Black Tail Learning

Tis the season for black tail deer, and I’ve been hunting hard for our limited two week season here in Western Washington. The buck pictured above was “shot” by a neighbor’s camera. I have been given the great privilege of hunting their land for this beautiful animal, and so far, he has been MIA when ever I’m around. His harem, on the other hand, has been more than happy to spend time with me while grazing, offering great behavioral observation while I wait patiently for the antlers to arrive. In my GMU (game management unit), you can only harvest bucks- of any age. This mature male has had plenty of years to pass on his genetics, and would be a great source of meat for winter’s cold dark times. The privilege to enter a neighboring property in pursuit of this animal demands the upmost safety and mindfulness in being a good guest. I only hunt in this 40 acre parcel using a 25 yard range shotgun slug. This is not required in this GMU, but should be implemented any time you hunt near a home. Firearms restrictions can be part of a GMUs legal description, but even if it’s not, a responsible hunter should recognize the safety concerns within any location and adapt accordingly.

One of the greatest rewards of hunting is being out in nature. I spend many hours sitting in the wilds, watching, listening, and waiting. I get a chance to sit within the ecology I love, watching the light change across a landscape alive with nature’s mystery. The neighboring property where I’ve been given permission to hunt has two wonderful sit spots where I have spent a bit of time with resident does. The major draw in a ravine near the house is a downed cottonwood tree. It fell in a wind storm last weekend and acts like a bait to the deer. Finding natural attractants in the environment increases your chances of harvesting. In Washington, you can legally put out a certain amount of corn or fruit to bait a deer, but I do not think that’s the most ethical way to hunt, even if its legal. I would hunt in an apple orchard if given the chance, but taking the time to find where the deer are gathering naturally is important in understanding what they need and why.

In hunter education, we teach that wildlife need shelter, food, water, and a close proximity between these resources. Human encroachment into wildlife habitat is taking away the resources wild things need to live, so they adapt to our impacts, roaming pastures, jumping fences, and following roads to gain easier access to what’s left of their ecology. In the fall, deer are hunted because they are heavy with fat put on all summer in preparation for winter. In the autumn, does are not heavy with fawns, and the young born that year are old enough to fend for themselves. The bucks go into rut, and begin marking territory and carving out a desirable space for his harem of does to roam. In fact, the does will go where they please, and the bucks must defend a space already chosen by the does. The buck I am hunting near my house has put his mark on a young alder below as a sign to other bucks that he’s the resident dominant male.

Following deer sign to locate an animal can be tricky. It’s better to look at the bigger picture of a place and seek out active trails and where they lead. You’re often limited by property lines and keeping a safe distance from neighboring houses and active roads. The deer tend to avoid those places too, preferring well stocked larders in abandoned pastures or along hidden trails where they have good cover while moving through a place. It’s hard to hunt a heavily wooded place, but setting up a sit along the edge of a forest can be rewarding. On my second day of hunting my neighbor’s land, I went to explore a lower field and found a field with a calm doe grazing alone. It was a wonderful spot, with several deer trails converging on a field with plenty of good grazing and quick escape routs to get away form any threat. Since I kept my distance and sat down quietly, the doe relaxed back into grazing a while longer and let me observe her. It was the closest I’ve been to a wile animal in a while, and it felt good to connect with her as I settled in.

Deer and full of mystery, and often left unnoticed in the forests and edges all around us. They wander through suburban backyards, urban parks, and even on the shoulders of busy highways. Sometimes they stray into roads and get maimed or killed by brutal automotive impact. For the lucky animals that manage to avoid human induced accidents, the shelter of quiet back fields and third or forth growth forests offer enough forage, water, and cover to thrive. Our neighborhood black tails are habituated to people much more than the deer living further out in the commercial timber forests. These close up pictures and video were taken during an evening hunt. The weather was cool and damp, light showers came and went with breezy wind shifts. The scent of human presence in the wind can turn the deer away from your position, and they will float away without you ever knowing they were nearby.

Deer are silent shadows of the forest, as this doe shows in her amazing ability to suddenly blend in and disappear without a sound. As I sit still, watching her passively while I wait, she turns into a ghost and drifts away into the bramble along a hidden trail I had not yet discovered. This video captures the challenge of even seeing a deer that does not want to be seen. It was tempting to follow the doe on her move up the hill, so I did, and she took me towards the fallen cottonwood where she veered up to the house and I had to step back for safety reasons. Quietly, I took a page from the female ungulate’s book and slowly walked back to the lower field for another long sit. I was sure more deer were bound to move through there, and it would be a perfect place to wait.

