Sitting in a ground blind, I was confident my September 1st blacktail hunt would be over within the first hour. As the clock hit 10 a.m., however, I hadn’t seen a buck. Slipping my arrow back into the quiver, it was time for a backup plan.
The big buck I’d tracked all summer on trail camera failed to show up. I knew there were no predators in the area that would cause a shift in his pattern, which left only one logical explanation: The buck had shed his velvet.
Moving my ground blind a few hundred yards deeper into the brush, my intent was to intercept the buck as it moved from its bedding to feeding area. With less than 10 minutes of shooting light that evening, the record-class blacktail showed himself, walking right by the blind. The shot was simple, but the hunt on this season opener was far from easy.
KNOW WHERE YOU’RE GOING
With the help of a buddy, I’d been keeping track of that mature buck all summer long. When blacktail bucks are in velvet, they’re easy to pattern, but once the velvet is stripped, a wise blacktail buck can turn nocturnal in a single day. That’s exactly what happened on my hunt.
Summer scouting is the early season blacktail hunter’s best move, be it through physical scouting and/or trail camera use. Since an old blacktail can shift the time it moves and even the pathways it takes, as soon as their velvet is shed, hunters will not want to be set on patterning a buck and holding out for it to do the same thing at the same time, every day.
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The act of stripping velvet from their antlers takes a blacktail buck only a matter of minutes. With the shedding of velvet comes an increase in testosterone, which means bucks start gearing up for the pre-rut. In early September, a buck’s behavior shifts from being very active and visible in the daylight to moving under the cover of darkness, often utilizing different trails than it did all summer.
So why scout if the bucks go nocturnal so quickly? Because seeing where a blacktail buck moves in summer gives you a starting point once the season opener comes. Though a buck will quickly turn nocturnal—or more accurately, crepuscular—it won’t go far from where it spent the entire summer. Scouting gives you the confidence a buck is in an area and a starting location to begin your season.
Once a mature blacktail buck sheds its velvet, it stays in the same area where it spent the summer and will normally remain there through the entire month of September, even longer. The difference is, now the buck seeks cover for safety. The young bucks it may have been hanging out with all summer are likely still maintaining their same patterns, but the big buck goes into hiding. Now, a big buck’s goal is to eat as much nutritious food as possible prior to the rut and avoid predators.
Blacktails inhabiting the Coast Range, valley floors and Cascade foothills, often seek seclusion in creek and river bottoms and shaded draws. They will also move up hillsides and mountains to seek relief in the wind which offers cooler temperatures.
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Bucks living at high elevations, about 2,500 feet and higher, often seek relief from the heat by moving into shade, bedding in cool dirt much like a mule deer would, and even crawling into a rocky outcropping to benefit from the cool ambient air. These open country bucks can be easy to find, but hard to get within shooting range.
On particularly hot days, it’s not uncommon for a blacktail buck to bed multiple times in multiple places. The purpose of changing bedding locations is to seek cooler temperatures. As thermals stabilize or even cease at lower elevations, shade alone may not be enough to offer a buck relief from the heat. This is why they’ll often move during the mid-morning hours, with the goal of getting higher to benefit from increased airflow. Search for bucks moving through hardwoods and even the fringes of coniferous forests in an effort to gain elevation. Often, they’ll travel all the way to the top of a ridge, bedding in the shade where the wind is strongest and the temperatures are the coolest.
It’s the early-season, unpredictable behavior that makes consistently tagging a mature blacktail buck, what I consider to be the toughest deer hunt in North America. Once you know where a buck lives, and why it occupies an area, the challenge is getting a glimpse at it for a shot. Whether you’re an early season archery hunter or holding a special-draw rifle tag, the key to success comes in implementing a hunting approach that doesn’t alert a wise blacktail buck to your presence.
SIT & WAIT
Let a blacktail buck see, hear or smell you, and that may be the only chance you’ll get at tagging him all season. Once educated, mature blacktail bucks go on high alert and almost exclusively move under the cover of darkness, even through the rut.
The element of surprise is necessary for blacktail hunters looking for consistent success. Archers can rely on strategically placed ground blinds and treestands to help fill tags year after year. The key is positioning the blind or stand in an area being used by bucks.
Concentrate efforts along travel routes that connect bedding and feeding areas this time of year. Remember, old blacktail bucks don’t travel main trails to the extent does and younger bucks do, so if you’re not seeing older bucks, move.
It may also be necessary to set up closer to a buck’s bedding area this time of year, hoping to intercept him as he comes in to bed early in the morning, or leaves to feed in the closing minutes of daylight. The closer you can be to the bedding area, the more likely you are to catch a buck moving in daylight. Be careful not to set up too close, however, as you don’t want to alert a buck to your presence.
While a growing number of blacktail hunters are using treestands, they are still a very under utilized tool. The biggest advantages of hunting from treestands are they offer an elevated vantage point, thus increasing what you can see, and they keep your scent off the ground. Air flows like water in a river, in horizontal layers, and the higher you are off the ground, the more likely your scent is to drift over game. If you’re not a fan of heights, a ground blind can help cover your movement and allow you to draw your bow without being detected.
For early-season rifle hunters, sitting in wait is a good way to target a specific buck you know is in the area. This is where pre-season scouting pays dividends, as you’ll have the confidence knowing a buck is near. Watch the wind, and don’t get careless, for you’ll never fool the nose of an old blacktail buck.
SPOT, STALK, CALL
Rifle hunters have the luxury of covering ground this time of year. But do it with your eyes, not your feet. Stalking through the dry forest is extremely noisy and quickly educates deer. Instead, rely on quality binoculars and a spotting scope to dissect the terrain and locate deer. Search for parts of a deer, not the entire animal. Look for a moist, shiny black nose; white strips on the rump, a horizontal back or belly line, the flicker of an ear or tail. Once a buck is located, then you can plan your next move.
For archers, one of the greatest deer hunting challenges is closing the deal on an early-season blacktail via spot and stalk. Again, rely on optics to locate a target buck, then figure out your approach. Realize it may take several hours, even days, for the conditions to be right for you to stalk within range of an early season buck. Watch the buck and monitor the wind to see when you can attempt a well-planned stalk, and from which angle.
If you’re in a situation where there’s no hope of pulling off a stalk, and time is limited, consider calling. This time of year, a distressed fawn call can bring in curious bucks. It will often attract does, and sometimes bucks follow them, too.
If a buck is moving to a bedding area you can’t get to, consider approaching from another angle well before daylight. Be in position for the buck to move toward you rather than you following it. Be sure to monitor wind direction at all times. If it changes, get out of there and try again from another angle, or come back another time.
This September, don’t let hot, dry conditions thwart your blacktail dreams. The bucks are out there, you just have to figure out how to get close to a wise buck without it knowing you’re near.
Editor’s Note: For signed copies of Scott Haugen’s best-selling book, “Trophy Blacktails: The Science of the Hunt,” send a check for $20 to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489 or visit tiffanyhaugen.com.