Understanding the Blacktail Rut
November 08, 2011
Having not so much as a clue we were watching, the young bobcat slunk away into the underbrush as the pale autumn sun sank on the western skyline above the Umpqua River. It was Halloween night last year, and my son, Tyler, now a few years too old for trick-or-treating, was hoping to bag a blacktail buck instead of candy. It was the last evening of his youth deer hunt in southern Oregon, and we hoped that the cat crossing our path would not bring us bad luck.
In a bit of Halloween irony, we had spooked a nice buck only an hour before, and now with only minutes remaining in his season, I was beginning to think Tyler didn't have a ghost of a chance.
But apparently crossing paths with the cat did the trick, because Tyler was in for a treat.
After walking less than another quarter mile down the ridgetop, Tyler spotted a doe between thickets of blackberries and poison oak. We had previously noticed that the bucks were already starting to chase the does in a show of rutting activity, despite the fact that it was still the waning hours of October, so Tyler immediately began scanning the other openings on the hillside. Another doe. And another. There! Standing directly down the slope from us, beyond a massive poison oak patch and between blackberry bushes, stood a handsome blacktail buck staring us down.
Tyler dropped to his knee and I handed him the shooting sticks. He nestled his left-handed Ruger M77 stainless .270 into the sticks and settled in for the shot.
The Ruger's report shattered the still silence on the ridge above the river, and, unlike the pronghorn and the mule deer Tyler had taken earlier in the fall that whirled and disappeared from sight, necessitating a short but suspenseful track, his blacktail fell in its tracks and lay still.
Elated at having completed the final leg of his triple crown in dramatic fashion, Tyler bounded down the hill through the poison oak patch to tag his buck. The whoop he let out when he reached his 3x3 buck would have scared away any ghosts or goblins on that memorable Halloween.
While you can consider yourself lucky anytime you fill your tag in the final hour of the season, there was more than luck working in our favor on this late-season blacktail hunt. The shorter days and cooler temperatures had triggered the start of rutting activity in bucks in the region. Just the previous weekend, we had seen plenty of does, but no bucks in Tyler's hunt area, but during the week a couple of storms rolled through the region, leaving cooler temperatures in their wake. The peak of the rut was still weeks away, but already bucks were beginning to shadow the does in their territory, hoping to break the ice and get better acquainted.
This call of the wild beckons bucks from their routine of lying low during the day and puts them in pursuit of does. In the early autumn deer seasons of western Oregon and Washington, bucks typically shun the company of does and either hang out in small bachelor groups or live the solitary life of a recluse, often in some of the thickest thickets they can find.
Shorter photoperiods literally shed a new light on a buck's outlook as the autumn days grow shorter and the shadows grow longer. Changes in the weather also spark changes in a buck's behavior, and the rut begins to warm up as the temperatures begin to cool down.
Hunting during the blacktail rut opens new options to employ such tactics as antler-rattling and doe-in-estrus scents to attract bucks looking for love or a fight. Deer hunters who earlier spent the dog days covering ground trying to bust a buck from its bed now have the option of hunting from a ground blind or treestand and ambushing bucks that are on the move, looking for love in all the wrong places.
Don Pritchett, of Medford, Ore., is the president of the Rogue Valley Chapter of the Oregon Hunters Association and a passionate late-season blacktail hunter. Owner of Dewclaw Archery for 28 years before selling the business last year, he has hunted Oregon's late archery season in western Oregon during the blacktail's boom and bust years.
"I hunt the late season for deer, because during the early season in September, I'm after elk," Pritchett said. "The rut in my area usually reaches its peak in mid- to late November, and the late bow season usually gets better as it goes along. But that's also partly because the longer you're out there, the more you figure out where they are and what they're doing."
Pritchett targets oak savannahs when the trees have dropped their acorns, as well as foothills that grow forage such as wedgeleaf ceanothus, which deer browse on their winter range. He noted that deer don't always move into their low-lying winter range in great numbers by the end of bow season.
"Last year was just the pits," he said. "We didn't have a good acorn crop, and the deer just weren't around. I don't know if we lost a lot of deer or they just didn't move down."
Pritchett said many of his customers now use tactics that weren't used by blacktail hunters a generation ago, such as treestands, ground blinds, scents, calls and trail cameras.
"Trail cameras are fun, almost more fun than hunting," Pritchett said. "I get a lot more deer with my trail camera than I get with my bow."
No matter what strategies you choose, Pritchett said, the important thing is to know which way the wind is blowing.
"The best thing is to just hunt into that wind," Pritchett said. "That's never going to change."
Besides the advantages of hunting deer during the blacktail rut when the odds shift in the hunter's favor, Pritchett enjoys hunting the late season because it's more pleasant than hunting in the hot, dry September season.
"What I like is seeing the deer in their winter coats, and the woods in their fall foliage," he said. "The air is fresh and cool. It's a neat time to be out there."
Washington and Oregon offer a variety of opportunities to hunt blacktails during the rut, including some general-season options for hunters who have not yet acquired tags but are inspired to head for the hills.
Washington offers outstanding late general-season opportunities to hunt blacktails in the rut.
