Ground Zero: Washington and Oregon's Record Bucks
February 17, 2019
Look at the strip of the continent where the Pacific laps at the shore and go inland a hundred miles or thereabouts to the crest of the Cascades. From southeast Alaska to central California, this is the domain of the Columbia blacktail (and the Sitka blacktail, up north). A record-book buck could come from anywhere in this region, but some of the best habitat for these secretive animals can be found in the Interstate 5 corridor between the Coast Range and the Cascades.
The granddaddy of all blacktails — a 5x5, featuring anglers with 24-inch main beams and scored 182 2/8 inches with the Boone & Crockett Club — was taken in 1953 in Washington’s Lewis County. The region still carries the genetics and the forage to turn out bucks of that class. In fact, the B&C Club records reveal recent entries from Lewis, Pierce, King, Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties.
While Washington may claim the world-record blacktail, Oregon’s recent record-book contributions are just as impressive, taken from the Willamette Valley, south through the Umpqua and Rogue valleys. Columbia, Washington, Multnomah, Clackamas, Yamhill, Polk, Linn, Lane, Douglas and Jackson counties all turned out B&C bucks in the last five years.
TROPHY HUNTING AT GROUND ZERO
Hunters who live between the Coast Range and the Cascades do, indeed, find themselves in the heart of good blacktail country. But where is ground-zero for tagging a record-book buck across the Pacific Northwest? Because these animals’ claim small home territories, the next B&C record-book entry could come out of any of these counties and within a short drive of the Northwest’s biggest population centers. Washington-Oregon Game & Fish has mined the record books for the secrets they hold, and a lot of PacNorwest deer hunters could find that trophy buck close to home. Here are our recommendations for the hunter willing to scout their hunting grounds and hold out for a shot at trophy buck.
Get “Outfitted” in Pierce County, Washington
In the last five years, 15 big bucks have come out of six Washington counties. Mike Vaughn of Olympic Mountain Outfitters (olympicmountainoutfitters.com) places that record in perspective. He points at Pierce County, which produced three B&C bucks in the last five years as a good example of the kind of ground that turns out big deer.
“There are a lot of woods there. You’re close to Mount Rainier. But these are deer that live close to people where they are not hunted,” he points out. “I think there are Boone and Crockett bucks everywhere. They just don’t have to move around.”
Vaughn only guides deer hunts during the rut. That narrows down his focus to eight days.
“I only guide two, four-day hunts. I’m going to hope that my hunters will see that big buck step out, and it can happen any time of day. You have to have that rut. The only time you really get an opportunity at a huge buck is during the rut.”
Although he has access to hunting grounds in several counties, Vaughn spends most of his effort in Lewis County. That should be telling.
“It must be the minerals. The farther away you get from the ocean, you get better soil conditions. I think that’s the reason you get better bucks closer to the Cascades,” he observes. “There are bigger bucks here than in a lot of counties. The biggest buck I ever saw in my life was in Lewis County. It was a giant, with drop tines on both sides, 8 inches long and 12 to 14 points on each side. It was enormous — the biggest blacktail rack I ever saw.”
A 7- or 8-year-old blacktail runs much bigger than the average buck. “A 4x4 is a rare deer around here. We see 3x4s and 5x4s, weird configurations, and very rarely symmetrical,” Vaughn says. But if you are going to get a blacktail buck in the trophy class, there’s a good chance it can come off the ground hunted by Vaughn.
A four-day hunt with Olympic Mountain Outfitters costs $3,400 for lodging, meals, access to private land and transportation to and from tree stands.
Interstate 5 Corridor: Washington, Oregon Private Timberlands Permit/Lease
Like it or not, the East Coast model of hunting access has arrived in the West. One of the biggest landowners in the country, Weyerhaeuser has long been in the business of leasing and permitting their lands in other parts of the country. Mule-deer hunters lease lands east of the Cascades. East of the Mississippi, whitetail leases are common, too.
That’s why many savvy deer hunters with trophy blacktails in their sights are leasing available properties up and down the I-5 corridor, as well as in the Coast Range, but leases can become available at any time.
