4 Faces Of Blacktails

Hunters need to better know what kind of blacktail they're up against. When it comes to these tough-to-hunt, elusive animals, you need all the help you can get!

Here are a few of the bucks taken by author Scott Haugen and his family. He calls them "foothills blacktails." Rattling is effective as early as mid-October on these deer.
Photo by Scott Haugen.

If you want to ruffle the feathers of a hard-core blacktail hunter, just show him photos of a buck taken from a habitat other than the one he hunts, and say it's a blacktail.

Nothing gets serious blacktail hunters riled up like telling them these elusive deer are just as challenging to hunt in habitats other than where they, themselves, spend time.

The guys in Washington cringe when they see photos of blacktails taken in California. The folks in northwest Oregon shudder when shown shots of open-country blacktails taken in the southern part of the state. Some hunters along California's coast don't even want to associate their deer with migratory blacktails farther inland.

The funny thing is, I agree with all of them, to some extent. If I had my way, there would be six different categories for blacktails in the record books. This is because these elusive deer inhabit a wide range of habitats, from their rainforest-rich environments of coastal Washington to the rugged foothills of Oregon's Cascades to California's inland mountains, valleys and far-reaching southern zones.

But I also disagree with them. A true blacktail is a true blacktail, no matter which state or habitat it lives in.

It's the diversity of habitats and their elusive lifestyle that make blacktails so challenging to consistently kill, no matter where they live.

With October upon us, blacktail deer season is at its peak. For hunters, knowing how bucks are behaving, within the areas they're hunting, is critical to success. Let's take a look at the four most-hunted habitats this time of year.

Starting in the Cascade Range in Washington and extending into the Sierra Nevada Range in California, you'll find blacktails living at surprisingly high elevations. No matter what you call these bucks -- Cascade blacktails, benchlegs or inland blacktails -- the fact that they are capable of crossbreeding with mule deer is what sets them apart from other blacktails.

A Cascade blacktail may come from a high-elevation mark that is 100 percent blacktail, or at least appears to be, or could be more mule deer-like in appearance. Cascade blacktail hunts can take place in some of the West's most rugged terrain, at elevations of 6,000 feet or higher. These are deer that live at high elevations throughout the spring, summer and early fall, then migrate to lower elevations with winter's onset.

Be in good shape and ready to cover ground when hunting this country in October. Trophy bucks are reclusive for the first part of October, sticking very tight to their core areas. This means you'll need stealth, but you'll have to be aggressive and patient. Spend time glassing, even in dense brush.

Ceanothus, or buckbrush, is a favorite food among Cascade blacktails this time of year. However, keep in mind that blacktails have more than 60 types of plants they feed on, with leaves making up 60 percent of their diet. Don't limit yourself.

In Oregon and Washington, there is enough food and water to sustain deer in higher elevations. This means bucks will be found in their home grounds, not along migration routes. In California, mid-October can find a majority of inland blacktails migrating to lower elevations because of a dry climate and lack of food.

Wildlife studies confirm that most Columbia blacktails prefer living at elevations of 1,500 feet and lower. These deer live in a varied habitat, which makes hunting them difficult. From rugged mountains to gentle hills to riparian river bottoms, forests and brush-choked creek beds, foothill blacktails are born, live and die within a small area.

In the foothills, it's the pockets of does that motivate the bucks to cover ground during October's pre-rut and rut. In fact, I've regularly observed mature bucks coming out of hiding and dropping in elevation to survey the grounds, mark territories and seek receptive does.

Foothill blacktails require the most comprehensive hunting approach of all blacktail subgroups for the simple reason that they occupy such a wide range of habitat. Hunters need to know the behavior of these deer during the time that they intend to hunt the animals.

Early in October, bucks are secretive in their movements, primarily covering ground at night. During these times, hunt food sources at first and last light. If the terrain is open enough, watch for bucks heading back to their bedding areas early in the morning.

