The Secretive Blacktail Buck
It was early in the morning. Before sunrise. The day was October 21st, 2014. I was slowly driving through the darkness along a gravel road toward the locked gate where I would park my pickup and begin my hike up an old logging road into my carefully selected hunting location.
From the warm and comfortable cab of my pickup, as I approached the last curve in the narrow road, I saw movement in the tall wild grass and blackberry leaves off to the side of the road. I turned the steering wheel slightly to point the truck’s headlights towards the movement. Through the rain-specked windshield, which I cleared with the windshield wipers for a better view, I could see a doe and two yearlings making their way into the trees. A good sign, I thought. An omen.
I rounded the curve and shortly thereafter pulled onto a grassy dead-end spur, partially hidden between the 25 foot tall douglas firs. I parked and prepared myself and my gear for a walk in the dark.
I opened the door to the pickup and stood outside feeling the first few sprinkles of rain on the sides of my face. I put on my head lamp which aided me in putting on my small pack. I then unzipped the soft rifle case which held my beloved Ruger M77 MkII .243 Winchester, which I carefully loaded with five 95 grain Hornady SST Superformance cartridges.
I secured the pickup and began the lonely and spooky walk into the dark. After walking around the gate on the other side of the road, I started down the overgrown logging road. It would be dark for another 45 minutes or so, which would give me ample time to be exactly where I wanted to be at first light. I walked quickly, deeper into the woods, which were pitch black. I was thankful for the headlamp, though the batteries were going dead.
A slight breeze swirled around me, changing directions on a whim; causing the grass and leaves of the various forms of vegetation to move unpredictably. My instinct put me on alert for predators. A cougar could be within a foot or two of me before I even knew of the danger. My subconscious mind fought the urge to take flight from the unseen- the unknown.
As I walked, I occasionally made a 180 degree turn to look behind me, just in case there was something creeping up from behind.
The weather was welcome. Blacktail bucks love the rain.
The nocturnal and cagey habits of the blacktail buck makes him a true trophy. I have grown to appreciate the difficulty of successfully hunting him during many general rifle seasons in western Oregon. The game is one of fair chase, on lands open to the public. These bucks have eluded me nearly as often as not in the last 20 plus years of hunting them.
I was getting closer to my destination, and started to walk slower. It was still quite dark, but in the transition from tall timber to the younger trees I could make out the dark grey shapes a little better. I turned off the headlamp because a wise buck could easily see me from across the open, and leave before being seen.
I reached the clearing and immediately walked off the logging road at an angle into the clear-cut, where I spotted a large stump. I would sit here glassing with my binoculars as the first legal light began to illuminate the sky.
Once I made it to the stump, I did my best to settle in and make myself comfortable. I planned to stay for a while. In the process, I noticed a white sucker stick- you know, like from a lollypop - sticking up vertically from the large black stump. Someone had stuck it there like that. Sticking straight up. I didn’t let it bother me, but it was definitely a sign that another hunter had been around recently. I hoped he hadn’t shot my buck… Maybe he had found the area by searching Google satellite images like I had.
I wondered if I was in the right position as far as wind direction was concerned. It is very important to stay down wind from the area you expect to see any wild game. Problem was that the wind was changing directions constantly. Definitely one strike against me.
I glassed the clear-cut in the dim morning light with my binoculars. On more than one occasion, my heart started thumping when I spotted what appeared to be a deer. I even saw one that was moving around eating the lush vegetation only 40 yards from me- or so I thought. Turned out to be a brown fern moving in the wind.
I had plans for the day; this clear-cut was not my final destination. So, after glassing the clearing for what seemed like 20 - 25 minutes, I made up my mind that I would continue with my plan. I would slowly hunt down around the bottom of the clear-cut and then up the hill towards another area that I had scouted out.
The bottom of the clear-cut contains vegetation consisting of tall grass, blackberry vines, vine maples, ferns, and other forms of vegetation consistent with many such areas along the foothills of the cascades. All of this was the dining room of the blacktail buck I hunted. The clear-cut also contained 4 - 5 year old fir trees, scattered here and there, having been planted after the logging operation was complete.
Logs- a renewable resource. Logging. - a process of harvesting trees that gives you toilet paper and other useful stuff. It also creates improved habitat for blacktail deer (the clear-cut, not the toilet paper). If you have made it this far, you have successfully completed Common Sense 101, offered by Nimrod University, for 4 credits.
