20 Steps To A Trophy Blacktail

It's hard enough to tag any black-tailed deer, never mind a 150-incher! But follow these steps this season to get on track to a Booner Columbia blacktail deer.

We all know how hard it is to fill a blacktail tag. Is that because their overall numbers are low?

Don't road-hunt. To increase your chances of tagging a trophy, get back into the dark timbered areas where blacktails feel safe.
Photo by Bud Journey.

Definitely not! It's because blacktails are one of the most difficult species of deer to hunt in the Western states. On average, only 10 percent of all blacktail hunters fill their tags consistently every year. Even though the odds are stacked against us, droves of hunters still venture into the woods each season to accept the challenge presented by these elusive big-game animals.

Have you ever wondered why there are so many whitetail and mule deer videos, but very few that display successful blacktail footage? There's a reason for this. As hunting pressure increases, most trophy-class bucks tend to become nocturnal.

But terrain and habitat also play a large role in their ability to vanish in the shadows like ghosts.

The trick to being successful is to be in the right spot, at the right time, with the knowledge you need to execute proper tactics. There's no easy way to do it. But do it properly, and quite possibly you could join the ranks of those successful hunters.

To achieve that takes time, patience, sweat -- and an understanding of the game you're pursuing.

Here are some tips to help you achieve your goal of bagging a trophy blacktail.

To begin with, in order to gain the advantage, you need to understand what makes them tick.

Most blacktails live most of their lives well inside dark, timbered forests that give them safe haven. They're highly deceptive and cunning animals that depend on their stealthy movements, highly sensitive noses, superb eyesight and acute hearing as their main lines of defense.

They use the contour of their terrain and its thick cover to move undetected. You'll rarely catch them flat-footed in open areas.

Although their defenses may seem impenetrable, a hunter who does his homework and takes the time to put in the sweat-equity required to outfox these masters of deception can be successful -- on a regular basis.

We've all heard stories of novice hunters lucking out and killing some big buck that just happened to walk out into the open and offer a perfect broadside shot. That does happen, I guess. But in my 25 years of hunting blacktails religiously, it's never happened to me, or to anyone I know.

Some guys will perch on a rock outcropping for days, like a turkey vulture waiting for an easy meal.

Others will spend a week constantly filling their gas tanks as they road-hunt, hoping for a buck to leap out in front of them.

For those lucky few who fill their tags in this manner, thousands are hunting with these very same tactics, but will never see an antlered deer.

To increase your odds of being successful, year after year, you must go deep into the dark timber that blacktails call home. To do so requires that you slowly and cautiously penetrate the security of their comfort zone, and find them in the areas where they are most vulnerable.

It takes dedication and hard work, but when all is said and done, you'll be proud of your achievements.

During the 2007 season, Logan Bauer killed this dandy blacktail in California's Zone A.
Photo courtesy of Scott Bauer.

You can't just sit around waiting for something to happen. You have to make it happen! Hunt aggressively. Become a wolf-like predator who carefully studies, stalks and ambushes his prey while remaining undetected.

Give every day of the hunt 110 percent effort, with a never-say-quit attitude. I guarantee that your attitude will increase your success rate. The time to relax is not in the field, it's when the hunt is over and you're back in the comforts of home, thinking over your accomplishments.

Your hunt always begins with the search for fresh sign. Your ability to decipher it can spell the difference between a successful hunt and just a hike through the woods.

Look for any type of sign that shows a great deal of deer activity such as tracks, droppings and well-used game trails. Tracks from larger, heavier bucks will show dewclaw depressions and appear much more rounded and spread at the tips than the hoofprints of does.

Locating well-worn trails with fresh sign will give you a pretty good idea of what's going on in the general area.

Now make a plan of attack.

If you're hunting during the rut, look where a dominant buck has marked his territory by leaving primary scrape areas and rub lines.

Primary scrape areas are fairly easy to spot, and you'll usually find them within a small area. They contain a number of ground scrapes made by a buck while he marks his territory and deposits his scent.

Mature bucks make rub lines to lay claim to an area. A buck will scrape his antlers against small trees and overhanging branches to mark his territory and notify does and other bucks of his presence.

Heavily timbered forests are perfect for providing bucks with sheltered bedding areas. But in order to feed, they might have to venture into nearby open pockets and lush spring areas within the dark timber.

Though most big bucks will move only under the cover of night, sometimes they make fatal errors and do so during the hours of dusk and dawn.

Your best bet is to try to intercept them as they move to and from their bedding and f

eeding areas.

Good optics will save you miles of walking and could even determine the outcome of your hunt.

I'm sure you've heard the old saying, "If you can't see them, you can't shoot them." I'm a firm believer of using top-quality optics for any hunt.

My advice is to purchase the best optics you can afford. The ratio between binoculars' magnification and the size of their outer lens directly affects its light-gathering abilities and clarity. It's especially important when you're looking in dark shady areas where bucks love to bed down. For my hunts, I use both a 10x42 binocular and a 20-60x85 spotting scope.

During the first and last hours of daylight, bucks will be on the move. Focus your efforts on glassing areas such as treelines and small open pockets within timbered areas.

Also, bucks prefer to stay parallel to open areas while remaining within 10 to 20 yards of the treeline as they travel on their established trails.

Don Callahan took this 27-inch-wide 160-class blacktail in Northern California's B Zone.
Photo courtesy of Rick Jones of Yolla Bolly Outfitters.

