September 22, 2022
The twilight illuminated what is probably my favorite place. Heaven on Earth. The palace of old-growth Douglas fir gleamed with a vibrant, chilling frost. Whenever I’ve hunted here, I’ve always marveled at the natural beauty of the towering trees that seem to hold memories of times gone by. In many ways, the best part of hunting here now is remembering the extraordinary experiences I’ve been blessed with in exceptional places like it. These memories are etched into my mind, like the passing of rock against stone, carving a mental petroglyph.
It was November 21 — opening day of the late archery blacktail deer season in Oregon. I was sneaking along slowly, carefully guiding each footstep, when my silent precision was interrupted by my wife, Sami, who asked, “Did you hear that?”
Let’s pause here… The first rule in hunting is never to talk about hunting spots. The second rule is never to speak out loud when hunting in said spots. After a gentle glare, I turned around just in time to glimpse a magnificent blacktail buck running away. Watching that beautiful deer make his escape was nothing short of a dream. Some may argue that spooking a deer isn’t the goal in bow-hunting, but in this instance it was. Let me explain.
Have you ever been hiking in a remote wilderness area and wondered how many folks have ever been to that exact spot? Those places are best described as “off the beaten path,” “in way too deep,” etc. I have those thoughts quite often, especially in my favorite hunting spots. This particular area is remote, and just beyond the pillars of old-growth timber is a vast wilderness landscape that’s home to some pretty great high-country blacktails.
These mountain deer are incredibly diverse in appearance due to their migratory pattern, high-elevation feed, and extensive home range. The genetic diversity tends to produce exceptionally large-bodied and occasionally massive-antlered deer. In addition, these deer take on a thickened coat that’s sandy in appearance, along with a white muzzle and double white throat patch. They’re fascinating animals, and I have immense respect for them.
I have been very fortunate to harvest a number of mature blacktail bucks over the years. However, in all my time pursuing them, I’ve only been privy to the truly magnificent ones vanishing like ghosts into the mist, never to be seen again.
Those past experiences have taught me a valuable lesson in bowhunting: Never give up, and never assume the buck is gone, or that he knew what he saw. Also, my success in still-hunting has been to focus my efforts on the “right place at the right time.” To fully explain these lessons, I’ll share my still-hunting method, so that you can better appreciate what happened to that aforementioned magnificent buck.
How do you feel about still-hunting? Contrary to the English definition of “still,” the absence of sound or movement, my still-hunting method is a demanding activity that could more appropriately be classified as “insidious,” which means moving slowly with harmful effects. Semantics aside, I use the still-hunting method on public land and have been successful each year since 2011. Other effective methods include stands, blinds, calling, rattling, etc., but after my first time experiencing the success of still-hunting, there would be no other way for me. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and appreciation for that initial success.
The mountain blacktail hunt requires perseverance through exhaustion, hypothermia, isolation, and repeated failure. However, when it all works out and ends with a tagged deer, words cannot describe the emotions.
There is so much more to still-hunting than just moving slowly through the woods; there are endless possibilities and strategies to consider. The two most critical variables in still-hunting are “when” and “where” to apply the method. First, I use my technique in locations where I have the highest probability of seeing active deer during daylight hours. The late-archery hunt occurs during the blacktail rut, when deer are generally more active. Still, a mature buck prefers to move in the mornings, evenings, and whenever there is a sudden drop in temperature. If a buck is moving during the daylight hours, then I assume he’s either feeding or searching for a doe in heat.
Mountain blacktails feed on lichen that falls from the old-growth trees, plus a variety of plants and shrubs that occupy the timber glades. This habitat is most prevalent along the steep southern slopes of the Cascade Range. Also, as the late-archery hunt progresses into winter, the higher elevations will pile deep with snow, eventually pushing the deer toward the southern exposures, where they’ll take refuge for the winter. The bedding and breeding areas are typically a terrain feature that is flat and open, such as ridgetops, benches, and meadows. The deer use these openings because the increased visibility helps them elude the prolific mountain lion. To summarize, I hunt the edges of feeding, breeding, and wintering areas during the mornings and evenings. While I could write a book on when and where to pursue mountain blacktails, for brevity, I will say that I focus my efforts early in the rut cycle and on either side of a significant storm.
