What's the most challenging deer species to hunt in North America? Many hunters will argue it's the blacktail deer. There are two subspecies, the Columbian blacktail deer and the Sitka blacktail deer. Both subspecies are native to states and provinces of the Pacific Northwest.
It really doesn't matter which one you hunt. You will find this is one of the most challenging big game species deer hunters can pursue.
From where to find them to how to hunt them, this is everything you need to know about blacktail hunting.
Where are blacktail deer found?
It is generally believed blacktails used to be found much further east, but today their range today is limited to mostly coastal regions of California, Oregon and Washington, British Columbia and parts of Alaska.
The Columbian blacktail is the subspecies you'll find in Northern California, Washington and Oregon. There are some in British Columbia, but you're much more likely to find sitkas there. Sitkas are also found further north in British Columbia and in some parts of Alaska. (More on that later.)
In many places the ranges of blacktails and mule deer overlap and as a result, the two sometimes cross breed, resulting in hybrids. Although blacktails already have many traits of muleys such as the dark tails and large ears.
How big do blacktails grow?
Both subspecies do not grow nearly as large as their mule and whitetail deer cousins. It probably has something to do with the terrain and wild areas they make home. There just aren't as many nutrients at high elevations and the remote backcountry areas these deer live that will promote much in the way of increased body size or antler growth. Weights very rarely exceed 200 pounds for either species. For many portions of the blacktail's range, you're looking at deer that rarely exceed 90-100 pounds. While that's less venison for the table, at least they'll be easy to pack out!
Columbian blacktails tend to grow larger than sitka, which have to tolerate much harsher winters. The world record non-typical blacktail was taken in Jackson County, Oregon in 1988 and scored 194 4/8 Pope & Young The world record typical with Pope & Young fell in Marion County, Oregon all the way back in 1969. That buck scored 172 2/8.
Boone & Crockett categorizes black-tailed deer in with their mule deer and the world records aren't much larger. The non-typical record is 208 1/8 inches while the typical is 182 2/8.
Showing how rare bucks of this size are, both records have stood for over 50 years now!
But seeing the records for sitka blacktails really drives home these deer just don't grow that large. If you're used to pursuing 150-inch whitetails in the Midwestern states, prepare to lower your standards.
There is only one inch of difference between the Boone & Crockett sitka records. The typical record is just 133 inches and was shot in British Columbia in 1970. The non-typical is just 134 inches and was shot by William B. Steele in Alaska in 1987.
Blacktail hunting tips
You'll be approaching deer season much differently for blacktails than you would a whitetail. Treestands are seldom used in blacktail deer hunting unless you can find an area with trail cameras that the deer are frequenting on a regular basis. For the most part, you'll be looking at spot and stalk or still hunting techniques for the most success. Expect to spend a lot of time glassing before you find the animals.
Time of year is always a factor of course. The rut for blacktails tends to fall in late November and early December, marking your best chance of catching a big buck off guard.
Move slowly and methodically when using these techniques. Blacktails love to hang out in incredibly thick and brushy areas. You may not see them, and they might not see you until you're right on top of them, which can make for some intense archery hunting scenarios. Many expert blacktail hunters swear by hunting clear cuts almost exclusively.
Be careful with preseason scouting prior to archery season. Some blacktails, especially sitkas, do migrate, and their late season haunts might be dramatically different than early season ones.
If you're on a migration route and miss your chance at that big buck, odds are you'll never see him again because he's already miles away. When a shot opportunity does present itself, you've got to make it count. Playing the wind is extremely important in blacktail hunting because you'll likely be doing a lot of extremely difficult hiking over rough terrain. You're probably going to sweat a lot, and work considerably harder paying attention to the way your scent is being carried.
Remember that the areas blacktails frequent are often quite wet and or rainy. In fact, some hunters swear that rainy conditions are the best conditions for blacktail. Have a good pair of waterproof boots and camo gear that is water resistant or fully waterproof. Taking a trophy blacktail buck often requires hunters to brave nastier weather conditions than normal. No need to make things harder on yourself by not dressing properly.
As for firearms, blacktail are small, but we recommend carrying a decent-sized rifle like .30-06. Remember you'll be hunting in areas that are often also frequented by brown bear and black bear. It's good to have a larger caliber as a safeguard. For that matter, it's not a bad idea to bring a buddy along to back you up either.
