Deer Hunting California B Zone, Unorthodox Blacktail Deer Hunting Tactics.
Deer Hunting in California’s B Zone, Unorthodox Blacktail Deer Hunting Tactics
I could regurgitate nearly every Blacktail deer hunting article ever written by saying the same old things that every hunting magazine repeats every year, but I don’t think that’s what you want to hear. I think you want to try something outside of the realm of the average deer hunter. So I have decided to write about a few Unorthodox Blacktail Deer Hunting Tactics that I think could really help you out. Try them if you can, be sure to follow all laws and regulations and remember you’re not grocery shopping, your hunting, it’s supposed to be hard!!!
Deer Hunting “The Big Green”
Years ago and still today the area known as B Zone includes zones B-1 through B-6. In the old Fish and Game Big Game Hunting Booklets and on the maps that they would provide to the license vendors to put on their walls, those zones were always colored green and it covered the entire Northwest corner of California (and still does) so it became known by hunters and often referred to by writers as “The Big Green” and some of us still refer to it by this name sometimes in happiness as in “I got a nice buck out of the Big Green” or in a less than thrilled manner when checking our draw results “Ah crap I drew a B Zone Tag” . Either way B Zone is a tough cookie but if hunted right and with an open mind it can be a very decent tag to draw and you could easily come away with a whopper of a buck or a whopper of a story or both.
Your success in B Zone truly depends on your dedication to the hunt. You will get out of it, what you put into it but that’s not to say that some people just get lucky. They pop a monster with little effort, but many actually, go home with a small forky or a 3 point but roughly 80% or so go home empty handed after a valiant effort with that sickening feeling in your gut as the sun sets on the last evening of the season. Before you read any farther, I have had that feeling more times than I care to admit, sometimes by choice and sometimes by chance but either way it never felt good, so I lift my glass to you and say “I feel for you buddy”.
So let’s get started, first off, I want to be honest here and tell you, I’m not a trophy deer hunter. I have shot some nice bucks, but I am primarily a meat hunter. I would love to someday, shoot the buck of a lifetime, but I made a decision a long time ago that I would rather shoot a forked horn or a decent 3 point every year or close to every year than to shoot a hand full of trophy bucks over the course of my lifetime. Don’t miss understand me, I really try not to shoot anything small and generally pass on a forked horn during rifle season but I will almost always pop anything 3 point or bigger during rifle season and I will take a decent forked horn during archery season anytime they stick their boney little heads up.
I am telling you this because you really need to decide what you’re willing to take compared to what actually present itself for a shot. The average guy is not a trophy hunter, he’s just out to enjoy the sport and take some meat home, so he’s willing to take just about any respectable buck and I think that is where most my fellow B Zone hunters sit on the issue. But there are a few hunters that only shoot the big ones and I commend them for their patience. But with age comes wisdom, and I am perfectly content to just shoot a legal buck and enjoy the ride.
I began hunting as a teenage boy to put meat on the table and that’s where my roots and basic hunting strategies come from, first and foremost you hunt to eat, hunting for horns is secondary. That’s not to say that if a drew a Premium Tag like X2 that I wouldn’t hold out for a big boy. I would, but in B Zone you can get two tags, so my first tag goes to the groceries (shooting for meat) and my second one goes to the horns.
In short knowing ahead of time what kind of a buck you are willing to take will be a significant help and will eliminate hesitancy and regret when you spot a buck bouncing through the trees.
Know the Score
Harvest statistic for B Zone are inflated, remember DFW adds 1/3 to the reported deer harvest to make their Estimated success rate. They Estimate an 18.2% success rate for all of B Zone. I call B.S. on that. The actual harvest rate as reported by hunters in 2019 for B2 was 1,425. The DFWs Estimated deer kill was 1918! That’s a huge difference, of 493 deer.
DFW is trying to tell me and you that hunters in this zone under report their harvest, in other words “sneak deer home” without tagging them at a rate of nearly 500 a year. That’s just ridiculous, I know it happens and I have witnessed it but that’s just an exaggeration, anyway, let’s not get off in that direction right now.
According to the DFW Deer Harvest By Antler Class for 2019, In just Zone B-2, 47.5 percent of the deer harvested were Forked horn bucks, that’s 677 Forkies. 32.4% or 462 bucks were 3 point or better, 17.8% or 253 bucks were 4 point, and 2.3% or 33 bucks were 5 point or better and that adds up to 1425 deer.
I quote these statistics because you can clearly see that there is a roughly 79.9% chance that every buck you see in Zone B-2, is a 3 point or smaller buck. So if you’re going for a 4 point you have about a 20% chance of seeing one, which actually is pretty good.
Determining what your zone is capable of producing will help you determine what realistically you will be willing to take. And for this reason, I have no problem shooting a meat buck in any B Zone, aside from the fact that all the B Zones truly produces some of the best tasting deer you will ever eat.
Deer hunting in California is so different from any other state except maybe Oregon and Washington.
