Backyard Blacktails

Backyard Blacktails

Have you noticed more big-racked blacktail deer in the Puget Sound area's suburban fence lines and river bottoms? Now's the time to take a look at the Evergreen State's next great hunting opportunity. (July 2008)

A.J. Waldrop knocked down this heavy-horned blacktail buck in a patch of woods near farms in Skagit Valley.
Photo by James Cook.

Back in the 1980s, hunting blacktails in the Cascade Mountains was almost a slam-dunk. Western Washington's deer populations were at their peak, and access was no problem.

That was the era of big-time logging. Large timber parcels provided the maze of forest roads leading deep into pristine blacktail habitat.

Even if you were short on time, just driving a few miles up a dirt logging road, could gain you astounding views of expansive clear-cut mountainsides -- perfect for hunting blacktail deer.

You could park your truck near the top of a huge logging landing, set up an old lawn chair and glass blacktail country until you went cross-eyed.

But the 1990s brought change to the logging industry. Forest practices were adjusted. Miles of logging roads were decommissioned, and some of the best clear-cut areas were closed.

A lot of folks miss hunting those big, bald logging units.

But for this decade, the good news is the interesting way that blacktail deer are adapting to suburban habitats -- creating new opportunities for good hunts close to home.

We're hearing more and more stories about Puget Sound-area hunters bagging stocky blacktail trophies in surprisingly civilized areas.

Some of these are "farm bucks" that travel short distances from their bedding areas to browse. Eventually, a local with good muzzleloading skills discovers them.

Other bucks inhabit well-landscaped neighborhoods, but then get caught by archers who patiently camp out, waiting for deer to bed down in nearby woodlots.

Call them backyard bucks, suburban bucks or city bucks. As more of us adapt to a whole new type of hunting, fairy-tale accounts of heavy-horned animals dancing across someone's backyard will become a bit more believable.

Nowadays, the secret to taking a good local buck seems to be finding the largest parcels of huntable land along the fringes of civilization, where deer are browsing in manmade clearings and bedding down where the cover is still good enough for comfort.

According to Ruth Milner, biologist and blacktail deer specialist for Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife, blacktails can adapt to civilization in much the way that whitetails do.

As humans continue to suburbanize our forested rural areas, they create openings and cultivate plant species that deer like to eat.

Those same areas also tend to restrict hunting, resulting in a group of deer that don't think of humans as predators.

"But they do see human gardens as places to find food," she said.

Around here, you don't have to look far to find good cultivated lands to hunt. The Puget Sound area is blessed with an abundance of thriving farms.

In terms of access and deer populations, probably the best locations lie in the northern Puget Sound river valleys, which descend from the Cascade Mountains.

Here are some of the best blacktail hunting areas in the state:

€¢ The Nooksack Unit (which is Game Management Unit 418)

€¢ The Sauk (Unit 437), which contains the upper Skagit River valley

€¢ Stillaguamish (Unit 448), and

€¢ The Snoqualmie (Unit 460).

You could give these areas an initial exploration by driving state highways and county roads.

You won't see crowds of deer hunters. These farms are private, and access can be a hurdle.

However, asking permission to hunt farmlands is a little more relaxing than approaching property owners in more developed areas. Farmers are responsible for large areas of open space, and are accustomed to regular inquiries about their land.

Well before the season opener, show up in street clothes and introduce yourself politely. If you plan on hunting with a youngster, take him or her along to help break the ice --especially if you know that the farmer has kids or grandkids.

If you can offer the farmer something in exchange for permission to hunt, it could help your proposal.

You might offer to make a sweep for litter on his property while scouting his place. Or in your spare time, you could help mend a fence.

If you are granted access, make a gesture of gratitude with a small gift or personal thank-you letter after the season. It's always a great way to keep your foot in the door for the following year -- and it's also common courtesy for his trust in you.

You won't often see a buck walking across a cornfield in broad daylight. But you might see one traversing farmlands, using brushy travel corridors to get from point to point.

Deer will feed on wide-open crops at night, but not during the day.

Luckily for the deer, cleared agricultural land in western Washington is often interrupted by steep ravines, overgrown fence lines and stream watersheds.

These uncultivated areas let them pass through without feeling exposed -- so these passageways should be your objective.

After doing some scouting on the property, it would be a good idea to set up a stand where two travel patterns converge.

Or if you choose to stay on the ground, use leafy camouflage and hide in ferns alongside a game trail leading to wooded areas.

But before you begin any tactic, it's smart to find out what the deer are eating that attracts them to "your" piece of farm ground.

According to state biologist Milner, farm deer prefer to browse woody shrubs along the edge

s of cleared fields, normally steering away from most agriculture crops.

But that's a general rule. Years ago,

I lived next to a beet-seed field. At night, the blacktails would dig out beets with their hooves, and eat them whole. They survived by digging beets for two winters, until the farmer finally planted something new.

With a clean tag, I might have taken a productive stand along the edge of that field.

We all know how blacktails get a hankering for the richest forage, like clover or alfalfa. They'll eat garden vegetables and whatever they find most nutritious at the time.

To increase your odds while hunting cultivated lands, learn what the deer are going after and you'll discover the habits of the some of the best horn-growing deer.

GMUs 454 (Issaquah), 407 (North Sound), and 410 (Islands), are riddled with deer, and word is getting out. The deer are often considered a nuisance, which supports either-sex opportunities in each of these units.

But before you pack a gun across suburbia, find out who owns the land that interests you and see if hunting is allowed. Ask local residents. Study ownership maps and make calls.

County Web sites show assessors' maps online, which show property lines, area totals, and owners' names and addresses -- a great resource!

To give yourself a greater number of chances, it's important to start with a number of parcels and contact several landowners. It's best to speak to them in person, but a well-written letter will sometimes do the trick.

