Rodakowski’s Tips for Taking a Westside Blacktail

Dubbed the “grey ghost” blacktail have earned the reputation as one of the toughest big game species to hunt in the world. (Troy Rodakowski)

By Troy Rodakowski

There are only a few magical days a season when mature blacktail show themselves during daylight hours and if you plan on having some success you need to make sure you are in the woods when these days happen. Every year people ask me what it takes to harvest a mature blacktail and why are some folks successful while others are not. Simply answered, you need to be out there with the deer when they are active and that peak activity usually occurs in late October through the month of November when the rut occurs. The rest of the time they are extremely nocturnal and you’ll rarely catch a glimpse of them during daylight hours.

September blacktails rub their velvet and transition to a more nocturnal pattern. (Troy Rodakowski)

The first cold snap of the season usually hits during the month of October and makes fo
some great hunting. By then the rain has dampened the forest floor and made for some very quiet hiking enabling hunters to sneak to tree stands, ground blinds, and elevated vantage points. Of course, finding trophy deer is not easy but with does beginning to come into estrus bucks will be more visible during daylight hours especially first thing in the morning and just before dark. During these times you’ll want to meticulously scan the densest cover with optics before giving up on a good looking location. The bottom line is
that blacktail relish the thickest cover and they tunnel and weave themselves through it which enables them to go nearly undetected for much of their lives. As a hunter you need to put yourself in the cover or very near it to be successful. The biggest of blacktail won’t be too far from the edge of a field or clear cut and you want to take your time glassing these areas

The Coast Range: Deer on the coast typically have smaller racks due to genetics, thick cover, and slightly less nutrients in their feed. There are exceptions to this rule though and larger deer can be found near old burns and logged locations that have opened up the canopies. These areas can produce some real monsters that score well into the 130 to 140 class. Hunters need to spend time near the perimeters of likely locations like this that have the lowest human activity. Tree stands or elevated locations that allow hunters to watch the thickest cover around these cuts can provide some excellent opportunities at bigger bucks. Large bucks often spend the majority of their time in thick cover and seldom step out into the center of the cuts in broad daylight. You can sometimes coax them out with fawn and doe bleats but make sure to use them sparingly. These calls can spike their curiosity and entice them to pop their heads out of the dense cover.

Public land hunting is becoming more difficult. However, finding road systems closed to motorized travel will help put you on deer. (Troy Rodakowski)

Valley Deer: Lowland blacktail thrive in small patches of woods near rivers and agricultural grounds. Access can be difficult though because most of these lands are private. If you can gain access to some of this ground, however, you might be surprised by how many blacktails roam these lowland areas. Deer numbers have slowly grown in many lowland locations and numerous farmers and private landowners have seen increased blacktail traffic and agricultural damage from the increase in population. Establishing good relationships with multiple landowners is essential in order to find trophy deer in these locations. Due to increased human activity deer here frequently move under the cover of darkness even more so than in the coastal clear cuts. Finding a place to hunt that’s close to home will be of great benefit for scouting and the number of hours that you are able to spend in the field picking apart these areas to pattern the deer. Binoculars and spotting scopes are a great tool here because of how open most of these farmlands are and you can increase your odds by scouting the cover in the intersecting areas between agricultural tracts. These lowland blacktails behave much like whitetails in the midwest. Hunt them like you would an ag-land whitetail and you’ll be in the game.

Rub lines and areas with multiple rubs are sure signs that a blacktail buck is in the area. Focusing on these places will tip the scale in your favor. (T. Rodakowski)

Deer in these areas will usually feed into the edges of agricultural fields at twilight and dusk. Plan to be in the field and set up before dark in the morning and an hour or two before dusk in the afternoon. Ground blinds and tree stand can be the ticket once a buck is patterned or a good field is located with a lot of deer activity. I have seen deer exhibiting rut activity in mid to late October or even earlier and I definitely hit the field early every year to get a handle of what the blacktails are up to. I’ve also seen a good number of bucks chasing does well into the month of December. Fellow blacktail hunter and ODFW biologist Brian Wolfer from the Springfield ODFW office prefers hunting when the bucks are most active during the pre-rut. “I have observed the most buck activity during the pre-rut in late October and early November when deer are chasing each other around,“ says Wolfer.