I would like to say “Just hunt Blacktail bucks like Muley bucks” or “Hunt Blacktail like Whitetail” but that would be terrible advice. Without getting into a DNA discussion the general consensus among those scientists who study this stuff and depending on which scientists you talk to, the Mule Deer is a Subspecies of the Blacktail, but that depends on the expert. But no matter who you talk too there is a significant difference between the two, and if you have ever killed a both a Blacktail and a Mule deer you can really see the difference. Body size, length of leg bones, antlers and of course the ears and tail. But in areas of Northern California, central Oregon’s Cascade mountains, and central Washington you will find a hybrid deer commonly called a “Benchleg” or “Benchleg Buck”. A Benchleg is a hybrid deer that is a cross between a Blacktail deer and a Mule deer. This results in a very large Blacktail with really nice horns or a somewhat smaller Mule deer but still generally with a decent set of antlers but not in the B&C range for your trophy Mule Deer bucks. Problem is, for Boone and Crocket standards this buck must be scored as a Mule Deer and if there is any doubt B&C can insist on a DNA test to confirm it’s ancestry and believe me if it’s a big buck and in the top ten of any record they will require it before entering it in a book. This DNA test is especially common issue for Coues Deer killed in Mule Deer country and most Whitetail deer shot around the game farming areas of Texas and Oklahoma.
I can almost guarantee you, that if you make the mistake of hunting Blacktails the same way you hunt Mule deer you will go home empty handed. Mule deer require miles and miles of hiking glassing and just beating up your feet and back until you glass one a mile away and stalk to within rifle range. In Blacktail country most the time you’re lucky to see 100 yards much less have to hike one down for a shot. This is not necessarily the same when it comes to hunting Blacktails the same as if you were hunting Whitetails. Although the tactics are similar Whitetails are almost always hunted from October to January with October being the slow month. If we were allowed to hunt Blacktails in California during November and December there would be no reason for this article because we would all be successful trophy hunters between the cold weather, snow and migrations and the rut we would all have a wall full of trophy mounts.
For hunting Blacktail Deer, your tactics really depend on several factors, the season and what time of year, and where you are hunting, public or private land, what your physical limitations are and just how far your willing to go to get a buck.
Getting out in the field and going that extra mile, and I mean this quite literally is a very important step in being a successful deer hunter in California. I have done some research and in my own personal studies I have noticed that most of those guys who get a deer every year or close to it, are willing to hike just a little farther than the majority of hunters. Now that’s not saying you have to hunt the backcountry and put yourself in the emergency room. I’m saying that if your hunting 500 yards from any road, and so is everyone else, your just not going far enough.
I have a “One Mile Rule” when I scout for new areas to hunt, especially if I am really going to go for it, and hike into a hunt for a day or two, I look for pockets that are a minimum of “One Mile” from the nearest road or your “two track” type of a road. You will find that in most areas and with the individual deer herds in a given area most of the time they are pushed away from roads. Sure you will see bucks and lots of does hanging out near roads because they just haven’t caught on yet or in the case of does, they just don’t care. But if you push yourself to get double the distance of the average hunter you will see a big change in the deer activity, and this is why hunting wilderness areas usually pays off.
Small skid roads and such as that are of no concern, but paved roads or well-traveled dirt roads stir up way too much trouble and the deer really do avoid them. The ones we see from the road are just a small sample of what is deeper in that mess of trees.
I do not worry too much about the hike in or out as long as I can get in and out. If it is just a long walk, I do not care but if it is all downhill going in, I will usually pass on it. I do not want to pack a buck out, uphill, for several hours in the dark by myself unless I just do not have a choice. Too much work and too dangerous. I usually hunt by myself and a broken ankle or even a minor injury can leave you on the trail all night or maybe even for a few days.
I look for easy foot access, railroad tracks, and power lines have really helped me out, they are usually cleared out and somewhat reasonable to walk. You would be surprised how much public land you can access via the railroad tracks. It goes without saying but I will say “it” anyway, don’t break any laws. I am not telling you to trespass that would be a terrible mistake. Just do your research and find a reasonable access point. It may take some walking, but it will be worth it. Before hiking in plan your hike out as well. If you have ever hiked a dead deer uphill then you know what I mean if you haven’t well you are in for a treat, your exit strategy is just as important as your entry strategy “Uphill in, downhill out” usually works best. Don’t forget to consider Thermals. More about Thermals later.
A GPS or cell phone with the OnxMaps program is priceless for finding access points. I fought this little bit of technology trend when it first came out because I do love to use maps, but this is truly one of the Top 10 hunting tools you should have at your disposal for more than just the basic mapping program. The reason I say this is because it is the same map program the warden will be using when and if he ever confronts you in a questionable area after being called by a nearby land owner or an anti-hunter who just “thought you couldn’t hunt there”. I know this firsthand and was very happy I could hold my GPS in my hand and show the warden I was standing on public land.
HUNT THE BURNS
Burns, burns, and more burns. Northern California's B zone is not only covered in pine trees and thick brush It's also spotted with burn scars from lightning strikes and other fires. In 2018 Northern California was hit hard with fires that started naturally and some terrible fires that started unnaturally. Although it destroyed a large portion of the National Forest and BLM lands and it looks terrible fire is one thing that is very good for deer in the long run. The Carr Fire that would erupt at the judge car powerhouse at Whiskeytown Lake devastated the National Forest between Whiskeytown Lake, Trinity Lake, Shasta Lake and Castle Crags. Although this was a terrible loss especially for the timber companies the silver lining is that right now there is some lush vegetation growing in this burn and I have a feeling in 2020 and for about the next 7 years you're going see some incredible deer killed out of this burn.
There are allot of new hunters out there who are not familiar with the positive impact that fire has on the big game population. As children we were all taught that fire is terribly destructive and has a negative impact on the environment. This is simply not true especially when it comes to animals and big game.
When a wildfire roars through an area it does destroy everything. Fire is the ultimate sanitizer of the earth and for good reason.
