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Quest For A Trophy Blacktail

Fifteen years of battling hot weather, missed opportunities, and poison oak make finally taking a trophy Columbian blacktail all the more satisfying.

My good buddy South Cox and I were scrambling along rock cliffs in Northern California's alpine wilderness, glassing down into lush green canyons in hopes of spying a good Columbian blacktail buck.

"I was scouting in here about 10 days ago and saw a really nice 5x5 in the bottom of this drainage," South said. "If a mountain lion didn't chase him out, he should still be around somewhere."

After an hour of diligent glassing, I located that very buck as he cautiously eased out of a thicket to feed along a trickling mountain stream.


Since I'd seen the buck first, I got the initial stalk, and we quickly devised a stalking route. In 55 minutes I had hiked a half-mile and crawled another 200 yards into bow range. Then I waited for a shot at this near Boone and Crockett-class buck.

Eventually the buck stepped out into a small opening, presenting a clear shot. After years of trying, I finally had my sight planted on a trophy blacktail. Estimating the distance at 43 yards, I cut a good arrow, only to watch it hit harmlessly under the buck.

After he'd dashed away, I stepped off the shot distance at 47 yards. What I would have given for a good laser rangefinder back then! And so went my quest for a record-book Columbian blacktail.

Before we go any further, let me start at the beginning. For many years I had lived in Alaska, where I'd taken many large Sitka blacktails. Then, at an archery trade show more than 15 years ago, I met South Cox, a self-taught, do-it-yourself bowhunter from Northern California. South and I have similar philosophies about bowhunting, and we share an insatiable desire to hunt in the wilderness areas. Those common bonds have taken us from Alaska to Africa and many places in between.

Further, South is one of the most successful blacktail bowhunters around. I was confident that my experience with Sitka blacktails and South's knowledge of the Columbian variety would soon put me on the path to a Pope and Young Columbian blacktail. Little did I know the challenge that lay ahead.

I don't recall exactly how many times I've hunted these shy, mountain and rainforest dwellers of the Pacific Coast, but I do remember shooting my first one.South and I had packed into the wilderness with the mules and services of Dean McBroom and E.J. Hyeit. Making it look easy, South killed a P&Y-class 4x4 buck early in the hunt. For me, stalk after stalk ended with spooked deer, and after 10 full days I still had an unfilled tag. In a last-ditch effort, Dean took the mules and our gear down one trail, while South, E.J., and I hunted our way out on a different trail.

After 10 miles of hiking and three blown stalks I got one more chance, at a small forkhorn. He was hardly the trophy of my dreams, but a guy has to start somewhere, and with the young buck at 20 yards, I thought filling my tag would be a slam dunk. Well, I missed the first shot, and when the confused buck ran out and stopped at 30 yards, I missed him again.

Flabbergasted, I looked at my bow and wondered what was wrong with it. But deep down inside, I knew this bow had always shot fine. I just had to do what I always do in practice -- focus on a spot and follow-through. With the young buck now at 50 yards, I concentrated harder and put an aluminum arrow through his heart. Go figure!

E.J. gutted the deer, made a backpack of sorts out of the deer carcass by using the deer's legs as packstraps, and carried the deer seven miles out of the backcountry for me.

Thanks E.J.!

South Cox took this trophy Columbian blacktail buck in the high alpine wilderness of Northern California.

I still have the tiny rack from that deer. As my first Columbian blacktail, the little buck holds a special place in my heart.

In the ensuing years, I hunted blacktails numerous times in the high alpine wilderness of Northern California, as well as in the dense rainforest of Western Oregon. On one late-season Oregon hunt, with my friend Ken Wilson of Spoon Creek Outfitters, I had several more close calls.

It was late November, and a wet snow blanketed the southwest corner of Oregon. The blacktails were in full rut. While driving a logging road, I saw a nice buck raking his thick-beamed antlers on an evergreen sapling. He'd easily make the book, if I could get an arrow into him. I memorized the terrain and started my stalk. Thanks to the soft, quiet snow and rolling topography, I managed to sneak within 10 yards of the buck.

Unfortunately, a dense spruce tree stood between us, and I wasn't sure what to do.

After a motionless standoff that lasted several minutes, I had to try something, so I lightly blew my grunt call, thinking it might spur some kind of rut response. Well, it spurred a response all right -- the buck sprinted the other way as fast as he could go!

On that same trip I had several other opportunities, and they all ended with similar results. I could not buy a break.

A few years later, however, I did catch a break when South Cox bought a 438-acre parcel of prime blacktail habitat in California. The land, with its steep, rolling hills with grassy meadows mixed in among dense stands of oak, madrone, and lots of poison oak, was ideal blacktail habitat. Everything except the poison oak makes this country perfect for stalking too. Further, South was kind enough to let me hunt his ground.

The bow season there starts in mid-July and runs for about two weeks. In the intolerable heat at this time of year we still-hunt during the first few minutes of daylight and the last half-hour before dark. The rest of the day, the deer hole up in the thickest, coolest timber they can find, where they're impossible to stalk. The hours sandwiched

between the few moments of hunting are long and hot.

In 2004, I made countless stalks, sneaking within bow range of numerous shooter bucks only to have an unseen doe or small buck foil my opportunity, or to have the wind swirl and carry my scent to the deer. Many times I simply ran out of daylight before getting within bow range.

Then, one hot morning, I glassed up a pretty good buck feeding in a steep, grassy meadow. I looped around, took off my boots, donned stalking socks, and using the broken terrain to my advantage, I sneaked within 28 yards of the buck.

Confidence oozed out of my pores as I drew my bow. Then the buck lifted his head, still chewing, and noticing my odd shape, he sprinted away.

