Hunting Blacktail Deer in the Rut
Hunting Blacktail Deer in the Rut
By Josh Hendrickson
“Hunting by its definition is described as “the activity of hunting wild animals or game for food or sport, or the act of conducting a search for something.” I’ve even heard it defined as “to pursue with force or hostility .”.. Now if your reading this I assume you already “GET IT” and understand how hunters might describe this endeavor. As ones closest connection to wildlife and mother nature, or a connection to things bigger and greater than ourselves. Or simply as being a part of the circle of life. Either way. Weather your a seasoned, and professional hunter, or a novice just entering this sport of kings. “I hope this article, these stories, and one mans opinions and experiences further lights the fire in your being to get out there, give fair chase, and to pursue your game of choice to the best of your knowledge and the best of your abilities. “
There are multiple aspects to the passionate pursuit of hunting Blacktail deer in the Pacific Northwest. These aspects range from studying this amazing animal, trying to gain a knowledge of its needs, as well as searching to understand the way it lives, moves, and travels in search of food, water and shelter. To the wide variety of hunting tactics, and techniques that can be used depending on time of year, area you are hunting, and the state of mind the deer are in during your season dates. Each of these variables along with weather conditions play a major role in determining where, when ,and how to pursue a monster Blacktail buck. For example in the early season when the summer months are ending and fall hasn’t fully set in. Hunting can be more challenging. The temperatures are high, causing deer to bed longer. The ground is dry and rock hard making silent hunting and stalking efforts maddeningly loud. The trees haven’t dropped their leaves making it far more difficult to see. It is at this time of year it makes stalking, and pursuing very challenging and almost limits our time to hunt in half. Here we need to pay an immense amount of time and energy to scouting and locating where bucks are bedding,watering and the routes to and from these bedding and water areas. Also be aware that most if not all of your moving deer encounters here will be at first light, or during the waning moments of sunlight in the evening. Lets dive further into these conditions,tactics, and strategies, as well as the adjustments we the hunter can make to increase our successes and meet the challenges that arise while in pursuit of these great bucks.
For me, hunting these animals on their terms, with the multitude of natural barriers that exist, make pursuing this elusive subspecies an outdoorsmans dream. Whether its diving off of a Mountain top peak with the wind and rain howling,slowly creeping off of a logging road and through a rained soaked thinned out timber cut, or climbing rung by rung to your favorite ridge top tree stand. In my state, Oregon. This dream starts and ends in the fern ridden canopy soaked northwest rain forest. From the leg soaking fern or thick lash of blackberry underbrush, to the moss riddled soil. This animal has adapted and evolved its techniques and habits to grow big, heavy, and strong. To evade the wide varieties of predators that stalk the woods every day, and every season. It is by understanding these techniques, these advantages, and their few disadvantages do we the hunter have a chance to take one of these special creatures. Blacktail deer are intelligent, cunning, savvy and seemingly more and more nocturnal. Yet with proper work, technique, and perseverance they can be patterned, intercepted, and harvested in their country yet on our terms.
Often times being able to take one of these amazing bucks on our terms centers around that time of year with which we have a slight, yet important advantage. The ability to hunt “The Rut”… For rifle hunters this is that small window during the last week, or weekend of the season. For archery hunters it’s typically that later part of the season where the daylight begins to shorten and the moon phase triggers the does to come into the estrus heightened breeding period. This is an amazing time to be a hunter where techniques of hunting can be broadened to include, grunt calls, estrus scents, rattling techniques, and slow style “still hunting” where each and every human sense a hunter has is at its peak. On full alert trying to read,understand, and adjust to the tips, sounds, markings, and signs to which the Blacktail buck leaves. Allowing us…The hunter to even the odds, take advantage of, and successfully harvest this remarkable creature. Here using “still hunting” we silently prod, and methodically stalk step by step, yard by yard often stopping to breathe, think, assess, listen ,and survey the land. In search of an animal as beautiful and cunning as any deer species in the world. The Blacktail deer…
The Blacktail deer with its god given gifts such an acute sense of smell, hyper sensitive ability to hear, and its unreal ability for staying engulfed in the shadows make it an all formidable opponent. An opponent constantly evolving and ever sharpening its senses. All in effort to evade and elude its predators including Cougars, Bobcats, Bears, Coyotes, and of course us The Northwest Hunter….
Again to hunt this evasive buck we use a variety of hunting skills or techniques. One of the most important is still hunting.”Still hunting” is my absolute favorite part of the hunt, and this technique is as important as any to master for the harvesting of quality blacktail bucks. It is during this style of hunting where a hunter can use other aspects of pursuing game, like the use of estrus scents, grunt or bleat calls, rattle sequences, and nowadays scent attractants. Often times a variety of these skills coupled together are needed to encounter, or lure a deer into “our bubble.” While“Silent or Still hunting” we need to continuously scan our environment for scrapes,rubs, tracks, the flick of a ear, the white of a neck, or even the sight line to which a back of a Blacktail makes. Even the upward angle of a massive rack tucked in behind a fallen tree stump, or thicket. It is during this period of “The Rut” I like to typically focus on areas that are more inaccessible to your average human hunter.