After a wildfire comes through for the first year or two, you’re not going to see much wildlife. All the birds and animals have moved out and they slowly trickle back in but over time they re-populate and become abundant. This is due to the new tender growth and the absolute fact that there is more feed in an old burn than in a thick timber covered hillside where the sun can't reach the ground and the trees are soaking up every bit of water that gets dumped on it.
The best times to hunt a burn are years 2 through 7 after the fire. During this time, the brush is just about right especially years 3,4, and 5. By 6 the brush is getting high and by year 8 it’s usually just another thick brush patch on the mountain. But those young burns definitely are great areas to hunt. Burns should not be compared to Clear Cuts. Clear cuts are usually clear only of the standing timber of value, pine oak, cedar. The Slash which is the unwanted wood such as limbs bark and foliage is just discarded and left in piles on the ground covering the entire clear cut. This actually covers up the soil and it takes several years for the plant life to grow through all the rotten wood scattered on the ground.
I’m going to honest with you. Back in the 70s and all the way to today outdoor writers can't seem to write an article on hunting Blacktail deer anywhere on the west coast with mentioning Clear Cuts.
I got so tired of reading about clear cuts that I was really getting irritated because to me it’s somewhat misleading. If you were to go back and read these articles you would think that every Blacktail killed in California and Oregon was killed standing broadside in a freshly timbered clear cut on opening morning and it’s just plain wrong. Yes, you will see deer in the clear cuts, mostly does and the occasional fork and once in a while a bigger buck will get caught out in the open when the sun comes up. But the truth be told most of the time you really won’t see a decent buck in the middle of one. Instead if you’re looking as a clear cut look at the edge of the clear cut. Especially if you’re looking downhill. But don’t look at just the edge, look as deep into the edge of the clear cut as you can see. Try and look 150 feet or farther into the edge of that clear cut and look for a log laying down, looking downhill with ears and a small set of horns, because that’s where you will find them, not so much in the clear cut but way deep off to the sides of the clear cut, below the clear cut or above the clear cut. They use the clear cut for the “view” so they can see you and the “noise” because of the brush so you can’t sneak up on them. So yes hunt the clear cuts, but don’t get caught up in staring at the center of that thing or you may miss the deer on the outside.
Road Hunting Shame
For those of you who have never hunted B Zone, it can vary from one mile to the next. The lower more arid areas from just east of Willows California to Redding California change so much you can be hunting harvested rice fields along Interstate 5 or rolling hills as you go farther west and then suddenly the mountains pop up and you’re watching your altitude go up and hoping you don’t blow a radiator hose then you top the mountains and you’re in pine trees and shade. In the thick forests of B Zone and I mean thick there is almost no reasonable way to move around without spooking deer. The deer like to get up above the roads and look down, and they are usually in the thickest brush they can find so that you can't see them, and so predators (You) can't sneak up behind them without making noise.
For this reason there is no shame in road hunting B Zone. I look at it this way, you can hunt all day every day that you can hunt whether it be a weekend or a week, knocking yourself out and there eventually comes a time when you are just too beat to hike another mile. Or maybe it’s just too hot, too wet, and rainy or maybe your just not able to pull off the hike anymore. No shame just get out and go hunting, if it’s road hunting you’re doing that’s fine, just get out and hunt instead of sitting in camp or at home on the sofa.
The truth be told, most of the deer killed in B Zone are shot from the road or very near the truck. Road hunting is by far the most popular hunting method in B Zone and probably most zones in California. If you’re willing to spend sometimes hundreds of dollars on fuel cruising the mountains from the airconditioned cab of your vehicle there is a good possibility of getting a buck. Most likely a small buck but the strategy does work. Now I know I just told you to get off the roads and hike a mile in. Well that’s my strategy, depending on you and your physical health road hunting may be your ticket. It may also get you a ticket. The temptation of seeing a buck lazily chewing away on a shrub 75 yards off the road may prompt you to just bring up the gun and pop him from the window. But don’t do it, the woods have eyes, and the game warden would love to catch you and take your gun, your hunting gear and possibly even your truck all for one little flea bitten deer that might weight in at 100 pounds. Instead do it right, follow the rules.
One thing I will say about road hunting. If you’re going to road hunt do it right. Not only do you need to have your drinks, snacks, guns, and bullets, you need to commit to it. By this I mean hang in there all day don’t just hunt the mornings and evening. I have learned that a huge number of deer are killed during the middle of the day by both foot hunters and road hunters. I think it’s because in the mornings the deer get pressured and they just lay down or hide in the thickets. Then as the afternoon comes the roads get less active, foot hunters are usually back at camp or snoozing against a tree and the forest just seems less tense. The bucks know they may be able to sneak away so they start moving, funny but 2:00pm to 3:00pm seems to be a very oddly successful hour for hunters who stay out in the field in the middle of the day instead of returning to camp.
You would be surprised to learn how many people I meet hunt just in the morning or just in the evening. I am guilty of this as well, but I can't stress this enough “Stay out” when you leave to go hunting go out early and come back late. That first 15 minutes of light and that last 15 minutes of light when you can just barely see is super important to deer hunting success. It is the “Witching Hour” for deer. Stay put till dark, then turn on your head lamp and walk out. When leaving talk loud, talk to your friend, talk to yourself or talk to the trees but talk. Not just to keep the bears away but even with a headlamp on somebody might just think you’re a deer so make noise even if the only songs you can remember are ABBA hits from the 70s. No wait I changed my mind, anyone who sings an ABBA song in the woods is fair game.