On dry years animals will gravitate to local water sources near irrigation ditches, slough bottoms, and ponds near river systems. Seasons with higher rainfall and early fall rains seem to encourage deer to rut much sooner and will also become extended into early December. Heavy rains will also push deer out of slough bottoms as they begin to fill with water. “We have been trying to get a better idea on migration and movements from collaring and collecting harvest data over the last few years,” adds Wolfer. Even though state game officials are learning more and more about blacktails these deer continue to remind us how mysterious and illusive they are.

Checking for fresh sign and focusing on those locations will put a hunter one step closer to harvesting a deer. (Bill Wellette)

Cascade Blacktail: Snowfall at higher elevations will push deer into migratory mode and with the rut progressively ramping up bucks will continue to breed does on the move. Deer here will travel greater distances in comparison to others at lower elevations. Snowline hunting is the norm for many late season hunters as numerous deer will drop in elevation with accumulating snow. Even though the snows usually push them down I’m amazed every year at trail cam footage and reports of large bucks taken in several inches of snow. There are some larger, mature blacktails that are much slower to migrate and can be found at elevations from 3,000 to 5,000 ft. through much of November. If you can be in the field in late October or mid-November when there’s snow on the ground the odds go up dramatically.

Once the weather changes deer will begin to migrate. The author took this buck on a late season hunt. (Troy Rodakowski)

Finding migration routes is helpful for high country blacktail but in the lowlands finding isolated hidey holes for these deer is the key and many hunters have had success, calling, rattling and hunting from tree stands in these lower areas. Bucks at higher elevation are quite difficult to pattern because they are on the move, especially late in the season as the weather and rut greatly affect their habitual patterns.

If you plan on hunting the general firearm season this year I highly recommend getting out there and doing your homework early to see where a buck might be hanging out. Chances are he’s not going to go far and if you’re in the field when rut activity starts ramping up he might give you an opportunity during shooting hours.

Troy Rodakowski
Outdoor Line Blogger
Western Oregon Region
The Outdoor Line
710 ESPN Seattle

EXO Mountain Gear Backcountry Hunting Packs - Boise, Idaho

Central Oregon High Lakes Trout and Kokanee Outlook

The sun shines on Diamond Peak that sits above Crescent Lake and the large expanse of the Diamond Peak Wilderness. (Troy Rodakowski)

By Troy Rodakowski 

Lake fishing season is upon us once again. Oh yeah baby…….crisp morning air, warm sun, great camping, barbequing and lots of fish for the cooler. That’s what many of us anglers look forward to come June. A few of us enjoy this time of year when we can get out of town, forget the daily stresses of work, and wet a line in the Cascade Lakes of Central Oregon. The 2017 season looks to be quite good with action peaking possibly a few weeks later than normal. Snowpack was above normal this season with many storms showing up well into the month of May. This year, anglers will need to keep a close eye on snow melt as well as boat launch and campground openings.

The Lake Review:

Crescent Lake is predicted to be slow early this year with some of the best catches of kokanee in June. Kokanee here will have better size than most other lakes around with most averaging in the 10 to 14 inch range. Of course, there is also some good lake trout fishing to be had here if an angler is patient and fishes some of the drop-offs near the bottom.

According to district fish biologist Eric Moberly of Bend, Oregon (541-388-6145) “Kokanee and trout fishing should be good during the 2017 season at Odell Lake.” The best time to fish here for kokes is at dawn and dusk. Most fish will range from 11-13 inches in size. Lake trout fishing should also be good here although Moberly is quick to point out, “Be careful when identifying the difference between lake trout and bull trout. Lake trout have a deeper forked tail with spots on their dorsal fins with white and cream colored spots on their bodies.” He advises to play it safe and release all fish without spots on their dorsal fin.All bull trout are federally listed as threatened since their numbers are extremely low. Any bull trout that are caught must be released unharmed. Also, be advised that fishing has been closed within 200 feet of the mouth of Odell Creek to protect these fish.

