It’s been a long, hot summer in the Pacific Northwest and I’ll go on record to say I’m glad to see cooler temps and the first leaves of fall floating off the trees. October is here and I’m getting fired up about hunting my favorite deer – the Columbian Blacktail.
Whether you hunt with a bow, muzzleloader, or rifle, these elusive west coast deer are difficult to hunt and provide ample challenge for new and veteran hunters alike. While I’d like to offer a secret playbook to guarantee success, I’m afraid one doesn’t exist. Instead I’ll share 10 tips and tactics that have helped me solve a few blacktail riddles and enable me punch my tag more often than not.
- Hunt year-round
No, I’m not suggesting you break the law. Instead, become a year-round observer and student of blacktail behavior and habits. Actively learn about the deer in your hunting areas all year long to gain a more detailed understanding of their habits. Your goal is to build a database of information so that when those precious days of hunting season arrive, you are ready with a solid game plan. You’ve done your homework – stands are hung, access figured out, etc.
Don’t leave it all to chance. Driving roads with the rest of the crowds might pay off now and again but we’re after consistency, right? I cover this in depth in my 6-part series.
- Use technology for scouting
Nothing will replace quality time walking prospective hunting grounds. However, you can optimize the efficiency and effectiveness of your scouting by utilizing tools such as onXmaps (now onXhunt), Google Earth, and trail cameras, which have become very affordable in recent years. These tools allow you to identify potential feed areas, travel routes, funnels, and access strategies, thus maximizing your time and better informing where you should be putting in time on the ground.
- Seek out mixed forest habitat
Similar to whitetail deer, blacktails are edge dwellers and thrive in mixed forests where they find an abundance of quality food sources, excellent escape cover, and plenty of bedding options. Even when hunting large timber company tracts, pay particular attention to the drainage buffers left adjacent to and within clear-cuts, abandoned logging skid roads, and areas where recent thinning operations have occurred. A stand of 50-80 year old Douglas fir bordered on one side by a 2-4 year old clear-cut and a mixed stand of primarily maple, alder and hemlock is optimal.
- Concentrate on microhabitats
Taking the common tactic of ‘using hunting pressure to your advantage’ one step further, I often find that those drive-by spots that are too small or maybe even too obvious to hunt can be gold mines. Like the time I got a response from a bull elk at a crowded gate parking area, sometimes getting away from the crowds isn’t about going in deeper; it’s about staying closer to roads, traffic, and industrial areas. A blacktail buck’s home range will get smaller with age and they don’t need much space to thrive. I cover more about this topic in another post.
- Focus on doe groups
Using a map and a notebook, keep detailed record of the does you encounter throughout the year. Mark sighting locations on your map and make notes about what are they are doing, what time of day, the weather conditions, etc. Everything you observe is valuable over time. Does don’t stray much from their core areas so the more you can learn about how and where does move about, feed, and bed, the better equipped you’ll be once the bucks start sniffing around to check their estrous status.
Fawns begin to drop around the first week of June each year. This is a great time to get cameras out and take note of when you see the first fawns of the year. Page back about 200 calendar days and you’ll be very close to the date the doe was bred. This is very important in determining the timing of peak breeding in your hunting area.
- Use a wind checker – always
Second only to my bow, my Elmer’s glue bottle filled with corn starch is the second most important piece of gear I carry in the deer (and elk) woods. Deer are curious and may stand for several minutes trying to figure out movements or sounds. Not so when it comes to human scent. You must hunt into or cross wind, and you must be cognizant of the wind direction at all times. When I’m in an elevated treestand, I often float tiny goose down feathers because they hang effortlessly in the air and you can watch them for a long time to see what the wind is doing much further from your stand.
- Learn blacktail communication
A lot can be written here but essentially, you can benefit greatly from understanding basic body language, vocalizations, and the role of numerous scent glands. A wagging or flicking of the tail is a calm deer. A straight-out tail indicates they are on alert. Bucks will have their tails straight out and bob them repeatedly when tending a doe. Fawn bleats are higher pitched than doe bleats, and buck grunts are not as deep and guttural as the sound many commercial grunt calls make. And blacktails do snort-wheeze when they are sizing up an interloper, just like a whitetail. These are a few tidbits, but there are many more to learn about.