Tree Stand Hunting
I have hunted with tree stands in North Carolina and Georgia even Kentucky and they were fine there because they allow food plots. Unfortunately during deer season there are so many hills and valleys in B Zone that are covered with oaks dropping acorns that it’s difficult to select just one food source so that makes it difficult to select just one area to set up a stand.
But my biggest problem with a tree stand is people. It seems like no matter where I set up a stand, I have a small army of hunters walking under my stand. I mostly hunt public land, very little private so I have the same issues that everyone else does and that is primarily “hunter pressure or over hunting”
In order for a tree stand to be affective you need solitude. That usually requires a hike away from the roads and packing a tree stand in and out. This can be a feat in and of itself. So long story short tree stands are nice if you have access to private property where you can put them up for a month before season, have them reasonably close to food or water and you must be able to actually sit in them all day or at least for several hours without a bathroom break or having someone come and actually sit under your stand. All this being said, tree stands are becoming more popular in California so if you want to give it a try I think it’s a good idea, if you can get away from the other people and not have your tree stand stolen. Another issue with tree stands in Californian is Anti-Hunters. They spot your stand when you’re not there and they will vandalize it, poop underneath it, or in some cases even camp underneath it just to ruin your hunt.
Water is one of several ingredients for deer. They must have water, fortunately it’s all over in B Zone. Even when we think It’s not there, it’s there. So hunting a water source in the mountains can be frustrating because they have so many choices. But if given the choice deer will drink clean running water. But during deer season bucks will drink out of a mud hole for weeks and then sleep and feed within 100 yards of it all season till the pressure if off. This goes the same for lakes and streams.
Lake and River Hunting
Fortunately even during drought years, there is so much water in Northern California that it is very tough to hunt just one water source. You could sit on a small water source for the entire year and never see a buck. Lakes and streams are a different story and if you are from Southern California your probably confused right now. Because in So Cal most of your lakes and some of your streams and rivers are off limits for hunting because they belong to the City of Los Angeles or another water municipality so you just can't hunt them. But up in the Big Green most of the large lakes and rivers are wide open for hunting. I say most, you have to check the regulations on everywhere you go but most are open. Shasta Lake, Trinity Lake and most your bodies of water within the national forests are open for hunting, this includes deer hunting. Opening weekend of deer season on both Shasta and Trinity lakes you will see as many or more deer hunters taking their boats out as you see fishermen, but some of those fishermen are hunting also. It’s an absolute great way to take a buck. Especially for older folks who can’t walk as much or for taking the wife and kids with you when you are trying to squeeze in a hunt on your weekend with the family.
Most the hunters just cruise the lake until they see the deer and then suddenly cut across the lake to the deer. Instead cruise slow and quite about 100 yards off the bank and just watch till you see a buck and trust me if you do this every evening on Shasta or Trinity lakes you will see a buck. When you spot him, drift over to the edge, get a good rest and drop him. You can also just anchor the boat and glass the brush line and look for the deer that are usually just inside the brush waiting for you to leave.
Now several issues I need to address, one check your regs, make sure your legal. Second, do not shoot a helpless deer or bear or any other mammal that is swimming across the lake. Why? Because it’s illegal. It’s also very unsporting and reflects terribly on other hunters. Third, clean up your mess, this includes the guts, you cannot gut an animal and leave the guts or any parts of the animal in a stream or within 100 or 150 feet of the high water mark of the lake. Please don’t mess this up for everyone else, this is a really nice way to hunt in Northern California and it’s already come under fire by and antihunters and people with children who had some less than ethical hunter come up and pop a buck that was eating potato chips out of little Cindy’s hand. They ended up on your tube and we almost lost this boat hunting privilege.
Look for Deer Sign
I like to see Deer Sign. Not scat, droppings or scrapes. What I’m talking about is “road closed signs”. These are true deer signs. If you can get a mile or even a half mile behind these signs you will notice a huge change in the deer and bear populations.
Wilderness Area signs are wonderful places to find big deer and more bucks. If your young enough or old and tough enough, the wilderness areas of B Zone are truly some of the best Blacktail and Bear hunting you will find, The Trinity Alps, Salmon Wilderness, Russian Wilderness Yola Bola and so forth are just fantastic hunting areas. These area are covers by almost every hunting magazine out there and so I wont spend any time on this subject.
Deep, Dark, Wet, and preferably North Facing
Radio Collar studies of Blacktail Deer in Oregon have shown that bucks in heavily hunted areas will remain within a 100 yard radius of their water and shelter during an entire deer season and only move out if disturbed. To me that says that you almost have to step on them to get them to move.
They also show that when pressured, bucks like to slip off the side of the mountain into deep dark canyons and small tight draws where they can hide out for days with very little movement. They get down in the creek beds and lay down on the cool wet ground and nestle into a bunch of ferns or other thick green brush and just stay in there all day and come out at night. Why would they do this? It’s not just hunter pressure but that is a contributing factor.
Prior to bow season and into bow season in B Zone the temperature is often well over 100 degrees even higher. But what’s odd is you see deer all the time especially when you are scouting prior to season when it’s well over 100 degrees. There several reasons for this one reason is the horns growth. The velvet on a buck’s antlers is very raw and tender. It is easily damaged, and the bucks don’t like to have their velvet torn, so they are often seen out in the open instead of in the brush and trees where they could tear off the velvet. These fresh velvety antlers are just full of blood and the thin layer of skin is easily punctured by mosquitoes and biting flies. For this reason, the deer ears are working overtime swatting and flickering the flies, even when trying to lie still to avoid your detection so you spot deer more often due to this movement.
