“One Round. One Rifle. One Alaska Hunting Season.” I set out with Winchester’s 300WSM XPR and Expedition Big Game Long Range across Alaska over the 2017-2018 hunting season. Moose, Sheep, Mountain Goat, Blacktail Deer, Black Bear, and Caribou all fall to this lethal combination. Alaska tested, Alaska tough. Here’s a link to my review on Winchester’s Expedition Big Game and EXBGLR ammunition. ->READ MORE
Here is part 1/2 from a 2016 late season sitka blacktail hunt on Kodiak Island, AK
Public land is great choice for any DIY hunter, its widely available you just have to know where to look. Surveying Google Maps on my computer I saw an interesting national forest near Oregon’s coast and wanted to check it out. Choosing a few hunting locations in the Suislaw National Forest is a daunting task, it stretches for 991miles across the Pacific coast line of Oregon and provides ample hunting opportunity. “If you have never hunted this particular area how do you chose a location?” Firstly I read some information on blacktails provided by Oregon Department of Fish and Game, and checked out their Interactive hunting map. Secondly, I concentrated my efforts on one particular area on a system of clear cuts, using one specific road.
I also studied the game regulations provided by ODFG and found the particular GMU’s which I was allowed to hunt. I decided to hunt National Forest because it is the easiest way to find yourself in a legal hunting area if you are a DIY public land hunter and have a tag in your pocket. Reading everything I possibly could online about blacktail hunting, I learned that hunters have mixed success from tree stand hunting, still hunting, and spot and stalk techniques. Hunting the edge of clear cuts whenever possible also provides hunters with success. These tactics aren’t to much different from the way whitetails are pursued, although the terrain, diet, and behaviors of the blacktails are slightly different. I find that trees and forage are the key to any deer species, and having an understanding of the trees helps hone my hunting approach. I found myself studying trees more during the hunting season than studying deer, mainly because I couldn’t find any blacktails.
Using my iPhone maps app I drive to the selected national forest road a few miles outside a small surf town on the coast of Oregon. One man can only cover so much terrain on one hunt, and from what I have read/heard it’s not to easy to walk up on the said “ghost of the coast”. Drawing on previous experience from my 2013 blacktail hunt where I harvested a beautiful blacktail doe, I knew one particular tactic that would give me a great place to start. I got to the road where I was legal to hunt and started looking, slowly driving to find animal “highways” that cross the road. I took the first day to scout/hunt keeping my eyes open for any deer sign possible. I had one tree stand in my tool kit to hang, thus adding to my strategy for these blacktails. Kind of mind numbing to think that your hunting 991 square miles sitting in a tree waiting for one deer to show up though. I like my odds….. Finding a concealed blocked off logging road, I march a mile or so deep finding rubs and deer sign the whole way. I hung my stand and took off to search for more sign in the area not limiting myself to only one option.
Finding another meadow bound by a clear cut and a stream, there was an animal highway dividing the lands features. I knew I had found my secondary hunting location. There was a large stump over turned with a ball of dirt and tree roots in which I could sit approximately 8-10 feet off the ground perched perfectly for a 5-10 yard shot. If I sat at either location long enough I may just have a shot at a buck. Not seeing an animal in my new “spot” for the first few days, I was starting to get a little discouraged.
Sitting on the up-turned stump for the morning with no action, I decided to visit the tree stand. Again to no avail, I pound out the hours in the stand answering emails, Face-booking, Instagraming, and tweeting(guilty)…. The second day hunting was once again a total bust, there were deer tracks under both of my stand locations but no deer. It appeared as if they were coming through both of my trails at dark. Based upon the winds direction I decided on the third day that I would sit on-top the stump for the morning hunt and hit my tree stand for the afternoon hunt. At 10:30 am the wind changed for the worse and rendered both of my hunting locations null. Thinking fast I walk back to the car and drove to a small clear cut I had previously book marked for a two hour hiking appointment. Having just enough time for a short stalk and spot hunt, I followed my instinct and decided to hunt the closest possible public land bordering private land. The game plan was to rattle and grunt with the wind in my face working my way to a forked forest road, then walk my way back to the car. Luckily my 3G was working and gave me a pinpoint location of where I was relative to my vehicle, the private land, and the public land. Without having to fuss with any other GPS the iPhone was a great tool for the hunt, this allowed me to distinguish exactly where the private and public land boundaries were; a beneficial tool to the 21st century hunter.