Be willing to try new tactics such as calling, scent usage, and even decoys where conditions call for it. I’ve been experimenting with my custom painted decoy for a few years in certain spots and it’s been interesting to see how deer react to it.
The pre-rut can be one of the best times to kill a mature buck. Stealing from the whitetail playbook you can make mock signpost rubs and illicit deer to check them almost immediately. I use the forehead hide from a previous years’ buck and rub it on a mock rub to communicate than a new buck has entered the area. Using a trail camera you’ll see how quickly a buck will be on that rub. It’s just like dogs peeing on another dog’s pee to lay claim to the area and/or leave their calling card.
If you are interested in using scent products, keep in mind that a little goes a long way. A great first-time scent tactic is to do a scent drag around your stand location in the shape of a figure 8, where the center of the “8” is your stand or blind. The size is dependent on the terrain and habitat. This way any deer that follows the trail will wind up in your shooting lane, provided they stick with the plan. Always wear scent-free knee-high rubber boots and rubber gloves when handling scents as to not contaminate them with human scent.
- Hunt the storms
Blacktail activity tends to increase during those cold, nasty storms of late October and November. It’s not the most pleasant time to be afield but if you’ve got your sights on filling your buck tag, it’s time to suit up and get in the game. High winds make it difficult for deer to discern movement and sound so they rely on their eyesight and nose to keep them safe. Also, storms blow a lot of high quality food to the ground in the form of lichens and leaves. And finally, the various phases of the rut are in play so it makes sense to see deer up and moving during these storms.
- Look for the muzzle and don’t freeze
I love hunting from treestands and ground blinds but still-hunting is my favorite way to hunt blacktails. I can cover ground all day at a snails pace, stopping to rattle or just take a break to watch a nice opening or draw. When looking for deer in thick cover and in the shadows, it is often white muzzle hair of a buck that first catches my eye, especially in low light conditions. If you do spot a buck, I’ve learned that you can continue to move, even in plain sight if – IF – the buck doesn’t think you’ve seen him. Keep moving parallel slightly away to communicate that you are not a threat, draw you bow or ready your gun and stop only when you’re ready to take aim and shoot.
- Mix it up, hunt all day, and stay flexible
As they should, most people hunt the first few hours of daylight and the last couple hours of daylight. These are peak activity periods so it makes good sense. But the rest of the day is often wide open for tagging your buck, yet few hunters stay out all day. Deer will hunker down at times of high human intrusion and become more active when the threat has dissipated, typically between around 10AM and 2 or 3PM. This is a great time to catch a buck up feeding or nosing a doe through an opening.
If you’ve lost your motivation, mix it up and try hunting a different season or using a different hunting method. Ground blinds are affordable and provide protection from wind and rain. Treestands, while not for everyone, offer great visibility and provide a new perspective. And they aren’t just for bowhunters.
Still-hunting into the wind through a mature timber stand is a great way to intercept a mature buck during any season.
If you’re a bowhunter hunting the December late season, take a set of rattling antlers with you and make something happen. I’ve rattled in numerous bucks around mid-December, which is about 28 days after peak breeding in November. This second rut can be magical with increased competition for the remaining estrous does. You have excellent opportunities to call in bucks with both rattling and soft doe bleats.
>>>—— BONUS TIP ———>
- Watch your back-trail
Blacktail bucks have a habit of holding their position instead of busting out in a mad dash to safety. They let you slip by, and then quietly circle around your location as you move through an area. For this reason, I often still-hunt diagonally into the wind so if a buck slips in behind me, I may get a shot opportunity before getting winded. Get in the habit of watching your back-trail – you may find the buck of your dreams standing in it.
Blacktails provide a challenging and unique hunting opportunity for those willing to put in the work. I hope these tips help tip the odds in your favor this fall. If you have a tip that has helped you fill your tags, I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment below or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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