How to Scout Homebound Blacktails

Our canyon-country blacktails present us with several difficulties, not the least of which is scouting them before the season.

by Guy Nixon

Have you ever been out busting brush and wondering where all those bucks could be that you know are there? How many times have you climbed a ridge just to gain a better vantage point on your quarry? If you're like me, you've even wished to be a bird - a hawk flying in slow, meandering, quiet circles that betray the hiding places of all critters below.

Our non-migratory blacktail deer present a challenge few other deer in the West do. You just can't see the country, or at least the deer in it, because of all the brush and steep terrain. High-powered spotting scopes are just about useless in much of this country. Let's face it: You and I do not have enough time or shoe leather to scout all the places a deer might be in our lifetimes, let alone a couple of weeks in the fall.

Indeed, if only we were hawks and could gain an aerial view of our hunting country. Ah, but we can! I've had a bird's-eye view of my hunting areas on several occasions. How? With an airplane.

Obtaining wings isn't as hard or expensive as you might think, but there are some guidelines you'll need in order to legally incorporate flight into your deer-scouting regimen.

For starters, know that you won't be flying at supersonic speed or at high elevations. To see anything of practical value, you must be no more than 3,000 feet over the surface and traveling less than 100 miles per hour.

Filling this bill requires use of a small craft. That means you'll need to use a high-wing airplane, an ultralight or a helicopter.

The ultralight is a bad choice in California for three reasons: Most of these lightweight aircraft do not have a seat for passengers, which means the pilot must do the flying and the scouting, a difficult and dangerous proposition; ultralights are very short on flying time, a range limitation that allows flights of only a very short distance from an airport and fuel; and they just don't have enough power to get you out of thermal downdrafts, which can be problematic around canyons. Blacktails don't live in flat country! Helicopters, as you can imagine, have several disadvantages. First off, they're just plain loud. Their noisy approach is likely to scare the very game you want to find. Sure, you'll see them, but deer running at break-neck speed will not reveal their hideouts, bedding, and water areas.

The author's inflight log made note of a spring area, where he found this buck. Photo courtesy of Guy Nixon

If that wasn't bad enough, you're likely to draw human attention you hadn't expected to attract. Marijuana growers and those who run illegal methamphetamine (crank) labs may assume you are the law and will shoot at you if you get too close to their operations. Growers shot two deer hunters in my hometown last year. They weren't flying at the time, but the point is well taken.

And finally, helicopters are rather expensive machines to operate.

This leaves high-wing, single-engine airplanes, the likes of a Cessna 150, 170, 180 or Piper Cub. Too big and fast - say, a Cessna 182 - and you have a plane so powerful it will have a hard time flying slowly. Besides, they make too much noise. Yes, you can feather the variable pitch props and still do it, but it is much easier to just scale down. The usual stall speed is 60 miles per hour, with 80 miles per hour being ideal for good aerial reconnaissance of blacktail country.

Most of us have heard about a certain fellow in southern Utah charged last year for several big-game violations stemming from his use of a parachute plane. There are, for obvious reasons, limitations on how such aircraft can and should be used. One bit of consolation comes in knowing that he was hunting open desert. Blacktail country isn't like that. We've got a lot of vegetation - thick vegetation, I might add - covering the canyons we hunt. And we're talking about using aircraft for scouting, not for flight during the season or with hunters on the ground below.

The question of ethics may need to be addressed, as well. Most hunters I know would think it an unfair advantage for a guy to fly over his deer-hunting area, land the plane, and within a few hours or even a day hit the ground hunting. The use of an airplane for scouting is not for finding deer themselves, but for locating sign such as trails, places of moisture that might attract deer, and other features.

Federal law requires that your aircraft never travel below an altitude of 3,000 feet over all national and state parks, wilderness areas or wildlife refuges.

We're targeting non-migratory blacktails here. If where you hunt is dependent upon migratory blacktails - those that move several miles from high elevation in summer to low elevation in winter - you'll need to modify your scouting strategy from the following.

