Blacktail hunting, what the heck is that? Sure, you know about whitetail and perhaps even mule deer hunting, but what do you know about the blacktail? Perhaps more importantly why should you care? Well, if you want to hunt the most challenging member of the deer family you'll need to know! Believe me if you ever come out West to hunt this phantom deer slivering through the pacific woodlands, you are in for the ultimate challenge.
Known officially as Odocoileus hemionus columbianus, the Columbian blacktail's range extends along the pacific coast, from British Columbia to California's Monterey County. The blacktails territory extends inland to the western slope of the Cascade Range and in central California they can be found as far east as the Sierra Nevada foothills. In the regions where blacktails and mule deer coexist they interbreed freely, resulting in a deer that cannot be classified as a true blacktail or mule deer. In California we consider these deer hybrids.
Because of the overlap in territory that exists between the blacktail and mule deer, record-keeping organizations like Boone & Crockett and Pope & Young Clubs have established regions from which all blacktail trophy entries must originate from in each state. The states in which these boundaries exist are Washington, Oregon, and California. While some hunters do not agree with these boundary lines, the boundaries are to ensure only pure strain blacktails are submitted. California leads the record books with more than 280 entries with Oregon follows closely behind with 211.
In size, blacktails (considered by most to be a subspecies of mule deer) are a smaller version of the mule deer. Average weight for a blacktail buck will fall between 100 to 140 pounds, although much larger specimens have been documented. Their antlers are bifurcated like the mule deer, but only occasionally will there be eye guards. As the name suggest, the blacktails tail is entirely black compared to that of a muley, with just the tip being black. The white rump patch that is also so apparent on the muley is almost nonexistent on the blacktail. Just a slight sliver of light colored hair is visible along the edges of the tail when the deer is relaxed. Blacktails coats are reddish in summer and warm brown to warm gray in winter and on average the blacktail ears are slightly smaller than that of the mule deer.
In the 2001 August edition of North American Hunter magazine, author and renowned whitetail hunter Jim Shockey stated "it took this whitetail hunter 10 seasons, hunting in prime blacktail country in the mountains of the West Coast, to see the light and admit the awful truth. I was unworthy! Unless I got professional help or found a blacktail buck that God messed up on? I'd never hang my tag on a big Columbian Blacktail". Even with the help of well-known blacktail guides he admitted it still took him three more attempts before his search was over. Shockey ends the story by saying "I finally held in my hands the toughest of the deer to hunt, a big, mature Columbian Blacktail deer". Make no mistake, blacktail hunting is tough.
The Phantom's Domain
Blacktail are challenging largely because they know how to use their surrounding habit to their advantage. Unlike the mule deer, who is a lover of wide-open spaces, the blacktail buck is at home in brush-choked canyons, hillsides, and dark timber stands. And unlike the whitetail, who is an animal of habit and routine, the patterns of a blacktail buck are inconsistent at best. To top it all off, you'll have to deal with blistering temperature of summer and some of the most inhospitable country imaginable. Sound like a deer hunters worst nightmare, doesn't it?
Compared to the rest of the country, California deer seasons are early at best. With hunting dates beginning as early as mid-July for archers and rifle hunters packing their bags for home by late October, It's very doubtful you'll find any cold weather while hunting these cagey creatures. This is the Golden State's warm season! With temperatures dangling around the 100-degree mark if not higher and the very low humidity, your trip through the woods relates more to a cereal commercial. -Snap, crackle, pop!
What about the terrain? If you think California is flat and filled with cities, you have got another thing coming. With almost 45 percent of the states land being public, Northern California is host to some of the most rugged county you'll find in the west. From nearly impenetrable chaparral covered foothills to dense stands of timber, eventually giving way to rocky alpine peaks, you have got your work cut out for you. The mountains of blacktail country resemble the bellows of an accordion, and if your not half billy goat, stay home!
The Phantom's Wits
Now that we have covered the potential hunting conditions you may encounter, here's what to expect from the phantom.
According to the 2000 Environmental Document on Deer hunting, the California Department of Fish and Game estimates that there are more than 511,000 deer statewide. In my opinion that's not a lot of deer for a state as big as California. Especially when you compare it to states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Alabama with population numbers over a million and growing. So, exactly what am I saying? Well, bring along a good pair of boots, because your dogs may be doing a fair amount of walking!
There may be days when you do not see any deer at all. Then again you may stumble into an area just packed with blacktails. Hunting blacktail bucks by sight alone is chancy at best. You have got to have faith with these animals. Undoubtedly you'll see the sign, tracks, beds, rubs, the rare scrape, and the like, but seldom will you see the buck that left it. Out of all the blacktails I have taken over the years, I have still yet to spot the same buck the day before or even weeks prior to the time I actually took him. You may hunt a certain area for an entire season and not see any bucks. But they are there, you just have to have faith. Only by being very persistent will you take a mature blacktail buck. If you don't posses faith, you'll never be a successful blacktail deer hunter, plain and simple.
