Tactics For Lowland Blacktails

The Columbian blacktail is one of the world's most challenging animals to hunt. And lowland bucks could be the toughest of all. Use these strategies to tag a trophy this season.

On our fourth day, we finally found the buck that had eluded us on Day 1 of the hunt. This time, however, we could approach him. He was alone, bedded tight to a patch of poison oak.

The best part was that we had the high-ground advantage, and the wind was in our favor.

Many hunters claim that blacktail hunting isn't what it used to be. But the truth is, monster bucks are being killed every year.

There was no question he was a shooter buck. Seen through the spotting scope, his symmetrical 4x4 rack clearly spanned more than 20 inches, and his white muzzle told of his age.

It would take more than an hour to creep within shooting range. But Dad was up to the task.

Getting the wind just right, we slowly, steadily closed the distance. Our first approach found us within 50 yards of the buck, but the brush was too tall to thread a bullet through.

We had to back out, come in from above him and hope to glimpse more of the buck's body.

At 80 yards, the buck busted us and took off. He sprinted through the tall stand of poison oak, then slowed at its edge and started to duck into a creek bottom. Dad has taken many fine blacktails in his more than 50 years of hunting, and he knew what to do. When a big buck like this gives you a window, however small, you take it.

In one reflexive action, Dad shouldered the rifle, placed the apex of the Trijicon scope on the spot and pulled the trigger. At 200 yards, the resonating sound of the bullet finding its mark was sweet music to our ears.

Seconds later, the buck crumpled. We watched and then hugged as the stunning blacktail lay dead. Later scoring just shy of 150 inches, it was Dad's third-largest blacktail.

For many Northwest hunters, hunting blacktail deer is a deep passion. For me, this majestic deer is at the top my list of the most exciting and challenging big-game animals in North America. After all, our family's been hunting them since the 1800s.

Given all the blacktail hunting I've done over the past 32 years, I've concluded that though they're all genetically the same deer, their behaviors can vary based on terrain, time of year, hunting pressure and even local deer densities.

From sea level to 5,000 feet, there are many differences, in both the deer and the land.

For instance, high-mountain bucks are different to hunt than those living in the foothills of the Cascades. At the same time, bucks living in the dense Coast Range feature other characteristics unique to their lifestyle that makes hunting them a great challenge. Then there are the open-country bucks that dwell from southern Oregon down through California. These herds are a mix of resident and migratory animals, each of which lends its own type of challenge.

The deer that make valley floors their home are no pushover, either. These bucks could be the smartest of the lot. They're mostly resident animals that know every inch of their home turf. These bucks are living in ideal blacktail habitat from California to Washington.

Immediately after shedding their velvet, they turn nocturnal and may be born and die within one square mile without hunters ever knowing of their presence. These are the bucks -- those living near or below the 500-foot elevation mark -- that we'll take a close look at now.

Start High
September could be the toughest time to fill a blacktail tag. The bucks have shed their velvet, and shortly after doing so, move primarily at night. This means your best hunting times are going to be the opening and closing minutes of daylight, when bucks may be moving. But don't completely rule out the middle of the day, especially when it's hot.

When hunting early in the morning and in the waning minutes of the day, try to get above where you think deer may be, and glass from there. In my years of hunting blacktails, I've found them to be less wary of danger from above. Of course, I have learned this through much trial and error -- I simply bumped too many big bucks when moving in from the bottom up.

When spooked from below, these bucks often move uphill and work their way into tangles that no hunter can penetrate. If you are confident a big buck is in the area, try spotting him from above instead, and then work down to him.

He will tend to hold longer and, if spooked, he may not move as far.

Should the weather still be hot, this is also a good time to glass from above. As the sun shifts, bedded deer may become exposed to hot rays of light. They'll get up, change position and re-bed. This is especially true in lowland habitats where there are fewer big oak and coniferous trees.

I do a lot of long-range glassing through a spotting scope. Once you spot a deer, determine if you can stalk him. Dissect the terrain and read the wind. If he's approachable, go for it.

If not, back out and come back later. Likely he won't be far. If you do make a move and get busted, don't panic. Your buck may still be nearby.

Last season, we spotted two bucks bedded in a willow-choked creekbed. The only escape route was a line of oak trees. If we played it right, the deer would have to pass by us to reach their safe haven.

Working from the top down, we spooked the big buck, and never got a shot. When we emerged from the 15-yard wide, 100-yard long sparse willow patch, we saw the two bucks and one other doe.

Many hunters claim that blacktail hunting isn't what it used to be. But the truth is, monster bucks are being killed every year.

But another member of our party saw more than that.

"You guys didn't see all those deer?" he asked. "There were 11 other deer in those willows, and you were within spitting distance of half of them!"

As we walked down through the willow patch, where do you think those deer went? If you thought that they circled around behind us and re-bedded, you're right.

The humbling part, we didn't see or hear even one of those 11 other deer.

Blacktail deer, and particularly valley-floor deer, don't like leaving their comfort zone. When spooked, they will typically not go far, and if they do, they're likely to come back.

A few days later, we returned to that same area and found the big buck right back in there.

Glass The Thick Stuff
One thing about lowland blacktails: Once they do find a thicket to call home, it can be as dense as any habitat you can find. That can actually make it harder to hunt these deer, as opposed to pursing them in big timber. This is due to the fact that water is typically plentiful in the lowlands. The vegetation grows dense and provides plenty of thick cover.

For this reason, it doesn't take much land for a blacktail to carve out a home. This is where it becomes critical to learn the blacktail's behavioral traits.