Ask if you can hunt the property throughout the season, and if possible try to get permission in writing. That way, you can show up unannounced.

Expect some rejection -- it's not uncommon. Landowners will turn you down for a variety of reasons. But be persistent, and you may make a new friend, and your efforts could earn you out a prime hunting spot.

If your search for hunts on private properties turns out to be futile, scan maps for small parcels of public land owned or leased by the state or Forest Service. Small pieces of WDFW or federal land blend in, and other hunters often overlook them.

Milner said that a good number of deer that get harvested in these human-populated GMUs are discovered holed up in woodlots that contain gated or water-barred roads.

"Those hunters who go to the effort and are familiar with their areas, seem to do pretty well in most years," she said.

If you want to hunt Region 4's GMUs, be patient and willing to get out to scout and walk. Then you'll probably harvest deer fairly consistently. In suburban locations, the best areas to find deer are lower-elevation forests that offer a mix of cover and browse.

Biking or walking deep into your largest wooded areas will certain pay benefits over time.

Big rivers meander out of the Cascades, tearing up a lot of real estate during Washington's winter flood season. A major flood can blow out an entire watershed, paving the way for the development of the young forests that blacktails prefer.

Sometimes the upper reaches of our northwest rivers simply change course, leaving dry streambeds that become naturally renewed by thriving vegetation. Before you know it, colonies of blacktail deer are running a new territory all across the river bottoms.

I'm a fisherman as well as a hunter. I've spent a lot of time on the rivers, and seen a lot of deer tracks in the sand. But I never thought much about hunting sandbars and alder flats -- not until I met two out-of-towners who enjoyed the outcome of a fall hunt along the lower stretches of the Suiattle River. They were warming their hands by the fire, admiring two hefty bucks hanging on their meat pole. This was just yards from my personal fishing hole!

After discovering the area, those two returned to score bucks each year, until the river finally changed course and removed more than 40 acres of prime hunting ground from their playbook.

River bucks come out only at night, but you can catch them early in the day when they're stirring around. Sandy ground makes tracking an easier task during a scouting trip. You're likely to find deer travel routes to be quite random throughout the river bottoms, so inspect any patch of middle-aged conifers that might be a regular bedding area for deer.

The two men I bumped into had used tree stands positioned near a lengthy grove of cottonwood trees, through which the deer would feel comfortable traveling.

Those guys sat up there for hours waiting -- but it sure paid off.

Look for a good blend of deciduous and conifer species that offers views through openings, or along dry streambeds. Avoid the younger areas of vegetation that have been more recently destroyed by floods.

If there's cover and enough food, and you still have enough visibility to hunt effectively, you may have found yourself a new honeyhole.

Be creative and come up with exciting ideas for river-bottom hunts. For a completely silent stalk on deer getting an early-morning drink from the river, use a drift boat or canoe.

Try a midday still-hunt through timbered bedding areas in patches of fir or hemlock.

Track families of deer across the sandbars and duff, during any part of the day, all season long.

Some hunters prefer to hold off hunting the river bottoms until the late season, when vine maples and alders drop their foliage and visibility through the woods is much better.

During late season, deer that migrate from higher elevations will congregate in the alder flats. They'll do the same during the rut.

Western Washington's major watersheds and tributaries provide plenty of possibilities for hunting close to home. The Nooksack, Skagit, Stillaguamish, Sauk, Skykomish, and Snohomish rivers are all glacier-fed. These large river systems offer great prospects for lowland hunts.

Sometimes public-fishing access areas can be good jump-off points. Even islands between river forks are home to families of deer. The vicinity of the flood plains is often under federal or state ownership, but you need to verify that before heading out.

Using the WDFG's free mapping link can help you identify parcels of land that belong to the government.

Be warned: GMUs along the Interstate 5 corridor have firearms restrictions.

In these populated areas, it's not legal to hunt with centerfire or rimfire rifles, and hunters may hunt only during the season their tag allows.

Due to the up-close nature of most of these hunts, modern-firearms hunters using a shotgun with slugs or buckshot don't have too much of a disadvantage.

Those opting for a modern-firearms tag can still use shotguns with slugs or buckshot.

Muzzleloaders have the advantage of a season thatbegins a full week before the modern-firearms opener. Today's blackpowder rifles are much easier to use than the old flintlock-style rifles. After a crash course, even a modern-firearms hunter like me can operate one rather safely.

If you've done your scouting, you might consider making the switch to black powder in order to take advantage of favorable seasons.

Archers get the first shot at blacktails in western Washington. Usually by midsummer, the most dedicated archers have done their scouting, found local families of deer and memorized their travel patterns.

The season for blacktails traditionally opens on Sept. 1, more than a month before muzzleloader season opens.

Archers can hunt in confined areas much more safely than muzzleloaders and modern-firearms hunters, a fact that lends some benefit when seeking permission to hunt on private lands.

If you can get permission from owners of small private woodlots, get out there and take the advantage.

Archers take some of the biggest blacktails each season. Bowhunters often find their trophies in the strips of wooded land that divide housing developments.

Hunters of all three tag choices enjoy either-sex hunting opportunities, some of which fall late in the season, just about the time the rut begins.

A blacktail deer's natural lifespan is only about seven years. Deer eventually succumb to hard winters, natural predators, hunters or disease.

But according to studies, suburban deer can live much longer than deer in the wild. A big local blacktail buck can stay on his feet 10 years or more before dying of old age.

That's why we're seeing older, bigger, gray-muzzled bucks with heavily built racks taken right in our backyards.

These deer aren't confused -- they're naturally adapting to our fence lines and settlements. In some cases, they're thriving.

Now is a great time to get out, do some scouting, and discover these deer. Good luck in your quest for a fine backyard trophy!

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