Usually, when bowhunters dream of early season archery hunting in remote, above-timberline basins, most immediately envision the mule deer high on their summer range of the Rocky Mountain West. While I’ve often viewed this same mental portrait over the years, I’ve also discovered a different species of deer that reside in similar terrain type features that also offer the bowhunter a true wilderness adventure. While not as large as the mule deer, this species’ ability to adapt and survive in these remote areas of the far West is truly remarkable and will definitely challenge the sanity of any bowhunter who pursues them.
The Columbian Blacktail Deer inhabit many high-country wildernesses throughout the extreme West Coast of California, Oregon, Washington, and parts of British Columbia. While they are strikingly similar to the Mule deer with their bifurcated antler structure, they are much smaller in size; both body and antlers. However, what they lack in size is definitely compensated with their uncanny ability to sense danger while inhabiting some of the most rugged country the western coast can offer.
California Columbian Blacktail Ranges
While many hunters pursue Columbian Blacktail Deer each year in the low foothills and private ranches of the coastal regions, there are a number of remote high-country wilderness type ranges that are often overlooked by most hunters. Many of these ranges are where the blacktail deer tend to migrate and spend their summer at an elevation much cooler than the valley floor. All of these wilderness areas are public land that the average bowhunter can access and bowhunt, providing they are in reasonable shape to pack into these remote areas. While they do not possess the deer numbers like they used to, much like the decline of mule deer, there are still some really good Columbian Blacktails being taken in this range.
Since I have resided in California for 47 years, most of my information will focus on the Golden State. However, that is not to suggest that high-country blacktail hunting is not prosperous in the Oregon, Washington and British Columbia regions as well. I simply have much more experience with my home state in terms of terrain and trophy potential. Additionally, California’s liberal archery seasons and ease of obtaining a tag make it a perfect destination for the bowhunter.
In California, there are several wildernesses that come to mind that sustain a healthy population of Columbian Blacktail Deer. The Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness, at almost 173,000 acres, has long been known for its ability to produce record class blacktails. Additionally, the Russian Wilderness (12,000 acres), Trinity Alps Wilderness (525,636 acres), Siskiyou Wilderness (150,000 acres), and the Marble Mountain Wilderness (241,744 acres) have also produced some incredible trophy caliber bucks over the years. Without exception, these designated wilderness ranges are the some of the highest elevations attained in this coastal region of California, reaching 8000-9000’ at its highest level. Near these elevations, the timber begins to give way to open willow patches and meadows around the 7800’ mark, much like the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains. As such, glassing for a buck at the top of their range is feasible and a preferred tactic employed by those bowhunters who pursue the Columbian Blacktail during the early archery season.
What California Zones to Hunt?
Most of the best Columbian Blacktail units in California are in the “B” zones with a few good areas in the northern half of the “A” zone. However, all of the wildernesses areas previously mentioned in this article are within one of the “B” zones (B1 through B6). Tags for the B zone are easily obtained and can be purchased at any retail store that sells hunting/fishing licenses, as they issue 35,000 tags for this entire zone. For the bowhunter, you can either buy a specific “B” zone tag or an unlimited archery only tag (AO), which will allow you to bowhunt in any A, B, or D zone throughout the state. The cost for residents is $45.93 for the license and an additional cost of $30.50 for the deer tag. Non-residents must purchase a license at $159.58 and $269.74 respectively for the “first” deer tag. Both residents and non-residents alike have the option of purchasing a second deer tag at an additional cost of $37.50 (resident) and $269.74. Please refer to the California Fish and Wildlife website for up-to-date information on costs, maps, and application process to ensure accuracy before hunting.
The archery season in the B zone usually opens on the third Saturday in August. This year (2013) it will open on August 17 and run through September 8th. Columbian Blacktail deer will generally be in their final stage of their velvet, and will usually begin to shed around the 1st of September. Depending on how you want to hunt them (velvet or not) you should plan your hunt accordingly. The California Department of Wildlife does not differentiate (statistical wise) between rifle and archery harvest in the B zones. However, it was estimated that over 6,600 deer were taken last year in the B zones, indicating the amount of deer in the region.