Lake trout are a popular species found in several of the high Cascade Lakes. (Troy Rodakowski)

When fishing at Wickiup Reservoir it would be smart to go after brown trout here. Kwik fish, Krock lures, Rapala’s, Wedding Rings, and flashers all work well at Wickiup. I prefer the willowleaf blade style in these locations. The lake is at 100 percent of capacity right now with most of the large browns are caught fairly early in the season. There are also some very nice sized rainbow trout available in Wickiup. “Target shallow water flats early in the season and river channels once the water begins to warm,” says Moberly. Kokanee numbers should be fair this year with many fish scattered early in the season. They will begin to school up near the creek channels once the weather warms in early June.

Even though brown bullhead have taken over many sections of the southeastern part of the reservoir largemouth bass can still be found amidst the many willow flats. Bass fishing should improve once the weather warms. There is no size or bag limit on warm water game fish here. Wickiup is located off of the Cascade Lakes Highway (NFR 46).

The author shows off a few kokanee and a brown from Paulina Lake. (Troy Rodakowski)

Paulina Lake is located in the Newberry Crater off of Highway 97 near LaPine. This lake provides a great opportunity for brown trout of all sizes. The best fishing for them is late in the day around the edges in more shallow water. Paulina is also a great lake for Kokanee with the early mornings usually providing the best action. These fish range in size from 9-12 inches. There is a five trout daily limit which includes kokanee of which one trout may exceed 20 inches.

East Lake, also located near Highway 97 and the Newberry Crater provides some very interesting opportunities for anglers. The lake is kokanee, rainbows, and brown to keep anglers busy. Fair to good catches of rainbows usually occur early in the season because of planting efforts by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Rainbows are stocked intermittently throughout the year, as well.

Rainbow trout are targeted by anglers throughout the Cascade zone using many methods. Fly fishing is one of the most effective. (Troy Rodakowski)

Finally, Crane Prairie Reservoir will offer great fishing for rainbow trout, brook trout, and largemouth bass. It is advised to limit your harvest of wild trout in this fishery. Hatchery fish are clearly marked with either a clipped adipose fin or left or right ventral clips. Fish will be scattered early with the best brook trout fishing available both early and late in the season. Moberly is also quick to point out that there are some very large kokanee here if an angler puts in some time with the right gear. Of course, dawn and dusk are the best times to fish for kokanee in Crane. Using small spoons and spinners work quite well here. Also, wet and dry flies have produced some good results for rainbows as has fishing night crawlers on the bottom. Anglers looking for bigger brookies should concentrate on working structure. There are also a few largemouth found here in the willow areas especially early in the season when the water first warms up.

The River Review:

Deschutes River, from Behman Falls upstream to Wickiup Reservoir should be fair for brown trout. Moberly points out, “that there will be good opportunity for hatchery stocked bows in the upper stretches.” From Billy Chinook Lake upstream to Behman Falls anglers should see fair fishing. Browns and red band trout are the fish found in this stretch of water. Look to fish in locations where springs enter the river. Anglers should have some of their best results from Steelhead Falls downriver.

The Crooked River below Bowman Dam has had some excellent fishing for red band trout the past couple of years. Numerous overnight and day use areas are available on BLM lands. The Chimney Rock segment of the Wild and Scenic Crooked River  is located about 15 minutes south of Prineville off of Hwy 27. With recent high water levels I expect the Crooked to fish better during the months of June and July after the flows drop down.

Most of these lakes and reservoirs have resorts available with several amenities including campgrounds, boat rentals, restaurants, and lodging. I highly recommend checking with the local resorts prior to heading to your final destination.

If you’re lucky enough to get into the Kokanee here’s one of my favorite all time recipes for cooking them up:

One of my favorite Kokanee Recipes (See Below)

Uncle Bob’s Grilled Kokanee

-Start grill on medium low to medium heat.
-Use cookie sheet lined with a layer of foil.
-Place Kokanee on foil.
-Set cookie sheet on grill. (The foil is to insulate the bottom of the fish from too much heat.)

Mix together the following……
20 % olive oil
40 % Teriyaki sauce
40% honey bbq sauce.
Stir.