"We have a variety of opportunities in the late season for all three weapon types — modern firearms, muzzeloaders and archery," said Jerry Nelson, deer and elk section manager in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's office in Olympia. "The main reason we ask hunters to choose a weapon is to spread people out somewhat and keep hunter densities down. There are some places where the archery and muzzleloader seasons overlap, but there are many places where they don't, so hunters need to make sure they check the regulations."
A relatively new exception to the requirement to choose your weapon is a limited-entry special multi-season permit that entitles a recipient to hunt any of the general deer seasons, which provides a premium opportunity for 4,000 deer hunters who apply for the special permits by the March 31 deadline each year.
Western Washington's late general-season modern firearm season is open to hunters who did not fill their tags during the early modern firearms season. Because general season rifle hunts in the rut can significantly affect deer populations, this season spans just four days. This year the late general-season modern firearms season runs Nov. 17-20.
"The rut is driven by a lot of factors, but in general, our late modern firearms season is really butting up against the peak of the rut, on the increasing slope of that peak," Nelson said. "In years when the hunting conditions are favorable, those four days in the late season can account for close to half of the entire harvest."
The late general archery season follows the modern firearms season in western Washington. The late bow hunt this year opens on Nov. 23. The season closes as early as Dec. 8 in some areas, and as late as Dec. 31 in others. Bowhunters are allowed to hunt the late season if they did not fill their tags in the early archery season. Bag limits vary in different units, from any deer, to any buck, to a two-point minimum.
Western Washington's late muzzleloader season opens Nov. 24 in most units, and ends on either Dec. 6 or Dec. 15, depending on the unit. Some units restrict the harvest to bucks only (Unit 654 has a two-point minimum), while other units' rules allow any deer to be taken.
Washington also sanctions what are called quality deer hunts, which require hunters to apply for special permits by May 18 this year. Premium special hunts are available for all three weapon types.
Nelson advised hunters looking for good late general-season hunting to narrow their scope with the aid of the WDFW Web site, which lists harvest statistics on its hunting information page (wdfw.wa.gov/hunting). You can view not only the overall harvest numbers for each unit, but also the antler-point distribution of the buck harvest, number of hunters, the success rates and the average number of days hunted per deer killed. Armed with that knowledge, you can decide which units offer more of what you want when you're engaged in a hunt.
Be mindful of public access available in each unit. Some units are entirely private land, while others offer state and federal public land, as well as private timberland open to public access. Even the amount and types of access varies among different timber companies. Some allow access all week, while others permit public entry only on weekends. Motorized travel is allowed in some private timberlands, while only non-motorized access is authorized in others.
"Private timber is a good bet, because of their forest management practices," Nelson said. "State land is also a good bet, because the Department of Natural Resources is under state mandate to create revenue for the state through forest management, and that creates forest openings for deer and elk."
Nelson noted that the outlook is improving on federal land, as well.
"Even on National Forest land in the Olympic and Gifford Pinchot National Forests, they're paying more attention to deer and elk habitat by doing some thinning," Nelson said. "Their management has become more deer-friendly. It's a good idea to talk to your local foresters about areas where they have done some active thinning in the last five or six years."
New this year as the result of recent state legislation, hunters planning to use state-owned areas, such as Department of Natural Resources land or WDFW-managed property must purchase a Discover Pass. An annual pass costs $30, or a daily pass rates $10.
Oregon offers opportunities to hunt blacktails during the rut for all three weapon types, but most of its late seasons are controlled hunts that hunters must apply for by May 15.
The western Oregon centerfire rifle season ends Nov. 4 this year when the rut is just getting started. Oregon's extended youth weekend allows youngsters under age 18 with an unfilled western Oregon general season rifle tag, W. High Cascade (119A) tag or Hood-White River (141A) tag to hunt the weekend of Nov. 5 and 6. This is a great opportunity for kids and their families to enjoy a quality hunt all to themselves as the rut is just kicking in. My son, Tyler, took his first buck in the initial year of the extended youth weekend in 2007, and his photo with the record-book blacktail graced the cover of the Oregon Big Game Regulations the following year.
Controlled youth hunts — many of them timed to coincide with school holiday vacations — constitute the bulk of Oregon's rifle hunts for rutting blacktail bucks.
A handful of late-season blackpowder blacktail hunts coincide with the rut, including the popular Applegate and South Indigo hunts in southern Oregon. Further north, the 100M hunt covers six units with varying season dates, and tag holders can hunt from Oct. 1 to Nov. 30 if they're willing to move around as the seasons change. All of these hunts have a one-deer bag limit.
Oregon's late archery season offers the state's only general-season hunt for rutting blacktails. A general Oregon archery tag is valid for the late season if not filled during the early season. Hunters who did not purchase an archery deer tag before the beginning of the early archery season may still buy a tag, but they must visit an ODFW office and sign an affidavit stating that they have not yet hunted this season. Opportunity for this hunt timed with the rut has declined along with deer numbers in recent years, and bag limits in some units have become more restrictive.
Oregon's late bow season this year runs Nov. 12 to Dec. 4 in the four open southwest units (Sixes, Melrose, Evans Creek and Rogue), Nov. 19 to Dec. 11 in the Stott Mountain, Alsea, Siuslaw, Willamette, Santiam, McKenzie and N. Indigo units, and Nov. 26 to Dec. 11 in the Saddle Mountain Unit.
Get in a habit of hunting the Northwest's rutting blacktails, and you will discover that it's a very comfortable rut, indeed.