Most bowhunters utilize spot and stalk methods to bowhunt Columbian Blacktail when they are in the upper reaches of their summer range. Getting up on a high vantage point at first light and locating a buck I want is the preferred method I choose when I pursue them with my bow. After finding a buck, I will generally watch him bed for the day and stalk in close while he is bedded; much like I hunt alpine mule deer. Having said that, I can not discount my hunting partner’s continued success of packing in a portable tree stand, setting up in strategic fringe locations, and intercepting bucks going from their feeding to bedding locations. He has arrowed some of the highest scoring blacktails in the state of California, three of which are in the top five all-time. While it takes a lot more physical work to pack that extra equipment in several miles, it has paid dividends for him. Obviously, knowledge of the area and a lot of scouting increases his success rate in this area, but there’s no doubt this tactic works.
Still hunting the fringe areas where the open country meets the tree-line is also a popular method of bowhunting Columbian Blacktail deer in this type of high-elevation range. While there are many bucks that will detect you long before you will see them, some bowhunters have perfected this style of hunting, arrowing bucks annually. My other hunting partner has arrowed a few quality bucks using this exact method of hunting in the high-country of California.
Backpacking Gear and “Bear” Essentials
There have been numerous articles written on backpacking gear and set-ups for high-country bowhunting, so I’m not going to address it in depth here. In reality, the same backpacking gear one would use on a high-country mule deer type hunt can be applied to a Columbian Blacktail Deer hunt in this region. The lightest, most packable gear is a must, as the elevation gain in this region can be extreme, generally beginning at 3000’ elevation and ending near 8000’ mark. Cool to cold mornings will give way to warm afternoons and periodic thunderstorms much like those encountered in the Rocky Mountains.
There are plenty of natural water sources in this range, along with sporadic snow packs, depending on the amount of snowfall received the previous winter. Water purification is also a must in this region, so ensure you pack in the appropriate water filtration system to treat your water.
One necessary item that is a must in this region of the state is a lightweight food bag with an ample amount of rope. Your food MUST be kept away from your camp and hung high in a tree (small diameter limb away from trunk) in order to keep it secure from the abundance of black bears in this region. It is simply amazing the amount of bears that inhabit these wildernesses and most will inevitably find your camp while you are asleep or away hunting. I remember when I counted 19 different bears in 7 days of hunting the last time I bowhunted one of these wildernesses. If you have the extra money, pick up a bear tag (unlimited), as the season is open the same time as deer season and there is a very good chance you’ll be within bow range of one before you depart.
While a trophy is in the eye of the bowhunter, it is interesting to note some statistical facts documented by the Pope & Young Club as far as record class Columbian Blacktail Deer taken in the various regions. Based on the latest P&Y recording period (28th), California leads all states and provinces with 417 all-time entries (typical and non-typical) into the records program. Oregon comes in at a close second with 409 entries, followed by Washington with 166 and British Columbia with 29 respectively.
Also according to the P&Y records program, the highest scoring Columbian Blacktail Deer (non-velvet) came from the B zone in Trinity County and measured 156 7/8” net. The highest scoring velvet entry typical was arrowed in Shasta County (B zone) that measured 157 0/8” net. These are absolute giant Columbian Blacktail Deer! To truly understand the trophy potential this region has to offer, a quick look in the Boone & Crockett record book, which accepts rifle kills, documents the largest typical Columbian Blacktail Deer at 170 6/8” taken in Siskiyou County in the heart of the B zone.
Lastly, the California Bowmen Hunters (CBH) record book, using the same scoring system as P&Y, has 185 entries that meet or exceed the P&Y minimum of 95”; with over thirty entries that exceed the minimum entry for the B&C awards program. With the exception of three entries, they all were taken from the B zone. This raw data indicates the trophy potential and continued harvest in the Golden State’s B zone.
Bowhunting the highest elevations of any mountain region in its summer range can be a rewarding adventure for most; whether it’s chasing mule deer or elk, or even the elusive Columbian Blacktail Deer. The challenges, both physical and mental, are similar for the bowhunter with just a few exceptions; the ease of drawing a blacktail tag, the abundance of public land, and the relatively low hunter impact on the high-country range during the archery season. This, in itself, offers a bowhunter an annual hunt if desired. Just think, on years when you don’t draw a coveted mule deer or elk tag, you have an option of researching one of these wildernesses and giving it a try. Who knows, it might be your “other” high-country deer hunt from now on.