Pursuing the Toughest Trophy
To consistently harvest mature blacktail bucks, learn their behavior, know where they live, and find one in the light of day.
By Travis Moncrief, WHJ Editor
I flopped the tailgate down on my truck and slid out beneath the heavy pack as the rain continued its torrid downpour. It didn’t matter that I was soaked and couldn’t get any wetter. I sat there in the dark of night with the wind howling, my head down not able to tell if the water dripping off my nose was sweat or rainwater. It was now just a brackish mess. I shivered as my core began to cool. I could feel my legs starting to cramp from the sudden inactivity but all of this with a huge grin on my face. You know you’re happy when you can feel yourself smiling. Because lying in the back of the truck was mature Columbia blacktail.
Under complete darkness I spent the last four hours packing over 10 miles in the worst weather the Pacific Northwest could offer up. Everything loaded up, I checked the tag one more time to make sure it was good and secure. With that I put the truck in gear and headed towards home. I checked my cell phone for reception and stopped when I had a signal. I dialed up my dad. “I own him,” I said. Not a lot more needed to be said. He knew what that meant and with a slight chuckle and a congratulation he told me to be careful and we’d catch up in the morning.
I’d been at it for several days and that particular day like all the others started at 4:30 in the morning and didn’t end until the late evening. The buck laying in the bed of my pickup wasn’t the biggest blacktail I’ve taken but it was a heavy mature buck, respectable by every measure. One thing was for sure, I earned every inch of horn. There’s a feeling that comes over a person when you work your tail off for something and achieve it and at that moment, well… you would have had to skin the smile off my face.
Hunting blacktails is a lot like steelhead fishing. It gets into your blood and it never leaves. I have spent most of my life hunting blacktail deer, and every year I look forward to the season with the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning. In so many ways, it is what defines me as a hunter. It requires a willingness to hunt in miserable conditions, pursue an animal in terrain that is difficult to hunt, and ultimately try to find a deer that rarely shows his face in the light of day. When you notch your deer tag, you know that you’ve accomplished something meaningful.
It is commonly believed that blacktail deer are some of most difficult animals to hunt. While I don’t disagree, the fact is that each deer specie has its own unique challenges. Certainly, luck plays a role in any hunt, but to take quality animals on a consistent basis is no accident and any mature buck is a tough trophy to harvest. Whatever species you are hunting if you consistently take mature animals you’re doing something right and no doubt working hard for them. Whether it’s a mule deer’s ability to use open terrain keeping distance between himself and the hunter or the whitetail’s intolerance for anything, good bucks are hard to come by. And the blacktail buck is no exception. While he offers some of the same challenges as mule deer and whitetail, there is one added problem and it’s a big one: a mature blacktail buck rarely shows himself in the light of day. Hunting them for over 30 years I can attest to the number of days (or years) it takes to find a big mature buck.
Actually killing one requires a little bit of luck, an understanding of their behavior, knowing where they live, and the ability to catch one out in the light of day before he melts back into the dense cover they call home.
Back in the early ’90s I had the opportunity—or I should rephrase that and say I made myself the opportunity—to hunt everyday of Oregon’s blacktail season. I was in college at the time and was in the midst of transferring schools. Taking fall term off and hunting 33 days straight seemed like the right thing to do. And that’s what I did. The previous summer I had located two bomber bucks, each one in a different drainage but close enough to hunt on the same day. I’d seen those bucks a number of different times throughout the summer and even had both of them on video, which back in those days meant holding your camcorder up to your spotting scope. Once the season started I hunted those two drainages exclusively every morning and every evening. I would see the same does and fawns just about every day and once in a while a smaller buck would appear, but never the two giants. On day 30 I was questioning my own sanity but had too much invested in these bucks to change areas. Knowing where one record book blacktail lives, let alone two, was not something I was going to walk away from.
Knowing those two bucks were in the area I stayed the course. I could only hope that one of them would show itself before the season ended. Two days before the end of season, I parked my truck and began my walk in just like I had the other 31 days. In the first area, there were two places I would glass from; I would go to the closest spot first and then move to the second spot farther away. This particular morning, however, I went to the far end first. As daylight broke my eyes were glued to the optics searching for the gray face of a mature blacktail buck. Minutes into my hunt the morning stillness was shattered with the loud report of a rifle. There was no question where it had come from. I raced back to my first looking spot (that I passed over that morning) to find a hunter lying in the prone position starring through his scope. And laying dead on the hillside was one of the biggest bucks I had ever seen. It was definitely one of the bucks that I spotted in the summer.
