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It’s one thing to kill a blacktail buck, but it’s another thing to kill a wise, old blacktail buck. They aren’t like their larger cousins, mule deer, who spend most of their lives in vast open terrain. Blacktails are very sneaky animals who find solitude in thick, brushy and heavily forested areas. I’ve killed a lot of big blacktails in my time, and it always seems as if every big buck has his own completely different and unique personality. Some of these wall hangers are trail walkers, some move only in the shadows from tree to tree; some are loners while others prefer hanging out with the pack. The only common denominator that all big blacktails share is a built-in instinct to detect danger at a distance. They have a finely honed sixth sense for survival that not only protects them from their natural predators, mountain lions and bears, but also from hunters. They move through the woods quite differently than younger bucks and does, constantly scanning the area, listening and testing the wind for danger. Just when you think you have a big buck figured out, he serves you a piece of humble pie. That’s trophy blacktail hunting! It’s completely unpredictable and tagging a specific buck can sometimes take weeks, if it happens at all.

Patience, dedication, perseverance and the ability to adapt are what it takes to tag a wise, old blacktail buck. Sometimes we need to use unorthodox measures when we try to outsmart these masters of deception. Notice the key word here is “try.” More often than we prefer and just when we think we have them figured out, they turn the tables on us. Believe me when I say that I’ve sat in the woods more often than I’d like to admit saying to myself, “What the heck did I do wrong?” Does this sound familiar to you? Well, if it does, don’t feel so bad because you’re not alone.

Now it’s time to turn things around and tilt the scales in your favor. You’ll have to get aggressive and possibly alter your traditional tactics a bit. This requires more scouting time and hours in the woods, but I’m sure you will be happy with the results. Here are some proven tips that I’ve used to outfox many hard-to-get trophy blacktails that currently hang on my trophy room wall.

By glassing from high vantage points, a hunter can sometimes locate BlackTails for a spot-and-stalk

By glassing from high vantage points, a hunter can sometimes locate BlackTails for a spot-and-stalk

Glassing for deer in open pockets at dusk and dawn using high-powered optics is always a productive method used by the majority of blacktail hunters, including myself. The problem is that you’ll probably see the same forked horns hanging out with the same does on a regular basis. Where are the big boys that your gut tells you are roaming these woods? You may get lucky and glass one of them in the open, but I wouldn’t count on it. You’ll have to work a lot harder than that for a true trophy blacktail. Now it’s time to get serious and really put your scouting skills to the test.

To more effectively scout and find a fully mature trophy blacktail buck, you will have to get deep in the woods and take some precautionary steps when doing so. You’re entering his domain so your #1 precaution is scent control. Nothing will send a big buck running into the next county faster than human scent. Decide on your target area and approach it from downwind. Wear rubber boots, rather than your regular leather hunting boots, and do not touch any branches with your bare hands. Another good idea is to carry an empty plastic bottle in your day pack in case you need to urinate. Never lean against any trees or sit down on the ground while scouting your targeted area. Stealth is the name of the game. All it takes is one reckless mistake when dealing with big bucks and you’ll never know what’s really living in those woods.

It’s time to look for fresh big buck sign. Find a well-used game trail leading from a bedding area to either a water or food source. Large, splayed hoof prints with deep dew claw impressions are a true giveaway of a big buck’s existence. Also look for ground scrapes, rubs or rub lines on small trees where a dominant buck has established his territory and possibly his breeding grounds. Look for fresh beds. Deer prefer bedding on north-facing slopes, which are much cooler during the heat of the day. Many bucks will have multiple beds in one area, shading themselves from the sun or wind during different times of the day. I’ve found trees with a bed on one side of it facing west and another on the opposite side facing east. One’s a morning bed, while the other is an afternoon or evening bed.

Trail cameras are a great scouting tool once you’ve found an area with high levels of activity and fresh sign. These cameras will not only capture a photo of an animal passing through your targeted area, but also provide valuable information such as the specific time and date the photo was taken. If you consistently document your findings over a period of time, it will allow you to pattern your buck. Place your camera on a tree or within a rock outcropping at waist height and about 10 yards from your targeted area – preferably a well-used game trail. Be sure to wear rubber boots and latex gloves when setting it up or when retrieving its memory card to check for photos.

