October 23, 2020
Feeding along the edge of a Douglas fir forest, the buck never knew we were near.
"Hand me the shooting sticks," whispered my dad, Jerry. He proceeded to make a perfect shot with his .260 Nosler and was notching his tag moments later.
"I thought you wanted a big buck this season," I said, smiling as we walked up on the young 1x3 Columbia blacktail. "So did I, until last night when Mom told me we were out of venison," he said.
Dad, who turns 80 in two months‚ took that 1x3 four seasons ago and has taken young bucks every season since. If you're looking to put meat in the freezer, setting your sights on any legal blacktail deer, rather than strictly a trophy-class buck, is the place to start.
Young Blacktail Behavior
Taking a mature Columbia blacktail year after year is one of the toughest hunting accomplishments in North America. However, the advantages of seeking young bucks over old blacktails are many. For starters, young blacktail bucks are not as educated as mature ones. Young bucks hang out in open habitat more than old bucks do, which makes them easier to spot. And they’ll more frequently be with does in late summer and early fall. Also, they don’t disappear when hunting season starts. Once the pre-rut peaks around mid-October, younger bucks frequent openings even more often in order to avoid confrontations with mature bucks cruising the relatively safe cover of timber and thickets.
During the pre-rut, bucks cover ground, usually at night, inspecting trails for does in the area. They also size up other bucks in order to know what their competition might be a couple weeks later when the rut commences. Much of this movement takes place along ridgelines, where trails are carved into the hillside. Look here for young blacktails in mid-October, as they’ll often bed on benches or in other openings. They’ll also bed adjacent to or even smack in the middle of briar patches, Scotch broom thickets, tall fireweed and other grasses.
Young blacktails are also more active than older bucks during the first rains, venturing into openings where they’ll stay until well after daylight. Young bucks start moving earlier in the evening than bigger bucks, especially if the air temperature drops. When the first big storm of fall rolls in, hit the woods ahead of the pressure front; when the barometer drops, blacktails start moving.
The windier it is, the better, as this often pushes young bucks out of cover. While big bucks hunker down once limbs and trees start falling in high winds, young bucks often panic and head to openings where they can see what’s going on. They don't have the confidence to trust their bedding areas in these conditions and, fearing predators, they'll often flee to the nearest opening to let their eyes be their defense.
Young bucks often feed well into the morning after a storm, foraging on mosses and lichens that fell in the night. Likewise, they'll start feeding earlier in the evening on the heels of a storm, especially if dark skies prevail.
Locating Your Buck
The biggest challenge for most blacktail hunters is simply finding deer. True, there aren't as many as there were 50 years ago, but there's still a surprising number of blacktails in the woods. Scouting before you hunt increases your chances of ultimately punching a tag.
When glassing for blacktail deer, look for parts of the animal. Search for a horizontal back or belly line, a moist black nose reflecting in the light, a white throat patch or antlers. Spend hours glassing prime habitat, not minutes. Refrain from the kind of scouting many hunters do, which boils down to driving roads, glassing from the truck window and then driving away when no deer are spotted. Young blacktails might not be as cagey as older bucks, but they're not stupid. They know staying still is their best camouflage. Get out of the truck, walk to an elevated vantage point, sit down and glass. Be methodical. Often, your presence alone will cause a young buck to become nervous enough to get up.
On the Hunt
Following a rain, look for fresh tracks and follow them into the reprod or timber, keeping the wind in your face. Young bucks don't necessarily go far from roads or openings to bed. Walk gated roads that allow it and move slowly and quietly, always searching, as bucks are more active in areas less frequented by humans.
While glassing and slowly covering ground is effective during the first few weeks of October, rattling can be effective for bringing in young bucks toward the end of the month. Be sure to wear hunter orange when rattling so fellow hunters can spot you.
When rattling for young bucks, use a timid sequence. Lightly tickle the ends of the rattling antlers together, or gently roll a rattle bag. Avoid making overly aggressive sounds that will scare a small buck. The goal is to engage a buck's curiosity, making it think two cohorts are sparring. While loud, heavy rattling, raking trees, scraping and kicking the ground could potentially attract a mature buck, the practice is counterproductive if you’re seeking higher odds of success.
If nothing comes in after 10 minutes or so, move to a different spot or rattle slightly louder. I like moving more when rattling for small bucks versus big bucks, as the softer sounds don't carry far. Try to find a horizontal ridge that runs for several hundred yards so you can rattle your way along its entirety. This is prime habitat for young bucks this time of year.
Blacktails are challenging, so don't think it's going to be easy just because you're targeting a young buck. Get afield whenever possible, pay attention, remain focused and learn from your experiences along the way. The best education a blacktail hunter can get is to spend time in the woods, and that’s what’s going to put meat in the freezer season after season.
Hunting Blacktails with Kids
The best hunters I know are those who cut their teeth in the blacktail woods. Blacktails are secretive and challenging, and hunting them successfully requires a continual building of knowledge that can only be acquired through time in the woods.
Conduct youth hunts to suit the young person’s desire and endurance. If they don’t want to hunt all day, don't push it. You want them to come to love hunting—and nobody loves a death march. Focus on prime morning and evening hours. Rain is ideal weather for hunting blacktails, as it covers movement and knocks down your scent. Make sure your young hunter is well dressed for the conditions. Seeing deer is fun; being cold and wet is not.
Carry shooting sticks and don't rush the shot. Coach young hunters to keep calm when a buck is spotted and to try to get a shot before the deer knows you’re there.
A binocular and a tripod shooting stick are my two most valuable pieces of blacktail gear. I glass while on the move, even in thick timber and brush, searching for parts of a deer. A tripod is far steadier than a bipod or monopod, and doubles as my walking stick.
A spotting scope and quality tripod are invaluable for pre-season scouting. While a binocular is best when you are on the move, it's easier to see game with a spotting scope when you are glassing from a stationary position. I'll spend hours dissecting prime habitat with a powerful spotting scope, as covering ground with my eyes instead of my feet is more efficient and doesn’t spook game.
A wind check bottle allows me to monitor wind direction, and a headlamp helps me get in and out of the woods in the dark. I also carry water, high-protein snacks, a knife and rope. Flagging tape is good for marking my trail should I get a buck down in thick brush.
Editor’s Note: For a copy of Scott Haugen’s book Trophy Blacktails: The Science Of The Hunt, visit scotthaugen.com. You can also follow Scott on Instagram and Facebook.