For big California blacktails, a blistering August bowhunt turns out downright cool.
WOW, IT'S HOT HERE! That was the first thought to hit me as I walked with Butch Carley from the Sacramento airport into the stifling summer heat. This was a dramatic change from the weather back home in Watertown, Wisconsin.
But, then, I could not hunt coastal blacktail deer back home in Wisconsin either. While I've tagged whitetails, Sitka deer, muleys, and Coues deer, I'd yet to arrow a Columbian blacktail. Getting a chance to finally draw down on a blacktail buck would make this late July trip -- and the hot northern California weather -- well worth the long ride and the loss of a little perspiration.
Standing on the porch of the Carley's gorgeous log home, Brenda Carley greeted Butch and me with a smile and a cool drink at the end of our ride. Soon I was settled into comfy guest quarters above the horse barn, and later, with the evening shadows lengthening, Butch and I piled into a '72 Bronco for a quick tour of the 5,000-acre ranch we'd be hunting. The terrain consisted mostly of rolling hills dotted with clusters of live oaks and other trees and shrubs totally unfamiliar to this Midwestern whitetail hunter.
Minutes later I spotted my first blacktails, five beautiful velvet-racked bucks resting in the shade of manzanita and mountain mahogany. The sight was enough to make me wish the deer season opened tomorrow instead of August 1, another full day away. Butch pointed out many more deer during our ride, and by the time we headed back for a bite of supper I was totally primed.
July 31 dawned surprisingly cool. In fact, I regretted not having packed a jacket as Butch and I made another scouting tour of the sprawling ranch. Although we again saw lots of deer, one great 3x3 buck and a huge 4x4 B&C candidate with eyeguards really snagged our attention. When the day heated up and the deer had bedded, we focused on locating a good stand site. After lunch, we grabbed chainsaws and a portable treestand, and a short time later we stood admiring our handiwork, confident the setup was situated in an ideal spot.
Returning from stand building, we found that Montana bowhunter Dyrk Eddie had just arrived. Like me, Dyrk had taken the other four North American deer varieties, but never a Columbian blacktail, so he too had come to complete his personal quest of taking all five North American deer species recognized by the Pope and Young Club. While Dyrk stowed his gear and shot his bow to make sure his arrows were flying true, Brenda and I took a short sightseeing horseback ride in the California heat. Later, we all piled into Butch's Bronco to show Dyrk several stand choices for tomorrow's opening day. During the drive, we again spotted the giant 4x4, one brute of a wild boar, and countless valley quail. The temperature had "cooled down" into the 60s by the time we finally returned to the cabin that evening.
IN THE CHILLY EARLY morning light, a doe moved under my stand, and I saw another 25 to 30 deer moving around me, but the great 3x3, the buck I'd seen while scouting with Butch, and the deer I really wanted, never showed. By 8:30 a.m., with the warming sun chasing the cool shadows from my ambush site, the blacktail parade slowed considerably.
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Montanan Dyrk Eddie stalked this huge blacktail on the second day of our hunt near the Pacific Coast in California.
Dyrk later reported a similar opening morning treestand experience -- lots of deer sighted but no shots. A large buck did pass close behind his stand, creating some momentary excitement, and another big 4x4 in the distance further fueled Dyrk's optimism that it was simply a matter of time before he'd get a chance.
When Butch picked us up about 10 a.m., we went searching for bedded bucks. Dyrk tried a few stalks, but the land was so dry and noisy underfoot that sneaking within bow range proved nearly impossible. At midday we called it quits and headed back for lunch and an afternoon nap during the heat of the day. Back in our stands by early evening, Dyrk and I again saw deer but had no shooting opportunities.
THE MORNING OF DAY TWO was a replay of our first: Up at 4 a.m. to shower and pull on our camo, grab breakfast of coffee and bagels, in the truck by 5, and in our stands before dawn. This built high hopes but little action, and when Butch picked us up in late morning, we decided it was time to make something happen.
As Butch, Dyrk, and I bounced along a ranch road near a cluster of pines, we sighted a band of five bucks. Four of them still wore velvet headgear, while the lone hard-horned blacktail was a forky. As the Bronco clattered past, the deer casually moved away. Once out of their sight, Butch braked and I stepped out to circle back and stalk within shooting range.