During the summer Blacktail loose about 70% of their hair and if you look at them close there is very little fur it’s mostly guard hair, the longer course hair. For this reason it really doesn’t bother the deer to be out in the heat at this time of year. I am sure they don’t prefer the heat but it’s not like October.
Late September and into October are probably the two worst months to try and kill a deer. The reason for this is the heat. Those same boney deer that you saw in July and August are now 20 to 30 pounds heavier and sporting a very thick hide with about one to two inches of fat covered by one to two inches of hair.
As humans we don’t really appreciate the heat. But try this on, a pair of insulated pants, a winter jacket and hat and just wonder around the mountain in late September or October and you will realize why the deer go totally nocturnal during this time, it’s the heat and the hunting pressure.
You will find most of them very inactive and bedding up in Deep, Dark, Wet canyons or small draws and streams, that face north so they are out of the direct sunlight. They will often bed down around lakes and clean ponds around the Shasta and Trinity National Forests often with 200 yards of water looking downhill, facing north with the sun at their back not blocking their vision and with a south breeze coming up from behind them protecting their backside.
You will often find more bucks and deer in general on the north sides of the hills out of the sun and heat until the first storms set in.
One teamwork tactic is to find a very small creek that slips steeply downhill through thick trees and brush. By small I mean anywhere from creek size to just an inch wide. Have one guy drop off the hill and the other guy go down to the bottom where hopefully a mile or so away a dirt road cuts the creek. Start walking down the creek winding from one side of the creek to the other, no need to worry about stealth, you actually want to make some noise, eventually you will kick out a deer or two, they usually will run out to the left or right as you go down the hill. They seldom run downhill and will often actually turn and run uphill right past you. This same tactic can be used on an uphill hunt but hiking uphill usually results in the deer busting out strait uphill and over the top. This is actually fine if your buddy is sitting in at the top of the hill watching the saddle where they should come out.
This is the kind of hunt to take your daddy’s old 30-30 with the open sights or something similar that you can bring up quick, a scoped rifle is too cumbersome and too slow to acquire your target. A two-way radio is also helpful should you miss the road on your way out. This is also a good time to dig out the blaze orange. There are a lot of trigger happy people so play it safe.
This tactic works very well especially in areas where the deer just won’t move during daylight hours. This Tactic combined with the “Rock n Roll” tactic has been hugely successful for me and my buddies.
Rock n Roll
This is one of my favorite tactics that was born out of desperation and like many desperate tactics they work. I was having a bad year back around 1988 or 89 and I just couldn’t seem to get a buck to stick his head up. I had been hunting a burn and glassing all day for several days. This burn went on for miles and the grass and weeds in the burn were about midway tall to over the head of a buck, with small scrub brush and pine trees mostly burned or maybe 3 to six feet tall. I had been perching above the canyon glassing down this steep canyon, the kind you don’t want to go down. I was on the south side of the hill facing north with the north facing side of my hill below me where I couldn’t see any deer that were bedded below me. I had been standing next to a boulder about 3 times the size of a basketball and almost perfectly round. It was sitting right on the edge of the road just tempting me and the kid in me just couldn’t take it any longer. I walked over and with great effort I got it rolling down this steep canyon. Pretty soon it was hopping and banging and building up speed until it crashed into some trees or something woody out of sight down in the canyon. It wasn’t even halfway down the hill when I seen movement and deer were running out from under the north facing side of the hill below me. I don’t honestly know how many deer came out, four or five, but one was a small 3x3 that ran out and down then back up and stopped on a log landing about 200 yards from where I was sitting. Not only did I shoot him I drove right over to where he was and slid him in the back of the truck.
I will admit this method is questionable and should only be used when you absolutely know that there is no other hunters or domestic livestock below you. But this does work. I will often find a large canyon with plenty of visibility and just walk a road or trail and occasionally toss rocks off the trail to see if anything breaks out. Or when I stop on a big pull out I may toss several big rocks just to see what happens. If you toss or roll just one or two rocks odds are you won’t move anything, but get a few good rollers going and if there is something in there it will break, they just can't handle all the commotion in the brush. This method works good on deer, bears, and definitely pigs. Pigs really jump and run and often run downhill so if you strategically place another hunter near the bottom you will be surprised what you see. Warning, pick your shots carefully, watch for people and don’t just shoot, it may only be a 200 yard shot down hill, but it may be a 4 hour hike back up the hill with a deer on your back.
This is a tactic that I would have liked to have employed earlier in life but as fate would have it, I never enjoyed mountain biking and never had friends were interested in it until I was older and truthfully speaking those little hills can really take their toll on you as you get older.
Bicycle Hunting is a good Team Tactic and can actually be a family tactic as well. Like horses, bicycles don’t really seem to bother deer as long as you continue moving. The instant you get off they know something it up and will scoot out, but you can cover a lot of ground rapidly and with very little noise. This is one of the few times I wear blaze orange while deer hunting. Not just to keep someone from shooting me but because road hunters get mesmerized by the tress and landscape and they just don’t see you that quickly.
I enjoy having my wife or hunting partner drop me off way up high on a mountain and I just slowly coast down the hill. If I get a flat or fall and hurt myself, they eventually come up behind me. I stick to a specific route that they know and if I get a shot and have to recover a deer, I leave the bike right on the side of the road for everyone to see. This is also a great way to hunt, grouse and mountain quail alone or with your dog.
