Beyond Blacktail Basics

Mask scent. Stay still. Be quiet. We all know these basics. But when should you use scent, get moving and make noise for blacktail success?

Busted? Nope. This deer was coming to noise: a rattle bag during the rut. Photo by Gary Lewis.

"There's a buck."

We were in the truck, headed for another spot, when James spotted the deer. We didn't expect to see a blacktail out in the open on the second day of the season, but there he was. We set a trap for him at the edge of the trees.

Like most ambushes, this one didn't work. Deer almost always do the thing we don't expect them to do. The buck slipped away, but it gave me an idea.

In my pack, was a doe-in-heat urine lure. I emptied the contents on some shrubbery, and we backed out. We'd be back.

Blacktail deer are nothing if not suspicious, but they also possess innate curiosity that, coupled with a strong need to breed and feed, puts chinks in their armor. We can beat their defenses with tactics that exploit their weaknesses. First, we need to understand our own failings.

We try to pattern the deer, but Mr. Blacktail knows exactly what we are going to do every time we get out of the truck. As hunters, we fall into predictable patterns. The deer know it better than we do.

After emptying the can of Muley Bomb Doe-In-Heat, we hunted a marsh bounded by a creek. We emerged into a high-use motorcycle area. Trails laced stands of vine maple, hemlock and fir that grew so thick visibility was less than 15 feet.

Deer would bed there, but they were just as likely to lie down in open habitat on the hill overlooking a well-used trail. They knew where the people were and what the people were doing. Humans weren't hard to miss on their Hondas and Yamahas in full riding gear.

My partner didn't think so, but I guessed there would be a deer bedded just off the shoulder of the hill, about a third of the way down. We started up the trail and, halfway up, heard the motorcycles.

The motorcycle leader took a left turn and headed straight for our hill. We stepped off the trail. When the leader rounded the turn, he was 10 feet away, looking right into our eyes. He rolled the power on and blasted by, shifting down, hitting the power band as he took on the hill.

A mixed-use forest has mixed blessings. This time, the boys on the bikes had played right into my hands. In two more minutes, we were also on top of the hill. The motors effectively masked our sound.

Three deer had been bedded less than 30 yards from the dirt bike trail, and they didn't expect to see us come crashing into their morning nap. I saw a doe, but only found tracks of the two others. Judging by the splayed out and blunted marks, I figured they were good-sized bucks.

We made a plan to check the Muley Bomb the next day.

Focus on fundamentals and you'll tag deer from time to time. Go beyond the basics to see more deer and claim the advantage. Photo courtesy of Gary Lewis.

Blacktails' eyes are on the sides of their heads. That gives them a 280-degree field of view. Humans and other predators have eyes that look forward, which gives us a narrower perspective.

Look Up
The lesson the hunter should draw is that deer are more likely to pick up movement than we are. That's why still-hunting often ends in disappointment. The more we move, the higher the chance of spooking our quarry. We are better off when we hunt from above, and remain still, while deer move down below. A vantage point on a hilltop, a rock outcropping, a stump or a tree stand can keep the hunter anchored up higher than the prey.

Stealth begins at the closet. Deer do not see the full spectrum of color. Ungulates have duo-chromatic vision (humans have tri-chromatic vision); deer see in shades of blue, yellow, white, black and gray. The colors yellow, orange, red and brown are seen as shades of yellow. But they can also detect light in blue and ultraviolet wavelengths 1,000 times below our threshold. That means a deer's eyes are sensitive to ultraviolet, especially in low-light conditions.

Researchers believe deer see UV as a bluish glow. Wearing blue jeans or a blue denim jacket while hunting big game is not a good idea.

Home laundry detergents contain ultraviolet brighteners that make the colors of our clothes appealing to the human eye. Researchers say they also make them more visible to deer.

Wash your clothes with detergent that contains no brighteners if you want to keep deer from spotting you. A product called Sport-Wash is a detergent that uses no artificial brighteners. It is available through archery shops and mail order. Hunter Specialties also makes several effective detergent products.

U-V-Killer is a spray-on product that neutralizes UV brighteners in fabric.

New Camo
The latest military camouflage employs painted pixels for close-up deception, blended inside a larger pattern that breaks up the outline at longer range. The best new hunting camos employ patterns that can blend into a variety of environments.

Look at the pattern from a distance. You want a pattern that breaks up the silhouette. There should not be any all black or all green or all brown (all gray to a deer) when viewed from 50 yards away.

If you wear hunter orange, you still have options to keep a low profile. A checkered shirt or camouflaged hunter-orange jacket can provide the essential broken pattern.

Notice how much bigger their ears are than our own? Those swiveling auricles function far better than a human's ears to pick up sound and determine the direction of an approaching threat or another deer.

Deer listen as the truck rolls to a stop, the music is turned off and the parking brake set. When the doors open and close, the deer is on alert. If a buck has seen several hunting seasons, he has a pretty good idea what happens next.

Avoid putting bucks on notice. Park fa

rther away and walk in, or ease in on a bicycle. Another trick is to approach under the covering sound of passing vehicles.

Blacktail ears can be fooled by good vibrations.

From the time the velvet is shed, bucks use their antlers to spar. The clash and click of bone is a sound that can bring other deer in for a look. Tickling the tines and grunting can bring a buck to investigate at any time of the year, but it is most likely to happen late in October and November, when a dominant buck may come in to drive away younger interlopers.

Another seldom-used method of using sound to your advantage is sending out a plea for motherly intervention.

Early in the season, a varmint call is of little use, save to put deer on alert. In November, when bucks are following does, a fawn-in-distress call can draw in a protective doe that might be trailed by a buck. A high percentage of does lose their fawns to predators each spring and summer. The plaintive sounds of a fawn going under the sharp teeth of a pack of coyotes is not soon forgotten.

Does often come to the call. In the breeding season, there is a good chance they have a buck hot on their heels, because of the enticing scent of the female in the breeding season.

The best thing a hunter can do to put a buck in his sights is to use the breeze to his advantage. For most of us, most of the time, that means wind in our faces, and an approach from downwind.

Tie a thread or a feather to the gun barrel or stabilizer shaft, or use Smoke-In-A-Bottle or a similar product to illustrate the whims of the wind.


But the next step is turning the deer's sense of smell against him, which leads us back to the urine lure that I employed on Day 2 of our 2008 hunt.

What is the one smell that a buck wants to inhale more than any other? And what do you think his reaction will be when he smells it?

Sure, we were using a mule deer scent, but a lot of blacktail bucks have bred with mule deer does over the centuries and that interaction is not likely to end anytime soon.

When Day 3 dawned, we inserted ourselves into the young tree plantation. We saw fresh tracks in the mud next to the bush I had treated with the urine lure. We ghosted in 100 yards apart. There was a buck in here somewhere, I guessed. If we kept the wind in our favor and didn't move too fast . . .

As quiet as we had been, he probably had us pegged anyway. I figured he would try to put distance between us. But what would be the opposite of that? After all, these deer are always at least one step ahead of us. I determined that the deer could instead move into the taller timber and find a place to hide and wait.

We decided to ease into those pines.

There were two bucks, one for each of us.

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