The only chink in the armor of a cagey old blacktail buck is his desire to chase the ladies in November. For those who hunt during the rut, it's the best deer season of them all.
by Cal Kellogg
If your goal is to harvest a mature Columbian blacktail buck, you've certainly chosen a tough nut to crack. More than 25 years of experience hunting them has taught me that the secretive nature of the blacktail buck, their reactions to hunting pressure, and the terrain they inhabit combine to earn them a place among North America's most challenging big-game animals. Notable hunters, such as Dwight Schuh, consider blacktails the wariest of all deer.
Now, I'm not going to debate whether the blacktail buck is smarter than a whitetail or wilier than a mulie. However, I must confess that at times it seems as if the individual qualities that make whitetails and mulies difficult to hunt are embodied by our Pacific Coast blacktails.
In his book Deer in The World, world-renowned nature photographer Erwin Bauer describes the blacktail as the hardest deer to find and photograph. "On average, blacktails tend to live in cover that is denser than that preferred by whitetails and mule deer, . . . any creatures dwelling in dense dark places are more difficult to observe than those spending their lives in the open," writes Bauer.
When exposed to hunting pressure, the already shy blacktails retreat to the roughest, most inaccessible terrain available to them, and mature bucks have a habit of adapting a nocturnal lifestyle once they rub the velvet from their antlers. Most Pacific Coast rifle seasons open in September's latter half or in October, long past the time the majority of blacktail bucks will be feeding by night and bedding in heavy cover during daylight hours. These bucks may expose themselves at dawn and dusk, but even fleeting opportunities disappear when the season opens and the report of high-powered rifles can be heard.
Now before you get the idea that tagging a husky blacktail is next to impossible, let me assure you, late-season blacktail bucks do have a weakness. It comes in the form of the rut. During the rut, buck activity increases steadily, while the natural wariness of the bucks relaxes. This shifts the advantage in favor of the late-season hunter who understands the rutting cycle and how to exploit it.
Photo by Chuck & Grace Bartlett
THE PRE-RUT The rutting cycle of the Columbian blacktail can be divided into three periods: the pre-rut, rut, and post-rut. The pre-rut and rut periods are most important to Pacific Coast hunters. Typically, the post-rut period takes place after hunting seasons have closed.
From early September into early October blacktail bucks become very reclusive. For me this time represents the doldrums in terms of hunting opportunity. The bucks are mostly inactive during shooting hours, making stand hunting largely unproductive. Jumping a buck from his bed is a low-percentage option due to the dense cover they utilize. Plus, if you jump a buck and miss him, you can pretty much forget about tagging him in the near future. I utilize the doldrums to put the final touches on my pre-rut scouting.
"The second week of October is a good benchmark for the beginning of the pre-rut," says biologist Terry Kennedy. Around this time, the bucks begin to feel and show the first stirrings of the frenzied rut to come. Initially, the bucks maintain their routine of nocturnal feeding and minimal daylight travel. However, they begin to roam farther from their bedding areas and display increased levels of aggression. It's during this period that the bucks spar to establish dominance and zero in on the location of does in their area. The bucks are interested in breeding; however, the does won't start coming into heat for another four to six weeks. By the time they do, the dominant bucks in a given area will have established loosely defined territories.
As bucks travel they periodically stop and thrash saplings or brush with their antlers, creating rub lines. Bucks engage in rubbing the entire time their antlers are hard. However, at no time is this behavior more prevalent than during the pre-rut and rut periods due to increased testosterone and aggression levels.
The key to locating and harvesting bucks during the pre-rut lies in their rubs. A buck's rub line represents a history of the buck's travels, allowing his movements to be patterned. Laying the groundwork for successfully hunting rub lines begins in early spring. The previous fall's buck rubs will be clearly visible. Combining scouting and spring turkey hunting is a great option. To locate rubs, move along the upper third of ridges, paying special attention in bottlenecks and saddles. Focus on saplings in the 1- to 3-inch range.