LEARN THE WIND
Before we go too far let me explain Upwind and Down wind. Some people don’t have a real grasp on it so let me explain it. Imagine Upstream and Down Stream or Uphill and Downhill. If you throw a ball upstream, the ball will float to you, if you throw it downstream the ball will float away from you. Same with Uphill and Downhill, if you throw a ball Uphill it will roll back to you and if you throw it Downhill you may never see it again.
Upwind is the direction the wind is coming from and downwind is the direction the wind is going. A north wind blows from North to South and a South wind blows from South to North.
Generally speaking you should always hunt like a dog, with your nose in the wind. Keep the wind at your face, and if the wind changes so should you. The wind truly dictates your hunting plans. If you’re watching an opening with the wind at your face and it switches and suddenly comes up from behind you, you’re probably busted. That doesn’t mean you have to move. It just means you need to reposition. This is one reason I tell people that if they want to improve as a deer hunter start hunting coyotes. A coyote’s nose will humble you and educate you at the same time.
Most our deer hunting is done in the late summer early fall and into winter. Thermals are active all year but more obvious on cold mornings that turn hot suddenly and on hot evenings that turn cold suddenly.
Thermals are not complicated, the ground is cold, it doesn’t matter if it’s 12 degrees at 6 am or 80 degrees at 6 am if it gets warm as the sun comes up and warms the ground and the rocks it creates Thermals. In the mornings thermals always rise up, so if your standing at the bottom of a hill those thermals are going up the hill and carrying your odor with them. In the evening, the ground begins to cool, and the thermals begin carrying your smell down the mountain.
A general rule of thumb is to hunt facing downhill in the morning or traveling downhill in the morning and to hunt uphill or travel uphill in the evening. Now add this to your Upwind/Downwind and you should be able to figure out a plan of attack. If you can be where you want to be about ½ hour before the sun rises in the morning you should be pretty good. But traveling in Thermals is very unpredictable.
If you’re a diehard bow hunter, one thing you should do is really learn to read the wind and thermals, it is probably a bow hunters most difficult adversary. You can buy expensive bows and sights, but they will only help with the shot, not getting close. Learn the wind!
COVER UP SCENTS AND ALTERNATIVES
Now is a good time to discuss Cover-up scents and how or if they work. The answer depends on the product but in general “No” they don’t. A Cover-up scent does exactly as it says, it covers up or masks your scent generally with a heavier stronger smell so that an animal smells less of you and more of the scent, but the animal still smells you. Some make no attempt at all to cover up your scent and instead produce an extreme amount of other scents and attractants in an attempt to lure the buck or distract the deer long enough to get your shot.
One exception to this is an Ozone Machine. A true Ozone Machine adds an additional molecule to the air close to you and this additional molecule attaches to your individual scent molecules and after several of them attach to it, they weight the scent molecule down and it falls to the ground and decomposes. These machines are very large and expensive and are usually used to rid houses or businesses of the smell of smoke after smoke damage from a fire. I just can't see how a product like Ozonics or any of the others can make a machine that would work adequately and still be small enough to carry on your person.
If you have ever hunted with dogs, you know that very little can sneak past their nose. I have hunted with dogs for years, and a dog’s nose is superior to almost all other animals. Is it superior to a buck’s nose? I don’t know, but this is how it was explained to me and it holds true for deer as well. When you stand next to a bacon cheeseburger you smell the combination of the bacon, the cheese, the meat, the lettuce, the mayonnaise, the bun and whatever topping you desire, (note the word desire). It is all one combined smell. Animals are different, especially a dog. A dog smells the same things you do only separate. A dog smells the bacon separately, he smells the cheese separately he smells the bacon separately the mayonnaise separately and the bun separately. Not only can he smell these items separately he can smell different ingredients in the bun or additives to the meat like garlic or pepper.
Now I’m no expert but I believe a buck’s nose is just as proficient as a dogs and when you cover up your scent with other scents or “cover-up” your just adding more ingredients for him to sniff and if you add enough pretty soon you will overwhelm their sense of smell. Or complicate his sense of smell that it just takes him longer to sniff you out. Or if he smells something within that scent cone that you are putting out that he likes, (food, or sex attractant) he ignores the danger scents and his animalistic desire to either eat or breed overpowers his sense of fear.
If you really feel the desire to cover yourself up, you can make coverup scent at home very easily and way cheaper than buying it from the store.
One tablespoon of Vanilla extract added to a quart of pure apple juice and add that to three quarts of cold water. It’s very good cover up, it smells good and both apple and vanilla are two smells that deer love. If your hunting bears, you can substitute Vanilla extract with Licorice extract. while you're experimenting at home remember not to add anything to your cover up scent that might attract yellowjackets.
LEARN TO LOOK WHERE THE DEER ARE
First a disclaimer, you can find deer just about anywhere. Now I have never actually seen a deer up in a tree but look up anyway, you will see more bears. A few years back I was hunting with a man and a woman who were experienced hunters but had never seen a Mountain Lion in the wild. I told them look up you'll see more mountain lions. By the end of the five day hunt not only had both of them shot 2 nice bucks, but she had personally spotted 3 mountain lions all three of them had been sitting in trees. One she spotted with a spotting scope and the only reason she saw it was because it was lying on a tree limb and its tail was hanging down in the shape of an upside down cane and when she spotted the tail she knew it was a mountain lion.