During the day, get aggressive and slowly, wisely and quietly try to spot and stalk a big buck.

On full moon nights, hunt these bucks during midday, when they often arise for a snack.

In the foothills, it's the pockets of does that motivate the bucks to cover ground during October's pre-rut and rut. In fact, I've regularly observed mature bucks coming out of hiding and dropping in elevation to survey the grounds, mark territories and seek receptive does.

Remember, a big blacktail buck is never anywhere by mistake. His movements are very deliberate and precise, especially during the month of October.

Where foothill bucks leave off, valley floor blacktails pick up. Valley floor blacktails are the ones I consider to be year-round homebodies. Often, big bucks in these areas live and die in a very small core area without ever being seen by a human.

Valley floor bucks are the ones I consider to be living in lowland drainages adjacent to surrounding hills or mountains. These hills or mountains may be the Cascades, Coast Range or smaller formations between the two.

Valley floor deer lead easy lives compared with other subgroups of blacktails. They have year-round food, and they also have access to agricultural lands, manmade grassy meadows, even pastures and lawns. During years of high-yielding acorn crops, mast can be a blacktail magnet.

Because there i

s so much water in the lower elevations where these deer live, lack of food and moisture are not a concern. Nor is excessive snowfall. These deer lead an easy life, and if the genetics are good in an area, the bucks can be spectacular.

Physically speaking, hunting lowland bucks is likely the easiest of all in the blacktail world. Though there are some timbered hills to contend with, for the most part, the terrain is flat or slightly rolling. However, the brush in the lowlands, whether it be poison oak, willows or a tangled mess of other vegetation, can make hunting these deer very challenging and frustrating.

Some lowland bucks are among the smartest of all blacktails for the simple reason they are tuned in to human activity. They know when hunting season starts, and most importantly, they know what they have to do to stay alive.

Moving west through the valleys and into the hills, we encounter another type of deer, what I call the coastal blacktail. Coastal blacktails live amid the rugged, dense forests of the Coast Range and are non-migratory. They can be found at the summit of the mountain range, all the way down to the beach. For many hunters, they consider these the toughest of all blacktails to hunt. In many cases, I agree.

As if the steep, jungle-like terrain of the Coast Range isn't enough to overcome, hunters have to deal with a very secretive deer that is pressured by hunters. The result is one of the toughest hunts in North America, both physically and mentally.

Coastal blacktails can have a small home range, but they will also travel based on their immediate needs and interests. Food is abundant in the Coast Range, as is water, so a big buck's primary focus is to stay alive and breed when the time comes. This means their daily movements can be very minimal and quite deliberate. Given the fact they don't have to go far for food and water, these deer can survive in a small core area as long as predators don't drive them out.

Hunters have their work cut out for them when it comes to pursuing bucks in the coastal zone. Early in the season, when the ground is noisy, sneaking up on a buck seems nearly impossible. Hunters are dependent upon stealth and smart hunting to secure a coastal deer. Spend time glassing the edges of logged units and clearings, and then make a plan of attack. Patience and a high vantage point to glass from are the coastal blacktail hunter's best allies.

However you choose to hunt coastal blacktails, be ready to put in some serious time and effort. Be mentally and physically prepared to deal with thick habitat where shots can come at close range. Later in the month, be ready to hunt in the rain; that's when coastal blacktail hunting is at its best.

Search for bucks feeding on the very fringe of logged units in the breaking and waning minutes of daylight. Also, look for bucks on the move along timbered edges. In Oregon, I've seen big coastal bucks chasing does as early as Oct. 15.

Though I didn't touch on either of what I call the open-country blacktail or the high-country blacktail, key on food sources and deer movements, respectively, if hunting these areas. Remember, a big blacktail buck is never anywhere by mistake. His movements are very deliberate and precise, especially during the month of October.

Last season was one of the best in recent years for general-season blacktail hunters scoring on trophy bucks. Many of the bucks taken, from the middle of October to the end, were acting rutty.

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