Blacktail deer hunting in California
For California Columbian blacktail opportunities, you're looking at the north and western areas of the state. If you're looking to take a buck that qualifies for Pope & Young or Boone & Crockett, you do have to be careful with California, because a lot of cross-breeding happens here. However, success rates are high, which makes this state an attractive prospect for many sportsmen and women.
While shooting these types of hybrid deer is perfectly legal, they might not always qualify for the book. In the video above, Steve Rinella notes that B&C considers anything taken east of Interstate 5 to be a muley. Just something to keep in mind if you are purist looking for a Columbia blacktail.
The good news is, public land opportunities abound in Northern California. Three great areas include the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Six Rivers National Forest and Klamath National Forest. California requires a base hunting license that costs $49.94 for residents and $174.45 for non-residents.
After that, a resident deer tag costs $32.97 for residents and $293.65 for non-residents. A second tag costs $41.04 for residents and $293.65 for non-residents. Keep in mind, you need to apply for these ahead of time and key hunting areas, like the ones mentioned above, may be hard to get.
As an alternate to public land, you can also hire an outfitter to guide you on a blacktail hunt. The costs for these vary, but almost all are three to five-day hunt packages. Expect to pay anywhere from $2,500 to $10,000 depending on the outfitter and size of the deer you're targeting. A bonus to most outfitter hunts in the Golden State is that the majority take place on private land, so there's less hunting pressure.
Blacktail deer hunting in Oregon
Hunting license fees are bit more expensive in Oregon than California, but you're likely to find much bigger bucks here than the Golden State. A hunting license costs $33.50 for residents and $167.00 for non-residents. After that, deer tags are $27.50 for residents and a whopping $430.50 for non-residents.
One downside to Oregon is that far fewer outfitters operate there, so you're looking at more of a DIY-style hunt. Try the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, Siuslaw National Forest, Tillamook State Forest. Don't forget to check out the many public areas in the Cascade Mountains east of Portland.
The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife also runs an access program that grants access to certain private lands for public hunting. Most of these areas are logging areas with plenty of clear cuts to glass for big bucks.
Blacktail deer hunting in Washington State
As we mentioned earlier in this piece, western Washington is home to the Boone & Crockett world record for a typical blacktail, a 182 2/8-inch monster that's big enough to make some whitetails look small! Deer like that are rare, but we can dream can't we?
Again, licensing isn't cheap here if you're a non-resident, but there are some giant bucks to be found.
A resident deer license is $44.90 and a non-resident is $434.30. However, if you're looking to get more bang for your buck (pun intended), Washington does sell combo license packages. A deer/elk/small game package is $835.80 for non-residents. They also have a deer/elk/bear/cougar/small game license for just a little bit more, $956.80.
Again, it seems there are fewer guides to be had in Washington, so you'll probably be looking at DIY style hunt. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of public opportunities around Olympic National Forest for anyone looking for a real challenge. The hunting isn't easy, but hunters willing to work for it see great success there.
Alaska blacktail deer hunting
The last frontier is generally considered THE place to go for the blacktail hunting experience of a lifetime. Especially southeast Alaska. The good news is, it's easy to get a hunting license and tags. The prices are even reasonable compared to some other states. Expect to pay $160 for a non-resident annual hunting license and an additional $300 for the deer tag.
The bad news about Alaska? Travel. It is not cheap to fly there and you're likely looking at multiple long flights in small, cramped planes. The worst part is, your entire trip can be derailed by weather.
In the video above, Gus Congemi documents some of the issues he's had in the past travelling to Kodiak Island over multiple hunting seasons. In one instance, his group was delayed four days due to weather! For that reason, we highly recommend not making a super-tight schedule for your hunt. Things can and probably will change and it really sucks if your seven-day hunt is turned into a three-day hunt due to weather issues.
But Alaska is loaded with awesome hunting opportunities for blacktail, especially on Kodiak and Prince of Wales Islands. You will probably want to hire a guide to help you find the deer. While there are plenty to be had, their services aren't cheap. Expect to pay $3,000-6,000 a person for guide services. Keep in mind that price doesn't include your licenses, flights and tips for your guide.
When you pay for an Alaskan blacktail hunt, you're paying for a hunting experience. The deer hunt is thrilling enough, but you'll be hunting in an incredibly beautiful place that will help make memories to last a lifetime. Another bonus is that you can often get more than one tag in Alaska, so you can really get your money's worth out of this hunt. You can often combine the hunt for blacktail with a little waterfowl hunting while you are there too.
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