Black-tailed deer hunting is considered by many to be the ultimate deer hunting challenge. In this article, we'll cover the reasons hunting blacktails can be so challenging, the most effective and commonly used tactics for bagging blacktail bucks, the different tactics required for hunting blacktails in different terrain, and the all-important need for proper scouting.
Blacktails are greatly outnumbered by whitetail and mule deer in North America. They have a narrow geographic range that hugs the Pacific coast from southeast Alaska down to northern California. Perhaps partly because of this narrow range, not a whole lot has been written about blacktail hunting when compared to the seemingly endless volumes on whitetail and mule deer.
The blacktail is classified as a subspecies of the mule deer. However, they typically do not share the mule deer's love of wide open country. Their behavior is more like that of whitetails, although they do not follow consistent patterns like the whitetail.
Often referred to as the "Ghost of the Pacific", the blacktail is an elusive creature. Most hunters who have gone after blacktail agree they are probably the most challenging of all North American big game animals.
The good news is that in most blacktail country, their population density is very high, even though it doesn't seem that way because so few deer are spotted. And they have relatively small home ranges; although Oregon and California have black-tailed deer that are migratory, most blacktails spend their whole lives in an area no bigger than two square miles. The deer are there, and they don't wander far from home, so if you're willing to learn their secretive ways, and you're ambitious enough to put in your time, you just might be able to outsmart a blacktail buck.
Across their range, blacktails inhabit a wide variety of terrain, and because of this fact, blacktail hunting requires the application of a variety of tactics. Choosing the most effective method to hunt blacktail depends largely on where you find them.
There are certain smaller portions of the blacktail's range where the country is relatively open, including sections of southeast Alaska and northern British Columbia, areas in northern California and southern Oregon, and high altitude alpine habitat throughout their range. In this terrain, blacktail hunting can lend itself quite well to a spot-and-stalk approach. Check out our article on mule deer hunting tactics for a more detailed explanation of open country spot-and-stalk techniques.
However, the bulk of blacktail land falls in the low- to mid-elevation Pacific Northwest, from northern Oregon all the way up to southeast Alaska. Much of the blacktail habitat here is more like jungle than anything else. Thick, near-impenetrable stands of old-growth timber, dense, thorny underbrush, and slippery, moss-covered logs can make for slow and uncomfortable off-trail travel. And blacktails can be infuriatingly nocturnal in their behavior -- especially the mature bucks. To successfully hunt the blacktail in this habitat, you'll need some specialized strategies and tactics.
A successful blacktail strategy almost invariably starts with good scouting -- and lots of it. Scouting is a two-fold process: it includes selecting the right land to hunt and then studying that land to learn as much about the deer as possible.
In general, the more remote and inaccessible your hunting area, the better chance the deer will be less disturbed and therefore less nocturnal. When choosing an area to focus your scouting efforts, try to stick to a relatively small area like a specific ridgeline, saddle, or canyon. It's simply too difficult to get an accurate picture of blacktail movement when you're trying to understand thousands of acres.
Don't attempt to pattern a specific blacktail buck. Instead, focus on understanding the overall patterns of the deer in your area. First, find the deer trails and figure out which trails are used for which purpose. In order to do this, you need to understand the typical travel patterns of blacktail. Here is a general description of 24 hours in a blacktail buck's life:
During the day, bucks usually bed in higher spots surrounded by dense cover. They may get up ocassionally during the day to feed but will stay close to the protective cover of their bedding area. As dusk approaches, they will typically follow a trail downhill to their nighttime feeding areas. After feeding, they will stay at this lower elevation and bed down for the remainder of the night, often in fairly open areas. When early morning rolls around, blacktail bucks will follow a different trail back up to their daytime bedding spots, and the cycle starts all over again.
Now, this is a very basic, generalized description, and, in reality, the deers' movements are influenced by many other factors, including weather conditions, time of year, phase of the moon, level of hunting pressure, and wind direction. That last one -- wind direction -- happens to be of prime importance because a buck will usually approach a feeding area with the wind at his back.
Because deer movement patterns are dependent on so many factors, the best blacktail hunters keep a hunting journal and fill it with their observations when scouting. Record all your observations, paying particular attention to wind direction under variable conditions and at different times of the day. Keeping a record of your observations will dramatically increase your ability to decipher deer patterns in your area and will set you on the path to being able to predict these patterns more acurately.
Blacktails are notably less consistent in their trail patterns than whitetails. Whitetails are known for using the same trail day after day if they remain undisturbed. In contrast, the blacktail's use of trails will typically be highly irregular from day to day. Most blacktail habitat provides the deer with an abundance of food sources, so blacktail tend to base their movements more on wind direction rather than food supply.
Don't expect one season of scouting to give you an intimate familiarity with the deer. It will probably take a few years of regular, intensive scouting to begin to gain a real understanding of blacktail movement in any given place.
Once you've scouted your area intensively and gained an understanding of the deer movement patterns as well as the ways different environmental factors (particularly the wind) influence those movements, it's time to choose the tactics you'll use to actually get your buck. The best blacktail deer hunters have multiple tactics up their sleeves, and they remain flexible in their application of these tactics.
