California Blacktail Hunting

California Blacktail Hunting
Photo by John McFarland III

It was as dark as ink. The truck rocked with each gust of wind. The blown raindrops hit with so much force that it sounded as if someone were throwing handfuls of half-frozen peas at the passenger side door.

Most folks, golfers and such, wouldn't go out in stormy weather like that on a bet, but I couldn't wait for it to get light enough to escape the dry confines of the truck's interior. Experience told me that the deer herd would be in a full-blown migration.

On a stormy day dawn creeps in slowly. After waiting for what seemed like an hour, but probably amounted to no more than 20 minutes, I could make out the dark outlines of oak trees in the milky light. Checking my gear one last time, I opened the door and took the plunge. The rain had actually stopped, but wind was roaring over the ridgetop like a freight train.

I hunt out of tree stands most of the time, but on this particular morning I decided to use the wet ground to my advantage and still hunt. Deer hate to be exposed to strong winds, especially when they are soaking wet, so I eased my way over the ridge to the leeward side where protection from the wind would be greatest.

The plan was to move slowly up the ridge, doing more waiting than walking. I'd been hunting for about an hour and had already seen more than a dozen does when a bench in the hillside came into view 60 yards away. It was just in time for me to see the rear end of a deer go out of sight into the brush.

There appeared to be two deer trails crossing the bench as evidenced by the freshly stomped grass. It didn't take Davy Crockett to recognize that this was a good place to watch for a while, so I huddled up against the trunk of a big oak tree.

I wasn't under the tree for long when a quartet of does quickly traversed the bench. Five minutes later another deer showed up, but it wasn't a doe. The buck had high, straw-colored antlers and was clearly legal, so I didn't waste any time counting points.

I flipped off the scope covers and brought the rifle up. The oblivious buck had no idea I was there and never broke stride. I was tracking the buck through my scope, focusing on the point where his neck joined his body when the 7mm roared and he went down.

By 10 o'clock I had my opening morning buck quartered and in an ice chest and I was back behind the wheel of the truck, drinking steaming hot Thermos bottle coffee and admiring the handsome 3-point rack that my deer tag was attached to. The first day of the deer season wasn't half over and I was already done hunting for the year. Fast and exciting, that's just the way migration hunting is!

California blacktail hunting will involve two types of blacktail populations: migratory and non-migratory. Non-migratory blacktails behave a lot like whitetails in that they live their entire lifespan in one location, seldom venturing more than a mile or two from the spot they were born.

In contrast, migratory blacktails travel many miles from their high-elevation summer haunts to their low-elevation wintering grounds and back again to the high country in the late spring.

Hunting non-migratory blacktails comes with associated pros and cons as does hunting migratory animals. A plus when hunting non-migratory deer is that you know bucks are present in your hunting areas each and everyday of the season. On the downside, these deer are intimately familiar with their surroundings and can be very difficult to see during shooting hours.

On the other hand, one of the drawbacks when it comes to hunting migratory blacktails is that they move around. Depending on the conditions, there may be big numbers of deer in a spot today that held few if any yesterday. Along these same lines, you may be in the heart of the herd today, but you might find them gone tomorrow.

Guys who prefer to hunt non-migratory populations tend to be on the conservative side. They gain confidence from knowing that there is a buck living in a given area and are willing to invest time and effort waiting for that buck to make a mistake.

Migration hunters are gamblers. Migration hunting is extremely dependent on the weather. If the first major storm of the fall strikes during the hunting season, the rewards can be extreme as blacktails, bucks and does alike, pile out of the high country and make long treks through terrain that they are only vaguely familiar with as they head for the low country.

If that storm hits before the season or after it, hunters, particularly those confined to public land, will suffer and success rates will plummet. Yet, for me and a lot of other seasoned migration hunters the gamble is worth it, and the mantra goes like this, "One day hunting migrating deer is worth 20 days of hunting deer that aren't." Migration hunting can be that good!


Before we get into specific areas where you can tap into migration hunting when the conditions are right, let's take a look at the general principles of the migration and migration hunting.

The factors that drive the migration are weather and forage. During the summer migratory blacktails hang out in the high mountains, typically at elevations ranging from 6,000 and 9,000 feet. In the high basins they spend the summer feeding on nutrient-rich browse. By early to mid-September, the high country is generally at its driest and finding the high-quality browse that the deer prefer becomes difficult. The deer react to this by drifting to lower elevations looking for better feed.

By early October much of the blacktail population will be holding between 4,000 and 5,500 feet. This is the time of year when the deer are toughest to hunt. Dense evergreens and black oaks make up most of the vegetation, severely limiting visibility and the deer, particularly the bucks, take up a largely nocturnal lifestyle. The deer might hang out at these elevations for a week or several weeks, waiting for the first major winter storm of the fall to push them lower.

When that first storm hits, the blacktails will abandon the intermediate-elevation timber and move onto their winter range, generally below 3,500 feet. During this leg of the migration the movement can be rapid and dramatic. As a rule of thumb, the stronger the storm, the faster the deer move.