There was as small road closed to all motor and atv vehicles, a great place to go with minimal if any foot traffic. The terrain consisted of rolling hills lined with douglas fir, the western hemlock, and small stands of big leaf maples. I headed up the steepest hill to find a few small rolling benches protected from the wind, the perfect location to rattle in a bedded buck. Calling to me is like painting a picture, the first step is to set up and begin the rattling sequence after a 5-10 minute silent pause. Light tickling of the antlers works to coax a closer buck, after 10-15 minutes the rattling will increase intensity crescendoing into a couple of bucks locked for the title of alpha buck and breeding rights. Rubbing the antlers on trees, scraping the ground, raking tree bark, simultaneously grunting, and doe bleating these all work. In this instance, nothing came to my beautifully painted buck fight in forest surrounded by red cedar trees amongst the tangles of a recently thinned clear cut. I continued to paint the entire clear cut as if there was a battle royal of the biggest bucks in the area all throwing down for the hootenanny. Nothing. Nothing came to the rattle, maybe I’m like a finger paint artist or something….
Working my way towards the opposing forest road, I let down my guard and begin to march toward the “pin dropped” location on my google maps app on the smart phone. Looking at my phone I have a pretty good barring of which direction to walk, I crammed the phone in my pocket and zipped it. Realizing the “pin dropped” location was further than anticipated, I knew I had a extra mile or so to the car and needed to get back to town for lunch plans. Better pick up the pace, I think to myself. I moved as swift and safe as possible through the douglas fir stand which I was currently hunting, the area was loaded with heavy blown downs mixed with a luscious green fern undergrowth.
Continued from PART 1:
Trotting through the woods, I notice a buck springing from his bed and take two bounds pausing at 20 yards. I immediately freeze, the buck does the same and keeps a tree between us peering with on eye around the tree focused on the direction I came from. I was caught off guard for two reasons, I was moving quickly to get back to my vehicle and wasn’t prepared to draw my long bow as movement would surely make the buck flee.
As the first buck stopped, my eyes caught movement and gravitated toward a second blacktail buck trailing his buddy at 15 yards. As luck would have it, I was perfectly downwind with a steady sea breeze coming from the Pacific Ocean. We all stood for about 1-2 minutes silently, it was very fascinating to watch these animals undisturbed in their natural environment. At 20 yards I watched how much they check the wind with a simple nose lift, or how they’re ears spin almost 360 degrees detecting the slightest branch breaking or noise in the forest. They could not smell me and could not detect the ensuing danger, they went back to feeding unaware of (me) the predators existence. Calmly the second buck started to walk away after he lost curiosity in the movement he had detected earlier. Just as he started to move and turn his back toward me I grab my grunt and softly grunted to him, he turns and immediately starts to walk directly at me. He paused at 12 yards facing me, positioned to walk behind thick brush and offer no shot opportunity I had to think quickly to turn him broad side. Thinking to myself, “this dudes neck is all swolled up he must be in the rut” and “I thought blacktails were smaller than whitetails?” and “This buck is a brute forky!”. Having a set of rattling antlers around my neck I simply lean forward and barley roll my shoulders resulting in a soft antler tickle. The buck couldn’t help himself and walked 4 yards closer to find the source of the antler rattle. Turning broad side at 8 yards he started to walk around a fallen tree, he caught my elbows movement as I anchored at full draw and then paused for a fatal moment. The arrow disappeared from sight in the blink of an eye and the buck took off running towards the other deer. They vanished in a fraction of a second, I crept quickly to the location of where the deer was standing when I shot him. Looking for signs of blood, hair, and or the arrow I found something quite peculiar.
When I first saw this buck I saw that his antler was deformed, his antler hung downward on his face but still fully intact and attached to his pedicle. With the stick bow, you shouldn’t be a choosy hunter and the old saying stays true “don’t pass on the first day what you wouldn’t pass on the last day”. Knowing that any antlered buck in the GMU I was hunting is legal, I decided either of the bucks were in trouble if they showed me their vitals. When this buck turned broad side at 8 yards I had no doubt in my mind wether to come to full draw or not. After releasing the arrow and arriving at the location of the where the deer stood, I surveyed the area to find something odd on the ground. Upon closer examination I found that this wasn’t simply a drop of blood on the ground but that this was the actual antler of my deer. He somehow managed to break off the remaining portion of bone connecting his antler by catching it on a tree while he was on his death run. Shortly after I found the antler, the arrow appeared buried and covered in blood in a small brush pile.
