Secrets to Bowhunting Big Blacktails

Posted on March 25, 2011

By Ryan Eaves

The author glasses prime blacktail country, searching for the buck of his dreams. He hunted a beautiful ranch in Humboldt County, California, a region known for giant blacktail bucks.

The author glasses prime blacktail country, searching for the buck of his dreams. He hunted a beautiful ranch in Humboldt County, California, a region known for giant blacktail bucks.

The old saying, “Variety is the spice of life,” is a statement that rings true to me when it comes to bowhunting. I’ve found that new places and a different game keep me pumped and anticipating each fall. With that said, the http://arrowfiveoutfitters.com/ of 2009 found me somewhat perturbed and moping around the house like a child wanting a new toy. The western draws had been unkind to me, and I found myself with only a Colorado mule deer tag and a Kansas whitetail tag in my pocket. Well, now that just wouldn’t do!

Deciding I needed to take control of the situation and alleviate my sour mood, I jumped on the phone and gave Jim Schaafsma of Arrow Five Outfitters a call. My timing could not have been better. Normally an outfit like Jim’s stays booked solid several years in advance, so the potential to simply make a call and have a hunt planned in a few short months is rare. Luckily for me that morning Jim had a cancellation on one of his early season hunts, so like any sane bowhunter I swooped in and claimed the spot.

After five long days on stand, the author’s persistence in hunting the same spot finally paid off. His buck was one of the widest Jim Schaafsma has ever seen. The author made a lethal shot from 15 yards using his Hoyt AlphaMax 35.

After five long days on stand, the author’s persistence in hunting the same spot finally paid off. His buck was one of the widest Jim Schaafsma has ever seen. The author made a lethal shot from 15 yards using his Hoyt AlphaMax 35.

Hanging up the phone that day gave my world an abrupt 180-degree turn. It seemed like the stars had lined up and everything was falling into place, like we always envision but rarely see come to fruition. Now, I’ll be honest. I don’t know the first thing about Columbian blacktails, but one thing I do know is when in doubt check with the best. Since my teenage years I have known about Jim and TinaMarie’s outfit in Northern California. My suspicions were confirmed with the first phone conversation I had with him. We talked deer, cattle and horses. Not really the common things discussed, but nevertheless, they are interests of mine that surprisingly were also interests of Jim’s. So, we hit it off well, you could say.

In addition to the talk with Mr. Jim, after several conversations with various other hunters I knew I had placed my trust with the right outfitter. Nothing but good words were spoken, so things simply kept getting better. Not that I had any doubt, but a quick check at the Pope and Young Record Book also showed a staggering number of bucks from Humboldt county. It seemed I was in business.

Another thing that had me excited was the reputation of the “Pacific Ghost.” Once again, since my teenage years, I had read articles by some of the best-known bowhunters out there extolling the virtues of this species. Their reputation for sly and sinister behavior has developed something of a cult following in the Pacific Northwest. Stories of this deer’s craftiness and ability to bring a hunter to his knees in utter despair had me pumped and counting the days until I got out of the miserable heat of Oklahoma. After all, I had nothing to worry about; I would be hunting with the best person for the job in the area with the best chance for success. All I needed to do was show up. Right? I wish that had been the case….

The author found the hunting accommodations quite comfortable and relaxing.

The author found the hunting accommodations quite comfortable and relaxing.

Unfortunately, the week had not gone per script. As I lowered my bow to the ground on evening four of this hunt, I couldn’t help but feel mentally drained. I had spent the previous five evenings (I got in early enough the day before my hunt was scheduled to begin to actually get to hunt) in the same exact stand hoping the buck we had seen in the headlights would make an appearance before dark. As you’ve probably figured out that was not the case.

The author found the hunting accommodations quite comfortable and relaxing.

The author found the hunting accommodations quite comfortable and relaxing.

Oh, I had been close. On the second evening, and with no more than five minutes after I had lost all ability to shoot in the fading light, the clicking of hooves on gravel had snapped me to full attention. Straining through the darkness, I was able to make out a huge rack floating ever closer to my perch. It was the buck from the headlights of the evening before, slipping in to enjoy the buckeye that was less than 20 yards from me. Even before the Swarovski brought the buck into focus, I knew what he was. A massive 3–3 with incredible brow tines–he had become something of an obsession.

Truth of the matter was I tried every possible way on evening two to get an arrow through that buck. Try as I might, though, it was simply impossible. So, I was forced to endure the agony of drooling over the buck I had traveled to Northern California for–well within my grasp, but totally out of reach.

The noise of the truck coming to pick me up on that night was actually a relief. The buck vacated the area before the headlights rounded the bend, slinking off into cover, convinced that he had upheld his duty and title as the Pacific Ghost. That night over supper, Jim quizzed me over and over about the buck. “How big, how wide, why didn’t I shoot him?” “Big, wide, too dark,” I muttered, thoroughly depressed and almost convinced that was probably the best chance I would have. Deep down I knew that I wanted this buck badly, but he seemed almost unkillable. I had laid eyes on him twice, both times after dark, and with the full moon, we were being plagued with that trend and it wasn’t likely to change. This brings us back to evening four.

It had been the slowest evening of the entire hunt, which is sad because the mornings were basically a waste of time. The aforementioned full moon had the deer feeding all night and securely tucked away in some impenetrable fortress long before daylight. Oh yeah, I was perched in a tree every morning because when you travel from Oklahoma to California to hunt you might as well hunt. But I never had much action. Because the mornings were so slow, it was putting more pressure on the evening hunts. It seemed that was the only chance for success, so with each evening passing, and no success, things seemed to be going downhill, which made the events of evening four so depressing. I had ascended to my perch early in the afternoon with high hopes that the buck would show himself just a little bit earlier than normal. It didn’t happen. In fact, nothing showed up that evening–not even the doe and fawn that had been such dependable company on previous evenings.

