How to Score on Last Chance Blacktails
Posted on April 19, 2013
With the season winding down, now could be the best time to score on a trophy Columbia blacktail. Here’s what to look for!
Guided by the beam of a flashlight, I finally found the ground blind that had been erected days prior. Slipping inside, light raindrops falling overhead, a dense fog loomed on the edge of the coniferous treeline. All was relatively quiet on the moist forest floor.
As daylight sifted through the trees, deer began to move. The blind was situated a quarter of the way up a hill, where oak trees gave way to Douglas firs above. The idea was to catch does moving from their low-elevation feeding area to their bedding zones higher on the hill. Hopefully the bucks would follow.
It was mid-November, and the peak of the rut was waning, which meant buck movement was about to increase. I was hunting at 1,400 feet in elevation in the foothills of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Both resident and migratory deer can be found here this time of year.
By daybreak, deer surrounded me as they made their way into the timber above, and the bucks were thick. In fact, in two hours of sitting in that blind, I saw more blacktail bucks than I’d seen the previous three seasons combined. Timing is everything.
The biggest buck, however, eluded me. He was chasing a doe and never slowed down. To this day I can close my eyes and see his 160-inch-plus rack in my mind, one of the biggest black-tailed bucks I’d ever seen.
I was hoping that buck would come back by the blind, but I never saw him again. I did pass up the opportunity on four other Pope & Young bucks while waiting for that big one, which made me question my judgment. At that moment, another buck, a handsome 3×4, made his way up the hill, chasing does, checking urine drips and sniffing trails.
At first, I didn’t think he’d come to within bowrange. Then he saw another little buck prodding some does, 30 yards in front of the blind. Puffing up his chest and taking on a look of aggression, the bigger buck pranced toward the younger one. There was no need for battle, as the younger deer knew he’d get whipped.
The 3×4 hit another trail, stopped and sniffed a fresh spot of urine left by a doe only minutes prior, then locked onto her. Fortunately, the doe was moving in my direction.
As the doe edged her way from a stand of small oak trees in front of the blind, the buck followed her right into the open. Just as I reached full draw and took a breath to grunt and stop him for a shot, he paused, perfectly broadside. I rested the 30-yard pin of my Spot-Hogg sight tight behind his shoulder.
Upon touching the release, my BowTech Guardian sent a Gold Tip Ultralight Pro 400 arrow on its way. The Rocky Mountain Titanium broadhead found the mark, slicing through both lungs of the deer. He scampered for 50 yards and died.
After only a few brief hours, my hunt had come to a close. It was one of the shortest blacktail hunts of my life, but I’ve hunted Columbia blacktails enough to know I should be grateful when such an opportunity presents itself.
I was in a situation where everything came together as planned. Resident deer were active, migratory bucks were coming out of the high country and the blind was in the perfect spot. It wasn’t luck; I don’t believe in luck when it comes to hunting trophy blacktails, and the mid-130-inch buck that lay at my feet proved it.
Pre-Rut, Rut, Post-Rut
The blacktail rut could well be the most mysterious phenomenon surrounding these deer’s behavior. Over my more than 30 years of hunting blacktails, I still haven’t gotten the pattern of the rut totally figured out; there are simply too many inconsistencies. It could be that there are so many types of blacktails, since they do live from sea level up to more than 9,000 feet in elevation, and everywhere in between. Some years the rut is red-hot in one area I hunt, yet a couple of miles away, the bucks show no interest in the it. The next year it can all change.
I’ve rattled in rutty bucks in the middle of October, all through November and into early December. One thing I have learned is the more you can be in the field from mid-October all the way through the end of the season, the more you’ll learn about hunting these cagey bucks.
The pre-rut is my favorite time to be afield. This is when bucks are aggressively covering ground to locate groups of does and monitor which ones come into estrus. The pre-rut is the only time of year I’ve seen a buck chasing does in one spot in the morning, then observed the same buck nearly two miles away, checking on other does. Resident blacktails are typically homebodies, and rarely leave a square-mile radius of their core area. The rut is different, however.
Because bucks are capable of covering so much ground in the pre-rut, this is the best time for hunters to be in the field to see what’s out there, even if your season doesn’t open for another few weeks. Ideally, I like to start looking for bucks around mid-October. By October 22 or 23, I definitely want to be in the field. By November 7, I’d better have made several trips into my hunting areas to see what bucks are cruising the area.
By mid-November, the blacktail rut is in full swing, even deteriorating in some places. The rut is when bucks start covering less ground, and lock-on to receptive does. The buck’s movements become much more restricted, but the advantage for hunters is that they stick to a smaller area, which is where the benefits of scouting come in.
Once big bucks find a few pockets of does close together they’ll spend their time focusing on them, servicing what does come into estrus. This is a time when the bucks are quite approachable, and can effectively be hunted from treestands, blinds, rattled, or spot and stalked. Though you won’t see the number of big bucks moving around, the peak of the rut is one of the best times to close the deal on a trophy deer, even if you don’t know what caliber of deer are around.
Following the rut is the post-rut, a time when most does are no longer in estrus. This is a time when the bucks start cruising the land once again to search for does that missed being bred in the first go-around. Approximately 28 days after first coming into estrus, does that missed being bred will go into heat again. Because the peak of the blacktail rut can vary in different regions, the post-rut can range anywhere from mid-November to the middle of December. This explains why you might see newborn fawns as soon as early May and as late as mid-July.
Due to buck behavior and what’s happening within the dynamics of specific deer populations, blacktails can be hunted in many ways. That’s what makes the late season so addicting.
By Scott Haugen