Waiting for an hour or so before tracking the animal, I decided it was best not to move a muscle and continue to look for a blood trail in the immediate area until I had given the animal some time to expire. Experienced archery hunters and hunters in general will tell you the most gut wrenching exhilarating portion of the hunt doesn’t come before the shot, it comes after. The anxiety that comes with tracking a wounded animal is intense to say the least, and that anxiety was building in my mind as I had no real blood to track. Staying close to the area where I found my arrow and the antler, I began marking the direction the bucks had run off to with florescent flagging tape. Taking a very slow approach in their direction, as to not spook the deer from his first bedding after the shot, I spotted one of the bucks working his way directly towards me. The buck was following the same path he left upon an hour or so earlier. This is a valuable and interesting part of the story as it allowed for ample learning opportunities on how to hunt blacktail deer. This buck and other bucks I have hunted in my experience will return to an area using the same trail if they are not alerted to human presence or danger. This deer had no clue what had happened in the forest and was curious enough to come back through an hour or so later to investigate the source of commotion in his bedroom. He meandered off after a few minutes and headed toward the direction we all came from, although he didn’t have the droopy antlered buck with him, a good sign. Noting that one deer track was much heavier I knew the direction that the deer ran, after about 60 yards I found a pool of blood on the forest floor filled with pink bubbles and a mix of crimson clots. Not moving another inch I survey the area for more sign in any direction, the body of the deer, or simply an upturned hoof signaling the end of the hunt.
With no blood sign detected in any other direction, I started to let my eyes do the walking and survey further out for a possible lead. It was then that I noticed the deers body laying 40 yards away. I knock an arrow and take off my boots and pack to sneak within 20 yards for another shot if necessary. I dropped to a knee slowly and paused at stick bow range, there was no need for cou-de-gra. I walked up, gently pet his hide and thanked him for the bounty he would provide. Growing up Alaskan, going to undergrad school in Pennslyvania, and filming professional for living I’ve had my fair share of rifle harvested sitka blacktails, eastern whitetails, and central mule deer. However, this is my first Columbian blacktail buck with traditional archery equipment and any animal harvested with true stick and string in my book is a trophy. Completely throttled from the magical experience, a large wave of adrenalin coursed throughout my veins. I had to sit down for a moment, calm my excitement, and fully embrace the situation before the work really began. Its these moments that are seared into my mind after a successful hunt, savoring the nostalgia of the effort placed in the adventure. “I feel special that I’m allowed to sit in national forest sandwiched by the Pacific Ocean and woods filled with douglas-fir, western hemlocks, western red cedar, sitka spruce, big-leafed maples, and red alders with a deer tag and my longbow.” After a few moments of savoring the successful hunt a long drag back to the National Forest Road awaited me, it wasn’t long before the processing of the animal begun.
The final process for this hunt took me firstly to a buddies house to slice, dice, grind, and vacuum seal my delectable winter table fair; honor this animal by salvaging as much edible meat possible. Once the buck was completely processed and in the freezer, including a self european taxidermy job, I was off to the Oregon Department of Fish and Game office to submit a tooth sample and report my hunt online to validate my harvest. The ODFG here in Oregon does a great job on the fascination deer population found through out the states many GMU’s. Hunters do their part in conservation by purchasing game tags and hunting licenses, which in part, provides funding for biologists and conservation officers to regulate and control game diversities throughout the state. By hunters submitting tooth samples to this agency, the biologist can gather data on age, sex, distribution ranges, etc and then compile these facts to better understand the game species overall abundance and carrying capacity for certain areas. Without hunters and their ability to communicate game numbers and data with Departments such as ODFG, these agencies would not have the best information to pull from to set correct game limits and regulations involving certain species. These relationships are crucial to the continued success of wild game populations in North America. I am proud to say I’m a hunter and conservationist.
For more information on a DIY public land Blacktail hunting hunt check out http://www.dfw.state.or.us
For more information on how to become a hunter or if you have interest in the hunting movement we highly encourage you to check out your local Department of Fish and Game and ask about The Hunters Saftey Education Course offered year round.