Absolutely crushed, I had no time to feel sorry for myself. I high tailed it to the other drainage where the other buck lived. Taking a deep breath with my game face back on, I approached the area and began glassing. It didn’t take long to find what I was after; there looking back up at me was a stone white face with heavy black horns. To this day I’m not sure if I was shaken by the event that happened earlier that morning, but panic set in. Normally cool as can be in these situations I was a wreck. It took me forever to find a good rest and when I was able to find one I looked through my rifle scope and it was fogged and watered in. While I scurried to wipe my scope clean the buck bounced out of my life. I hunted him the remaining two days but never saw him again. The point is not to show how unfortunate I was to have a hunter walk in behind me, or how bad I blew it, but instead to point out how reclusive mature bucks are, and that they live a lonely existence. Out of the 33-day hunting season, those two bucks showed themselves in the light of day once. I know because I was there the other 32 days.
The Columbia blacktail’s range is long and narrow, starting north in British Columbia and stretching as far south to central California. Their range extends from the shores of the Pacific Ocean, eastward to the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains in the north and the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the south. While a noticeably small area compared to other major species of deer, it is packed with diversity with a multitude of different terrain and landscapes. Thick, temperate rainforests occupy much of their northern range to almost arid type conditions to the south. Blacktails thrive in alpine like conditions in the Cascades and the lush agriculture land characteristic of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Rising up from the valley floor, the Coast Mountain Range is a coniferous forest heavily laden with dense underbrush and cover, just one of the many landscapes a blacktail calls home.
The bucks that live within each region are unique unto themselves. Blacktail deer have bifurcated antlers, which means they fork as they grow whereas a whitetail’s antlers branch from a single main beam. While there are exceptions to this rule, often a mature blacktail will have a heavy rack similar to that of a mule deer but without nearly the width or height.
As someone who hunts blacktails regularly I am enamored with their antlers. With their heavy compact racks, they are the bulldogs of deer. Just as diverse as the terrain they live in, so are the bucks that live within each region. Coastal bucks typically won’t have near the antler growth as a buck that lives in the Cascades, or on the valley floor. A stud coastal buck may be 16 inches wide, 13 inches tall and have great mass but won’t score 120. If you were hunting in the Cascades for a trophy caliber buck this may be a buck you would possibly pass on. The farther south you go the deer change as well. As you get into southern Oregon and northern California there is more opportunity to harvest bucks that score considerably higher; bucks in the 140s and higher are not that uncommon. Personally, score isn’t that big of a factor for me. No matter where it comes from, it really comes down to how it looks. If it has a good frame and mass it’s most likely a mature buck, a shooter in the eyes of most blacktail hunters.
No matter where you choose to hunt one thing is for certain: It’s hard to find a more gorgeous deer than a blacktail buck. Since I was young I’ve always been captivated with their dark rich skull cap contrasting against its snow-white muzzle and its milk chocolate hide. Throw in a single or double throat patch and you can’t find a more handsome deer.
HUNT WHERE THEY LIVE: To consistently kill good mature bucks you have to hunt where they live. I realize I just stated the obvious, but consider this: Blacktails are true homebodies and live within a very small home range. They spend their entire lives inside 600 acres; and more likely an area half that size. There are certain conditions that will play into your success. Weather is a major factor, as is the moon phase, and of course, rut timing. My ideal hunting day is a cold, rainy, no-moon day in November with the rut in full swing. Combine those conditions with an area of known big bucks and I feel like I have a chance.
Absolutes in hunting blacktails are few, but the one absolute that transcends all rules is that not all ground is created equal.
In Oregon and Washington more bucks are taken in logging cuts than anywhere else. An area that has recently been logged provides an excellent food source with cover close by. The best habitat includes clear-cuts that are surrounded by timber and older cuts where deer can vanish into once disturbed. As is the case with most mature bucks, that’s before daylight.
SCOUT IN THE SUMMER: Scouting plays an important role prior to the season and it’s often overlooked. Summer time scouting can be very valuable time spent in the field. This is a time when bucks are often together and out in the open. While in velvet their antlers are soft and growing so they avoid the thick heavy cover. Remember the two bucks I hunted every day of the season? I found those bucks while scouting in the summer. It’s easy to put off scouting with the busy lives we lead, but it’s a key component in helping you kill a mature buck in the fall.
