feature By: Jason Brooks | January, 19
My brother-in-law Michael shut off his truck as we sat and waited for daylight at a turn-around on a logging road that had been blocked with a dirt berm. It was Sunday morning, the final day of Washington’s four-day blacktail season in mid-November. I had been invited along for a last chance to fill my deer tag on this annual hunt with Michael and his buddies. Nearly 20 years ago, we were all young and without kids.
The “camp” consisted of a circle of trailers, some ATVs, big four-wheel-drive trucks and late nights of poker and spirits; not exactly my favorite way of hunting, and though I felt like an outcast most of the weekend, I had a good excuse to go to bed early because I was fighting a severe head cold. As we waited for the sun to light up the overcast sky, I just could not sit any longer. I told Michael I was going to walk out the rest of the road as he waited to look over the clear-cut where we had parked.
I remember the door to his truck making a distinct, rusty-squelching sound as I opened it and tried to close it quietly, something common from old 4x4s that sit outside in rain-soaked western Washington. Snow had fallen during the night, and as daylight appeared the flakes continued to get larger and fall more frequently. A few hundred yards from the truck, the old road turned to the left and I came out to the edge of another clear cut. The sky was light enough then that I could see as far as the fog and snowflakes would let me, and I immediately saw a doe standing at the edge of the cut. As I glassed it, I found a nice buck laying behind a stump. All I could see was its head sticking over the top, looking down at me. I laid my rifle across some slash and settled the crosshairs just above the buck’s forehead as I estimated the shot to be 200 yards, which is a bit farther than I had sighted-in for. After squeezing off the shot, neither deer moved. I tried again, this time hitting the stump right in front of the buck, and both took off running. I learned some very valuable lessons on my first late-season blacktail hunt.
First, Columbia blacktails can be a bit smaller in size than the mule deer I was used to, giving the impression that they might be a bit farther away than they really are. Second, trying to estimate yardage both uphill and in the fog during a snowstorm can hinder proper judgment. Third is that the deer, bucks and does, are in full rut during this magical weekend season in November.
As I walked up to the deer’s bed to make sure of a clean miss on both shots, I only counted 70 yards. Since that first experience, I have come to anticipate the late season with just as much excitement as I do for the opener in October.
Bob Yerbury, a coworker who grew up in Tacoma and has been hunting blacktails a good 20 years longer than I have been alive, gave me a few pointers one year. It was mid-November and we were stuck at our cubicles, staring at computer screens and daydreaming of the upcoming weekend’s late-season opener. I walked by Bob’s desk on the way to the break room. He looked up at me and said, “We should be out killing blacktails, just look at the rain outside. God, I love this weather!”
I returned with a cup of coffee for both of us, and we chatted some more about blacktails. What Bob did not know was that I was actually picking his brain for all he knew, and looking at his corkboard above his computer – with photos overlapping each other with blacktail bucks, Roosevelt elk and a few moose from Canada – I knew he had the knowledge I needed for the upcoming weekend.
Yerbury instilled in me to first find the snowline. He believes blacktails do not really care for snow, but they also don’t like to get
I also asked him about areas where there was no snowline, and he said if the ground is covered in snow, or no snow at all, head to alder thickets, adding, “I don’t know what it is about alders, but blacktails sure like them.” That weekend came and went. On Monday I had an email from Bob with a picture of a 2x2 he killed in an alder thicket. The muzzleloader season opened a week later, and it was the first year of multi-season permits, one of which I had been lucky enough to draw.
The cold muzzleloader season found me in a snow- covered, commercial forest driving the logging roads and glassing every clear cut I could find. I was amazed at the number of tracks that kept crossing the road. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer, and I just had to get out and do some hiking; my old mule deer-hunting heritage can only handle so much driving and glassing. I started to still-hunt through 20-foot-tall “re-prod” (where the vegetation and some cover has re-grown), following fresh tracks in the snow. Upon coming to an old-growth stump (the kind you have to climb and get on top of), as I looked down I saw a small creek below meandering through an alder thicket. On the edge of the thicket were two blacktails, and I filled my tag with one of them.
Eric Holman, a Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist out of southwest Washington’s Vancouver office, advises heading to commercial timberlands. The practices used to log the forest help blacktails. Fresh clear-cuts offer forage, and since federal lands are not being clear cut, the obvious place to head is private land, or state land such as Department of Natural Resources or state forests where smaller cuts are still being made. Which clear-cuts a hunter chooses, though, can make a difference. Eric suggests looking for re-prod cuts that are about four to 10 years old. He also emphasizes to hike out some of the cuts and concentrate on areas that cannot be seen from roads or landings, especially the bottom of cuts on hillsides where there is ample cover that most hunters don’t care to hike down to.