Once you find a rub the real detective work begins. Move in the probable direction the buck was traveling and seek out more rubs. In my experience, blacktails prefer to rub on softwoods such as small pines in their southern reaches down through California and spruces the farther north along the coast you go. Generally, a buck will target a certain type of tree and rub that type to the exception of all others. The area between the buck's primary bedding and feeding areas is always the most active part of the rub line.
HUNTING ALONG RUB LINES The ultimate goal of spring scouting is two fold. The first step is finding rub lines. The second is determining the buck's bedding area. With the coming of the pre-rut, the bucks' increased activity levels often results in the bucks being visible near their bedding areas early and late in the day. You're probably thinking, with hunting season seven months away it seems unlikely that the buck that created the rubs will still be around next season. That's a good point: He may or may not be. The old adage about trout fishing applies here. If you take a big trout in a certain spot, you should fish it repeatedly because the conditions that attracted the first fish will likely attract another. The same is true of the bedding and feeding areas a rub line helps to uncover. If one buck used them, another probably will.
In the spring you'll want to locate as many rub lines and bedding areas as possible. These rub lines will be revisited in early October in order for you to see which of them are actively being used. Remember that the new rubs probably won't be made on the old trees. In fact, the new rub line may not follow the same path as last year's rub line but it will end and begin at the same bedding and feeding areas.
Once active rub lines are located, hunting can begin. When selecting a rub line to hunt, keep in mind that the biggest bucks make the biggest rubs. Rub hunting requires a low impact approach and lots of patience. Your goal is to ambush the buck as he comes or goes from his bedding area, a task best accomplished by usin
g a portable tree stand.
GET A TREE STAND Although Westerners seldom use such tools, portable tree stands can become a serious blacktail hunter's most critical piece of equipment. A tree stand enables you to defeat a blacktail's best defenses: his hearing, vision, and great sense of smell. This is crucial when hunting near a buck's bedroom.
"A full-body harness is a must for any tree stand hunter," says expert archer Larry D. Jones. Every year a number of hunters are injured or killed in tree stand-related accidents. A good harness costs less than $100, a small price to pay when you consider the cost of a broken bone, paralysis or worse.
The stand should be situated on the downwind side of the rub line no closer than 200 yards from the bedding area. I like to hang my stand a few days prior to hunting. This allows any lingering scents to dissipate before I hunt. When scouting and hunting, scent control is paramount. Always approach your hunting site wearing scent-free rubber boots and avoid touching vegetation with your bare skin. This will keep human scent from contaminating your stand.
For a morning hunt get into the stand well before daylight. An evening hunt requires you to arrive no later than 90 minutes before sundown.
The deeper into the pre-rut you get, the more active bucks become. Early in the pre-rut dawn and dusk are the most productive times to hunt. As the bucks get deeper into the pre-rut and become more restless, they may move at anytime, making stand hunting an effective tactic throughout the day. Overcast days can be very productive. The low light conditions provide the deer with a comfort zone and they will often leave their beds to feed.
THE RUT If you dream of tagging a real wallhanger, the rut is the best time to turn that dream into reality. Once the rut begins, the bucks will shed much of their natural caution and will be on the move at all hours, day or night seeking out receptive does.
By the time the rut is under way, Pacific Coast rifle seasons will have ended. In order to tap into this great late-season opportunity, you'll have to be willing to hunt with a bow or muzzleloader, as nearly all hunts that occur during the rut require the use of primitive weapons. That's fine with me: The buck's reduced wariness and responsiveness to calls more than makes up for the restricted range of my bow; and weapons restrictions result in limited numbers of hunters, meaning I'll have less competition in the woods.
"The rut begins about Nov. 15 and continues for a month, with Dec. 1 representing the peak of breeding activity," says biologist Dave Walker. During the rutting period the bucks will largely abandon their rub lines and bedding areas in favor of staying in close proximity to does. In fact, this is the only time of the year when mature bucks favor the company of does to that of other bucks. Obviously, to be effective you'll have to modify your pre-rut hunting strategy.