Tree stands can work wonders as an ambush tactic for blacktails. In thick Pacific Northwest forest, getting yourself up above the lower vegetation can afford you much longer views through the woods. Our article on deer hunting from a tree stand provides a more comprehensive look at this technique, but there are a few specific things to keep in mind when hunting blacktail from a tree stand.
Never set up your tree stand next to open areas -- blacktails may feed in these spots, but they almost invariably do so well after dark. Blacktails rely on thick cover to feel safe -- not long, unobstructed views. The best blacktail stands overlook multiple trails or a major intersection between trails, and these stands are often more effective in the evening than the morning because you can catch the deer heading to their feeding locations.
Because the blacktail woods can be so dense, try to pick a stand position where at least some light is let in from the forest canopy. This, coupled with a pair of high-quality binoculars and a high-quality scope, will greatly extend your hunting time during those first and last precious minutes of daylight.
Make sure you use appropriate scent containment techniques: always wash your hunting clothes in an unscented, deodorizing laundry detergent; touch as little vegetation with your hands as possible as you approach your stand; never wear the same clothes while sitting in your stand that you used to walk to the stand; and only stay in your stand as long as you think the chances are high of seeing deer.
If possible, set your stand up a few months prior to the hunting season and don't wander that area until you're ready to hunt. When setting up your stand, make sure you camoflauge it as much as possible so it doesn't look out of place and catch the attention of the deer. But be careful not to remove too much vegetation or otherwise alter the area around your stand location -- this can stick out like a sore thumb to a deer.
You do not have to use man-made tree stands to stand hunt effectively. In blacktail country, you can often find natural stand locations such as large stumps, fallen trees, or boulders, that can raise your elevation enough to get the same effect as a tree stand. Add natural camoflauge like fir boughs or fallen leaves and you can get the same advantage you get from a commercial tree stand.
Still-hunting can be highly effective for blacktails. The key to success with this technique is to slow way, way down.
Many hunters believe they are still-hunting, when in fact they are simply walking through the woods, broadcasting their presence to all the deer in the area.
We lead incredibly fast-paced lives relative to the pace of the woods. Watch videos of undisturbed deer -- or better yet, get yourself into a position to observe undisturbed deer in person. This is the pace you need to be going for, and it's a very slow pace indeed. You'll also need to take a number of crucial steps in order to defeat the deer's sense of smell, hearing, and sight. For a more detailed breakdown of this technique, check out our article on still-hunting deer.
The rut can be a highly productive time to hunt blacktails because their drive to find estrous does overpowers their normal, ghost-like habits. Blacktails do not make scrapes like whitetails, but they do make antler rubs. Look for fresh rubs on saplings or small trees. If you find a series of rubs, you may have discovered a rub route, which could indicate an area with multiple dominant bucks and be an excellent place to hunt during the rut.
Still-hunting can be effective during the rut, particularly on rainy days where the precipitation further muffles the sound of your movements. Bucks are more active in general during this time, and your chances of seeing them out and about during daytime are greatly increased.
However, rut-specific tactics are the real place to focus your efforts during this time. During the rut, bucks are not only looking for does, they're also looking for bucks to establish their dominance over. You can use this behavior to your advantage by imitating the sound of two bucks' antlers clashing together (called rattling) in order to lure a buck to your position.
There are a variety of rattling techniques out there, but here is one common approach. If you're hunting solo, set up in thick cover so that a buck will feel comfortable coming in close enough for a shot. Position yourself near (but not right in) a bedding or high-traffic breeding area. If you have a partner, even better. Set up in the same type of area with the designated rattler on the ground in thick cover and the designated shooter downwind maybe 50 yards in a tree stand.
You don't want to bang the antlers together loudly. This would imitate a violent clash between two dominant bucks, which rarely happens. Softer sparring matches are much more common, so you should attempt to imitate this scenario.
Gently rub the antlers together in a grinding motion and you'll have a better chance of bringing in a buck. Try a few minute-long sessions, starting really soft and increasing in intensity, then stop, wait, and observe for about a half hour. If a buck doesn't show, move on to another area and repeat the process. And try adding in an estrous doe bleat call or a buck grunt call to make your rattling even more enticing.
Rattling is most often used during archery seasons because those seasons usually occur during peak rut times. However, portions of the rut can definitely fall in modern firearm seasons, so rattling can be used during rifle hunting. If you attempt rattling during a rifle or muzzloader season, be sure to take extra safety precautions. Use an "antler bag" so you aren't carrying real antlers, or paint your antlers hunter orange so you don't get mistaken for a buck by an irresponsible hunter and have your hunting career suddenly come to a tragic end.
Hunting black-tailed deer can be an intimidating prospect. They don't call them the "Ghosts of the Pacific" for nothing. But understanding the behavior of blacktail bucks and learning the specialized tactics needed to hunt them effectively will help you spend less time wandering aimlessly through the forest or staring for hours at edges of clearcuts and more time field dressing deer.