This may be as simple as locating logged off units and the landings for which the equipment had operated. Often times quality bucks will lie just out of eyes sight off of a bench, or just slightly tucked inside the timber edges. Away from hunters who walk roads,drive pickups,or operate and hunt off of ATV’s,and don’t want to put in the effort it takes to locate,or push a buck out of his comfort zone. I’ve spent days moving from logged off unit to logged off unit just out on the fringes of inaccessibility. Silently and subtly working my way through the neighboring tree lines, often stopping to rattle, throw out a grunt call, or even roll a rock off of a ledge to try and dislodge a bedded monster buck into standing up or even running presenting a often quick, yet optimal chance to put one quality of a rifle shot into the bread basket. These areas often offer a variety of very accessible feed, including the black moss which finds its way to the floor in these timber cuts
During the rut it is here we the hunter pay extra attention and focus on finding does, locating staging areas, and using rut hunting tactics to locate, hunt, and rattle in a monster buck of a lifetime. Rattling deer is something numerous quality hunters use to entice a mature buck into shooting range. I myself have used this technique on numerous occasions for Blacktail, harvesting a variety of animals from a young and methodical, to a bold youthful eager come in on a run buck. To a mature, robust, almost cocky and aggressive 5 year old with a grizzled face,battle torn ears, a tall wide heavy rack, and an almost boxer like tough attitude.
My first rattling successes came after small bits of skepticism due to the unsuccessful attempts of applying this tactic. I had attempted rattling in the woods, during different moon phases, and in all types of weather to no avail…Until I began to understand a more methodical, deliberate, and thinking hunters type of approach to clicking and banging these sets of bone against each other. Almost telling a story with the size, sound, and style of each rattling set. I was hunting by myself just above the Oregon Willamette valley floor. Hunting weather was fantastic. Meaning we were in a small storm. It was quiet enough for the sound of my rattling to travel,yet loud enough to work and stalk my way through the brush without being detected. I had began to rattle , and half spirited was kicking the dirt and breaking a few limbs, when storming and crashing over a ridge came a young yet impressive looking buck who nearly ran me over. Almost in a bit of shock I managed to gather my amazement and my rifle in time to make a quick abrupt whistle. Stopping my prey,and with one smooth squeeze and a well placed slug I was on the board with my first rattled in buck kill. I can remember the excited sense of accomplishment. But more important a light going off to this new,exciting,aggressive,and successful tool I had just mastered. Or so I thought…. “The rattling of bucks!!!”
First and foremost with rattling deer, and something at the time I didn’t grasp. Was that similar to hunting, or calling elk. Each and every buck that is in the “Rut” phase will not respond, or charge in as my “Valley Buck” had. Often it takes applying multiple tools accompanying your rattle set to pull a buck out of his area, and into yours. And….Not only does this buck need to be in search of does, but confident in his sparring ability, his own size, strength, and toughness against other bucks. Often that smaller younger animal, not sure of its stature and ability will move in silent and slow winding around the staging area deciphering if a challenge is possible. Or like a Vegas bookie weigh his odds against a variety of factors including peak of doe estrus, safety of staging area, and most importantly size of its counterpart or other dominant buck in the area. I believe this “hold up” buck as I call him also typically often travels with the company of other deer. On numerous occasions I’ve watched as I out of range tried to help this buck close the distance to no avail. He’s anxious to the sound of the rattle, though does not want to lose his herum to the challenger. Here he almost bounces back and forth bluffing a charge, or securing each individual doe making sure they are staying reliable, or even loyal to him. Often times to harvest this buck, one will need to adjust his plan, drop his antlers and put on a quality and methodically planned stalk.
On other occasions a stud buck will brashly and confidently storm in with its head held hi, almost prancing looking to re-establish himself as “The king of the area.” With these ideas in mind it is important to adjust the length, loudness, and aggressiveness of your rattling technique. I also will point out that I have never had a different animal species or doe charge into the sound of rattling antlers. Typically when contact is made after a rattle set you can count on it being a heavy horned bruiser, or a small buck anxious to get a taste. On one occasion I recall a hunt just off of the valley floor in Western Oregon. Here my father and I were working a ridge moving from bedding area, to open timber, to quality hot spots, or good draws where we’ve encountered deer before. I recall this sly well aged buck had moved in silently leaving us both unaware he was in the area. A large buck, with age and wisdom he moved in without a sound, yet his giveaway began with the sound off brush. Thinking it was birds in a thicket my father had advanced to secure what the sound was. Upon cresting a bench 25 yards in front of him, he was startled by a tree swaying back and forth, its limbs were shaking and leaves were fluttering to the ground. He immediately backed off a few steps, grabbed a knee and with a hand signal and a wink we quickly began another small sequence of bone thumping. As dad approached the crest again this dandy of a buck was now advancing toward us both. With the turn of his head and one well placed arrow. Dad and I had our hands on this heavy horned bruiser of a buck. It was on this occasion I learned about patience, rattling, still hunting, and the quality results that these well coordinated efforts can bring.