Easing through the pines, I tried to get a good look at the five bucks milling just ahead. Finally getting a clear view of a tall-racked 3x2 just before he disappeared behind a tree, I couldn't help but recall what Butch had said during one of our pre-season scouting drives.
"Most any buck with tall antlers and deep forks will make the Pope and Young record book," Butch noted.
Okay, I thought, let's see.
The object of my attention finally stepped back into the open and, at about 40 yards, moved clear of the other deer. Studying his velvet antlers, I decided, Good enough, and drew my bow.
An instant later my arrow flashed away and sliced through the quartering-away 3x2. All of the deer moved off, and I watched the buck for several minutes before backing away. The hit was solid but perhaps a bit far back. Rather than push him, I figured it best to give the deer time to bed down.
On the drive back to the cabin we spotted a big 4x4, accompanied by a 3x3, bedded in a brome grass ditch.
"Man, I'd like to get a crack at that buck," Dyrk muttered. "Maybe I could try a stalk when you guys come back to recover Mark's deer?"
Butch and I agreed with that plan, so after a late-morning meal and brief rest, we headed out again. Dyr
k parked his truck not far from where we'd last seen the big 4x4 as Butch and I continued on to search for my buck. Quickly we found my arrow but little blood and no sign of the deer. As we widened our search, the scorching afternoon sun grew more stifling by the minute, and soon I was sweating hard -- literally and figuratively. Still, I remained stubbornly confident that the buck was down and dead.
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Outfitter Butch Carley (right) had told me that virtually any buck with tall antlers and deep forks will make the P&Y record book. My beautiful blacktail clearly meets those criteria.
Time dragged as we persisted back and forth through the afternoon heat, eyes sweeping the ground for any telltale clues. But in the end the sky held the clues, as circling vultures led us to where my buck lay sprawled maybe 100 yards off the dirt road. Talk about relief! And, wow, what a buck -- tall antlers, deep forks, and twin eyeguards. After admiring and loading my buck in the Bronco, we went to check on Dyrk. In his own words, here's his story.
THE STALKING PLAN worked great. I'd slipped within 30 yards of the deer when the 3x3 suddenly stood, only 20 yards away. I drew my bow, hoping the 4x4 would stand, too. But the 3x3 got nervous and bounded away up a ridge. The big buck jumped up and raced after him, giving me no chance for a shot.
Disappointed, I decided to hunt the rest of the ditch and then go help you guys find Mark's deer. Since this was the same area where I'd seen a big 4x4 opening morning, I was hoping to bump into him again. No such luck. All I saw was a 3x3 and forky. So I returned to the truck and headed down off the ridge to find you guys.
I'd gone only a little way when I saw two deer bedded in the shade of a lone tree a couple of hundred yards away. I drove out of sight, parked, and slipped back to glass the deer. They were the same two bucks I'd jumped in the ditch!
There wasn't much cover, and the wind was in my favor, so I decided to crawl directly toward the deer. I'd closed to within about 125 yards when the big 4x4 stood, changed position, and bedded again, facing away from me. I crawled closer, just sweating and hoping.
When I'd got within 80 yards, the big buck stood again, and I froze, and when he began to walk away, my heart sank. But after only a dozen yards he bedded again. He was broadside but still looking away from me. Then I noticed a small tree. If I could slither to that tree, I just might get a shot after all. I inched ahead.
Somehow I made it to the tree and its meager shade and fished my rangefinder free. I felt confident of making the shot if the buck would just give me the chance. Fifteen long, hot minutes later the blacktail rose and turned to lick a rear leg. This was my chance. I drew my bow and patiently settled into the 50-yard shot. It felt and looked good all the way. The buck leaped ahead and raced out of sight around the side of ridge. But he didn't go far.
Dyrk was shooting a PSE Scorpion drawing 75 pounds, 300 Radial X Weave arrows from Carbon Force, and 100-grain Rocky Mountain Ironheads. Mark used a 58-pound Mathews Conquest compound, Gold Tip 5575 arrows, and 125-grain Thunderheads. For full details about the quality blacktail hunts offered by Butch and Brenda Carley, write firstname.lastname@example.org. Bookings are limited to two to three bowhunters each season in order to guarantee a quality experience.
Mark Zastrow makes his home in Watertown, Wisconsin. Dyrk Eddie is an accomplished bowhunter from Montana.