Another key feature of this area is the many dips and gullies where a blacktail buck can remain out of view of the old logging road, in small pockets which are less frequently traveled by humans. At first light, these are the kinds of areas that you may find a buck, minding his own business.
I left the stump (the sucker stick remaining as I had found it) walking slowly and purposefully. I moved as quietly as possible, stopping often to use my binoculars to identify small pieces of my surroundings.
I crossed a small ditch, which became a small draw further down hill as it curved to the left along the bottom of the clearing, meeting the timbers at the bottom. I wanted to move along the top edge of this draw so I could see as far as possible above and below me, increasing my chances of seeing my quarry, should he be nearby.
The rain clouds were starting to dissipate, revealing some sections of clear sky. The wind seemed to die down slightly. This was a perfect scenario, the deer like to come out after it rains as well.
After several minutes of traveling in this manner, having only moved approximately 50 yards from the big black stump, I turned my head at a ninety degree angle to my right. I was looking across the draw and immediately, a deer shaped object caught my eye about 75 yards away.
I was pretty sure this was a deer, so I froze and slowly put my binoculars up to my eyes. Indeed, a large bodied deer was moving very slowly, quartering towards me. It was partially obscured behind a couple of douglas fir trees, which were about 10 feet tall. I immediately suspected it was a buck, but I couldn’t be sure. I looked again and when he moved his head, I saw branched antlers.
The buck didn’t know I was there so I lowered my binoculars, grabbed the shoulder strap of my rifle to get the weapon ready and crouched down to sneak a couple feet to my left and sit down on the side of the hill.
I reclined against the hill with my knees up. I pulled the butt of my rifle up to my shoulder and rested the fore-end of my rifle in my hand, with my arm braced against my knee. I took a look through the scope, flipping the safety to the “fire” position.
My heart was beating hard in my chest and my breathing became more audible. I reminded myself to stay calm, be sure of my target and wait for a good shot.
In the next second or two, my confidence began to increase as I felt myself mentally taking control of the situation. I was in a good position, the rifle feeling steady in my hands. I would wait for a good shot and I would squeeze the trigger.
I placed the reticle of my rifle scope on a gap between two trees where the crosshairs rested on the gray hair of the animal.
I got another confirming glimpse of nicely branched antlers.
In that instant, the buck took a small step forward, then turned broadside to me.
It was go time.
I steadied the reticle on his shoulder again and squeezed the trigger.
The rifle popped loudly and a short echo of the report rang out in the quiet morning air.
I quickly looked again to check the status of my quarry. I saw him making a high and long jump forward in a downhill direction. As soon as I saw this I lowered the rifle quickly and cycled the bolt, then readied for a second shoot.
When a deer is hit in the vitals, they often jump like that, so I thought it was a good sign he had been hit.
But, I was ready to shoot again. I peered through my scope, expecting him to continue in the same direction out from behind the firs, down into a more open grassy area where I would take a second shot.
Nothing. Nothing moved at all. I waited and watched for what seemed like 10 - 15 seconds but was probably more like 4 - 5 seconds.
I put my rifle on safety and started quickly making my way through the draw as quickly as I could. Adrenaline clouding my judgment somewhat, I charged straight through the thickest blackberry vines. I shortly came back to my senses and sought a better path through the brush.
I kept watching for movement.
I assumed that the buck would be laying on the ground where he had landed after taking that long, high jump, but I was not taking any chances. I was on high alert.
Once I was on the other side of the firs, I looked around and did not immediately see the deer, where I though I might.
Becoming slightly nervous, but easily maintaining my composure. I made my way towards the area he had been standing, looking for blood along the way.
Nothing. Not a speck of blood. Not a single track.
Hmmmmm. Internal groan. Nervousness converting to anxiety, but still maintaining hope.
I would locate the exact place he had been standing and there would be at least one drop of blood to let me know he had been hit.
Now I was standing exactly where he had been standing, as far as I could tell; judging by the various reference points provided by the surrounding landscape.
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
I started combing the area, covering all of the obvious places first. I walked in circles looking for blood. There had to be one speck of blood somewhere!
Did I miss that buck? Did I rush the shot? I had felt pretty confident, but in these circumstances, the brain comes up with all kinds of scenarios; reasons for the lack of blood.