Here is a link to Oregon’s Hunter Education Programs
Non-resident hunting license: $140
One of the many reasons I love deer hunting is encountering and observing the various deer species that inhabit North America. Each has specifically adapted to live in it’s respective environment and offers different hunting challenges. As I have traveled and moved across the country, I have had the chance to hunt whitetail and mule deer, but never the elusive blacktail. Ever since I moved to western Washington State, I wanted to hunt the blacktail deer, also known as, the “Ghost of the Coast”. These smaller deer species live secluded lives surrounded in the thick pacific northwest rainforest. They move like shadows through tangles of moss covered forrest amidst torrential rains. Hunting these “ghosts” will challenge any deer hunter unlike any whitetail or mule deer.
During my 3 year quest to hunt blacktails, I have bushwhacked through thick rainforest and climbed cliffs on National Forrest to no avail. As any modern hunter, I am always on the lookout for private land to be allowed to hunt on. After reaching out to friends and family, Kristy’s mom knew someone who said we could hunt on her property on Whidbey Island, Washington. We connected with her and instantly became friends. She had no problem with us taking a deer and sees them all the time.
Whidbey Island is 2 hours outside of Seattle, in the Puget Sound. The island is mostly rural and agricultural consisting of small farms, orchards, and large gardens. It is prime deer habitat with tons of blacktail deer. Almost every other day there is a car accident on the island and the state allows any deer to be taken during the season. The hardest part about hunting Whidbey is gaining access to land to hunt. There are a lot of people who live on the island that see the deer as pets, and don’t understand or want hunting. Due to the closer population density, there is a firearm restriction on Whidbey as well. It is bow and/or shotgun only. I have never hunted deer with a shotgun, but this was going to be my first hunt with buck shot.
We went out one week before the season opened to scout the property and set up a game camera. We saw a lot of deer sign and set the camera up at the intersection of 2 well used deer trails. All that week the anticipation was building.
I was anxious about using buck shot and wondering if I was going to wound the deer or ruin a lot of good meat. None the less, it was my only option and the hunt was on. I went out to sight in my shotgun and practice with the buckshot. The gun worked great, but I knew I was going to have to be within 40 yards for the buck shot to be effective. I just had to get close. While I was out practicing, I also harvested 2 pounds of Chanterelle mushrooms! I took it as a good omen for the blacktail harvest to come.
With the gun sighted and the tags purchased, we loaded up the car and took the ferry to Whidbey Island.
When we checked the trail camera, we saw pictures of some does and one nice buck that had been moving through the area. We noticed that they were moving mostly in the evening and walking very close to the camera. While it is any deer on Whidbey Island, we wanted to go after the buck that we had seen pictures of.
We set up our chairs tucked away in the brush, right where the camera was. We sat that opening morning and didn’t see anything. We walked the woods that afternoon and saw tons more sign, but no deer. That evening we went out anticipating to have an encounter based off the time of our trail cam shots.
All evening we sat, waiting and waiting, quickly loosing light and seeing nothing. Kristy asked if I could still see and I assured her I could, knowing we only had about 10 more minutes. Right after she asked that question the buck silently appeared out of the thick moss covered rainforest, no more than 5 yards away from us. I stealthily tried to get the safety off but he instantly saw me. With the blacktail buck staring down on us, we were locked in a stare down for 2 minutes. He eventually decided he didn’t like the situation and walked back into the jungle. My heart immediately sank as I thought it was over. Then, I saw him moving through the brush behind us and could tell he wasn’t spooked. He wanted to come back. I readied my gun and sure enough a minute later he came back. This time ready, he saw nothing as he inspected us over. He kept moving out but not presenting a good broad side shot. Then, at 15 yards, he turned and I immediately saw my opportunity. One shot and he was down. No running or kicking, he just quietly and quickly died right there. The buck shot performed.
Kristy and I were shaking. Both of us had never had a deer encounter that close in the open, much less a buck, and an elusive blacktail! On top of that, it was a roller coaster of emotion as he saw us and left, but then came back again. It was an amazing experience that neither of us will ever forget.
We field dressed him, loaded it up, and caught the late ferry home. The next day we processed the meat into steaks, burger and sausage. We vacuum sealed it and put it in the freezer for winter…after cooking up fresh venison inside tenderloin of course.