The first order of this aerial scouting business does not involve flying. I recommend driving the roads around and through your hunting area with a good topographical map. Make note of openings, prominent rock outcroppings and trees or buildings that will stand out from the air. Note the color of the tops of the different species of brush and trees. Even if you are colorblind they will still appear in shades that you will be able to recognize from your notes. Pay particular attention to the color of the deer-preferred species such as buckbrush, oak stands and manzanita.

Once you have your hunting area scoped out and have done your groundwork, wait until June or July to actually fly. The reason for this is simple; grasses will be dry by then. Once the grass turns yellow, springs and wet areas will stand out in the sea of yellow. Also, deer trails will be visible in the tall, dead grass, even from 3,000 feet up. If you have all sorts of trails through the dead grass converging on a small green area, it is a good idea to mark it on your map.

(If you see tomatolike green in the middle of a patch of manzanita with small bits of white scattered out in the manzanita, don't come back for a second look. It's more than likely a patch of marijuana and the partially covered latrine of its owner.)

South-facing slopes will be more open and easier to scout by air than north-facing slopes, which are likely to be forested. The ideal situation is a small canyon with a spring on the south-facing slope and deer trails converging on it. This allows you to sit in the shade under the oak trees of the north-facing slope, where acorns may bring a deer up close, so you can hear or see them, while at the same time watching the spring and open country on the south-facing slope.

For best results you should fly in the early morning or late evening, not because you will actually see deer, but because the air will be calmer and your ride smoother, enabling you to concentrate on the countryside and not an airsickness hat (probably yours). Canyon air currents are basically calm in the early morning, and as the canyon warms, the air moves up the canyon's sides (upslope winds). This also means that in the middle of the canyon will be a downdraft or sinker.

For the hunter, uphill winds dictate how, when and where you can stalk; for flying, it means a rough ride. The winds calm down by evening and begin to flow downhill with less force than the morning thermals. By late evening the air is again calm and smooth-flight scouting possible.

Getting a ride is not as difficult as you might think. Lightweight aircraft are flown by people, usually aircraft owners themselves, who love to fly. The best of all worlds is that you know someone who has a license to fly a small plane and who is willing to take you up for a look-see.

If you don't know any pilots, go to the nearest small airfield and ask whether any of the regulars there would be interested in taking you up to look at the countryside. It might help to come armed with your marked-up topo map so they can see you're serious about this. Someone will step forward if you present yourself in a credible way.

America being what it is, you'd expect to pay a fee for such service. But a private pilot cannot accept money for taking you up. Instead, it just makes sense to offer to fill up the plane's fuel tank, and it never hurts to buy their lunch or dinner after you land. Let me explain.

There are three things that will always increase a man's testosterone level: riding a horse, riding a motorcycle and flying a plane. Pilots are just as apt to give their plane a kick in the ribs or a few pumps of the throttle with their feet on the highway pegs just to see your reaction.

Put my father behind the controls of his Cessna and ask him to take another pass at a canyon and suddenly he is back in Korea, strafing enemy columns and blowing up bridges with his Corsair. Those runs aren't so bad, but then he pulls out to clear the flak of imagined anti-aircraft batteries. For those who are unaccustomed to it or just had a large meal, it could be more than you are ready to handle.

Eat before you fly, and losing lunch becomes but half of your problem. The other half is that you'll spend your time being green instead of looking down at your hunting area.

Tell your pilot what you can and cannot handle; you are trying to see detail on the ground - not go for a wild ride.

And here's the kicker: Once the season opens and you fill your tag, go look up the pilot and deliver some fresh venison. The next year they'll be calling you to find out when you want to scout some more.

The pilot can never look more than 40 degrees to a side, so the passenger must be the one observing the country below; otherwise, you are asking for disaster. Your pilot will probably warn you, but just in case, don't make a lot of noise or take repeated flyovers. Get the lay of the land and the good spots figured out on your map or in your mind in a single slow run. If you take too many runs, the deer may react to it, and the dope growers may be loaded and ready for you.

By looking down on your hunting country from the air, you will get a view of what is there, which areas have water, where the main concentration of game trails is and who may be working in the area. This can greatly help your odds of finding a nice buck - and avoiding illicit drug activity.