When deer bed down, they usually like to stick the ridges or just off to the sides of the ridges and they will usually have their back to the wind and have some form of shade. It may be a bush or a tree, but they also like to lay next to or at the bottom of a cliff or at the bottom of rim rock. If they have been pressured, they will often drop down into the thickest brush you can find along the edges of a creek. Blacktail deer and Mule deer have three primary ways to detect attention. Sight, sound, and smell, they will usually bed down above a road or trail or watching the primary ingress or way that predators may enter an area to attack them. Their back is usually but not always to the wind, so they can smell what is coming up in back of them, and more often than not they are surrounded by dry brush, rock scrabble or even manmade objects like barbed wire fences that make noise when people or other animals get close.
When looking for bedded Mule deer you should always remember a “Commanding View”. The Mule deer buck wants to be able to see you long before you see it. But what I have learned with Blacktails is that their commanding view may only be 100 feet, and this is because of the terrain they live in. But that 100 feet is probably the most likely direction of a predator’s approach, that predator being you. Something else to consider, is that Blacktail deer are more of a thick brush deer and they will bed up in thick brush and only be able to peek out through a small window in the brush which leads me to my next tidbit of advice.
Learn to Love Poison Oak
Learn to Love Poison Oak, Blacktails love poison oak. It provides shelter from the sun, and a lot of ground debris (twigs and leaves) that crunches and makes noise. If your glassing and you spot one of these large poison oak patches that’s near water, you can almost bet that there is a buck hiding in that poison oak because they pretty much know you’re not dumb enough to come in there after them. When I say poison oak patch, I’m talking something that is like an acre or larger. This is prime bedding for bucks during times of high hunting pressure. This is where hunting with a dog comes in handy. Take the dog on the downwind side and if the dog alerts or suddenly darts in the poison oak you probably have some kind of animal in there. Poison oak patches are probably one of the most overlooked deer hides and pig hides that I can think of. As a matter of fact I think almost all of us have at least one friend who has shot a buck and got it home and the next day comes down with a case of poison oak. He swears he never got near the stuff. He may not have he might have shot it in the road and from the window of the truck and ended up with poison oak. He probably got the poison oak off of the deer. The oils from the poison and small powdery debris from the plant gets all over them and then all over you when you’re handling them. Learn to love and hunt poison oak.
Blackberries are another hiding spot. I know a spot near Trinity late where there is a large black berry patch along the river. You can park next to that patch and never see a deer, but you can see trails winding in and through those berries and if you sit there long enough a deer will pop out that you never seen. They hide in this stuff like crazy, but why? Because it’s safe. Predators make too much noise to get to them, humans are too lazy and it’s generally cooler with a water source nearby, often right inside that nasty mess of berries. I have seen Blacktails eating black berries but mostly I see them feeding on the new green leaves on the fresh growth. If you see a patch of berries big enough to hide a buck, take a few minutes to look it over. Then throw a few rocks in it, in a pattern like somethings walking towards the center. You may be supervised at what jumps up.
Hunt the Feed
This believe it or not is about the most difficult thing to remember when hunting because we assume the deer are going to eat whatever is out there in front of us. The truth is no matter what the weather, no matter what the wind, the heat or the hunting pressure deer have to eat. Problem is, in Northern California’s B zone feed is everywhere. Acorns, grasses, and general food sources are everywhere. But if your hunting an area that has no visible feed or water, but you have seen lots of tracks, it’s probably just a nighttime travel corridor. Skip it and again, find a shaded north facing mountain side. Look for scrub oak, White Oak trees and various mixed brush with a water source within 200 yards.
Team Work to Hunt Harder and Farther
This sounds simple enough but were humans and we tend to overload and cut our distance in half. Split the load if your hunting the backcountry and decide what you really need to take and divide up the load. There have been times, actually quite often when I have hunted with another hunter and have decided to only take one rifle, no tent, two light sleeping bags or even a poncho liner and a lightweight plastic tarp with two net hammocks. We take enough food and water to get there and back and use a “stream straw” for water. Split the Load and hunt as a Team.
Using to trucks is also a great tactic. Park one truck on top of the trail at a higher elevation and the other on the bottom and hunt or push a canyon to the bottom. So what if you have to spend extra money on fuel, it’s worth it not to hike 10 miles up hill to the truck.
I have a particular place I like to hunt both deer and pigs. Problem is it’s a mile and half in from the truck, that’s after a three mile rough road in. Once I get to the top it’s a steady drop out to the bottom about 6 miles away. Problem is between the lava rock and the steady drop downhill it can be a real tough hike coming out even if you don’t have an animal but if you do have an animal it can be hours before you get back to the truck. Now instead of traveling in, then turning around and hiking back out, I have my wife drop me off and I make one long hunt over several hours. When I am ready to come out, I get about a mile from a known pick up point and I call the wife and she knows exactly where to pick me up. We have several spots along a main paved road, and it works out well. She enjoys it and I enjoy not having to worry about the truck or having to stick to a certain plan. If I spot something I can go after it and not worry about back tracking to my truck. We always have an “Emergency Pick up Point” in the event that I lose my cell phone, or something goes bad. I also check in every couple of hours and I tell her my location and we also have a designated time that if she doesn’t hear from me by that time, she starts making calls to people to find me.
Glassing for Deer in the Trees
Glassing for Mule deer is a skill all on its own. It takes years of learning to spot a single piece of an antler sticking out of the grass from a bedded buck or the flicker of an ear at 500 yards, but I don’t think there is any comparison to trying to glass Blacktail Deer. Blacktails are brush deer. They love the brush and as hunters we hate the brush, so we have to learn to love it or be content to just shoot the occasional forked horn every five or six years when we get lucky and it crosses the road.