For instance, according to wildlife studies, blacktails use the same trail on consecutive days only 25 percent of the time. For big bucks, the percentage is even lower than that.

What this demonstrates is that these deer have multiple trails. And it might make no sense to a human which one they'll use, and when.

It also shows that deer are there. You just have to find them.

When hunting the thick cover that's commonly associated with lowland blacktails, move slowly and glass the thick stuff. Look for portions of a deer such as the flicker of an ear, the white of a muzzle, the black of the tail or nose, legs, rump patches and antlers. Don't get caught up in searching for an entire deer. If you can spot the full body of a deer in thick brush, chances are that he's already busted you.

If you've done your homework and feel confident there's a buck is in the area, slow down and look for him. In some of our better big-buck hikes, we'll take four or five hours to cover less than half a mile of terrain.

Move slowly, moving with confidence that deer are in the area. Expect to find them and be ready.

Doe Densities
Low-elevation blacktails have been the hardest hit by Hair Loss Syndrome since it was first discovered in the early 1990s. Many deer have died from the stress related to the intense itching the tiny body louse creates. But many, especially the bucks, have survived.

Many hunters claim that blacktail hunting isn't what it used to be. But the truth is, monster bucks are being killed every year. Personally, I think one of the reasons for so many big bucks falling in lower elevations is the growing competition among bucks over the smaller numbers of does, or at least in the valleys I hunt.

Rather than roam far from the does, bucks seem to be sticking around them more regularly in their low-elevation habitats.

I think this is so for two reasons:

  • First, when the does come in to heat, competition among the bucks can be fierce to be the first in line. Bucks nearby, and ready, often get rewarded.
  • Second, I've observed that mid-elevation bucks move into lowland buck territories earlier in the season than they used to. That also increases their competition for does.

    Timber bucks are the deer that live in the foothills of the Cascade Range. At some point, they move down to low elevations to search for receptive does among the higher population densities. Prior to the past decade or so, most started moving down around mid-November. In recent years, I've seen heavy-racked bucks chasing valley does as early as Oct. 15, and many by the third week in October.

    To capitalize on doe-seeking bucks, look for areas of high doe densities. This can be a year-round opportunity because resident low-elevation does don't tend to move far during the course of the year.

    Food Sources
    Last year saw one of the best acorn crops in nearly a decade. From California to Washington State, many monster bucks were taken. Some came directly beneath the rich oak trees; others were taken as they traveled to or from their bedding areas.

    Foods like acorns and blackberry shoots can attract deer from a long distance away. While many of these deer will be year-round lowland animals, some will move great distances during the night to capitalize on such food sources. If the year brings a good acorn crop, it's worth spending time hunting in and around such habitat. If the intense end-of-summer heat hasn't withered the blackberries, the same holds true for them.

    Deer often tend to feed on acorn crops as well as newly grown blackberry vines under the cover of darkness. So it's a good idea to be in the field during the first and last minutes of hunting light. If trail cameras or tracks reveal that a big buck may be using the area in the middle of the night, try to figure out which direction he's coming from or going to and set up accordingly. You might just intercept him.

    Big bucks will move great distances to hit prized food sources because such treats don't come along every year.

    Blinds And Stands
    One of the biggest challenges facing lowland blacktail hunters is to move in on a buck without being spotted. Thick cover often prevents you from closing in on a buck, even though you know for a fact he's there.

    In cases like this, try finding where the buck moves early in the morning and at last light. Then set up a ground blind or tree stand. When using ground blinds on blacktails, I've found that they needn't be set up weeks in advance so that deer will get used to them. In fact, we've set them up in the afternoon, and taken deer from them that same evening.

    As long as you keep movement and noise to a minimum, you should be fine, especially if you're able to tuck the blind against some brush and break up its outline with branches or grass.

    If you've observed bucks feeding in the open -- say on the newly sprouting ends of blackberry bushes, beneath sparse oak trees or on fresh grass -- then you may have no other option but to place a blind in the open. When doing so, try to put it downwind of where the deer are feeding. And make sure you can get into it without being seen.

    But when erecting ground blinds in open country, it may be beneficial to get them up a few days before you intend on hunting out of them. I've never bothered with brushing them in -- not in the open, for I don't want to give deer too much of a new intrusion to be worried about.

    It's seemed to work, since we've taken some good deer in this way. Do what gives you the most confidence for the country you're hunting.

    When hanging a tree stand, the biggest question is which trail to hang it near. Because blacktails are so inconsistent in their trail-use habits, limiting yourself to one trail is

    too restricting. Bowhunters have fewer choices because effective shooting distance dictates where they'll hunt.

    According to wildlife studies, blacktails use the same trail on consecutive days only 25 percent of the time.

    This is one reason why archers hang multiple tree stands, so they can have several options based on deer movement, wind direction, hunter pressure and so on.

    For gun hunters, the best site for a tree stand may be away from a trail, or better yet, away from many trails. Setting up in a situation that lets you see where multiple trails merge or lead into a potential feeding ground means more shot opportunities.

    In hill country, find where funnels neck down, bringing many trails together. Try hanging a stand from a place that will yield the greatest view to as many trails or as much open-country feeding edges as possible.

    When it comes to hunting lowland blacktails, the more bases you can cover, the greater your chances of success. This season, assess the habitat in the area you hunt, then key in on deer behavior.

    From there, you'll be able to apply the best approach to fit the land you hunt, and hopefully put some fine eating venison in the freezer.

    To order signed copies of Scott and Tiffany Haugen's latest book, Cooking Big Game, send a check or money order for $29.95 to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489.

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