I’ve developed a real passion for blacktail hunting because I live in blacktail country and I’m a glutton for punishment. Taking a mature blacktail buck is like catching a winter steelhead on the fly. It takes a lot of work and patience but when it all comes together and you get one…oh how sweet it is!
If you haven’t taken a blacktail yet this season the best is yet to come. The latter part of the general season and the late buck hunt in November are the two best times to tag out on a blacktail. While blacktail inhabit many different habitats in Western Washington the industrial logging areas and the clear cuts they produce offer the best chance to find one of these illusive deer.
Here’s a few strategies that have helped me tag quite a few nice blacktails here in Washington:
Look for Sign
There’s a ton of great blacktail habitat in Western Washington but unfortunately they don’t use all of it. The best thing you can do is to check multiple clear cuts early in the season and see which ones have the most sign. Look for fresh rubs on small trees, tracks in the mud, and tracks crossing the roads that surround the clear cuts.
If you can’t find fresh rubs indicating that a buck is using the area it might not be the end of the world though. You do need to find the ladies though as the bucks will find them as soon as they come into heat. If you’ve located good numbers of does in your favorite clear cut the chances are good that a buck will eventually show up. The does almost act as a live decoy once the rut starts. And if you’ve found both does and fresh buck rubs in the same area I’d plan on spending quite a bit of time there once the ruth gets going.
Get Into Their Kitchen
The nice thing about blacktails is that they usually won’t run for miles after they are spooked. Where you find them is where they live, much like whitetails in the Midwest. If I’m dead certain that a clear cut is going to produce a buck (i.e. sign, rubs, etc) I’ll sit tight and glass it for a few hours, but if I’m not entirely confident in the cut I’m usually on the move to the next cut.
I’ll cruise as many as four or five clear cuts in a day of hunting and I’ll usually check the timber around them for sign as well. By doing this you may jump a deer or two, but you’re doing some great scouting in the process and you’ll possibly find yourself a sweet spot full of blacktails. If you jump a good buck chances are he’s going to be right back in the same place within a day or two. If they’ve got food, cover, and does they aren’t going to journey too far away from the goodies.
Now that you’ve found a great clear cut with lots of sign you need to park your fanny on a stump or landing with a great view and do some glassing. I generally use my naked eye to scan the areas closest to me and then I start slowly scanning the clear cut in a grid pattern until I’ve covered every square inch out to about 400 or 500 yards. After I’ve done this I’ll take a break for a few minutes and then do it again, and again, and again.
Most good clear cuts will have quite a bit of brush to hide a blacktail, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t glass any deer right away. Blacktails will often bed down in the same clear cut they are feeding in and it could be an hour or two before they get out of their beds. When you’re glassing look for the flick of an ear, antler tips, legs, or the swish of a tail. Any small movement can be a blacktail feeding thru the undergrowth. I glassed for over two hours before the mature blacktail I took three years ago presented himself. He was bedded down in a gulley in the clear cut and finally stood up to feed.
I just started using the Scent Away system a few years ago and I am totally sold on it. The local Hunter’s Specialties rep asked me if I’d ever wished I had a couple of extra seconds to get a shot off at an animal. Heck yes I would! Scent control does just that, it gives you a little more time to get a shot off and allows you to move thru the blacktail woods without alerting the troops of your presence.
Two of the last three years I’ve taken nice blacktails that should have winded me. Because I used scent control, however, I was able to get shots on two great bucks that I might not have otherwise gotten. Most shots you’ll get on blacktail are less than 100 yards in fairly tight cover. It’s usually close-quarters hunting and every second counts. If you can get a buck to hold for an extra second or two you’re likely to get a shot off and tag a nice buck. After a couple of experiences like this I’m a firm believer in Scent Away.
Hunt the Rut
Most of the blacktails taken in Washington aren’t harvested on opening weekend. They are tagged either late in the general season or on the late hunt in November. Mature blacktails are extremely nocturnal and simply don’t travel around much during the daylight hours. When they go into the rut, however, the odds of seeing one of these wary critters goes up substantially. My advice is to pass up all the spikes and forkies early in the season and spend some quality time later in the season when the rut is on. That’s when you want to be out there and that’s when it gets fun!
Know Your Ground
Clear cuts that are 2 to 8 years old are generally the best place to find a blacktail. If there are draws or ravines in a clear cut chances are blacktails will use those areas as travel lanes and bedding areas. After a morning of glassing don’t be afraid to hike into these areas and do a bit of bird dogging. It’ll be tough going but often times you’ll find that all the blacktails are in the only part of the clear cut you can’t see into.
When I make a trip thru the middle or along the edge of a clear I’m making a note of the trails that lead thru the clear cut. If you can generate a mental map of these trails you can come back during the rut and access some of these difficult areas without making a bunch of noise.
Another great place to find blacktails is in timbered areas that border a clear cut especially if the timbered area is full of mature cedar and douglas fir trees. Western cedar and douglas fir are both a favorite food item of blacktail deer. We hunt the same general area every year and have gotten to know quite a few of their escape routes and “honey holes” by spending a lot of time there.
Quite often we’ll find blacktails bedded down just on the edge of a juicy clear cut near timber like this. They can see quite a ways from their bed and they have a quick escape route if something spooks them. The edges are also where the big boys are most likely to hang out. With a few steps they can quickly disappear into the jungle. Pay close attention to the sign in these areas.
If you get a nice blacktail this fall and don’t mind sharing a photo I’d love to see it. Shoot me an email at “firstname.lastname@example.org” and share your story or better yet, post it on the Outdoor Line forums. Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment but I love hunting blacktails!
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