Now that you know when and where to apply still-hunting techniques, let me clarify my insidious tactics. As the name implies, I move slowly while carefully looking and listening for deer. To many, it may seem counterintuitive, but my primary strategy is to cover as much ground as possible at a rate that will not jeopardize an opportunity. On an average day, I may hike three miles in the dark, hunt five miles during daylight, and hike four miles back to the truck in the dark. However, when conditions are perfect, I may spend half a day in a single patch of timber. Therefore, the conditions heavily impact my rate of travel. The conditions that influence my travel speed are ground cover, weather, visibility, and deer sign. For example, I have taken a couple of bucks in crunchy snow when my pace is literally a step a minute. If the weather is calm and the deer sign is abundant, I may stand in high-visibility, old-growth forest for several minutes at a time, carefully scanning and listening before proceeding.
When the sky is pouring rain, I will travel as fast as I am able to scan my surroundings. Blacktails don’t mind a little movement and sound; after all, these bucks are looking for other deer. When the high-country winds are bending the trees, I will retreat to the outskirts of the timber glades. Since my rate of travel can unexpectedly vary depending on the conditions, I prepare for comfort and stability. For example, quiet clothing is important, but staying warm and dry is crucial. I wear lightweight, moisture-wicking clothing while hiking in the dark, and when I reach my hunting spot, I change out my entire outfit to a Merino wool base layer and a down jacket. A complete change of clothing helps reduce scent and is essential to maintaining warmth and comfort throughout the day. Footwear designed specifically for a late-season hunt is critical as well. Wet feet and cold hands are a sure way to end a hunt early.
My last bit of advice is to have faith in your ability to overcome challenging circumstances, and to have faith that when a deer does suddenly appear, that it will be a shooter. Where I hunt, the deer density is low, the mountains are unforgiving, and nothing less than extraordinary effort is required. Nevertheless, overcoming those challenges is exactly what defines my greatest joy in hunting — the experience.
Wondering what happened to that magnificent buck from the beginning of this story? Well, I wasn’t totally convinced that the buck knew what had happened. Consequently, Sami and I ventured up to where we’d seen the buck disappear over the crest of a small ridge. The viny maple grew dense along the backside of the hill, which seemed to dissolve into a rocky knoll that was sprinkled with large boulders and surrounded by a coliseum of Douglas fir — some of the largest Douglas firs I have ever stood beneath.
Sami and I were ready for a rest stop after the strenuous morning hike. We had already hiked a few hours in the dark to hunt this spot, ascending over 2,500-feet before daylight. In other words, those large boulders were extremely inviting and practically looked like La-Z-Boy recliners.
With the viny maple thicket to our backs, I had excellent visibility in front of me. The morning twilight had transitioned to the late-morning rays, but the sun was not yet high enough to reach our chilled bodies. With the temperature in the mid-20s, I offered Sami a sleeping bag I had in my pack. As soon as I mentioned the sleeping bag, she was all in up to her ears. Next came the excessively loud plastic snack wrappers and munching sounds… Amid the chewing is when Sami again asked, “Did you hear that?”
I turned my head around this time and said, “Don’t move!”
I slowly eased back around to see the floppy ears of a doe looking over the top of a downed old-growth tree. Just beyond that doe, I could see the silhouette of another deer. Just then, the magnificent buck lifted his heavy rack up from behind the decaying tree. The buck and the doe rapidly dropped their heads as I slowly loaded an arrow and got ready. Suddenly, the deer were up and over the downed tree and headed directly at me! At just 15 yards, the doe turned sharply away with the buck in tow, trotted off to 30 yards and turned, quartering away. I stood, drew my bow in one fluid motion, and settled my 30-yard pin tight to the back rib of the magnificent buck, just as he began to turn. A lifetime of archery practice came to fruition through the instinctual release of a perfectly placed arrow. The buck piled up instantly!
There’s nothing quite like a shared adventure when bowhunting the backcountry in hopes of taking a trophy animal. I am grateful for those opportunities and beautiful experiences with my wife, as well as my relationship with the mountains and the wildlife that live there.
After a grueling meat haul alongside my wife, I was further blessed to share the excitement of the hunt with my dad, and to be able to share the meat with many others. I hope my experiences encourage you to hunt on your feet during primetime, for as long as possible. Do whatever it takes to be in the right place at the right time. Never give up, because your public-land hunting adventure could end with a beautiful blacktail buck!
The author is a 34-year-old, married, father of three children. He is a licensed civil engineer and dedicated bowhunter.
I killed the buck mentioned in this story on a DIY public-land hunt in Oregon. My tag was purchased over the counter.
My equipment on this hunt included a Mathews Vertix bow, Easton Axis 300 arrows, Muzzy Trocar broadheads, Trophy Taker sight and rest, B3 Hawk release aid, Vortex Fury binoculars and rangefinder, First Lite clothing, Crispi boots, Mystery Ranch Selway 60 backpack, Havalon knives, Garmin GPS, Easton Kilo tent, and a Marmot sleeping bag.