Blacktailers'™ Top 10 Tips

From seeking sheds to coping with late-season pressure, these 10 tips from veteran blacktail hunters and guides will help you tag a dandy. (August 2008)

Each fall on opening day, a handful of hunters emerge from the forests with a large buck. But most hunters are lucky to see a doe.
Photo by Eric J. Hansen.

Kirk Portocarrero, a veteran hunting guide, pretty well sums up the difficultly of hunting trophy blacktails.

"They call blacktails 'the gray ghosts,' because they turn nocturnal on you," said Portocarrero, who helps clients bag several big bucks each fall. "They come out during the last few minutes of light, then go back into the trees and brush until the sun comes up."

Yet Portocarrero and other top blacktail hunters have learned the secrets to hunting these elusive deer. Their success involved extensive pre-season scouting, using weather conditions to their favor, hiding in tree stands and perfecting glassing techniques.

To increase your chances of bagging a big buck this fall, here are 10 tips from some of the best blacktail hunters in the West.

Each fall on opening day, a handful of hunters emerge from the forests with a large buck. But most hunters are lucky to see a doe.

For those successful few, the season began weeks or even months earlier, when they tediously scouted for deer and watched their patterns to know exactly where the biggest bucks would be on opening day.

"Your success rate is not going to be near as good if you don't scout," Portocarrero said. "Scouting is a huge, huge part of having better success. Without scouting, you're going to need a lot of luck."

To see where the biggest bucks will be, guides will often begin their scouting in June or July. They first look for tracks, droppings, game trails, watering holes and bedding areas. After they spot a buck or two, they'll begin patterning these animals to see what their habits are.

Most blacktails have a small range. They often spend their entire lives within a few square miles. Chances are good you'll find the same buck you've been watching all summer.

"Patterning them is the key," said Portocarrero. "Blacktails will pretty much stay in the same pattern. You can watch a deer four or five days in a row, and count on him doing the same thing for probably five out of seven days."

Portocarrero will watch when certain bucks emerge from the forest to feed, when and where they water, which game trails they use and where they bed down. He tries to avoid disturbing the deer and, over the course of the summer, finds several spots where bucks are to develop his opening-day strategy.

By August, hunters can also look for rubs on trees -- sure signs that a big buck is in the area, rubbing its antlers against the tree trunks to remove the velvet.

"I'll look for footprints, then trees with rub marks," said the guide.

For longtime hunter Joey Godwin, the time to locate the biggest bucks begins shortly after winter waterfowl seasons end. Godwin spends several weekends in March and April exploring forests, looking for antler sheds.

He knows the deer that dropped their antlers have survived the hunting season and will be even bigger in the fall. Once he locates a few sheds in a specific area, he'll begin looking for the animals themselves to pattern their habits.

Godwin's garage is full of sheds. Some that he found a few years apart are nearly identical.

By looking for the sheds of bigger bucks, Godwin knows if an area is worth the investment of some extensive scouting.

During archery season, blacktail hunters often have to deal with bone-dry conditions. Hot weather often continues until at least the rifle seasons open.

Hunting deer during dry weather is more challenging: It's extremely difficult to remain quiet in the woods and avoid spooking deer.

Your chances of finding a deer in the open during warm, dry weather are also slim.

"I would stay away from the large open clearcuts that are south-facing and going to be soaking up a lot of sun," said Dave Nuzum, a wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "I would look for more activity along the north-facing slopes and creek draws."

Before hunting season, it's important to get familiar with an area to locate water holes, the beds of cooler creeks and entry and exit points into the forest. That way, if it's warm, you'll know where to go.

Nuzum said hunters should get into a hunting area as early as possible, while it's still dark, and then stay put. Hunters who are walking risk alerting big bucks. Instead, you should find a good spot to glass openings and wait for the deer to show themselves.

"Whitetail hunters have been using tree stands for years," Portocarrero said, "but not many people use them for blacktails. Blacktail hunters will find they will have higher success if they use them.

"I like to get up into the trees and see what's going on and where the deer are -- without them seeing me."

Aside from affording hunters a better vantage point, tree stands also help them remain hidden. Sitting in a tree stand for a long time is more comfortable than hiding crouched down in the brush, where you can't move because you risk making noise and spooking deer.

Many hunters simply drive forest roads and road-hunt, hoping to see a buck standing in a clearing. While road hunters do take some deer each fall, especially at first and last light, unknowingly they often move deer around. Big bucks will retreat from areas of high pressure.

Hunters who hike away from roads and then dig in for an all-day wait are often rewarded.

"In high-pressure areas, sit and wait," Portocarrero advised. "Let people push the deer to you instead of walking around and pushing the deer to them."

Hunters waiting to ambush a deer have a few advantages. A buck trying to get away from

a road or area with hunter activity will often be more concerned with what's behind than what lies ahead. It will stop, look back at the road where it heard a truck or car, then scurry forward.