During the season, the use of trail cameras play a big role in finding deer. Most of a buck’s activity takes place at night. Using a trail camera is a great way to find where a trophy buck calls home. Finding well used trail systems and/or rubs will help direct you in proper camera placement. Again, in order to kill big bucks you have to hunt where they live and the only way to know where they live is to scout them out.
One other important element but often overlooked in the blacktail world is available food source. Blacktail deer have a wide variety of food sources, but the primary diet is browse — the growing tips of trees and shrubs. Personally, I like areas that have wild forms of berries growing in them such as blackberries, thimbleberries serviceberries and wild huckleberries. Find these sources of food in a clear-cut and there’s a good chance you’ll find good numbers of deer. Find good numbers of deer and eventually a good buck will show up.
HUNTING RE-PROD: My favorite ground to hunt is a cut with several years of growth often called re-prod. After an area has been logged, it is soon replanted and the growing cycle starts over. While logging serves its obvious purpose, it is also crucial to the blacktail deer. Prime habitat has many different ages of cuts in close proximity, providing valuable sources of food and cover. I like areas with trees between 2 and 8 feet tall. The younger trees still provide cover while allowing enough light into the area for the understory to continue to grow. Often this is found on private timber ground as they tend to log at a more productive, yet sustainable rate compared to state or federal ground. Most private timber companies allow permitted access or walk-in hunting. If you are going to make the effort to walk or bike in, make sure that you are going into an area with a decent amount of cuts and habitat.
To properly hunt these areas, you will need a heavy dose of patience, and a good pair of binoculars. Considering you’ll be glassing chunks of ground up to 100 acres, quality optics are a must. At times staring into your binoculars is tedious so be sure to buy the best pair that you can afford. As I approach an area I want to glass, I keep a low profile and slip up to the edge quietly and sit down. I sit motionless scanning very quickly with just the naked eye trying to pick up anything close or something on the move that possibly saw me first. Once satisfied with my initial scan I begin to grid off the clear-cut with my binoculars.
Depending on the age of the cut determines how long I will stay. Fairly new ones don’t require a lot of time; cuts with trees 6 feet and taller take time to effectively glass. An area like this is my preference; it’s open enough to provide an excellent food source while providing enough cover to allow deer to be comfortable throughout the day. I spend a lot of time glassing these cuts because as deer feed they will go in and out of sight or even bed down. Even when deer are bedded I always feel like I have a chance at spotting one. How long you spend in area like this is up to you. I suspect I’m like a lot of hunters because I struggle with this. I’m constantly asking myself if I saw everything or am I wasting time looking over unproductive ground?
My first instinct is to cover as much ground as possible. At the same time, I let the deer determine the amount of time I spend in any one spot. If I’m seeing a lot of deer early, or deer are up and moving, then most likely I am seeing what is there. In this situation, I want to see as much ground as possible before they bed down or head to cover.
If I’m glassing an area at first light and not seeing deer, it tells me that they fed all night and are either bedded down or are already in the timber. If it’s the latter there isn’t much you can do about that. That’s when I’ll down-shift and spend a lot of time glassing older clear-cuts trying to find that deer that bedded with some part of its body showing. If deer are bedded down early, I have found that they usually get back up to feed around 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning. That’s not a hard and fast rule, but it is a good rule of thumb.
STILL-HUNTING: Still-hunting for me is glassing in slow motion without binoculars. If you think you’re hunting or moving too slow then you probably need to slow down some more. Remind yourself that you’re in a buck’s element. Remember that a blacktail has a very small home range so wherever you’re stepping, he has been there. Catching a big mature blacktail off guard in his own living room is going to be tough but it happens all the time. For me still-hunting is not my go to method because it’s hard for me to have the patience to be successful. However, if the weather is lousy and visibility is poor I’ll spend a lot of time still-hunting. Going home is never an option.
COVER GROUND: Personally, I like to glass and cover as much ground as possible. Most Oregon land does not have the deer densities to give me the confidence that I am going stumble into the type of buck I want. The more ground I can see the better chance I have of finding deer; then depending on my effective range I can stalk or still-hunt the area when I find a good buck. Deer are definitely more on the move when the weather is less than favorable. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, the weather in late October and early November can be downright miserable. If you are going to be a blacktail hunter get used to it because it’s what you want anyway.
