November 12, 2020
If you're holding a general-season rifle deer tag or a late-season archery or a muzzleloader permit for a November blacktail hunt, the more rain and snow that falls now, the better your chances of filling said tag.
Just ask a butcher or a taxidermist. The vast majority of their overtime hours come during the period from the last week of October through the last day of rifle season. Miserable weather combined with rutting behavior puts the biggest blacktail bucks of the season in hunters' crosshairs.
Hunter pressure, weather, feed and the breeding season change the way deer behave in November. If you closed out the season last year without punching your tag, here's how to prevent a repeat performance.
WHERE THE DEER ARE
Not all blacktail deer are migratory. Deer on the coast and deer in the valleys might not cover more than two square miles over the course of their lives, but in habitats like the western face of the Cascades or the mountains of southwestern Oregon, the migration is on. Cascade deer are on the move to winter range, and by early November they'll be concentrated at 3,000 feet of elevation or lower in lands with a mixture of oaks, pines, Douglas firs and buckbrush.
Bowhunters can do well in pockets of public land by concentrating on small openings in the buckbrush patches.
Blacktails are most comfortable in low light. Much of the migration, especially for the biggest bucks, occurs after dark. But cold weather during the rut can keep does and fawns on the move all day, and that means bucks will be in hot pursuit.
WHEN TO HUNT
Changes in conditions from October to November can give hunters certain advantages. As leaves fall from low-elevation deciduous trees, visibility in the woods improves. Blacktails tend to live in areas that have such dense cover that just navigating the habitat is a challenge. Thinning foliage helps tilt the playing field to the hunter's advantage.
While moderate conditions earlier in the season allowed for more comfortable days afield, hunters who are prepared for wet weather will experience better success during the miserable later days.
In part that's because deer will sometimes respond to rain and wind by moving to open areas where they can rely on sight and scent to alert them to predators. In doing so, they leave cover that in many cases is so thick it is almost impossible to hunt.
Hunters should think of an early snow as a blessing for two reasons. As with wet weather, snow discourages less serious hunters, so you can have more room for yourself. Plus, in colder weather, deer move to stay warm and find food and they are easier to spot against the white backdrop of fresh snow.
WATCH THE GIRLS
By late season, mature blacktail bucks are in tune with the habits of hunters. Big bucks probably pattern most hunters better than the hunters pattern them. Many hunters park their trucks at wide spots or at gates and road closures and then walk into the woods the same way every hunter has for the last 10 decades.
If doing what everyone else does isn't working, do something different. Start by thinking about what matters most to bucks this time of year—does. Search your mental inventory for places where you've seen does and fawns both during pre-season scouting and in Novembers of previous years. Go back to those spots and try to locate single animals and small doe groups.
At this point in the season, a hunter who finds does and has some patience can wait for a buck to show.
Keep in mind that not every doe will be in heat at the same time. Older females are likely ready to breed first. When a doe is ready to be bred, her behavior will change. She may be nervous and appear ready to run, but instead will stop and urinate, leaving scent to follow. A buck will be on her trail.
Many does have fairly small home ranges, but bucks sometimes travel 10 miles or more to check on them. When a buck scents a female in heat, he begins to zigzag until he can work out the trail. When approaching a feeding area where they expect to find does, bucks are likely to approach from downwind, then circle upwind to present themselves in the open where they can watch the body language of the does. Keep this behavior and the prevailing winds in mind when you are setting up on a doe feeding area.
CALLING AND SCENTS
Carry three types of calls. To rattle, use shed antlers or a commercial rattling call. Twist and grind the tines to simulate the sound of bucks locked in combat. In my experience, the early part of the breeding season (late October) offers better opportunities to call in bucks, but rattling can bring in bucks during the peak of the rut, too. Since a deer may come from any direction when responding to a rattling sequence, use a scent-eliminating or earth-scented cover spray.
A grunt tube imitates the guttural sounds a buck makes while tending a doe. Many companies offer grunt tubes for whitetail hunting back east that work just as well on blacktails. Or you can try the Primos Power Mule Deer and Blacktail grunter or the Point Blank Pile Driver.
The third call imitates the bleats of does and fawns. My favorite is the Primos Long Can. Another good option is the Point Blank Cry Baby.
Before calling, set up in heavy cover near a bedding area. Position yourself so that an incoming buck cannot see you until he presents you with a good shot. Clear a shooting lane downwind. When two hunters are working together, the shooter should post up between the caller and the direction from which the deer are mostly like to come.
Sometimes "rattling" with one antler is better than with two. Scrape the antler on the trunk of a small alder, oak or fir tree. Dig it in the dirt. Rake low branches. Thrash the brush. All of these actions are meant to imitate the sound of a lone, frustrated buck.
Grunt and rattle (or rake) every few minutes. Throw in doe bleats from time to time. Spend about twenty minutes at a setup and keep movement to a minimum. When a buck comes in he'll be keen to find the deer that made the call. Move your eyes, not your head, and keep an arrow on the string or thumb on the hammer.
Because of the threat of chronic wasting disease (CWD), game departments in more and more states are banning the use of urine lures. This season may be the first in which urine-based attractants are banned in your state, so be sure you're up on the local regs. One alternative is to use a synthetic urine attractant, but food-scented attractants also work.
SIT STILL ALREADY
Moving to find deer is a seductive hunting impulse. You stop, you look around, you don't see anything, you keep going. There are, however, some drawbacks to moving from place to place while hunting. First, movement is easy for deer to see, and generally if a deer sees you before you see him you won't be putting your tag on him this season. Second, movement spreads your scent, alerting deer to your presence often long before you know the deer are there.
If you're hunting in good habitat, a better play is to sit in one promising place. Find a spot to watch a feeding or bedding area from a high vantage point and stay there for hours.
Watch for parts of deer. Often, just an antler tip, an eye, an ear or a tail is what you'll see first. Look for the horizontal line of a back or the crook of a rear leg against the vertical forest.
Sitting still for extended periods is hard. If you don't see deer right away it can require considerable discipline to be patient—but it can result in considerable rewards.
Find big bucks in little cover.
It doesn't take much habitat to hide a deer, and that fact allows many big blacktail bucks to grow old without ever being seen by a hunter. Smart bucks look for small sanctuaries that provide cover close to water and food. During the general rifle season, bucks may spend most of their time in an area of just a few acres.
To find such an animal, think small. A patch of blackberries between roads can hold a deer. A half-acre behind a barn may harbor a buck, as will an island in a lake. Look for a place that other hunters don't notice and therefore never hunt. You'll find such spots anywhere in blacktail country.
A buck living in such a sanctuary may not get as much pressure as most public-land bucks. Set up a one-man drive with a stander at the back door, or still-hunt solo with the wind in your face. Go slow and don't overlook even the smallest cover. Focus on the goal, stay out all day and hunt into the wind and rain.
ALL ABOUT THAT BASE
A good layering system starts with some quality undies.
Though blacktail hunting is better when it's wetter, such conditions make it hard for hunters to stay out in the woods. The best way to remain comfortable is to dress for success, starting with a good base layer. Leave the cotton at home and pull on synthetic long underwear like that available from Grays Harbor Unders. Their dual-layer, four-way-stretch fabric wicks moisture away from the skin to help you stay warm, dry and comfy.
Insulate with a lofted mid-layer and top it all off with a breathable outer layer. With gloves and a neck gaiter, you'll be comfortable even when the mercury drops below freezing.