Canyonland Blacktails

Extreme is in, and there's nothing more challenging than hunting mature blacktail bucks where they feel their most confident.

by Guy Nixon

Premium deer tags have somehow escaped my grasp over the years, but instead of sitting home each fall in grumbling frustration, I've satisfied my yearning to hunt big bucks by my own creative experience close to home in blacktail country. I have consistently taken big blacktail bucks on public lands during general rifle seasons, and I have the pictures to prove it. In fact, it's those very pictures that have caused hundreds of hunters to ask where I got this big buck or that blacktail. Their curiosity quickly turns into blank stares when I tell them.

No, I'm not talking about primitive-weapons hunts, either. You see, I get the thousand-yard stare from those guys, because most of them won't go where I go. The truth is that where I hunt has led me to my biggest bucks, and where I hunt determines the firearm that works best in that particular country.

Where is this Promised Land of blacktails and antlers? It's where the biggest blacktails live: the canyons. These aren't mere foothills. They are steep and loaded with sliding rock hillsides, cliffs, prickly brush, rattlesnakes and other dangers. And you'll never get there without using your feet - and your head.

Big bucks need a few things to maintain their lifestyle, and time and experience have indicated that deep canyons in our steepest blacktail habitat offer them the chance to live to be four, five and, perhaps, six years of age. And because we want a sizeable rack on the wall, it's our chosen job to go in after them.

Our first obstacle is not the thick brush that blankets these inhospitable domains. Rather, our first concern is that we have to hunt these bucks in daylight.

As each rifle hunting season begins, some nice bucks are taken in open areas until they figure out (usually very quickly) that deer season is under way and head for the canyons, leaving easily accessible areas for the young bucks. Mature bucks instantly become more active at night and use areas that are disturbed the least; only heavy weather and migration can effectively convince these bucks to permanently move. Today's short and early hunting dates just about guarantee the deer season is likely to end without a significant weather event to move animals from summer range, so you've really got no choice but to go in after those bucks.

Bucks that stand in or near openings, even in extremely thick forests, fall prey to hunting pressure. Make no mistake: With the use of four-wheel drive SUVs, all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles, mountain bikes and horses, the amount of pressure we hunters put on such areas on public land is tremendous. But while our fellow rifle toters ride ridges and fire trails to find yet another 3-point buck to shoot, the savvy big-buck hunter will slip into steep canyon country to find mature bucks.

"Slip" may very well be a perfect word to describe your entry into such country, whose near-vertical chasms serve as a protector of our best blacktail habitat. These places are so steep that roads, let alone ATVs or horses, are not found there.

I never used to hunt these places, but my work over the last 10 years has had me doing survey lines and trails that penetrate these canyons on national forest lands. Once I saw the astounding number of big bucks living in these secluded belts, I became a convert.

This isn't work or hunting for the faint at heart, and before embarking on such an excursion yourself, you'll want to shorten the learning curve. I've developed some methods for effectively dealing with this kind of operation as well as what tools are required to hunt in this difficult environment.

The basic layout in much of blacktail country is that you have logging roads along ridges where the country is relatively flat, and perhaps a road or trail leading along the bottom of the canyon along the edge of a river or smaller waterway. If you were to leave the logging road along the edge of the level country, you go down into a canyon where it gets progressively steeper until you reach the river. As you descend into these canyons, you'll encounter benches or flats - areas that were more or less made level during geologic formation, where the river made a side cut before slicing deeper or the hillside slipped and formed a break in the basic contour.

In much of the territory I hunt are small flats in the canyon sides or in the bottom bars. Created as the river changed course over the years, these flats are real gold mines for blacktail hunters if motor vehicles cannot access them.

In much of this country, the larger flats were named by the first miners or hunters to go there. The names can be colorful - and sometimes colorfully offensive. I live on Spanish Flat, and just below is Chicken Flat. Some of my best hunting has been on Whores Flat but the US Forest Service recently renamed it Maidens Meadow. The hunting is still good even if they did change the name. I'm not sure why the names stuck - it appears that a spot was given a moniker if it wasn't downright vertical and a guy could feed or rest his stock there as he worked a nearby mine or developed haul routes toward a sawmill - but you get the idea.

The flats are somewhat connected by trails, which are still visible on quad maps; maps of a larger scale won't provide these types of details and may not even show accurate contour lines that indicate benches.

Modern-day survey lines provide the next best access routes for us, and our timing couldn't be better. Several federal government agencies are working diligently to plot with Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates every location across the country where section lines cross. The fact that the typical government GPS unit is a bulky backpack-mounted affair with a big bulb mounted on a 3-foot antennae means that these lines have been cleared to some extent to permit surveyors to move along section lines. These lines are marked with tree blazes, and in some cases, flagging.

All of the above is for simple navigation. Now you've got to figure out how to hunt deer in these otherwise inhospitable places without getting beaten and bruised attempting to walk through miles of brush and blowdowns.

Hunting in these conditions may be the closest thing most hunters will ever have to a special operations expedition, and based on my experiences as a Gulf War veteran, there's more reality than analogy in that statement. Just as a good military commander wouldn't charge into unknown territory without a map, water, supplies or the right tools, you'll be just as wise to plan your hunting excursion in steep canyon country in much the same way as a military unit would do

it or risk becoming a casualty.

First, is a "negative" rule: Don't just run after a buck you see going down into a canyon or decide at the spur of the moment that you are going down in there after him. Life Flight doesn't keep tabs on frequent flier miles. This kind of hunting needs to be planned.