Tree stand hunting remains the preferred method; however, instead of staking out a rub line you'll want to set up in feeding areas that are being targeted by does. Good areas to try include hardwood ridges, clearcuts, brushy benches, old orchards, and bottlenecks between the does' feeding and bedding areas. Remember that deer can change food sources abruptly, so make sure you're set up over fresh sign.
Rut hunting is an all-day affair. Plan on arriving at your stand before daylight and bring enough food and gear to remain there throughout the day. Cold storms generally hammer blacktail country during November and December. Quality rain gear is must-have equipment for late-season hunts. This is especially true if you plan on riding out a rainy day while perched in a tree stand.
Don't make the mistake a lot of hunters make and climb down for lunch. This strategy is OK during the early stages of the pre-rut, but during the rut you may miss seeing the trophy you've been looking for by getting down early. The hours between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. have produced several late-season bucks for my dad and I that would have escaped the freezer had we given up after the morning hunt.
Ordinarily, I avoid using scents when deer hunting. In most situations the best scent is no scent at all. The one exception to this rule is during the rut when bucks are aggressively pursuing does. Bucks determine if a doe is ready to breed by smelling her urine for estrus. This being the case, it makes good sense to sprinkle some doe-in-estrus scent around your stand.
Veteran Oregon bowhunter Nash Weiss swears by sex attractants. "Since I started using doe in heat scent four years ago, I've seen about 25 percent more bucks and the number of close encounters I have has gone up dramatically," says Weiss.
Scents intended for whitetails dominate the market. These will work for blacktails, but I prefer to use scents designed for blacktails and mule deer. Whatever scent you choose, make sure it's 100 percent natural. A deer's nose is a highly sensitive piece, and chemical-based artificial scent isn't going to get the job done.
Finally, keep in mind that when using scents you've still got to play the wind correctly. These are attractants, not cover scents.
CALLING & RATTLING When I started hunting blacktails in the '70s, I'd never heard of anyone attempting to call or rattle them. That was an East Coast thing. More recently, blacktail hunters taking a cue from their eastern counterparts have begun utilizing calling and rattling. Hunters such as Larry D. Jones have proven the effectiveness of these techniques by harvesting some awesome blacktails while calling.
Blacktails can be called throughout the year; however, these techniques are most effective during the rut. Most callers use three different types of calls: rattling antlers, a grunt tube, and a fawn bleat.
When rattling, begin softly. Rattle for about a minute and wait. If nothing shows, increase the volume and repeat. Punctuate the rattling with a few grunts to add realism. The grunt tube can also be used alone to attract bucks or to briefly stop a buck for the shot.
Fawn bleats are used primarily to attract does. Attract a doe during the rut, and she just might have a dandy buck in tow. When calling or rattling, be sure not to overdo it. It's better to call too little than too much.
Migrating Blacktails Blacktails that spend summers in high country and move to lower ground each fall generally get a move on during the first snow of the year. And what a sight it is!
When blacktails migrate, about 90 percent of the herd moves at once. While a good number of hunters believe a herd's biggest bucks migrate last, evidence collected by biologists indicates this isn't the case. The big bucks migrate right along with does and young bucks.
Migrating deer are highly vulnerable to hunters. The
deer are concentrated and move quickly to get below snowline through largely unfamiliar terrain. Barring major habitat changes, blacktails follow the same migration trails year after year but spend little time on them. The goal of the deer is to get to a lower, more hospitable elevation as quick as possible. Typically, this is accomplished by using an area's major drainages as thoroughfares.
It some late-season hunts the rut and migration can coincide, leading to fast-paced action. Several times, I've encountered groups of 50 or more blacktails moving together. Due to the confusion of that activity, two or more dominant bucks can end up in such a group. The only time I've witnessed bucks fighting occurred during the migration. Fortunately, I was able to break up the melee with my 7mm!
When hunting the migration:
- Take a stand along the upper ridge of a main drainage just below snowline.
- Set up near features that naturally concentrate, or funnel, the deer, such as saddles, bottlenecks through dense cover or areas where two or more canyons come together.
- Bring rain gear, and be prepared to hunt the entire day.
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