A thought flashed through my mind. A memory of a recent conversation with my brother, who has also hunted with a .243 Winchester on occasion. He had already shot a buck with his .243 during the 2014 season and one other deer a few seasons before with the same rifle. He had eventually found the deer, but no blood, after an intense search.
I wasn’t going to stop looking for this deer until I had covered every inch within ¼ mile of where he had stood.
I never did find a drop of blood.
But, I did find one (1), count it, ONE fresh track. It was a track made by a deer in a hurry. It had slipped a few inches in the mud. I made mental note of it, though I was still searching for blood, or a dead deer.
The thought occurred to me to search uphill. Maybe he had made a 180 degree turn and headed back from where he had come, though his initial direction was downhill.
Suddenly, the blackberry vines took control over my body and pulled me down into a dark, musty hole, lined with black soil.
It wasn’t too traumatic of a fall, but I knew it would be tough coming out of it. The vines made it nearly impossible to even get back onto my feet.
I felt like Alice in wonderland (male version). I didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole any further. This side of reality was nonsensical enough for me.
I kind of laughed to myself. My hope of finding my trophy was at about 50% at this point and dropping quickly. I did know one thing, however. Regardless of whether or not I found him, I knew I would remember this moment, lying on my back in that musty hole looking up at the sunlit morning sky with dry brown grass and blackberry vines framing my view.
In the same instant that I hit the bottom of the hole, I was making plans on how to get out.
I said a silent prayer to God, asking him that if I had hit that buck, he would help me find him.
All of these thoughts were little more than a flash of conscience as a half grin crept across my face. I had been in situations like this before on hunting trips in Western Oregon. A little experience provides a bit of wisdom. Patience is a virtue in situations like this. Getting mad only makes things more difficult and painful.
Needless to say, I made it out. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be sitting in my home today writing this story for your reading pleasure.
I had combed the immediate area fairly well and knew it was time to start using more logic to solve this problem.
I returned to the spot where he had stood when I shot. I began piecing things together with what I knew to be factual.
I knew he had stood right there in that opening behind the two trees. I knew when I shot he had jumped high and far downhill and I had a pretty good idea where he would have landed. I walked downhill to that spot and looked for blood. Of course there was no blood. I looked around the bases of the firs thinking he‘d be laying down there somewhere out of plain sight. Nothing.
From this point, I knew with near certainty that he had not gone further downhill because I would have been able to see him from where I shot. So, as I stood where he likely landed after that first jump, I made a 90 degree turn towards the first possible escape route which would have been out of my view.
As I contemplated the path he would have taken, something clicked!
That one, solitary track I had found was right along that path.
My confidence soared. This had to be where he went.
I looked further along that same imaginary path. I was almost certain I could imagine his path into the young firs, though I still didn’t see any other sign of him.
He would instinctively run into the place where he felt the safest- the thick, young douglas firs which are planted so close together to maximize production they are nearly impenetrable to man.
Back into his bedroom he had gone to die.
I slowly walked the path, half crouching, looking for tracks and blood until I found that one solitary track again. I continued on until I reached the edge of the trees.
I lifted my eyes and to my amazement, laying about five yards into the trees was a fine blacktail buck!
I pumped my fist multiple times, and quietly voiced my excitement with a “yessssss, yesssss, yesssss.”
I walked over to my trophy, took off my hat, bowed my head and gave thanks to the Lord for this blessing.
I grabbed an antler to get a better look at my kill.
It was a long drag back to the truck.
After gutting him, removing the heart and liver for that special meal, and dragging him up to the old logging road, I sent a text to my brother with a picture.
My brother was in the area hunting with his two daughters. He called to ask about the situation and to congratulate me. He said he wasn’t too far away and he would come and help me get him to the truck. I told him I thought I could make it by myself, but I was sure I would appreciate the help by the time he arrived.
I took my time. I dragged him a few yards, then stopped to rest. It’s hard work, especially for a guy that’s not in the best physical shape.
I was right, my brother and his daughters were a welcome sight- not only because I am thankful they are a part of my family and my life, but for the welcome relief.
My brother offered me a cup of hot cocoa he had in a thermos. It was delicious. It was nice to take a break and chat about the hunt while admiring the buck.
Then, like an angel sent from heaven, my brother helped me drag that buck the rest of the way to the truck.
We took some pictures. Then we loaded him in the truck and headed into town.
I feel so fortunate to have had this experience. My heart is full of gratitude.
Happy Hunting and Tight Lines!
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