Fortunately for me, the velvet-racked buck stopped broadside at 63 yards to figure me out. Just prior to the hunt, I'd been shooting four-inch groups at 60 yards. Once again confidence took over, and after my arrow struck the buck went only a short distance.

Unfortunately, he collapsed in a canyon so steep I almost needed a rope and climbing gear to recover him. I butchered and de-boned the buck and then hiked back to get an ATV to haul him out.

The trip back to camp did not go smoothly. First, I rolled the four-wheeler on a near vertical sidehill. Luckily, I was not injured, but I did mangle a fancy camera. Then, while trying to unlock the ranch gate, I locked myself out of the car -- with it running. Luckily for me, I had ferreted a spare key underneath the vehicle and was able to get into my car and get the buck out of the suffocating heat and into a cooler. Oh, did I mention the nasty poison oak rash that followed?

But that was a very nice buck, and I was proud of him. Even though his antlers fell short of the 95-inch minimum for Pope and Young, I was one step closer to taking a P&Y blacktail and had a better idea of how to meet my goal.

This dinky forkhorn was my first-ever Columbian blacktail. While he may not look like much, he holds a very special place in my heart, and my trophy room.

A few years later I headed back to California to stand up as best man in South's wedding.

Since the nuptials coincided with the early blacktail season, I figured to accomplish two things in one trip.

So I set up camp a few days before the wedding, and in the predawn of the first morning I saw a doe and fawn just two minutes from camp. Things were looking good right off, and even as the daytime temperature started to rise, deer seemed to be everywhere. I'd checked the thermometer in my tent at midnight and again at daybreak, and it never read below 85 degrees F., and by midmorning the temperature was well above 90.

Checking all the usual haunts, I found several deer but not the mature buck I was hoping for. As the temperature pushed closer to 100 degrees, I seemed to hunt quicker. I knew the heat would drive the bucks to "cooler," north-facing slopes where they'd bed down.

Just as I was about to give up for the morning, I noticed movement way down in a steep draw. It was a mature buck standing on his hind legs to nibble tender oak leaves. When he dropped back down, I got a good look at his rack. This was the one I wanted.

Easing back out of sight, I crossed into the next draw over and scurried downhill. When I popped back over into the draw where the buck had been feeding, I noticed two other bucks with the one I had my eye on.

My second Columbian blacktail buck, taken in Northern California, fell just short of making the P&Y record book.

Now, with the additional noses, eyes, and ears, I had to be even more careful. In 20 minutes I'd closed to within 80 yards, still undetected. About then, the bucks seemed to finally notice the scorching heat and seemed to shorten their leaf munching and quicken their pace. They were undoubtedly heading for thick cover and shade, and soon they walked behind a staircase-like ridgetop and out of sight.

In sock feet, I hurried downhill through the parched grass as quickly as I dared. Nearing the rock cliff where the bucks had vanished, I slowed to a slither and peeked over the rocks down into the shadows. As I caught movement, my heart raced with excitement.

The three bucks were milling and feeding right below me. While all three were busy feeding, I inched a bit higher on the rocks to gain elevation so my arrow would clear the boulders.

My rangefinder read 25 yards to the bucks, but because of the steep angle, the angle-compensation feature said to shoot for 20 yards. I drew my bow slowly. So far so good.

The deer had not seen me draw.

I tried to aim, but the bucks kept trading places, walking in and out of harsh shadows.

Anxiously I relocated the largest buck and got my pin on him.

Then, at the last second, I noticed that the angle was so steep my arrow would slam into the rocks just a few yards in front of me. While holding at full draw, I had to take one more step up -- and not spook the deer!

Finally, standing on my tiptoes, I was sure my arrow would clear the rocks. Still, the tawny grass in bright sunlight just in front of me contrasted so harshly with the deer in the dark shadows I had to tip my head away from the peep sight several times to relocate the buck I wanted and to pick an aiming point. This all made for one of the toughest shots I've ever attempted.

Finally, when I felt confident with the sight picture, I released and heard the unmistakable sound of a broadhead slicing hair and flesh.

Moments later I knelt beside my first-and-only, P&Y-class Columbian blacktail.

It took me 15 years to achieve my goal of taking a P&Y Columbian blacktail, but the wait was definitely worth the reward. The buck pictured at left is doing the same thing my buck was doing when I first spotted him, standing on his hind

legs and feeding on oak leaves.

Needless to say, I was elated to finally kill a big one. After fetching my camera gear and recording the event digitally, I checked the midday temperature with a Kestrel 3000, a handheld weather device made by Nielsen-Kellerman. It showed the thermometer topping out at 117 degrees! I butchered and packed out my buck before literally collapsing from heat exhaustion.

The next morning I woke up itching from another terrible case of poison oak, as oozing blisters popped out all over my body, from my knees to my chest and everywhere in between -- and I mean everywhere! It was so bad I had to visit the hospital emergency room for advanced treatment before the wedding. And at the wedding ceremony, standing there next to my best friend and his lovely bride, Kyri, it was all I could do to not scratch the itchy sores.

During the preceding 15 years I'd hunted Columbian blacktails at least eight times and killed only three bucks. Each time I saw trophy bucks, had countless close calls, missed a few shots -- and I always came away with a severe case of poison oak. But the dramatic events of that searing-hot morning when I killed my first record-book blacktail made the quest worthwhile and absolutely unforgettable.

The author is a regular Contributor from Spokane, Washington.

Author's Notes: My recent blacktail-hunting equipment included a Mathews bow with Winner's Choice bowstring, Spot-Hogg sight, Trophy Taker arrow rest, and Sims Vibration Laboratory dampening devices. I used Grim Reaper broadheads and I carried Nikon binoculars and a Bushnell laser rangefinder. I chose Predator camouflage.

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