My brother-in-law, Steve, lives near Oakhurst, Calif., and usually hunts non-migratory deer near there because Yosemite National Park contains most of the high country in this game management unit (Zone D-6). He is excited about flying over the area this summer because of some recent burns south of Coulterville.

The country is very steep and brushy, so the fires opened up a lot of country for him, and there will be new springs now that decaying, old brush has been removed. Steve can't cover much ground on foot in this rugged country to look for these new springs and places he could never have crawled to before the fires. Once he gets an aerial view of the areas that burned and where the deer trails are concentrated, he should be able to pull out some nice bucks for the next decade or so.

Now, suppose you have found several areas from the air that hold promise. These are the areas you need to scout on foot before deer season.

Terrain looks a lot flatter from above than it does when you're in it, and this is especially true in blacktail country. You may need to cut some brush to get into hotspots you marked from the air, and you may possibly need to clear a stand area overlooking them. At this point, a few hours spent clearing problematic limbs along trails you'll need to use to get into a honey hole is time well spent.

Think about archery shots and creating clear shooting lanes into the likely spots. I don't mean clear the whole place or make a big freeway into your area; just cut enough so your bow and arrows won't be scattered all over the hillside when you are trying to crawl into that spot before first light. Pay attention to those limbs that will give away your approach to these areas.

Canyon springs are often best hunted from a stand. I have seen tree stands used for blacktails, and in some applications they are very effective. But keep in mind that deer inherently look up in steep country. Movement, scent and noises made by hunters in tree stands are likely to draw attention to you - just what you don't want.

I prefer ground blinds. Find the best viewpoint overlooking a spring from a higher elevation but either up canyon or, preferably, on the opposite side. I hold no illusions that I smell like a human, and in the tropical heat in which we hunt every fall, human scent is going to happen. Your best defense comes in ensuring that your scent goes away from where you expect to see deer.

The reason for positioning yourself on the opposing slope or at least up canyon is to take advantage of prevailing air currents. Remember, as the canyon warms, an up-canyon draft occurs. Your preseason scouting trip is the time to plot your strategy. Stand near a recently discovered hotspot and listen to the winds in the brush and trees to determine where you must locate your blind that will be downwind of this honeyhole. Sometimes you may need to build two stand areas, then choose which one to use based upon that day's prevailing conditions.

I admit this process of scouting on foot, flying aerial recon, then scouting on foot again to create stands may be a bit more than even I will do in any one year, but these areas will contain deer for years to come. The work of one year contributes

to your success the next.

For example, I was flying with my father one summer morning eight years ago when I noticed a beautiful spring and small meadow in a smaller canyon over the top of what I had believed was only a brush-covered mountain. I saw lots of deer trails leading from it, so I looked for a way in that didn't involve busting a half-mile of mature manzanita. I finally found one way in that would require busting through only about 400 yards of manzanita. Two days later I was there with a baseball bat and pruning shears.

The bat is nice for busting the small dead sticks that on manzanita are like cactus thorns. It took two hours to cover the 400 yards that day, but I could see that this place was worth it. Once in, I was able to look down into the canyon spring area from several vantage points.

In that archery season I saw 12 different bucks using the spring. One was an absolute monster with a palmated right antler in the back forks and at least 25 inches of width. I couldn't figure out how to set up within archery range of these bucks, but once the rifle season opened, I set up and dropped an old 3x4 that was moving along the trail toward the spring. After my shot we located him stone dead 40 yards away at the edge of the small meadow.

The next year I cut the brush in ways to make ground blinds for archery. Again I saw the huge buck and his friends but could not get within archery range of him. During that whole rifle season I would see his buck buddies but never get a shot at him, although I did on several occasions see what I thought might have been part of him.

In the following year's archery season, I saw him again but was unsuccessful. In the last two weeks of the rifle season I finally got the drop on him and felled the Chess Master. It was the widest blacktail buck I have ever taken, but his antlers had lost mass compared to his previous sheds, and the old buck's teeth were worn to the gum line.

Now don't think this was easy hunting. I had to pack that buck out in two halves and each trip was 1 1/2 hours long. This hunting is not for those with a heart condition, but it does have some great moments.

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