Brock Hoenes, another WDFW biologist from the Southern Puget Sound’s Montesano office, who covers District 17 comprised of Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties said, “We have really good deer numbers on timber company lands, but not-so-good numbers up high and in the national forest.” Hoenes likes the late hunt because his findings are that blacktails – especially bucks – are mostly nocturnal animals, with the exception of mid- to late November. As the bucks start to rut, they roam a bit throughout the day looking for hot does. “If you find does, you will find bucks,” Brock admits. “But a buck will usually still stay in [its] home area and not venture too far, so if you find deer sign, you’re in the right spot. It’s just a matter of time before you locate the deer in the area.”
Regardless of where you decide to hunt, Brock said that if a person wants to be successful in killing a blacktail, he must “Get out of the truck.” But a hunter does not have to go far from his vehicle to get a deer. In additional studies by Hoenes – and other
I have forgotten this fact more than once, and when I have by chance bumped into a deer while I was cruising the logging roads, I got out and snuck up, thinking the deer would be inside the forest. Instead, as I approached where the deer crossed and began peering into the thick under forest, the deer, only feet away, bolted, and I realized I was looking right past it.
Once in a heavy snowstorm, a deer was spotted at the edge of a clear cut. I slowly pushed toward the deer only to have it startle and go into the timber. Continuing slowly and following into the forest where the deer entered, I caught up to it 50 yards into the timber watching its back trail. Hoenes is right when it comes to a blacktail’s tendency to stay put, and that you need to hunt slowly or you will walk right by deer as they hold still.
Hoenes also suggested trying federal lands on the Olympic peninsula. However, the deer density is a bit lower than it is on private timberlands, as this is more elk habitat than deer habitat. He stressed that a hunter should not expect to see a lot of deer. But the deer a hunter will find are older age-class bucks. He said, “A trophy hunter may not want to go to the private lands, and go to the federal land where there’s bigger, older bucks.”
He went on to explain that even if a hunter does not have a lot of time to spend in the woods, he can still be successful by concentrating on smaller areas where deer are located. “I try and get away from people. That is half of the battle. I try to only hunt where I know I’ve seen mature bucks, or areas where I have harvested mature bucks in the past. A hunter can cover a lot of unproductive country and hope to get lucky, but you are much better off focusing on a narrow piece of land and getting to know it,” he said.
If a hunter is looking for a general direction in which to head, try going to the Hoenes district in the southwestern part of the coast, where deer hunters have continued to be successful. The top producer was the industrial timberland-rich Game Management Unit (GMU) 648 Wynoochee. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife: “Deer harvest has been consistently good in some GMUs in District 17. In particular, GMU 648 (Wynoochee), GMU 660 (Minot Peak), GMU 672 (Fall River), and GMU 673 (Williams Creek). Habitat for deer continues to improve with increased logging. Increased road closures should result in higher buck escapement.”
This means those units not only produce a lot of bucks, but they can provide the opportunity to shoot a mature buck, unlike other popular industrial timberlands closer to Puget Sound that are hunted hard each year.
If I have an un-notched tag in my pocket come late-blacktail season, I will be out hiking around alder thickets and glassing clear cuts. If Yerbury is out there as well, come Monday I will check my email inbox for another photo of a last-minute buck killed in a snowstorm with alder saplings in the background.
Western Washington contains a lot of industrial timberlands owned by private companies. The main goal of these lands is to continuously produce timber. With many logging roads and open clear-cuts, the new forest creates a diverse habitat for blacktails, making it possible for hunters to locate and hunt the elusive deer. However, pressure from nonhunters, vandals and illegal activities have forced most of the industrial companies to close their gates to public access. A hunter can still access these lands but must pay a fee and buy a permit that comes with a gate key. Each company offers various tracks of land – some walk-in only, some drive-in – and there are some with camping areas. Passes start at $50 and go up from there. Weyerhaeuser charges from $200 to $250, and Hancock Timber Company charges up to $375 for the company’s yearly pass. Most access includes strict restrictions, such as immediate family members only, so if you have a hunting buddy, he will also have to buy the pass. The number of passes sold are usually capped, and available passes for some of the more popular land sell out quickly.