-When Kokanee have cooked a few minutes, slip fork under skin, and remove top layer only. Do not disturb the bottom.
-Drizzle sauce mixure liberally on exposed fish.
-Shake on a little Johnnys seasoning and lightly pepper.
-Continue to grill at low-medium temp until fish is done.
-Serve promptly while warm.

Troy Rodakowski
Outdoor Line Blogger
710 ESPN Seattle

Tips for Bagging a Late Season Turkey

Photo by Troy Rodakowski

The author took this mid May bird last season while waiting near a well traveled trail after patterning the old gobbler. (Troy Rodakowski)

by Troy Rodakowski

Adult turkeys are in many ways like a husband and wife. For example, if you are asked to do something over and over (nagged) by either your husband or wife you will shut down and do it when you feel like doing it rather than when you are asked. Likewise, gobblers will shut down after hearing those repetitious yelps and cackles that they have heard for nearly a month.

During the late season birds tend to be more receptive to light purring and soft clucking. I have always preferred a mouth diaphragm for this type of calling because I can control the amount of air forced over the reeds to produce nice authentic sounds while keeping my hands free. Of course, other calls like slate, box, and wing-bone calls can also work well if you are experienced with them.

Old wise gobblers will seek out secluded locations to strut and spend the warm late spring days. (Troy Rodakowski)

The combination of light calling and patience will pay dividends though and that’s definitely my preferred tactic for late season turkey hunting. It isn’t uncommon for these birds to come in unannounced during the late season so keep your head on a swivel. And even though I prefer softer calling I’ll sometimes throw some soft yelps out there from time to time also. Of course, every situation is different and will present different challenges.

To be successful on any turkey hunt it’s critical to choose an area that you’ve scouted or have frequently seen turkeys visit. Patterning these birds is probably the most important step to harvesting one of them. Dusting and strutting areas are good places to start and finding travel routes from a roosting area to a strut zone is a great advantage also. Just when you think you have them figured out though some birds will find different routes from day to day en route to their strutting and dusting sites.

I had a fellow turkey hunter once tell me a story about a bird that would fly to his strut area every day from his roost site. Upon arrival, he would use a different entry point every single time. Needless to say, that bird survived the spring season without any problems. Yes, turkeys learn and are very smart.

The birds you pursue late in the season are educated and very wise. They learn from experience how to survive. (Troy Rodakowski)

Creek bottoms and other drainages provide great areas for insects and fresh forage during the late season. Many times, old solitary gobblers will wander around these areas looking for a receptive hen while feeding. So, make sure to search these areas thoroughly for sign. Looking in the dirt along small game trails and old cat roads for fresh tracks and scat is a sure sign that there are birds in the area.

When I’m trying to locate birds in the evening I’ll use an owl hoot or crow call as a locator call and during the mid-morning and afternoon I’ll use a coyote call to inspire a gobble. Once you locate a bird remember that patience is very important to entice these sometimes uneasier birds to come in. I have taken several birds while only hearing a single gobble and then waiting them out for what seems like an eternity.

Under most late season scenarios waiting only 30-45 minutes at a set-up is not enough. I don’t know how many times I have been ready to call it quits when that bird finally shows up. Learning from experience, I know that I have prematurely left areas and ruined opportunities to harvest at least a few birds.

If you can somehow get onto private land later in the season you’ll usually find birds that are more settled and receptive. The best bet is to find an area with a lower concentration of people to locate settled birds that have moved away from the pressure and that often means getting access to private land.

Coming out of the woods with a May turkey is very satisfying and quite an accomplishment. (Gary Lewis)

I can’t emphasize patience enough. Remembering what these birds have been through for a month prior will keep you in the right mindset. Once eager to find love at the start of the season these turkeys have become more reclusive and are often loners during their continued searches for a hen. Nagged by multiple hunters over the previous weeks and hearing every sound imaginable has only made them more wary. Seeing decoys made of plastic and paint, hunters moving through the woods, and the occasional resonating sound of a shotgun has made them that much more shy and edgy.

Even though it’s a little more difficult to harvest a bird later in the season it’s never too late to bag your bird and I have taken turkeys throughout the season and on several occasions on the last day. Yes, it’s warm and seems as if the turkey rut has passed, but often times the final month provides some of the best hunting.

