“They Look Like Small Mule Deer”

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We all have a species that we grew up learning to hunt; one which provided us an annual opportunity to pursue and as a result, develop our skills in the field. If you started hunting young enough, it’s likely that this species was all you knew- or cared to know. For me, it was the Colombian Blacktailed Deer. Even though I’ve been lucky enough to expand my hunting into a wider variety of game and regions since the early days, I still find myself looking forward to Blacktail season each year, like a kid waiting for Christmas.

At the company holiday party last year I began showing some Blacktail photos to Brendan Burns, who sarcastically commented back with, “Oh a big Blacktail? Big deal, looks just like a small Mule Deer!” And while they may ‘just look like a small Mule Deer’, they really are a unique species that offers some pretty awesome hunting opportunities throughout the west half of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. I can only speak from experience on the hunting of Blacktailed Deer in California, which will be the focus of this article.

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In California we can begin archery hunting for Blacktails as early as the second Saturday in July. I took the buck in the photo above last year (2014) on July 12th- a time when the rest of the country has almost nothing going on in the way of big game hunting. With California’s liberal (so to speak) two tag limit, a guy can hunt this species from early July all the way through October in OTC areas. This means a lot of time to spend in the field each year, which I took full advantage of growing up.

Blacktail Habitat

The variety of terrains these deer can be found in throughout California is remarkable. Driving the coastline on a summer day in certain areas it’s not uncommon to see Blacktailed deer literally walking on the beach. If you had enough time on your hands, you could drive up to 8,000 ft peaks in the northern Wilderness Areas and glass deer there on the same day. “Classic” California Blacktail habitats would be considered coastal sage with grassland and redwood canyons, mid elevation oak woodland, and high elevation manzanita/oak brush country. Most Blacktail in the state are resident, while there are a few herds that migrate in and out of the higher North Coast ranges; particularly the Marble Mountains, Trinity Alps, and Yolla Bolly.

Though quite contrasting from one another, all three habitats below represent great Blacktail country in California.

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Diverse Seasons

Hunting for these bucks is incredibly tough, no matter the time of the season. It’s not uncommon for daytime temperatures to reach 105 degrees or higher during early archery. Everything you step on, brush up against, or even look at the wrong way makes noise. The deer tend to be pretty nocturnal this time of year, spending the better part of the daylight hours hunkered down in the heavy shade. To make matters even more interesting, Blacktail are known for their ultra high sensitivity and incredibly low tolerance toward unnatural sounds and movement. There are a couple advantages for the hunter during this season though: First, like Mule Deer, Blacktail will spend more time feeding in the open during primes times of the day when in velvet. Secondly, it’s pretty easy to pinpoint where bucks will be holed up during the heat of the day. They like lots of shade, they like a breeze, and they like to bed on small flat areas with a slope at their back. If a buck is spotted moving toward a bedding area at first light, understanding these things can make it easier to narrow down where he will likely plant himself for the day.

About the time the temperatures cool and rifle season begins, the big bucks have shed their velvet and headed for heavy cover and seclusion.  Unlike most Mule Deer, the majority of Blacktails in California live in areas where they don’t need to pack on a ton of extra fat to get them through the rut and winter. As a result, they don’t spend much time during daylight hours in open feeding habitat exposed to glassing hunters. Unless there’s a cold snap or weather system involved, most rifle season sightings on public land are minimal and typically occur at first and last light. The buck below came out of the timber in the final moments of shooting light on a mid-season hunt in 2010. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

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In the central and southern coastal portions of the state, it’s not uncommon to get some rut activity during the final week of rifle season- the third week of September. This is a great time to hunt as sightings can be frequent and the weather is still nice. It’s not a very common practice for whatever reason, but when the time is right, Blacktails can be very responsive to rattling. One year between my small group of hunting family and friends, we connected on five solid archery Blacktail bucks by rattling at the end of rifle season. Below is a buck that I rattled in on the second to the last day of last rifle season. Yes, I’m guilty of long-arming the smaller bucks for the photos…

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Rut activity is much less common during the general season the further north of the Bay Area you decide to hunt. The later closing ‘B-Zones’, a group of units located in the Northwest corner of the state, are prone to rain and snow toward the end of rifle season which can dramatically improve success. When severe enough (every 4-6 years), these October storms can drive lots of deer to migrate out of the high country in a short period of time. Hold on to your trigger finger if you’re lucky enough to be in the mountains when this occurs.

Trophy Quality

Trophy genetics are all over the board in California from region to region. As a general rule, the best trophy Blacktail genetics in the state (and arguably the country) will be found in Mendocino, Tehama, and Trinity Counties. Combine quality genetics with the fact that these counties have huge expanses of remote public terrain where bucks can grow old without disturbance, and what you get is one of the most underrated big game trophy regions in the US. It should be stated that these counties have plenty of closely managed private properties as well, which certainly donate their fair share to the record books.

On the map below, the red line highlights the approximate Blacktail boundary recognized by Boone and Crockett in California. The green line encompasses what I consider the “sweet spot” in the state for overall trophy quality. The numbers, letters, and black lines represent California’s big game zones. Base map credit: California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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The Boone and Crockett minimum for typical Colombian Blacktail is just 135. As it may seem like a small number to those most familiar with Mule Deer, there are very few Blacktail diehards out there who consistently hit this mark. Of my 24 Blacktail harvests, I have only one which has surpassed the B&C net minimum. Most bucks harvested in the state are forks, with what I would guess as having an average 16″ spread and gross score of less than 100 inches. In fact, there are many areas particularly along the coast south of the bay area, where the genetics are so poor that plenty of bucks never become anything but a fork their entire lives. These bucks receive the nickname “Pacific Fork”. Below is a Pacific Fork I took a few years back.

