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Return After the Burn: How Forest Fires Could Be Good Thing for Blacktail Hunters

After two years of land closures due to wildfires, this season could be prime as blacktails return.

Return After the Burn: How Forest Fires Could Be Good Thing for Blacktail Hunters

Wildfires have wreaked havoc across the West in recent years, but those lands and the animals that live there can rebound quickly. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

This hunting destination feature was featured in the West edition of October's Game & Fish Magazine, currently on sale on news stands across the country. Click to subscribe

Due to a COVID outbreak in a remote Alaskan village where I was to be hunting and fishing for three weeks, I returned home early. I'm glad I did.

Ten hours after landing in Eugene, Ore., a massive wildfire broke out near our home in the McKenzie River Valley. We were evacuated for 11 days. While our home survived, some of our friends and relatives lost everything. It was one of the most horrific experiences I've ever encountered.

That was in early September 2020, and we weren't alone. Wildfires raged from California to Washington and into Canada. They spanned from the Coast Range, through the Cascades and into the high-desert mountains. Forest fires devastated much blacktail deer habitat throughout their range.


For many of us, the public-access blacktail woods are scheduled to re-open this fall for the first time in two seasons. If your area was engulfed in flames then, don't despair. Forest fires can be a good thing for blacktail hunters.


BENEFITS OF BURNS

Many public lands were closed while wildfire cleanup efforts took place. Month after month, hundreds of logging trucks loaded with scorched Douglas fir trees drove past my house. I could only imagine what my hunting areas looked like.

A year ago, I flew over nearly 100,000 acres of my favorite blacktail hunting spots that were scorched by the fire. From the air it appeared lifeless. But stands of timber and wooded draws still stood in spots, hopefully attracting wildlife that had fled.

I drove into the fringes of some burned areas and was amazed by the amount of new growth. Grasses flourished in many places not hit with intense heat, as did clover and herbaceous plants. Perennials also popped up in many draws and along hillsides.

Where intensely hot fire prevailed, soil could have been heated to the point that its structure was changed, making it porous and less capable of holding water. Plant life can take years to return to severely damaged soil. In low-intensity burned areas, however, humus layers might have retained enough nutrients for plants to grow. This is where hunting efforts should be focused—where plant life exists and has greened-up with fall rains. Hunting forested edges of burns is also wise.




Burns not only provide food, but, eventually, cover. Fireweed is prime blacktail cover, and deer often bed down for the day right in the middle of it. If fresh tracks and droppings are found on the edges of regenerating thickets of fireweed and blackberry patches, spend time glassing them from an opposing ridge.

Blacktail Deer Sign
Look for deer sign, including rubs and scrapes, in the living trees and brush that border burned areas recovering from fires. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

Charcoal from fires not only enhances the nitrogen uptake of plants, expediting their growth, but along with ash offers a great opportunity for deer to delouse themselves.

Walk the edges of burns that adjoin timber and brush to see where deer have been bedding and rolling. If such sign exists and cover is near, blacktails won't be far. Rarely will blacktails venture into a stand of burned trees or jumbled logs where grass and cover have yet to take root, so don't waste time there.

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EARLY SEASON HUNTS

Don't think you're going to drive up to a burn and find a blacktail standing in the middle of it. Instead, approach burns carefully and quietly.

Park the truck at a distance and silently walk toward the burn. As you approach, glass the edge of the burn that’s bordered by live trees and brush. With each step forward, glass new land as it appears. It might take 30 minutes to glass it all, but the chance of locating deer is much higher versus walking up to the edge and spooking them or forcing them to hunker down where you can’t see them.

If the burn you're hunting is greening up and offers food and cover, walk the edges and look for beds, tracks and droppings. If you see sign but no deer, they’re likely using it at night. There are two ways to hunt this.

First, be in position a couple hours before dark and glass the wooded edges of the burn to see where deer are entering it from. Keep the wind in your favor and minimize noise, as blacktails are edgy when entering the open.