Tall grassy pastures being grown for hay and meadows or fields near adjacent wood lots will hold good numbers of turkeys. However, turkeys will avoid them in the morning hours when the dew is heavy on the grass. Gobblers will hesitate to cross grassy fields that have heavy dew and will work the perimeters of the grassy areas in search of hens especially early in the mornings.

Late in the day after the field or pasture has dried from the warm wind turkeys will be easier to coax across to your location. Frequently birds will venture into locations where tall grasses and other forages have grown during the warm spring weather. These areas will hold a variety of insects such as caterpillars, flies, beetles, slugs, snails and many other insects and invertebrates that turkeys can’t resist. Birds typically won’t venture too far from the security of the woods, the tall grass, and the lunch box.

A turkeys mind and actions tend to slowly evolve during the season. Many times just when you are about to throw in the towel and head for home I can’t tell you how important it is to stay a little longer. Take a sandwich, some water and snacks in your pack, and spend the day and perhaps all the way into the early evening. Be polite, gentle, and patient in your calling approach and you might just coax a late season bird into range. Expect to see things you’ve never seen before and definitely be willing to change some of your tactics and chances are good things will happen.

Troy Rodakowski
Outdoor Line Blogger
710 ESPN Seattle

Tag Team Turkeys

The author and his father used many of the tactics discussed to harvest these two birds on opening day a couple seasons back. (Troy Rodakowski)

by Troy Rodakowski

The companionship of hunting with a friend of family member is half the reason we hunt spring turkeys. The other and most important half, however, is that working as a team is probably the best possible way to put some turkeys on the dinner table.

While hunting spring turkeys it is at times very beneficial to set a caller 10-15 yards or more behind a shooter. Why might you ask? That wise old gobbler will often hang up just out of range and if he feels the hen is still a bit further he might just break that magical barrier needed for your shotgun or bow.

Natural obstacles like creeks logs and other barriers can make turkeys “hang up,” and not commit to your set up. (Troy Rodakowski)

Another great benefit to hunting with a partner is the ability to sound like multiple turkeys when both hunters are calling. Getting gobblers fired up is a key to success in the spring and if you can sound like multiple turkeys a long beard is more likely to come in and join your party. Additionally, I have found it pays to have an extra set of eyes on that bird when you are stalking into closer range to make a set.

One year we had a bird across a canyon that wasn’t willing to come through the bottom to meet us so we took matters into our own hands. My buddy set up high all the while keeping an eye on him through the binoculars as I hiked closer to the bird. I was able to get fairly close to that turkey through hand signals from my partner as to the birds movements and whereabouts. I got setup, did a little calling, and the rest is history.

Birds often times do not like to cross creeks or thick obstacles such as logs or dense brush. Gobblers will pace back and forth along a creek or brush barrier searching for that hen that keeps calling to them. The best approach to this is to have the caller stay in place and have the shooter sneak into position near the brush line or creek channel where the bird is pacing. This has worked several times for me over the years!

Food Sources / Strut & Dust Zones: Find food sources, such as old oak stands with acorns, open fields with seeds and plentiful insects. Creek bottoms with snails and amphibious life are also hot spots. Turkey tracks are easily observed in soft soils during the early spring. Places where birds spend time strutting and dusting zones become prime areas to set up an ambush or catch birds moving. Often, birds will find old burns or slash pile remnants to dust in. Looking for areas where birds have scraped and taken dust baths can help point a hunter to an area where they will likely return.

If you plan on using decoys be sure to use dekes that look as realistic as possible. I like to save fans from some of my jakes to attach to various decoys to give them a more realistic look and I’ll paint faded decoys to give them a little brighter look. I’ll even go so far as to attach a jerk string or cord to one of my standing hens or jakes so I can give it some movement. This works pretty well on birds from a distance and has helped bag some birds for my hunting partners and I over the years. This is one trick where the buddy system really comes in handy!

Even the most wary gobbler can be fooled. You just need to know when and how to make the right moves on an old wise bird. (Troy Rodakowski)

Regardless of your approach using the “buddy” system in the turkey woods this spring can be very beneficial. I sure do appreciate the help a hunting companion and what’s even better is sharing that experience with a good friend or family member.