Myself I enjoy most this technique of rattling eye to eye, and not in a stand. This is for two reasons. The first is the challenge and the excitement of seeing that buck eye to eye, and beating him on equal grounds without the scent alleviation and sight light advantage of a tree stand. The second is due to the ability to not just count on a hot buck in your area, but to cover an entire ridge, or mountainside in search of that one “Dominant Buck”.. Here we move in increments of 100 to 250 yards at a time setting up in a I, or a V like setup with ideally a shooter out front and the rattling person slightly behind. Here we not only rattle in 10- 20 second increments but I always like to throw handfuls of dirt to the sides of the call, or even scuff the ground like an advancing deer bounding to the call, or struggling with another for position during a fight. Displaying its strength, dominance, and fighting ability typically two animals battling horn to horn makes quite a commotion. Often times in the wet foliage which late season deer hunting brings sounding loud enough and realistic is challenging. Here we couple the rattle with a combination of grunt calling, snort wheezing, ground scuffing and our scent application. With coupling these techniques together, and selectively search out staging areas or areas in the timber with adequate cover but still room for multiple deer to collect and socialize. We maximize our opportunity for encounters while also allowing for numerous shooting lanes for an arrow flight, or adequate sight lines for a scoped rifle shot.
I have used multiple types of rattling products including synthetic horns like the “Black Rack” or “Rattle Sticks”, or the “Circular Rattle Wheel” all of which are adequate products. But I prefer the sound of a solid set of natural antlers for their thick, deep, natural sound. But you may need to practice with each and experiment for yourself to find the pitch and sound you are looking for your hunting grounds. So get to know your area, and the animals in it by rub height,track size, trail cams, and droppings. If you know the mac daddy is in there,grab that monster set of rattles and draw out that stud with that score and encounter you’ve been dreaming about. Either way, and again pay attention to each of these little details and you will be a rattling fool who has the upper hand for many years to come.
Another vital piece to the hunt, and as mentioned before during the rut is an ideal practice. Is the accompanying use of estrus products, or scents. I’ve found this combination to be paramount when rattling. Especially on the occasion when the savvy animal catches you wrong, and has you pinned down with the buck being downwind. Often times this will save a hunt, save a blown encounter, and still allow you a chance at harvesting your dream buck. On another special hunt in the heavy logging riddled timber of The Cascade coast range again in Oregon this combo has paid off with the end results being a heavily stocked freezer and a quality mount on the wall. I was hunting actually on thanksgiving morning. I was working my way along several ridges which I’ve known to hold quality deer, paying special attention to the benches or flats as I worked my way down several draws or veins sprawling off the ridge tops. Here the wind was heavy and the rain was brisk, as a November morning in Oregon often times can be. I can remember being ecstatic I was in the woods on this special holiday, as I had just spent several minutes admiring the beauty, feeling the adrenaline, and scanning the darkened forest on this perfect morning in the Western Oregon Mountains. I had just begun to start working back toward my vehicle as I caught movement of a deer escaping my sight limits. I immediately checked the wind, and due to the days light advancing the wind had just changed. My scent was wrong and the vectors were traveling straight down. Due to my time restraints, and the foliage I was caught in. An attempt to circle the animal was not possible. (Not knowing the sex as well.) I decided I’d settle in after 100 yards of advancement and try to pull this animal back. I advanced, then quickly re- immersed myself in my commercial bought doe scent, and began to quickly yet small and softly proceed with a rattle set. After about ten minutes and to my delight this darkened horned and solid three point emerged and began to methodically, and cautiously work his way up the draw to my lower left. Stopping to smell, look, and listen he knew something was amidst. I again checked the wind and was in disgust. The wind was 100 % dead wrong. Disgusted with what was about to happen, I again Halfheartedly knocked an arrow. Hunkered down behind a stump, thought to myself “No Way” this won’t work. Though with a hunters mentality I again rattled the horns yet even softer now,cupped my hands around the grunt call and faced it dead away from the buck giving a slow and soft elongated growl. Peering back over the stump scanning and searching for the masculine buck. I caught movement, then a silhouette and to my amazement the majestic buck had continued toward me. Toward the sound of my set, and eventually to within 12 yards of my location. All the while I could see his confused look, thinking I smell this deer, I want this deer, where is this buck. As he eventually passed me and with his nose still working the forest air. I exacted a quartering away shot on the mature solid based “Blacky.” With the aid of my scent product and a little bit of patience and technique. I had beaten the odds and overcame my downwind disadvantage. And on Thanksgiving day was thanking the deer gods, and preparing for a long,yet rewarding drag out. First I sat back and smiled. Glancing around I took in the beauty of the forest,the accomplishment of my hunt, nodding to the sky, and grinning ear to ear I gave thanks to my surroundings, to that gorgeous buck, & again to the product that saved me. I have never forgotten that day. That moment. And definitely not that hunt. For its that moment and the never ending search of that feeling that drives me up and down these Oregon ridges and mountaintops. In search of another majestic creature, another bliss full moment. Another memorable hunt…