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The Farthest Deer at Cabela's

The Farthest Deer

Author: Tom McIntyre

Theodore Roosevelt Liked to say that when he was on the Pacific Coast he wasn't in the West anymore; he was beyond it. Which would definitely qualify the blacktail as the deer of the beyond.

The black-tailed deer is classified as a subspecies of mule deer (in the 19th century hunters regularly referred to mule deer in the Rockies as blacktails).
The black-tailed deer is classified as a subspecies of mule deer (in the 19th century hunters regularly referred to mule deer in the Rockies as "blacktails"); but from an evolutionary perspective this is bassackwards. It was the mule deer that descended from the blacktail, the earliest (or if you will, most primitive) version of the Odocoileus hemionus species being the Sitka blacktail (O. h. sitkensis) found in southeastern Alaska and in modern times transplanted to islands such as Kodiak and the Queen Charlottes of British Columbia. As the blacktail over the millennia spread naturally south along the coast, it developed into the Columbia blacktail (O. h. columbianus) whose range begins at the Alaska-B.C. border. Ultimately, blacktails spread into the Mountain West where it is likely they hybridized with whitetails and, voilà, pogo deer were created.

Blacktail and mule deer can and do interbreed and produce fertile offspring, so it has always been a challenge (not to say a raging migraine) for the records-bookkeepers to draw the line in the sand that will genetically separate the blacktail from the mule deer. For the Sitka, this is not a problem, first, because there are no mule deer anywhere near its habitat and because there is no mistaking the small blocky Sitka deer, with its jet-black cap of hair, relatively short muzzle, and sparingly tined antlers, for a towering mulie (a word Jack O'Connor despised, by the way-like calling an elk an "elkie"). With the Columbia, though, whose eastern range very much shades into mule-deer country, the problem is real, with the two animals capable of being virtually indistinguishable-it often takes DNA analysis to classify a deer conclusively. Therefore the Boone and Crockett Club Records of North American Big Game, for one, has surrounded the Columbia with an extremely conservative cordon sanitaire, officially isolating it hard by the coast from Bella Coola, British Columbia, down to Monterey Bay in California's Santa Cruz county.

With any blacktail, a good 4x4 is a genuine trophy; and a hunter should look hard at even a 3x3 Sitka (although it will almost certainly take at least a 4x4 to make the book). A big Columbia will have an inside spread of 16-inches or better, while 14-inches is a hell of a Sitka. The minimum B&C score for the Columbia is 125 for the "Awards" book, and 135 for the "All-Time," while for the Sitka the scores are 100 and 108, respectively.

Blacktail hunting is not only the farthest deer hunting on the continent, but some of the earliest. Rifle seasons from California to Alaska open in August, and bowhunters may even be out on the hills in July. In the California coastal mountains this is, candidly, a perfectly miserable time to hunt. Afternoon, even late-morning, temperatures are routinely in the 100ºs; the dry brittle cheat grass pokes into the weave of everyfabric; rattlers shiver around like bacon sizzling in a skillet; and a hunter cannot carry enough water to last the day, unless he has a camel following behind him, laden with sloshing goat skins. If there is any advantage to mid-summer hunting, it is that the deer are going to stay put; and if they can be spotted, they can be stalked, often to very close ranges.

Good optics, then, are not merely important in blacktail hunting, but indispensable: Trying to still-hunt determinedly on steep hills and across deep brushy canyons on days when the temperature is rising toward that of an Easy Bake Oven is a recipe for both hypothermia and for kicking deer out of their shady beds before a hunter can ever get a chance at a shot. And the larger the optics, the better. This doesn't mean bulky, but rather, high magnification and a wide-enough objective. For a binocular, a 10x40 is about a minimum, and a 12x56 or even 15x60 wouldn't be too much. A spotting scope, as powerful as 60x80, on a tripod should go along with the binocular.

A major component of all blacktail hunting, wherever it takes place, will be glassing into inky shadows, thick brush, and dense timber. And that is probably where a hunter is going to get his shot at a buck; so it is a false economy (not to say just plain stupid) to have a good binocular, a good spotting scope, and a good rifle-all topped off with a riflescope that could have been a prize in a Crackerjack. Buy the best scope you can afford, and maybe one just a little better than that. I am not particularly enamored of variable scopes for non-dangerous game-I do like them on heavy rifles, where they allow me to dial down to 1.5 or 1.75X if matters are going to be up close and personal-preferring a fixed 6X with a 40-something-mm objective (which also tends to be less expensive than a variable). This gives me maximum "light gathering," to use an unscientific, but still useful term, and enough multiplication for half-century-old eyes. And considering the vagaries of blacktail weather between California and Alaska, it is just as important that all the optics be thoroughly waterproof-and use a scope cover to be on the safer side.

From the heat of California, blacktail hunting runs north into the timber of Oregon, Washington, B.C., and Alaska. Logging practices in this once virtually unbroken temperate rainforest need to be addressed, specifically in regard to blacktail. Clearcutting is, of course, a hot-button issue, but its impact on blacktail and blacktail hunting is incontrovertible. In the short run, it does nothing but improve the deer and the hunting by opening up large swaths of forest and allowing a blush of new forage to spring up. The deer suddenly have more feed, and hunters have wide new vistas to glass and to find increased concentrations of animals, not to mention networks of logging roads to cruise along. (The most famous example of the impact of clearcutting, though not actually based on a clearcut, was the great Tillamook fire in Oregon in the 1940s; in the succeeding years or rapid regrowth, some of the heaviest blacktail weights in history were recorded.)