Hunting takes time, and the more hours you can put in the field the more likely you are to successfully harvest your food. It’s a privilege to hunt in our country, you have to also have access to a gun of legal regulation, proper attire (hunter orange is required for modern firearm deer season), knowledge of hunting laws, and a Hunter Education Certification from the state. Then there are the hours of time scouting in preparation for your hunt, which start well before hunting season. I’ve spent most years hunting at The Snoqualmie Tree Farm with a recreational pass that allowed me to drive in. This year I did not get a vehicle pass, and instead have been biking in, which is an epic work out before I sit. Still, it’s been another great learning experience, including finding the perfect time to arrive before dawn so I can get to my spot under the cover of night.

Clear cuts offer a great place to have a large field of vision and potential sighting of a deer moving through the landscape. They are open spaces, like fields, which give the deer time to evade predators like cougar, who rely on tree tops to ambush from above, or thick shrubs to pounce from behind. The sun shines down on bare earth, where wildflowers, grasses, ground covers, and bramble become a perfect salad bar for grazers. I’ve been seeing a lot of brows sign on young cotton woods, bitter cherry, and red alder. In a two or three season old cut, the habitat will show obvious deer sign like nibbled young vegetation, tracks, and worn trails. The trails and tracks help you identify where deer are being funneled by the topography. Most animals take the path of least resistance, and you as the hunter, want to find those spots and pick a sit that’s safe to shoot from nearby.

In the picture above, I’m sitting on the up hill edge of an overgrown filed. My field of vision to the west, extends to the other end of the field, and into the woods beyond, which continue down hill for another 100 yards before banking into a wetland and starting up the other hill beyond. I’m using a shotgun with limited 25 yard range, which keeps my shooting arch within the field, but not the forest beyond. I try not to put myself in the woods, because trees block your shot and obscure the deer, not a good combination when you are trying to take a safe, well positioned shot. Another helpful aid in making a clean shot during the hunt is a pair of shooting sticks. The shotgun rests in the cradle of these sticks to steady my long gun when I take aim and fire. Try to always have a brace like this when you’re shooting to improve accuracy. A stump or tree trunk can be used in a pinch, but a pair of good shooting sticks allows you to take a steady shot from almost anywhere.

I’ve mentioned hunter orange and I’m going to mention it again- wear it- even if you’re not hunting, but enjoying the woods during hunting season- please wear hunter orange. The vests are cheap and can be found at most outdoor recreation stores, you can also get an orange vest with reflectors at any automotive store. I don’t wear reflectors when hunting, but if I’m just out hunting mushrooms or exploring the woods, the reflectors are fine. Hunter orange hats are wonderful too, though you’ll still need a vest or jacket to have enough coverage. Yes, hunter pink is also allowed here in Washington. You can mix and match for some of the best color clashing fashion statements ever seen outside a catwalk. Outside of the hunter orange/pink requirements, the rest of your clothing is up to you, but I would highly recommend dressing for the elements. Gloves are always recommended, because if your hands are too cold, you’ll have poor contact on your trigger, so keep the hands warm and dry. Wet/cold feet will also shut down a good hunt quickly, pack an extra pair of socks. Carry a pack with water, snacks, and a med kit too. All this and more hunting pack prep info can be found here.

As the evening of my hunt set in, my slow wander back up to the upper fields towards the house revealed three does moving slowly from the forest cover. They might have been browsing on the downed cottonwood in the ravine beyond. With the waning light, the harem was heading to an open place with good sight lines to avoid predation. My presence, which had been tolerated during the brighter daylight, was now causing unease, and the deer trotted off across the field, staying above me along the hillside until they disappeared into a mowed front yard above. For a few moments more I waited, hoping the buck would soon follow after, offering me a chance to harvest my tag for the season, filling my chest freezer with good wild meat and much gratitude. I was thankful even after the last light faded with the chances to harvest that day.

Though hunting time does not end till 7:15pm, well after dark, I stop hunting when I can’t sight in a deer through my binoculars. That time came around 6:15, a full hour before the legal technicality, but well within the safety limitations of my situation. Again, hunter safety is always relative to the situation, short of fundamental basics like muzzle control. Firearm safety and hunter education are crucial to enjoying a safe hunt. Beyond the rules there are important details to consider which may not be as straight forward as the regulation book. Like mushrooms, hunting takes a lot of learning, and it’s good to have mentors in the field guiding you for the first few years when possible. You can contact Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for clinics and mentor-ships here. Good luck, it takes a lot of time and energy to hunt, but the reward of being nurtured by wild food, and out in nature looking and listening to the world is a beautiful connection to place and what I call, The Sacred. Gratitude to The Deer Nation and all the lessons they offer.

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