Like any other deer, blacktails hang in bachelor groups in early spring. It's common to see groups of 2-5 bucks during this period and on occasion I have been witnessed up to eight in a group or more. They tend to meander around in more open areas during spring in an effort not to damage their newly developing antlers and to take full advantage of the succulent spring growth. Hence, this is one of the best times to be scouting blacktails for the approaching season.
By the time archery season kicks in, the buck's antlers will be almost fully developed, but still covered in velvet. Some bucks will continue to congregate while others (more mature) will often start to seek solitude as the time nears to discard their velvet. Soon the bucks will rub-out and it will be time for their annual disappearing act. Once a blacktail becomes hard horned, Mr. Daytime is left behind and only Mr. Nightmare remains. Daytime activities are almost nonexistent as he metamorphoses into a completely nocturnal creature. Mature blacktail bucks will not emerge from this mode until their sexual urges get the best of them.
Archery hunters who hunt the earliest part of the season will have the best luck bagging one of these sly creatures. One of the best ways to hunt blacktails during this time is the spot and stalk method. Find a high vantage point to glass from in the early predawn hours. The more of an area you can view, the better off you'll be. You can also employ the 'tag team method', if you're hunting with a buddy. With the use of hand signals and/or two-way radios, this approach can be down right lethal! Thus far, this tag team routine has been one of the best ways I have found to defeat the keen senses of the blacktail.
Pay close attention to mostly open grassy areas containing oak trees, pines, and broken chaparral. Be sure to check every shadow! If you find a group of young bucks hanging together, check the immediate area very carefully, there may be a more mature buck lingering around. Mature bucks will use the younger bucks as sentries. If trouble happens to arise he will be the first to leave. Unlike other deer that may bolt or stott away, a mature blacktail buck is more apt to silently slip away without ever being seen. Once you have spotted your prey, it's time for the stalk.
Remember, the terrain is varied here. You may find yourself with a stalk of less than a hundred yards or a stalk of a mile or more. Be prepared and always on the ready. Try to avoid all other deer while stealthily winding through the undercover. A doe will surely give you away just for spite. Use the terrain to your advantage if possible. Don't go looking for a shortcut. If the only way to get to your prey is by climbing a mountain to get around him for lack of a better approach, you'll have to do it. I have had stalks that have lasted all day while others just a few hours. Your biggest concern besides the wind is making sure the buck does not spot you. If he does, you'll have to climb another mountain to reacquire him. Bring lots of water, it's a hell of a hike!
As I stated earlier, you have to have faith when it comes to hunting blacktails. Rifle hunters really have got their work cut out for them. When rifles season finally rolls around bucks will be entirely nocturnal and very sensitive to anything moving about in the bush during daylight hours. A mature blacktail buck is more than willing to hunker down and let you walk right on by him, rather than jumping up to make a run for it.
With dry conditions that plague rifle hunters, your best bet again is to spot-n-stalk or employ the ground stand hunting method, what I call 'the sniper's approach'. You have got to get in early though. At least an hour before sunrise, and if you're heading back to camp with daylight remaining you're not staying late enough. I know you've heard that before, but it's vital to reiterate it for blacktail hunting. The key is to move about as little as possible. Glass until your eyeballs are about to fall out of your head, and then glass some more. Be aware of the wind at all times and if you happen to pop over a ridge too suddenly, your presence will be revealed to all.
Treestand hunting is an option you can consider, but remember blacktail are not as religious as the whitetail when it comes to 'routine'. Blacktails are browsers and feed on a variety of food sources. You won't find any food plots of alfalfa, clover, and the like here! Your best chances for treestand hunting are watering sources during extremely hot weather, and migration routes late in the season if bad weather is due. If you're hoping to hunt during the rut for blacktails, forget it. Hunting seasons in California close well before the peak of the rut. So leave those grunt tubes and rattles at home. Instead, pack along a good spotting scope. A good scope could mean the difference between success and failure. What most seasoned blacktail hunters' hope for is a late season weather front, and if inclement weather does happen to poke its head out, hunting this elusive phantom can be awesome!
If you are a sportsman seeking to complete your trophy room with every deer species North America has to offer, you'll eventually have to come out West to do so. As I have stated before, California is not your only option to hunt the Columbian blacktail deer. Oregon, Washington, and Canada all offer excellent opportunities with better seasons to boot. But, if you want the ultimate deer hunting challenge and think you've got what it takes, try the northern woods of California's public lands. And if you do happen to bag one, I will tip my hat to you, for you will have completed the ultimate challenge!