If you are going to lie in wait, you must conceal yourself. Use scent blocks and get downwind from the road or other areas the deer might be coming from. Also, listen carefully for deer movements.

A pair of hunters can also ambush deer by having one hunter hide near a game trail with the other driving the deer toward the waiting hunter.

Along with openers that are dry and warm, blacktail hunters often encounter stormy weather during the middle and latter part of the season. Heavy rain makes it easier to walk through forested areas. But chances are, the biggest bucks will be hunkered down, trying to avoid the wet, cold weather.

Stuart Love is a veteran biologist who has spent much of his career in blacktail country. He said that deer tend to be good indicators of coming bad weather. They'll often be active just before a storm hits, and then again as soon as it passes.

The best time to find a blacktail buck is right before a heavy rain -- or especially right afterward. "Put more of your effort into the time just after the rain quits," said Love.

Once the rain stops and the sun begins to come out, deer will emerge from the woods into openings to sun themselves, warm up and dry off.

After a heavy rain, hunters will often find bucks on the edges of forested areas or in meadows or clearcuts. They may be feeding, but most often they will lie down, alert but intent on drying off.

Other prime times to hunt are right before sunup and just before sunset.

Before sunup during extremely hot weather, blacktail bucks will often retreat into the woods to bed down. Sometime during the day they will emerge from a bedding area and visit a nearby watering hole.

"A lot of times, I will see deer go get water in the middle of the day more often than they will in the morning or at night," Portocarrero said. "They will feed more in the morning, then go get water in the heat of the day. I've had a lot of customers get deer between 1:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon when everybody else thinks it's over."

When you're hunting deer in hot weather, wait for them to move. Don't try to push or drive them, said expert hunter and guide Randy Wells.

In high-pressure areas, deer will tend to stay put during the day and wait until the evening to get water.

Blacktails exposed to high pressure will often sit and wait until you get right next to them before they move, especially when it's hot.

When watching over watering holes, it's best to wait near remote, seldom-hunted areas. If the deer know you're there, likely they won't move -- even if you try to drive them out.

"Those deer are not going to get up," Wells said. "They can see you, and are rolling the dice that you aren't going to see them. They're conserving as much energy as they can because they know they can't go as far as fast when it's really hot out."

Perhaps the most effective technique for finding blacktails is spotting and stalking.

Successful hunters will sit in the same spot for hours, watching for movement. Ideally, they will find a deer moving from its bedding to feeding area, but sometimes they'll come across a buck lying down for the day.

"You've got to have a lot of patience," said Portocarrero. "You may be glassing the same area for hours."

Buy the highest quality binoculars you can afford. The higher the quality of the glass, the easier the binoculars are on your eyes. To find deer, often you will have to scan the same area dozens of times, slowly, to find any signs of a deer.

"I always look for a horn or an ear twitching," Portocarrero said.

"Even when the deer are staying completely still, their ears will flop, especially when it's hot and there are flies or bugs out."

When Wells glasses an area, he sets up near a game trail where he's seen sign, such as tracks or droppings. He wants to locate a deer as it moves from a bedding area to where it's going to feed. If he knows there are deer in the area, he'll often spend half a day glassing a single hillside.

"It's a whole lot easier to spot them when they're moving than when they're bedded down," Wells said. "And it's easier to watch them going to bed down than to find them already bedded down."

Even in areas with minimal pressure, it's important not to disturb a bedding area unless it's your only place to get a shot. Once their areas are disturbed, the deer will break their pattern and move to a new area.

Likewise, gunshots and hunters walking through bedding areas will push blacktails to new areas.

But late in the season, Portocarrero will try to drive deer away from their bedding areas.

As the rut approaches, bucks will also respond to noises in the woods. Hunters wearing camouflage can walk slowly through the woods, stopping frequently, changing the pace of their walk and taking only a few steps at a time -- to mimic the movement of a deer. Bucks will sometimes respond, to check to see if a doe is approaching or to drive off another buck in their territory.

When Wells is hunting a new area, he compares a topo map with a BLM or Forest Service map.

"The first thing I do," Wells said, "is look at the topographical map, trying to find areas where logging roads don't take over an entire hillside. When they go over the face of a hillside, but not clear over the top, I will find two hills side by side, with a deep draw into a drainage."

When he gets to the top of one of the hills, he'll glass the other hillside and pattern the deer.

Wells will scout for a few days and see where the deer move. Then he'll use the map and GPS to get closer to the trails the deer are using while it's still dark.

"A lot of times, I don't glass and hunt the same day," Wells said. "I glass to find them, then the next day after I've patterned them, I'll set up where they are."

In selecting the area, Wells said that it's important to be able to hunt close enough

to a road to get a buck out after you shoot it. Sometimes hunters will have to cut up the buck in the field and pack the meat out.

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