In Oregon, a blacktail hunter (or a hunting club) can expect to pay about $1.50 per acre for exclusive blacktail access. Leases can price out beginning around $350 and go up to $2,500 and more. In most cases the lease allows the hunter to post “No Trespassing” signs and use a motor vehicle on existing roads during the hunting season. And while manipulating natural food resources is a practice on hunting leases throughout the Northwest region, Weyerhaeuser will not permit lessees to plant food plots on company land.
If a hunter cannot locate ground to lease, another option is to search the Weyerhaeuser site for clubs looking for new members. In some cases, individual access permits are available on larger pieces of timberland.
Weyerhaeuser offers two types of permits: 1) motorized, which run $250 to $395 per year; and 2) non-motorized, which run $75 per year. In Oregon, search out these permits in Polk, Columbia, Washington, Clackamas, Linn, Lane and Douglas counties. In Washington, the top big-deer permit areas include properties in Snohomish (90,000 acres) and Lewis (98,000 acres) counties.
Consider the non-motorized lease, and you’ll discover a mountain bike is as good a way as any to cover ground. Using a mountain bike for ingress and egress tends to focus the scouting. Pore over topo maps to find easy routes in and good places to glass for deer. And whatever route you choose for access, plan to scout in advance of the season and find the places deer use for bed and feeding.
For more info, go to weyerhaeuser.com/timberlands/recreational-access/northwest-region.
Check out this video to learn how to manage your small track of land to bag your trophy buck.
Public Lands DIY: Douglas and Jackson counties, Oregon
In the last five years, Oregon hunters have registered 14 bucks in the Boone & Crockett Club records. Five of the top six were tagged in either Jackson or Douglas counties in southwest Oregon, where two game-management units stand out.
The Dixon Unit/GMU 22, carrying 77 percent of its space as public hunting land, offers good access for tagging blacktails. The city of Roseburg marks the north end of its western boundary, while it runs up to the crest of the Cascades on the east. Large chunks of national forest land offer access in the portion carrying the Umpqua river watershed.
The city of Central Point marks the southeast corner of the Evans Creek Unit/GMU 29, which shares a boundary with the Dixon Unit; 43 percent of its land stands open to public hunting access. Both Douglas and Jackson counties are contained in the Evans Creek Unit, carrying classic oak savannah uplands and high timbered ridges.
Before the Endangered Species Act, the sound of chainsaws in western Oregon was common, and when the trees came down, shrubbery sprouted up. And that’s where the deer could be found. Post-ESA, logging is curtailed, and wild fire represents the best landscape-levelling, habitat improvement process for black-tailed deer and elk in the Cascades.
“Get online and take a look at how many lightning strikes are recorded in the Cascades, and you will see how badly the Cascades want to burn,” observes district wildlife biologist Tod Lum of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife office in Roseburg. As a hunter and biologist he recognizes the relationship between open landscapes and stable-to-increasing black-tailed deer populations. “Historically there was fire on the landscape all the time,” Lum adds, which translated to more deer in the days before rapid fire suppression.
Lum’s advice for the savvy hunter today is to scout online before going to the woods.
“Go on Google Earth and look at the burns, not this year’s burns,” he points out, “but the burns that happened three years ago and where the forest is starting to fill in.”
To scout this season’s wildfires, click up the EcoWest interactive map — avis.ecowest.org/interactive/wildfires.php — then zoom in on either Oregon or Washington. This is where you can view the land where fires burned four years ago across the Cascades and the Coast Range. Slide the toolbar back to 2015, then click on a fire in OR or WA in the Fires List and look for wildfire incidents in your hunt area. Now, click on a fire and select the “Zoom in to fire” box. This will provide a burn footprint. An animation shows where the fire started and how it spread. Do this for each of the last five years throughout your hunt area.
Another way to find habitat improvements in deer country is to locate thinnings.
“The BLM has done some pretty amazing thins,” Lum reveals. “The canopy opens up and the sunlight is hitting the ground, which equates to ‘groceries.’”
To find the latest information on thinnings, contact the Forest Service and the nearest BLM office.
All of this is high-tech scouting, and it can put a hunter way ahead in the game of trophy deer hunting by focusing in on the places deer want to be before the first step is taken afield.