Some folks will tell you that small bucks and does move first, while the big bucks migrate last. That's simply not the case. Studies by biologist indicate that almost the entire deer herd moves at once when confronted by the first big storm of the season.

When the deer are migrating, seeing groups of 7 to 15 deer is common and I've seen groups of 30 to 40 deer more times than I can remember. On several occasions I've witnessed huge groups of bucks and does 50 to 100 animals strong. For hunters that have never hunted during a full-blown migration these numbers must seem like pure fantasy, but I can tell you that hunting blacktails that are being pushed by a major storm is nothing short of incredible. It's truly something that every blacktail hunter should experience at least once.

Timing and location are key when it comes to successfully exploiting the migration. If you're a day early or a day late you'll miss out on the best action.

In general, the best migration hunting occurs during a 36-hour window following the onset of the first major fall storm. This means you'll want to be out hunting the morning after the storm front arrives. At this time, the deer from several square miles will be concentrated below the snowline and moving along major drainages.

With the deer on the move, stand hunting is my method of choice. Tree stands and ground blinds provide hunters with important advantages. Most importantly, they enable you to overcome the blacktails' three lines of defense, which of course are hearing, vision and sense of smell.

Secondly, shot opportunities presented to the stand hunter typically involve slowly moving or stationary deer that are unaware of the hunter.

Finally, with a little planning and good raingear, taking a stand allows you to stay in the field the entire day in relative comfort. This is important because migrating deer move at all times of the day. You don't want to waist the midday hours back at camp eating lunch or resting from a tough morning hike. Roughly half of the migrating bucks I've taken have come smack in the middle of the day.

Staying out all day in the teeth of a Pacific storm takes preparation and quality raingear. I carry a waterproof daypack. Inside the pack you'll find a survival kit, food, water, hand warmers, dry socks, a couple of plastic trash bags and a plastic urine bottle to keep my scent under control. There was a time when I carried a Thermos so I'd have a hot lunch, but these days I carry much lighter, self-heating military MREs (meals ready to eat).

The hot food provided by MREs gives you a real attitude boost when it's cold and wet and lunch becomes something you really look forward to. MREs can be found at backpacking stores, army surplus stores and through mail order surplus catalogs.

Selecting the spot for your stand isn't something to be done without thought. You can't expect to plunk yourself down at random and see the numbers of deer I've described. Migrating deer follow the same drainages and travel the same basic routes to the low country year after year, barring major changes in habitat. Once you discover a productive spot, there is a good chance it will remain a honey hole for seasons to come.

I select my stand sites based largely on terrain. My best stands have always been located near features that concentrate deer movements. Proven features to investigate include saddles, timber edges, points, breaks in rim rock and the heads of steep, rugged gullies. In my experience, blacktail bucks often keep to the upper third of ridges. It pays to take this into consideration when selecting a spot.


If you are interested in rolling the dice on the chance of experiencing some of the northern California's outstanding migration hunting, there are several zones where you'll find action when the conditions are right, including zones B-2, B-3 and B-5, C-2, C-3, D 3-5 and special late-season hunt G-1.

Check out these zones and figure out which ones appeal to you. Before you hit the field to scout out hunting locations, you'll want to contact the DFG biologist for the area you've chosen and ask three questions with a detailed topographic map of the area sitting in front of you. Where does the herd summer? Where does the herd winter? At what elevation does public land give way to private property?

With this information noted on your map, you can hit the field and figure out the exact locations where you'll be able to intercept the deer when they surge downhill heading for their winter range.

In terms of specific areas within these zones that are worth checking out, if you choose B Zone tags, look to the lower elevations to the east of both the Yolla Bolly and Trinity Alps Wilderness Areas.

In the C Zones you'll want to hunt either the Shasta or Lassen National Forests. In the Shasta National Forest, check out the tributaries of the Pit River and the area immediately east of Iron Mountain Reservoir. In the Lassen National Forest, Clover Mountain, Snow Mountain and the Stacher Butte areas are all proven producers.

Hunters can hunt zones D-3, 4 and 5 by purchasing a single D 3-5 tag. Hunter success rates in these three D zones hover near 10 percent during the best years. While that might sound discouraging, let me reassure you, these zones are home to some awesome bucks.

Top areas in D-3, D-4 and D-5 include tributaries of the North Yuba River southwest of the Sierra Buttes and the Tributaries of the South Yuba River west of Lake Spalding. Farther south, the Middle Fork of the American River south of Foresthill has a reputation for producing bucks of trophy proportions.

D-5 is the best of the three D's in terms of deer numbers and hunter success. In D-5, top areas include Iron Mountain Ridge off Mormon Emigrant Trail, Baily Ridge and Summit Level Ridge, both on the tributaries of the Mokelumne River.

Special hunt G-1 represents the late-season hunt for zone C-4. In general, the deer in this zone migrate from the north toward the southwest. The drainages of Battle Creek, Plum Creek, Antelope Creek, Paynes Creek and Deer Creek all act as major migration corridors.

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