HUNTING THE RUT: With all that’s ever been said about hunting blacktails, hunting during the rut is always the one common theme when it comes to killing a mature buck. In fact, I can’t think of one nice buck I’ve ever killed that wasn’t a rutted-out mess. I’m convinced that if weren’t for doe’s coming into heat, every mature blacktail buck would die of old age. The rut usually takes place the last week of most rifle deer seasons, usually late October through early November.
A doe in heat is the one thing that makes a buck move in the light of day. I can’t remember ever glassing or seeing a mature blacktail buck just out feeding in the open unless a doe was involved. The rut is the one thing that trips up a blacktail and for a very short period it makes him forget about everything that’s kept him alive all these years. They become vulnerable and they make mistakes. That’s when you need to be on constant watch. I’ve seen some crazy things happen during the rut.
This past hunting season I spotted a nice mature 4-point cruising through a cut, an older unit with a perfect blend of cover and open ground. He was definitely a shooter. Like me, he was on the hunt. Only he was in pursuit of a doe. He carved up the hillside like a bird dog hot on a scent. He was too far away for me to do anything so I just sat there and enjoyed the show. He zigged and zagged, nose on the ground sometimes retracing his own tracks. It was making me tired just watching him. Suddenly, like a mallard coming out of the cattails, up jumped a smaller 4-point. The bigger buck went into full attack mode and chased it 300 yards down the hill. Both bucks vanished into the thick timbered bottom. Minutes later, thinking the show was over, the bigger buck raced back up the hill in pursuit of a doe. This was like a car wreck; I couldn’t stop watching. But little did I know it was going to get stranger. Watching the buck, he froze and without hesitation and took off on a dead run leaving the area immediately. I began glassing assuming another hunter was in the area. Moments later I spotted what put the fear of death into the buck. Standing not 50 yards above where he bolted from stood Goliath. The type of blacktail they put in paintings, he had it all: Width, height, mass and one other thing, a pretty little doe. That single little doe had that whole area abuzz; she had three bucks running around like school boys. Mind you, these were bucks that hadn’t let the sun hit their hides in months.
At that point, me and my partner decided to put a hunt on him. It was a long walk and by the time we got to within in range he and the doe were long gone. We knew very well that would probably happen, but we couldn’t walk away without trying.
What I witnessed that day is why I hunt these blacktails. The day was a complete success even with a fully intact tag in my pocket. It’s what keeps your tank full and drives you to stay hunting even though there are times you’d bet your life that there isn’t a deer within a mile of you. While walking out, the thoughts of what took place were zipping around my head reminding me that anything is possible when it comes to blacktail deer hunting. And that is exactly what the rut does. It takes the impossible and makes it possible.
I was back in the area at daylight the next morning. It was an hour and a half trek in the dark to get there, but it had all the elements of success. Lousy weather, no moon and at least three nice bucks in the area. Plus a hot doe, one of the hardest-to-find ingredients. By 8 o’clock that morning I saw four bucks, and I passed on a nice 4-point hoping to find Goliath. After it was gone, I kicked myself for not shooting it. Fortunately, I was given a second chance, thanks to the rut. He reappeared from the timber and walked toward me without a care. This time I didn’t pass on him. When he stopped 40 yards from me and turned broadside I pulled the trigger. He wasn’t the biggest 4-point I’ve killed, but a respectable buck in anyone’s book.
Is a mature blacktail buck the toughest trophy to take? Killing trophy animals of any species is no small task, due to the differences in habits and terrain. It’s not really an apple to apple comparison, especially when talking over the counter tags on public land. Killing a 200-inch mule deer under those conditions is a monumental task and nothing can diminish that. But for me the tipping point is this. Throughout the West and across the United States if a person garners enough points or spends enough money he can get a tag for a unit that has very limited entry and the ratio of trophy animals is very high. Don’t get me wrong; I heavily participate in the draw systems and it’s the best way to get some incredible tags. Also some states offer governor tags or premium hunts that allow you to hunt any unit over a longer period of time. Obviously, this isn’t obtainable by all hunters but the opportunity does exist. In Oregon, a blacktail tag is purchased over the counter, which means nothing but sweat equity will consistently help you kill a mature blacktail buck. And for my money, there’s nothing better than a headlamp lit way in the pouring rain with a blacktail on your back.