monitor the wind, for this can foul an early-season hunt quicker than anything.
BUCKS – EARLY
For rifle hunters and archers heading to the high country early in the season, the chances of finding a trophy buck are good. The key is getting into a known big-buck area, then letting optics do the work. Covering ground by glassing is the most efficient way to search the high country for elusive bucks.
Binoculars are great for locating bucks, while spotting scopes allow for accurate trophy evaluation. If in an area void of logging roads, the situation may require hiking from ridge top to ridge top, glassing for bucks. This is where having a camp on your back – backpacking – is handy, allowing you to move ahead each day, rather than being tied down to a central camp. Horses can also be put to use.
Look for deer working open meadows and along timbered edges. Finding food and water sources are key, especially given the drought-like conditions in recent years. Locating bedding areas will also provide an opportunity to close in. Once a good buck is found, carefully plan your attack.
As a child, I recall family members and friends gathering to make party drives, and kicking out some giant deer. I don’t know how many book bucks were bagged in this way, but there’s no questioning the effectiveness of this approach.
The focal point of this style centers around knowing where deer bed and how they will react to pressure. This time of year the bucks are nocturnal, and only tracks, preseason scouting and perhaps last year’s rubs will tip you off to their presence.
Amassing enough hunters to push through the brush is critical, for blacktails will often hold tight, letting danger move past. This means deer can’t be left to slip through the cracks, which sounds easy, but can be next to impossible when the bucks are bedding in thick groves of reprod.
Rarely do drivers get a shot when pushing blacktails. Instead, position shooters on the outer fringes of the bedding area or at known funnel areas. Deer can kick out at any moment, or hold until the very end; be ready, and make sure of your target.
By using the wind and looping through known bedding areas, one person can make an effective drive on blacktails. The objective is to kick the deer out of its bed, then force him into an opening for a shot. If hunting timber, shots can come quickly and at close range. If trying to force a deer into a meadow or logged unit, shots at running deer are the norm.
The key to an effective one-man drive is using the wind while remaining in shooting position. By using the wind, human scent can be carried into the bedding area, with the hopes of spooking a deer. When working through narrow strips of bedding zones, this can be ideal for kicking deer out and creating a shooting opportunity, either for the driver or a person sitting on a stand.
Blacktails often require very little cover in which to bed. Small patches of foliage can hold big bucks, even in areas that are heavily hunted. Blacktails that are accustomed to human activity often bed tight to well-traveled roads; don’t overlook these spots.
Though referred to as still-hunting, “slow hunting” is more apropos. This is where hunters slowly move through the woods in search of bucks. Rifle hunters and archers can apply it. The key is moving slowly and dissecting the land with your eyes and ears as you move.
Covering 200 yards of ground in several hours is not too slow when still-hunting. The important element to keep in mind when applying this technique is that deer better be in the area or time is bein
g wasted. Do the homework, know a buck is in the area, then spend time rooting him out.
By working one or two sections of prime bedding land a day, eventually that deer will be discovered. When hunting in this way, spot the deer before he sees you. Search for antler tines, a white throat patch, a twitch of an ear or a horizontal line of a brown back interrupting the brush. If patient, this approach can lead to monster bucks.
Over the past 20 years, an increasing number of blacktail hunters are turning to tree stands. No matter what time of year you hunt, tree stands can be a valuable tool. Early in the season, stands placed between feeding and bedding areas can pay off. In the middle of the season, erecting stands tight to bedding areas may allow hunters to catch deer as they move from one bed to another, or are kicked around by other hunters.
Late in the year, tree stand effectiveness climbs to another level. This is the time of the rut, when rifle and muzzleloader hunters head afield, along with archers who held out for this time of year in hopes of finding that buck of a lifetime.
The rut marks the height of big-buck movement during daylight hours. Hanging stands along trails and, in particular, where does are present, is important. This time of year does often congregate and remain in one general area. By finding the does, it’s only a matter of time before the bucks show up. Place stands near where does feed and along their travel routes; then get ready. Don’t be afraid to stay in a stand all day long.
Cold, windy, rainy days can be miserable to hunt in, but if a trophy-class buck is the goal, dealing with a little discomfort is part of the sport. Such weather offers hunters the best time to be afield and not have to worry about making noise that will spook wise bucks. At the same time, high winds can hide body movement amid blowing foliage.
Hunt into the wind, and be alert at all times. Deer are often up and about during such storms, keeping an eye out for predators as well as seeking treasured foods such as lichens and mosses that have fallen from trees.
It’s all the better if snow falls. Quiet footing is a blacktail hunter’s dream, and being able to track one of these coveted deer in the snow is a rare occurrence. As for driving rains, I’ve seen deer bed smack in an opening, all day long. If the rain doesn’t bother them, don’t let it bother you; it could make the difference.
If you’ve never rattled in blacktails, you’re in for a treat. Mind you, like any form of hunting, rattling is not a guarantee, but it can work when nothing else will. At the end of October, through November, rattling can be effective. Rattling, and all that’s associated with it, is an aggressive technique, one that can leave a hunter sweating even on the coldest of days.
Rattling can bring quick results, but that’s not always the case. The first time I ever tried rattling, a buck came darting out of the timber and a buddy shot it – all in less than one minute. One of the last places I rattled, four different bucks came in over the course of two hours.
Before commencing the rattling sequence, be sure your firearm is readily accessible for a quick shot, especially if hunting with a bow. Racking the antlers together is only part of the rattling game. Raking the ground, busting limbs and scraping trees should also be implemented into the sequence. Occasionally kicking the ground or hitting it with a thick stick will send out a resonating sound, resembling a stomping deer. All this can draw the attention of mature bucks.
Blacktail calling is most commonly associated with rattling, but there are times it can be useful by itself. While estrous bleats and grunts can greatly accentuate a rattling sequence, and should be implemented at that time, they can also be used alone.
One of the best scenarios in which to use a bleat is when you have a buck on the move and you want him to stop. For archers this can make or break the hunt, for if that deer keeps moving, there’s no shot. A simple estrous bleat is often all it takes to get a buck to stop and look around, pausing just long enough for a well-placed shot.
At the same time, subtle bleats and gentle grunts can emulate bucks and does naturally going about their business. These confidence calls may not bring deer running, but they can convey the message that all is safe, whereby encouraging bucks to continue in the direction they are naturally moving.
Of all the blacktail hunting techniques, this one tests the skills of every hunter. Locating a buck, then stealthily moving into shooting range, is the ultimate blacktail rush, especially when done with a bow. Being cognizant of deer behavior, habitat, terrain and environmental conditions are al
l essential to close the deal on a spot-and-stalk hunt.
Take your time on these hunts. Don’t press too hard or the gig is up. Heed the wind, move quietly, mask your scent and be alert. Only when all these elements come together can this tactic be pulled off.
By preparing yourself to meet the blacktail on its own terms, the chances of filling that tag in your pocket increases. The key is tailoring your hunting style to meet the demands of nature.
(Editor’s Note: For signed copies of Scott Haugen’s latest books, Cooking Salmon & Steelhead, Smoking Salmon & Steelhead and Plank Cooking, log on to www.scotthaugen.com. These and other books can be ordered direct from this Web site.)
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