Second, hunt the burn in the morning by getting ahead of the deer. Find where trails enter cover from a burn, and get into that cover well before daylight, then hunt it from the inside out. This is especially effective on the first stormy days of the season, when deer take longer to return to their bedding area as they feed longer. The goal is to intercept deer as they move from feeding in the burns to bedding areas in forest or brush. The goal is to get in front of deer, not chase them.

Setting trail cameras on the edges of burns can reveal a lot about when deer move. I've seen deer enter burns at 10 p.m. and head back to cover by 3 a.m.

Scott Haugen Blacktail Buck
The author prefers hunting during the peak of the rut, which differs in the Coast and Cascade ranges by about 10 days. can often make your parcel more attractive to deer by adding a natural or man-made water source. (Photo by Scott Haugen)

LATE-SEASON HUNTS

About Oct. 15 in the Coast Range, and around the 20th in the Cascades, is when I believe the blacktail pre-rut peaks. This is when bucks go on the prowl to locate and even chase does, as well as to size-up bucks they might soon fight for breeding rights.

Pre-rut buck movement is largely a horizontal shift along benches and ridgelines where does bed. Glass these areas on rainy, wet days, and slowly hunt your way down them into the wind. If the wind changes, back out and return another day, as you'll never fool the nose of a blacktail.

If I had one day to hunt big bucks in the Coast Range it would be Oct. 21. For the Cascades, it's Oct. 31. This is when the rut appears to peak initially and wise bucks can be caught off-guard. Glassing does on the edges of burns, or in them if they're feeding, is a great starting point for locating bucks late in the season. Using a spotting scope, search from as far away as possible so as not to alert any deer. Once a buck is spotted, plan your next move.

Rattling can be effective in burns early in the morning and in the final hours of light. If it's calm, set up with a hillside or cover at your back and rattle for a couple hours or more. Rattling every three to five minutes, mixing in some grunts and bleats, can capture the attention of bucks passing through the area. I've rattled in multiple bucks over a few hours from a single spot.

If it's raining, blowing and cold, head to the edges of burns to rattle amid cover. Working nearby brush or timber, hunt into the wind. If it's wet and blowing hard, sounds won't travel far, so give it 20 minutes at each set and move on.

Start the sequence with a light rattle in case a buck is near. Then, every two or three minutes, rattle louder. Find a long ridge you can rattle your way down, one that might take a few hours to cover. In the final days of the season, don't be afraid to rake trees, stomp the ground and break branches. Real blacktail fights are shockingly aggressive.

Be sure to wear a hunter-orange vest and hat when rattling in rifle season. Deer are color blind, and hunters need to be able to see you.

When hunting new burns, you'll likely be learning as you go. Even if it's familiar land, look for sign that reveals what's happening—or not happening. If you're seeing deer sign, stick with it. If not, move on. As we enter blacktail season with uncertainty, know that burns can create prime habitat, or move deer into areas with favorable food and cover. As always, it's just a matter of finding them.

Western wildfire
Enjoying the comfort of a campfire and a hot meal cooked over glowing coals are not worth the risk of starting a wildfire. (Shutterstock image)

Be Fire Aware

Extra precautions are required when hunting in dry conditions.

No hunter wants to be the cause of the next blaze. If it's dry, apply common sense when in the woods. Avoid cooking over an open flame, including butane stoves. Leave the fire sources at home and bring a cold lunch. Even if camping, do not build a fire or cook over an open flame if conditions are dry.

Avoid parking your truck in tall, dry grass, as stopping and starting the engine could cause a spark and start a fire. When driving and scouting new areas, don’t pull over and let the truck idle in dry grass or sawdust piles. Avoid driving remote logging roads with dry grass in the middle.

Don't run chainsaws to get firewood until later in the year, and carry a shovel, pick and at least 5 gallons of water. Should you start a fire or run across one, you’ll want to have the ability to douse it quickly. Pay attention to all public land and timber company fire restrictions and prevention tips. If you see what appears to be a fire or suspicious acts, report them. Every second is precious when it comes to wildfires.

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