Troy Rodakowski
Outdoor Line Blogger
710 ESPN Seattle

5 Turkey Musts For This Coming Season

Make sure to have the scales tipped in your favor come this April and you’ll surely find yourself packing more birds out of the field. (Troy Rodakowski)

By Troy Rodakowski

In general, extreme weather patterns are not beneficial for wild turkeys.  In particular, winters with deep snow at lower elevations can impact overwinter survival when turkeys can’t dig down for their favorite foods. “We have actually seen them stay in the roost for days at a time when snow is too deep to feed,” says Mikal Moore NWTF Biologist for the Pacific Northwest. The other big driver of turkey population’s dynamics is wet springs, which can inhibit hatching success.  For those poults that do hatch, protein-rich insects will be plentiful in wet years, a critical component of bone, muscle, and feather growth in young wild turkeys,” adds Moore.

The yin and yang of a severe winter in the Pacific Northwest may keep some from hunting turkeys while others will find success. My advice is that there’s never a better time than the present to pursue these handsome birds.

A spring gobbler searches through the grass for other turkeys while listening carefully for hens and keeping an eye out for danger. (Troy Rodakowsk)

Over the years I have made plenty of mistakes and learned some valuable lessons when hunting turkeys. Here are a few tips of what not to do on opening day to help you be a more successful turkey hunter.

1.) Don’t expect to pull into a place that you have seen turkeys and find them in the same location during season. This has happened to me a few times and is a lot like going to a job interview without your resume. Locating a prospective spot, not taking the time to scout it out and still hoping for positive results just doesn’t work. Unfortunately, most of us have been in this position at least once, had a lack of time to spend in the woods prior to season and hurried out on opening day only to find disappointment. The lesson here is get out before season, get out often, scout and you will be rewarded with more birds for the freezer.

2.) If you hear a gobble don’t get excited and over call. Hunters need to remember that it is natural for a hen to go seek out a tom. We as hunters are trying to convince these birds the opposite of what comes naturally to them. When first encountering a bird I like to gently test him out with just some light yelps and purring. If he doesn’t respond then hit him with a couple cutts and cackles to see if he will shock gobble.

I like to mimic what a hen is saying. If she yelps at you yelp right back with the same tone and cadence. If she cackles and cutts make sure to do it right back at her, make her mad, you are there to steal that gobbler from her.

3.) After a long morning, find a tree, take a short nap, get a bite to eat, drink some water and relax. I have harvested countless birds in the afternoon and just prior to sunset. Many hunters get frustrated and call it a day after hiking a few miles without hearing any gobbles or even seeing a bird. Remember, most of the breeding occurs in the morning within the first few hours after fly down. Gobblers urge to breed and their potency is higher during the morning hours and they will usually, try to locate a receptive hen immediately after fly down. Afternoon hunts are great because many of the hens will return to their established nesting sites to lay and incubate eggs. This leaves Mr. Tom lonely and in search for any hens that are still wandering about and feeding.

Gobblers are smart. Getting one to make a mistake isn’t always easy. (Troy Rodakowski)

4.) Be prepared to cover lots of ground. Nesting hens usually stay within a radius of 1 mile spending the day feeding, laying and sitting on eggs. Gobblers on the other hand can cover ground often times wandering up to 2 miles from their roosting site looking for receptive hens. Hearing a gobble over a ridge doesn’t mean you will find that bird in the original location that he sounded off from. I remember one year I contacted a bird and ended up killing him 3 miles from where I had first heard him. Wear good base layer clothing and plan on sweating a little.

5.) When hunting from a blind make sure to know what stage of the breeding cycle the birds are in. Don’t “over –do” your decoy spread and make sure not to over call. Larger breeding groups of turkeys and birds at fly down are very vocal but solo gobblers are not always keen to radical calling techniques. Infrequent calling and silence can be exactly what a bird is looking for as it stirs their curiosity and seems more natural especially later in the day when birds are a somewhat less vocal.

Troy Rodakowski is an award winning outdoor writer based out of Western Oregon.

The Outdoor Line
710 ESPN Seattle