The drive back to camp that night was a battle of the wills. I was ready to throw in the towel on this spot and head to greener pastures. Jim and TinaMarie have more patience than I do. They said I had already put in too much time in that spot and that I needed to stick it out to the bitter end. I wasn’t convinced. I was down to two days left and convinced the buck I wanted so badly would continue to be nothing more than a ghost and a brief memory. Over dinner that night the argument continued, the voices of reason (Jim and TinaMarie) arguing the point that throwing in the towel after spending five days in one spot would be foolish, while I argued that I was tired of staring at the same barren piece of ground.

I finally conceded, convincing myself that I needed to follow the old adage of “never guide the guide.” Drifting off to sleep that night the optimist in me kept saying tomorrow would be the day, at the same time the pessimist saying I was a fool to think the current trend would change its course. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

The next morning found me in a new area glassing through the coastal fog. It was the coolest morning of the hunt and actually quite enjoyable except for the fact that the Pacific fog is the densest fog I have ever seen. Glassing proved to be a waste of time; I only continued to do it because I had nothing else to do. Like each of the previous mornings, the activity proved slow. I actually never saw a thing until almost noon, when driving back to camp for lunch the velvety tips of antlers were spied down the mountain beneath a towering oak tree. It was a really good buck and at this stage of the game he was definitely worthy of a stalk.

The next hour was spent slipping along one of the ranch roads trying to get in range of the buck. Guide Louie thought we might have a chance to get in range if we took our time. Unfortunately, he had far too much confidence in my ability to traverse the noisiest stalking conditions I have ever encountered. Long story short, I never saw that buck again.

The middle of the day was spent covering as much ground on the ranch as possible, hoping to find a buck in a suitable stalking position. The fact of the matter, however, was that the weather and the full moon were absolutely hampering most every situation. Because of the moon, bucks were not that visible and even when they were the conditions were almost impossible to overcome. We kept trying, though.

By this point, my standards and expectations had taken such a brutal beating that I was almost to the point of convincing myself it wouldn’t happen. My stalking efforts had become nothing more than humbling excursions in futility, and my patience on stand had only fed my desires–after dark…twice. Climbing aboard my now familiar spot that evening, I conceded to enjoy the remainder of the hunt. Letting go of the self-imposed pressure to succeed actually did some good. I found myself enjoying my evening sit, even though it was mind-numbingly slow. There was just no activity, until right before dark.

My newfound attitude had gotten me through another five-hour sit fairly upbeat and enjoying the hunt. Things had been like the previous evenings, so just before dark I stood up to stretch my legs. Why not, I hadn’t seen a single animal and my knees were in dire need of some attention? It was during this stretch that the unmistakable sound of some critter in the woods directly across from me was making its way in. Like so many times before, I could feel my heart start to race, because when something is coming and you don’t know what, visions of world records amazingly pop into the head. The noise continued its descent down the mountain coming ever so closer to my perch. But every minute that passed without a sighting was a minute lost in the fading light.

Suddenly, like the ghost that he had become, the buck materialized directly in front of me. As he stood there facing me in the failing light, the entire hunt flashed through my mind. All the time spent in this spot. All the failed midday stalks.

The bow was ready, the buck was inside of 30 yards, and the light was fading. I needed to be shooting. But I couldn’t. I wanted to bring the bow to anchor and “let ’er fly,” but he was facing me head on. During this standoff, I would be lying if I said the string didn’t have tension on it, but something inside kept telling me to wait. Deep down I knew I could make the shot. I also knew that with each passing second I was running the risk of having the buck give me the slip yet again. As the battle within was waging, something interesting happened. In the failing light, I watched as the buck sniff the air and then flick his tail as if to satisfy his suspicions that all was well. Less than 10 seconds later, he was broadside at less than 15 yards.

The shot still proved to be tough, simply because of the failing light, but as soon as the arrow left the bow I knew I had made the right decision. Patience seldom goes unrewarded and less than 50 yards away laid the biggest Columbian blacktail I will likely ever harvest.

Climbing down from the set I had spent so much time in over the last few days, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment. Not because of the size of the buck, but because I knew that even if it had gotten dark and the buck never presented me with a shot, I had made the right decision. It just turns out that this time I was rewarded for my decision in a big way.

Author’s Notes: It’s unfortunate that such a great game animal is overlooked. Elk and mule deer get all the publicity when it comes to western game. but one of the greatest challenges in the sport of bowhunting is Columbia blacktails. If you’re looking for a great western hunt, this species needs to be on your list. Incredibly challenging and fun to hunt, it is something that more guys back east need to be doing. The great people and beautiful country are simply bonuses.

I used the same gear that has worked so well for me over the years. Hoyt bow, Fuse accessories, Sitka Gear clothing, Trophy Taker arrow rest, Tight Point broadheads, and Easton arrows. I also used my trusty Swarovski 10–42 EL binocular and quiet, comfortable Danner Jackal boots.

ARROW FIVE OUTFITTERS

Jim and TinaMarie Schaafsma and the crew at Arrow Five Outfitters were excellent in every way. Their reputation is second to none, accommodations great, and the simple fact is that even in difficult times like I encountered they know how to get people on bucks. They’re great people that are easy going and fun to be around. If you’re interested in a top-notch blacktail hunt, visit www.arrowfiveoutfitters.com or call 707.923.9633. You’ll be glad you did. <–R.E.>

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