With wholesale clearcuts, though, where there is no mosaic of cut and uncut patches set close together, the forage peaks within the first decade following logging and will go into a decline (along with deer numbers) that will last not just years but centuries. As the feed worsens, the deer also no longer have the trees for winter shelter; and the clearcuts themselves act as catchbasins for snow, preventing the deer from reaching new food and cover, and often outright trapping them. Vancouver Island is a good example of this, with most deer now gone from the logged forests and found around farms and even suburban homesites. It takes 200 years for a clearcut to achieve old-growth conditions and for there to be enough edible undergrowth for deer numbers to begin to increase again, trying to regain equilibrium.

There are those logging roads to hunt along, though, for a few years at least. In Sitka country, such as the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska, where the debate over roadless status and clearcutting rages on, hunters do use the roads, but also as much or more the water. Early in the Sitka season, which opens on August 1st in Alaska (and I forget exactly how many deer a hunter can take each year, but I'd say a "bunch" is a fair estimate), hunters will glass the hills from boats on the saltwater of the Inside Passage. There is a chance of seeing deer on the beach at this time, but usually only does and fawns. The bucks will be on the tops of the hills, which may be only a few thousand feet above the ocean but which still qualify as alpine terrain. In August and September, hunters will land their boats, put on their backpacks, and head for the bright and sunny tops of the hills. Here again it will be a case of spotting and stalking deer, though the cover tends to be open on the tundra crests.

October and November in Alaska are a good time to be hunting something other than blacktail-or a good time to be hunting them somewhere else, such as in the Lower 48. In California, Oregon, and Washington, the fall weather can be quite pleasant-although sometimes rainy-and the deer will be entering the rut, particularly in November.

In Alaska the weather will be abominable and the brown bear will be coming down for the fall runs of salmon.

The bucks will still be up high, until the snows drive them down; and reaching them will mean having to climb through entirely too much dense alder and devil's club inhabited by far too many members of the species Ursus arctos. By December, though, the bucks will be on the beaches with the does and they can be spotted from a boat, and the hunter can then land and stalk them. Fawn calls also work very effectively at this time, but a hunter needs to consider if he really wants to sound like a small tasty animal in distress in place where he is probably outnumbered 10-to-1 by bear.

Which brings us finally to the subject of rifles and loads for blacktail. Optics have already been discussed, and something should be said briefly about other vital equipment as well. With footwear, sturdy light hiking boots are good for warm-weather in the southern part of the blacktail's range, with rubber-bottomed pacs and/or ankle-fit hip waders taking over as a hunter moves north. A light shirt is fine for California in August, though double-fronted brush pants, if they aren't too noisy, would be good. A broad-brimmed hat is advisable for hot days, and a canteen or backpack water bladder is a must. A packframe is likely to be needed to pack blacktail out. I like a walking/shooting stick to act as a third leg. Best quality raingear, including rainpants, are absolutely called for-many Alaska hunters use blatantly untechno-chic 3/4 length rubberized raincoats that cover up their knees when they are sitting and glassing. Warm poly or wool underclothing is a given, but layer so you can put on and take off as your exertion level dictates. Gloves? Of course. And don't leave home without a knife, flashlight, waterproof matches, topo map, compass, and depending on time and place, insect repellant. And a rifle.

Shots at blacktail can be cross-canyon affairs or only yards away in black timber. A longtime California blacktail guide once told me that he thought the .257 Roberts was probably the classic caliber for the deer, and it would be hard to fault him on that, at least in California. Almost anything in the .25- to .30-caliber range (and I wouldn't even exclude the .30-30 or .30-40 in the absolutely right circumstances with the absolutely right hunter-there is no denying that those two calibers have killed more than their fair share of blacktails) will do the job well. Midweight bullets (such as the 150 grain in the .30 caliber and 130 grain in the .270) are perfectly adequate. If you are a hunter from the hardwoods of the East heading beyond the West for blacktail, don't fall into the trap of sighting your rifle outrageously high on the theory that you're going to have to take some shot over the curvature of the earth. Sighting in 21/2-inches high at 100 yards will be about ideal for almost any shot you may have to take on a blacktail. And even though blacktail hunters are not facedwith quite the high altitude and thin atmosphere that mule deer hunters are, zero will change with the barometer and air, so test fire your rifle when you get to where you are hunting.

Whether your rifle should be able to do double duty as a defense weapon against brown bear. Bear will come at the sound of a shot, and are not shy about trying to bluff a hunter out of his deer. Frankly, the prudent move, if the bear appears dead serious, is to let him take the deer. If that isn't possible or doesn't seem to work, and if you feel genuinely threatened and in honest fear of your life (not simply afraid that the bear is going to take your deer), then you have the right to defend yourself. A lot of hunters think that by upping their caliber to .300 or .338 Mag they will stand a better chance of stopping a charging bear, but they would be wiser to think in terms of .375 or .458, which are obviously less than desirable as deer rifles. Hunters heading into bear country would protect themselves more by learning all they can about bear behavior and body language, and following sound bear-aware practices, instead of thinking solely in terms of "Knockout Value."

Sweating nervously at the sound of each snapping twig is a small price to pay, though, for the chance to hunt in the distant country of the blacktail. If you are able to pack out a deer and simultaneously see leaping salmon, shambling bear, breeching whales, and soaring eagles, where else could you possibly be but in blacktail country?

And that's a possibility of which, I am sure, T. R. would have approved.