Regardless of how reliable your GPS unit is, you need a quad (topographic) map of the area you intend to hunt. (Check with the US Geological Service.) Familiarize yourself with it and the roads around the area you want to hunt, looking for potential launching points from high places that lead to old trails or survey lines that will ultimately intersect with one or more flats or benches.

Don't stop there. Now identify the ones with a road or trail farther downhill. The idea is to pre-position your camp, vehicle, ATV or boat farther down the canyon. Unless you're in training for the next Eco-Challenge, carrying a dead deer uphill will not be an option.

You won't need an entire team of SEALS but something more akin to a sniper and his spotter will help maximize the potential success of this kind of hunting. Just for the sake of safety, you should have a partner.

Most radios and cell phones are useless in this type of terrain, and GPS units, which require signals from no fewer than three satellites for accurate operation, have a hard time receiving adequate signals in these canyons. By all means, bring these modern-day gadgets - radios, cell phones and GPS units - with you, as there will be occasions you can use them, just not like you would around home.

Leave one vehicle (truck, boat, ATV) downhill at a pickup point - more on this in a moment - and use another for accessing your designated take-off point from high ground. A variant of this tactic would be to have a partner drop you off for short runs down hillsides or canyons to be picked up farther down at the next switchback or at a lower road. Those quick jaunts are better than nothing, but they're not the best for locating the truly biggest blacktails in these places. Look for remote, secluded canyons that will require no less than a full day, and possibly several days, to hunt.

Give yourself a target downhill that you can't miss. If you start out at the top of a mountain, don't expect to be able to find the end of a dead end road five miles away two or three days after beginning your hunt.

What you want to hit are roads or trails positioned at right angles to your approach - definite breaks that would be impossible to miss even in the dark.

These target areas do not need to be the exact location where you left a downhill vehicle, but strike points you can follow out of the canyon to your vehicle. Trails that follow a river's edge make good strike points because even if nobody has used the trail in 100 years, you will not miss the river. The natural flow of the country will show you the trail - eventually.

The same goes for lakes and water canals. Much of our country has water ditches (working or not) that run side-hill along our ridges. Even if they are no longer used for running water, they do give you a level path to follow. I often hunt the top of a ridge that has no road access, and anytime I kill a deer there, packing it out involves dropping down to one of these ditches, which leads to a logging skidder trail where I park my truck. No matter what, I won't miss that old ditch, even in the dark.

If necessary, I can hang the deer's hind quarters in a tree by the old ditch and come back for it the next day without the trouble of trying to re-find it. If the ditch is still used, you and all of the wildlife in the area have a supply of water. Looking for someplace to stay cool during the hot afternoon? Bring along a telescoping fishing rod!

Hunters who've looked at my big-buck pictures almost invariably ask about my firearms. Terrain and vegetation have a lot to do with what I use.

Long shots are extremely rare in these canyons. Due to the twisting nature of rivers, the canyon sides are rather convoluted as well and thickly vegetated. You will rarely get the opportunity to shoot farther than 60 yards at deer; most of my shots have been at moving animals within 20 yards.

This style of hunting as well as the short range presented means that a repeating rifle or handgun with open sights is better suited to the mission than a scoped bolt-action rifle. I find that a .30/30 Winchester lever gun is more than adequate in canyon country, and it's what I've used to kill most of my biggest bucks. When the hunt includes a lot of steep terrain, I take my .44/40 revolver, which I've used to kill three big bucks and quite a few wild hogs. It packs very easily, enabling me to crawl through brush and use both hands without the frustration of weaving a long barrel through vegetation.

For the last several years I have carried a shotgun and slugs for these canyon-land hunts, which isn't a bad idea considering I can carry along a pocketful of No. 6s to shoot quail I might encounter in season.

In these canyons you will often see large numbers of both quail and grouse, and they usually aren't as are wary as their flatland counterparts. With the heavy cover and the rivers often making background noise, it has been my observation that the sound of a shot does not seem to carry. Two years ago I shot several quail during a deer hunt, and while I was cleaning them, my partner, who had been hunting only a few hundred yards away came by and asked how I got them. He hadn't heard any of the shots. As my partner and I were talking, a 3x3 blacktail emerged from the timber to feed 60 yards away from us. If the deer had heard the shotgun, I don't believe he would have come out to feed. My friend hadn't taken a buck in several years, and I gave him first shot. As a result, we had to pack out quite a bit more than five quail on that trip.

At the price of shotgun slugs purchased five to a box, you may want to reload them yourself. With a simple scoop powder measure and a $12 slug mold, I have been able to make my own shells at one-quarter the cost, and it's easy. To make this rig practical, you need to shoot slugs often enough to familiarize yourself with your gun. I recommend a 12 gauge with either cylinder or modified choke. Add a sling and usable sights, and you're set.

Pack It!
Backpacks are essential for hunting in steep country. To be practical, a pack must have a frame and waist belt, and you need to be familiar with its every nook and cranny.

Your pack should hold all the gear you will require and have room for game meat. That's why it makes sense to hunt with a friend: Split the gear evenly between the two of you until one takes a buck, then load the gear into one hunter's pack and the deer in the other pack. The ideal partner, therefore, will have a good back, be fairly gullible and have no heart conditions or asthma.

One must-have item is a water purification system. You can become extremely sic

k by drinking water from a stream, even in a wilderness area. I recommend you use a lightweight water filter pump. Water purification pills work but tend to add an Iodine flavor to the water.

Also essential in my pack are waterproof matches, a three-finger meat saw, small cloth rag, and a half-dozen heavyweight trash bags for wrapping meat.

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