Whether I'm glassing a distant hillside during early morning or late evening hours, or still-hunting bedded bucks within thick condensed areas during the midafternoon, my binoculars are almost always in my hand and rarely away from my face.

This takes a great deal of time and patience while in the field. To pattern bucks, I use two techniques. The first and safest method is to do so at a distance using high-powered optics from a far ridge, so as not to divulge your presence and blow out the area.

The key here is distance. If possible, try to figure out their routines -- where they feed, drink, bed down, and the trails they use on a daily basis within natural funnels and saddles.

The second method is to set up trail cameras along game trails where there's a great deal of sign depicting a high amount of deer activity.

Cameras let you not only capture photos of animals frequenting the area, but also give you the date and time when they pass through.

But this requires far more precautions than the first method because you must wisely and cautiously enter and exit the area undetected.

Here, scent control is an extremely important factor. When setting up my cameras or retrieving memory cards, I wear rubber boots and latex gloves. I'm extremely careful not to leave my scent on the ground or on anything I touch, especially the camera.

To establish a position within a buck's defensive perimeter for a high-percentage shot, you must have already patterned him and understand his daily routine and behavior.

Once you're supplied with this knowledge, enter the woods hours before the prime time when you know he'll be passing through.

If this means waking up at 3 a.m. and hiking into a canyon or climbing the face of a mountain to get to your spot, then so be it. Do whatever it takes to accomplish your goals.

Natural funnels and saddles are ideal spots for ambushing blacktails. Sometimes a terrain's natural contour will contain narrow, heavily wooded areas or saddles that deer use to move from one area to another throughout the day and evening hours. They use these funnel-type areas to conceal their movements while accessing different areas -- and also use them as escape routes when pressured. They're the bucks' best-kept secret.

When you're trying to intercept a buck at close range, scent control is one of the most important factors. Always stay downwind of your intended target area at all times.

Canyons and ravines are notorious for creating inconsistent wind currents that can ruin your stalk.

It doesn't matter what type of expensive scent-locking clothing you're wearing. The slightest change in wind direction can instantly destroy your chances at that trophy buck.

The last sounds you hear may be the clatter of hoofs as he heads for the next county.

Hunting from a tree stand has its advantages. You can remain still and not be heard, and decrease the chance of a buck seeing or scenting you. It's probably one of any hunter's best methods to remain undetected while hunting blacktail deer.

Make sure to position your tree stand in the right location. The prevailing wind must be in your favor.

Place your stand at least 15 feet above the ground. Because of the contour of the terrain, sometimes you may need to place the stand much higher for an unobstructed view of approaching deer.

A natural ground blind can be as simple as concealing yourself with fallen branches or tucking into a bush. But it gives you mobility to set up in several locations. Make sure your camouflage blends in naturally with your backdrop, so that you don't stand out like a sore thumb.

Pop-up blinds give you the flexibility to establish a blind in an open area where there may not be enough natural cover to offer concealment. Other advantages are that they keep you out of the elements and conceal any small movements.

There are many good pop-up blinds on the market, but the one that best suits my needs is the Double Bull Matrix. I can erect it easily, and it gives me a 180-degree shooting lane from a wide adjustable opening.

When bedding down for the day, most blacktails seek thick cover. But there are some solitary monarchs that have mule deer-like tendencies. They'll perch themselves on high vantage points overlooking a canyon or saddle.

Over the years, I've been lucky enough to glimpse a few of these monsters, and they've all been 150- to 170-class bucks. So trust me when I tell you not to overlook those wide-open rocky areas where you think a blacktail wouldn't go. Your buck of a lifetime could be waiting there.

Many hunters still-hunt to slowly penetrate heavily wooded areas. This technique has proven to be very effective, but requires a high level of patience and concentration while you move at an extremely slow pace.

If you don't do this properl

y, most of the time the buck will see you before you spot him, and all you'll see is his hindquarters.

When temperatures get close to the triple digits, I've constantly found bucks bedded on north-facing slopes in the higher elevations, usually within 50 yards of the ridgeline.

They'll tuck into well-protected shady areas and sit out the day while cool breezes are blowing upward over the ridgetops.

When temperatures get close to the triple digits, I've constantly found bucks bedded on north-facing slopes in the higher elevations, usually within 50 yards of the ridgeline.

The rut is comprised of three stages: pre-rut, peak rut and post-rut.

The pre-rut period is definitely the most active and productive time for sighting bucks. They're constantly out chasing does. Once a few does fall into heat, the bucks' intensity level heightens, and the scrape-and-rub activities increase.

This is now the peak rut. You should definitely be in the woods, working fresh scrapes and rubs for those big bucks. Before the majority of does come into heat, hunters will usually have a short time span -- of approximately five to 10 days -- to kill a dominant buck.

After a number of does have been bred successfully, the rut peaks out. The activity then slows down considerably. Dominant bucks begin retreating to their home ranges, disappearing once again.

During the post-rut period, the activity generally resumes, but at a much lower level of intensity. Most often, the less dominant bucks are out looking for stray does. During this time of the year, rattling, grunt tubes and bleat cans also work very well.

I use them primarily to gain a buck's attention and use his own curiosity to lure him to within range.

To be a successful hunter of trophy blacktails, you must dedicate an extraordinary amount of time in the field during your pre-season scouting trips. You'll need perseverance and dedication to continue to hunt hard when faced constantly with extreme challenges. And when the opportunity arises, proper training and equipment to get the job done are crucial.

Determination and hard work will always lead to success. It may not be easy -- but will be worth it!

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