We have for years been told to hunt in the morning with the sun at our backs and in the evening with the sun at our backs to avoid looking into the sun. This is somewhat solid advice if the weather, winds, and thermals are in your favor. But often times we are glassing in the middle of the day so let’s say it’s 11:00 am, it’s 80 degrees and the sun is at your back, where are you most likely sitting? If your not in your truck your probably sitting with your back to the sun, behind a tree in the shade looking at a tree or bush or a deer that’s probably behind the tree using the tree for shade, so you can't really see it unless you get lucky because inadvertently you have placed yourself at a disadvantage by positioning the yourself at a bad angle to the sun and the deer. Instead of glassing for deer with the sun at your back, position yourself at an angle to the sun so that you can see behind the brush and trees and into the shaded areas where the deer are going to be lying. If you put yourself at a 90 degree angle to the sun with the sun off your left or right shoulders you can now look behind the trees and into the shade. We all wear sunglasses and hats and so actually positioning yourself looking towards the sun is also not a bad idea if you can get yourself in the shade and not glassing into a glowing ball of sunlight.
When glassing deer in the brush just slow down. Imagine a grid and just look over one grid at a time, imagine a 20ft by 20 ft square and just stare at it look into it and let your eyes relax. If you’re seeing the hillside at a flat surface without any depth you are not glassing correctly. Try this imagine a 3D piece of art, we have all seen these at the Mall or someplace displayed so you can look at them. You look and see nothing but silly squares and pixels then suddenly you see a 3D building or an eagle flying something that you did not see before. Well this is the difference between going out and glassing and just looking and seeing nothing and really relaxing and letting your eyes do the work and really looking in depth at what your glassing. You will see so many more animals and interesting things than just quickly glassing a hillside and calling it good.
In archery we call it “Aim Small Miss Small” it’s a cool way of saying pick just one tiny spot on the animal and shoot at just that spot. Don’t just shoot at the entire animal or you will most likely miss. It goes the same for glassing deer and just looking for deer in general it doesn’t matter if your hiking glassing or road hunting look for small pieces of the deer like ears, horns, throat patches white lines on the inside of legs, or a nose or eyeball, look small.
I figure if there is a deer standing out in the open I’m pretty much going to see it, so I skim over the open areas and areas that are close by and go strait to the bases of trees, the brush lines and deep inside the wood lines. Then of course I look at everything even the meadows. I have missed spotting the obvious deer before because of my way of doing things but this works for me. Also what works for me is looking low. Look about 8 inches to a foot off the ground, especially in the brush. Look for bellies and legs and faces.
We see deer resting all the time. Laying on their bellies with their head and neck erect and looking forward. We don’t really think of them as they sleep. Believe it or not they lie down just like a dog and will sleep with their heads flat on the ground like someone shot them dead. Or curled up like your dog in front of the fireplace and if your glassing and expecting to see one’s head sticking up you will probably walk past him. Deer like any animal are vulnerable when they sleep so look low around the bases of trees deep in the brush, in between logs and image your looking for a sleeping unaware deer as opposed to a wide awake, ears out and flickering, nervous deer that’s ready to bolt.
Make a Hunting Plan and Stick to It
We hunt to relax and enjoy the trip as much as we do for the meat, and as much as it pains me to say this you really should “Make a Hunting Plan”. For several reasons, number one it will save you time and lower your frustration. By a hunting plan I don’t mean what you are specifically going to do when you get out of the truck, I mean what you are going to do over a 5 or 6 day period. I have learned that if I make a 5 or 6 day Hunt Plan, I will usually shoot a buck or get an opportunity at a buck sometime within that 5 or 6 day period. I think it’s because It takes to much stress and worry off of you and puts your mind on hunting more than what your going to have to do next.
Here is an example of what my hunt plan will look like, something simple
Opening day, hike into Browns creek, hunt till 10:00 am
Road hunt till 4:00 Pm then hunt Juniper ridge, hike up to rock and sit till dark.
Day Two, hunt Bowerman ridge near Guy Covington Road near lake, hunt till hot then go back to camp. When it cools down return and hunt the lake again.
Day three, hunt lower area of Swift Creek, till hot, that evening hike into Lake Eleanor, make camp, hunt from camp and rest
Day four hunt wilderness area near Eleanor in morning and evening
Day five leave out at daybreak and hunt the way out, travel the back road to French Gulch near clear creek campground and make camp at clear creek campground hunt that evening in the clear creek area.
Day Six, going home, road hunt back to the road via Damnation Pass or French Gulch.
So this is just an example of a “Hunt Plan” from about 3 years ago, we only made it to day two and my buddy killed a decent forked horn on Bowerman Ridge above Trinity lake near Guy Covington Road.
A Hunt Plan sounds ridiculous. Why not just “Wing it” because I get tired of reading a map arguing with whoever wants to just drive around or hike around in circles and I have found that it works. If you commit to hunt 5 or 6 days strait, every day from morning till night at the least you will have done an excellent job hunting for that year and committed to getting a buck. I will admit this doesn’t work for everyone, I have two friends I no longer hunt with because they would rather have no plan at all and just muddle through a hunt, but looking back over the last about 15 years almost every buck they shot was while we were following some type of a “Hunting Plan”
A Hunting Partner
Hunting with another person greatly increases your odds of bagging a buck. It also increases your odds of coming home alive. I know it can be difficult to find someone to hunt with, but it will help you physically with the work, financially with the costs of the trip and its another set of eyes and ears. Try not to hunt alone but if you have no choice, go hunting alone.