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The body on a mature Blacktail in California averages roughly 120 lbs live weight, and rarely exceeds 150 lbs. As you can see below, they are not nearly as labor intensive to pack out as a large Mule Deer. This entire buck fit in the bag and load sling of my Ultra 3000.

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To give a better idea on how deceivingly small a Blacktail’s head and body size can be, both bucks below score only in the mid-120s. Many would likely field judge them higher.

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Hunting Opportunities

There are a handful of limited draw tags for Blacktail in California, all of which provide a quality hunt during the rut with lots of public land within the boundaries. Most notable are the Covelo hunts taking place in the area of the Mendocino National Forest and Yolla Bolly Wilderness. Hunters may choose to apply for either the archery or muzzleloader hunts in this famed region known for producing awesome bucks year in and year out. Additionally, two late draw hunts are offered in Monterey County and one in a small portion of Sonoma County.

As far as hunting access goes, there are plenty of public mountain ranges that offer solid backpack hunting opportunities with lots of elbow room once a couple miles or more have been put between the hunter and the road. The Mendocino National Forest, Marble Mountain Wilderness, Trinity Alps Wilderness, and Yolla Bolly Wilderness combined offer a staggering 1.8 million acres of public land- much of which is excellent Blacktail ground.

While there can be heavy road hunting pressure in places like the Mendocino and Los Padres National Forests, some of the biggest Blacktails killed each year are taken within a mile of these high traffic forest roads. With that said, it’s pretty easy to out hike the crowds and find both solitude and higher deer numbers in the more secluded drainages. Even though there are lots of trailheads to choose from in the wilderness areas, the terrain lends itself well to going in off trail to further improve the chances of having an area to ones self. Google Earth is a great tool for finding these locations.

Outside of National Forest and Wilderness Areas, those willing to put in the time studying maps can locate isolated chunks of nearly untouched BLM property with high potential. For an out-of-stater looking to come to California for a backcountry DIY Blacktail hunt, the areas mentioned in the Trophy Quality section above are great starting points.

Closing Remarks

Despite the fact that California isn’t revered as a wildly popular non-resident hunting destination, it quietly offers some incredible opportunities for those seeking to pursue lesser-known deer species in the US. Furthermore, with the wide range of hunt types and season dates, a California Blacktail hunt can provide the perfect solution to those looking to jump-start their big game hunting in July, or add a grand finale to their year toward the end of October.

I’ll be the first to agree with anyone that a big Blacktail looks like small Mule Deer, but this species is worthy of more recognition than that.

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-Todd Harney

11 thoughts on ““They Look Like Small Mule Deer”

  1. Thanks for this post. Its awesome to read about the “regular” mans hunt. I love the stories of all the backcountry hunts but this one hits home and brings back all of the found memories of all my whitetail hunts. Thanks again and keep them coming, I find myself reading every post more than once.

  2. I really enjoyed the article. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend good portions of the last two summers in California, klamath/Shasta area in the north and the Inyo National Forest in the south. I had the opportunity to see many blacktail and was fascinated by them. I grew up hunting whitetail so the size was no turnoff to me. Thanks for giving them some recognition they are due.

  3. When I was stationed at Vandenberg AFB in the 1980’s I used to hunt them , they are weary and a very good challenge to hunt , would love to hunt out there again , but no longer know anyone in CA.

  4. Really enjoyed your article. When I was a boy I used to hunt the Marble Mountain Wilderness. I shot my first buck in that area. I think I will try and draw a tag there for this year. Your article makes me want to go back. Thanks again and happy hunting!

  5. It’s about time someone writes an article about Blacktails. I wish there were a lot more of these. I enjoyed reading the stories of all the hunts and can relay to them being from California and hunting Blacktail Bucks every year. Great Job!!!

  6. Todd,

    Thanks for the article. I used to enjoy reading the posts and pictures of your blacktail successes as BSA. Living in Sonoma county and being about your same age I’m surprised I’ve never run into you personally. I can however greatly appreciate what you are talking about in your article. I love hunting blacktail, everything about it. It is a species of game that is not taken, it is earned. Not to say there aren’t other game animals that are hard earned. But with black tail on public land the cards are never in your favor. Many hunters rely on luck alone and may tag a legal buck every ten years. The hunters who punch tags every year or most, on public land are the real deal. I look forward to the mountains of Bzone more than most anything else. while most the other guys I know who hunt are shoving off to Utah, Montana, or Colorado. For me the best trophy is right here, I’d rather take a chance at a 24″ blackie than 30″ mulie all day long. In some places there are 100% blacktail that are not too far behind mule deer, those are what keep me dreaming of the mountains. If you aren’t afraid of sleeping in the mountains, away from the truck. carrying a lot of weigh a long way, and you love doing that sort of thing. blacktail hunting becomes a passion.

    • Thanks for reading Eric. I’ve been out of Sonoma County for a couple years now, still manage to make it over that way now and then though. Good luck this season, it will be here before we know it!

  7. Great Article Todd! You are absolutely right about the challenges of Blacktail hunting! Growing up hunting public land in SLO county, just harvesting a legal buck on public land is an accomplishment. I stopped hunting one area after I saw more Lions and Bears over the course of a whole season, than Legal bucks!

    Do you spend much time hunting Big Sur? I will be spending a lot of time bowhunting there this summer.

    Thanks again for writing about these beautiful grey ghosts!

    • I used to hunt the Big Sur area quite a bit growing up in that area. There’s nothing like deer hunting above the ocean and hearing the sea lions bark while glassing. Now I might make it down once a season if I’m lucky, most of my time is spent further north. Good luck. Hunt the fog line in the mornings on hot days.

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