A natural funnel is usually a group of trees snaking its way through an open area allowing a buck to move undetected between his feeding and bedding areas. Big bucks constantly use these funnels daily. Because these travel corridors provide them with a sense of security, they’ll let their guard down providing a hunter an open window of opportunity in which to strike. I’ve killed a lot of big blacktails in natural funnels, including my record-book non-typical. Trust me; this is your “ace in the hole.”

Your method of ambush depends largely upon the terrain you’re hunting. There are a number of methods hunters use to ambush blacktails every season. Some drive around in four-wheel drive vehicles hoping for a sighting. Some use the spot-and-stalk method, while others still-hunt or use tree stands. If I’m backpacking and setting-up my spike camp 12 miles into a designated wilderness area, carry weight is definitely an issue and the additional weight of a tree stand is not practical. For my high country wilderness hunts I occasionally spot and stalk my prey if the situation is right, but the majority of the time I still-hunt through thick, heavily forested areas. Moving at a snail’s pace, I stop every so many feet to glass the thick cover ahead, trying to catch any type of movement. Sometimes it’s just a flick of an ear or a blink of an eye that will give away a big buck’s position.

If I’m not on a backpack hunt, I prefer to use a tree stand as my method of ambush. For me, they have proven to be highly effective in taking trophy blacktails in both thick, brushy areas and dense forests where stalking on the ground is nearly impossible. Make sure to place your tree stand downwind of your targeted area and at least 15 feet above ground. Your movement, and most importantly your scent, will remain undetected if done correctly. During the 2005 archery season, I sat in my tree stand for 21 consecutive days watching multiple bucks pass beneath me until finally my intended target appeared just before dark. As he stepped out from beside a large oak tree, he sealed his fate as my arrow found its mark. He is currently ranked as California’s #2 non-typical blacktail buck taken with a bow.

A record-book blacktail buck.  It currently ranks as California's #2 non-typical blacktail taken with a bow.

A record-book blacktail buck. It currently ranks as California’s #2 non-typical blacktail taken with a bow.

Sometimes, no matter what we do and how precisely we plan out a situation, something always seems to go wrong, especially when related to blacktail hunting. Blacktails are creatures of habit. If they feel safe, they’ll use the same game trail day after day. If you find an area that deer are consistently using two game trails to access a water or food source, block one of them off and intentionally force them to use the trail that passes beside your tree stand. Just make sure you wear latex gloves when moving branches or deadfalls, so as not to leave your scent. I used this method a couple years ago on a big buck that I had studied for a month prior to the season opener, then hunted for two weeks straight as he evaded me time after time. Just as I thought I had him all figured out, he began using a different trail to access his water source. The next day I put on my rubber boots and latex gloves and blocked the adjacent trail using some large fallen branches, then repositioned my tree stand. It made all the difference. Soon afterward I claimed my hard-to-get trophy blacktail with a well-placed arrow.

Weather plays a large role in behavioral patterns of blacktail deer. They’re not like mule deer bucks that are willing to sit out big storms until they are chest deep in snow before moving to lower elevations. Blacktails are quite the opposite. They run at the first sign of a big storm. I have a couple hunting spots in Northern California where I consistently have success hunting blacktails at about 9,000 feet in elevation. I’ve witnessed first-hand an entire ridge filled with bucks clear out overnight due to a heavy rain and windstorm. If you’re up high and a big storm hits, find the main drainage out of that mountain range and follow it down low, sometimes thousands of feet in elevation, until you find a food and water source. That’s where you’ll find the bucks.

Over the years, I’ve studied and documented the effect of moon phases on big buck behavior using multiple trail cameras. In locations where there were no predators present, deer fed in the moonlight throughout the night. But in areas such as the ones I hunt where there is no shortage of hungry predators, I’ve found that wise old blacktail bucks are most active during the last 30 minutes of daylight and the first two hours of night before the full moon rises. They feel a sense of urgency to feed before the full moon illuminates the area and silhouettes them for roaming predators such as mountain lions. I’ve killed most of my big bucks during the last minutes of daylight on a full moon phase.

Hunting blacktails is no easy task, by any means. They are one of the most deceptive western big game animals, posing a challenge for any veteran hunter. I sincerely hope some of my tips will help you tag your trophy buck this year. They’ve proven successful for me over the years and hopefully they’ll work for you also. Good luck and happy hunting.