In this article, I will be focusing on Columbian and Sitka blacktail deer and the hunting possibilities for them. For information regarding specific units and draw type permits within these states, refer back to our state section information. Those state sections will give you a more detailed description of individual units and harvest statistics from prior years.
Columbian blacktail deer can be found all along the Pacific Coast region of North America, from California to British Columbia, with Sitka blacktail being isolated to the islands off the Gulf of Alaska. The highest populations are found within California and Oregon, with the population declining the further north you go. There is plenty of debate over boundaries of the pure stream of Columbian blacktail genetics, but you can visit www.boone-crockett.org/bgRecords/ records_boundaries.asp?area=bgRecords to view the boundaries as Boone & Crockett sees them. If you are concerned about entering your buck into B&C, you can have a blood test done to see if it falls outside these boundaries.
Regardless of the state they live in, most of these deer have certain characteristics, traits, and behavioral patterns that are somewhat exclusive to blacktail deer. If the area is a wet, thick, overgrown coastal forest, there is a pretty good chance blacktails reside there. Also, they are one of the more nocturnal species of deer once they polish their antlers up. This is one of the most difficult aspects of hunting a mature blacktail buck because you very rarely catch him outside of his dense bedding cover during daylight hours outside the rut. This is something to pay close attention to when selecting potential states to hunt in. If it has July or early August hunt dates, like California’s archery seasons, before they rub their velvet or mid to late October season dates that allow hunting during the rut, then you will have a better chance of catching a mature buck out in the open. Most of the late season rifle hunting is reserved for draw type hunts, except for Washington’s late rifle and muzzleloader general seasons.
Sitka blacktail have a fondness for thick cover, depending on the island you are hunting, but they aren’t quite as nocturnal or wary as they do not receive near the hunting pressure as their southern Columbian blacktail cousins. Season dates are not as important to deer behavior, but they do have a significant impact on the amount of foliage the deer have to hide in and the amount of bugs and sometimes bears you’ll have to deal with on your hunt. Even though the dates are not as important, Alaska by far has the most liberal season dates to spread out hunting pressure. Most islands have an any weapon deer season that runs from August 1st to December 31st.
Although British Columbia has a huntable population of Columbian blacktail deer, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to hunt there compared to within the United States as the deer population and the logistics of hiring an outfitter just aren’t great if you aren’t a resident. Washington is next down the line because its deer population is not nearly as good as Oregon or California. From a non-resident perspective, the only reasonable option is general rifle or archery hunting because applicants must purchase a $434.30 non-refundable deer hunting license and pay an outrageously expensive application fee of $110.50 to apply for draw hunts and build points.
Another problem is that by the time Washington releases their draw results for the Special Deer permits, most access permits are sold out. If you were planning on buying that hunting license anyway, it sounds a little more reasonable to apply for a Special Deer permit in the draw.
Another deterrent to hunting blacktail in Washington is access to private timber company land. However, this is by no means a problem that is isolated to Washington. If you plan on hunting timber company land in any state, you need to figure out the dates the access permits go on sale for the timber company land you want to hunt and then buy your permit early.
For hunters who are still looking at hunting blacktails in Washington, your primary focus should be Pierce, Thurston, King, Kitsap, and Lewis counties as they make up almost twothirds of the overall B&C entries from Washington over the last 10 years.
Washington has early and late season general rifle and archery hunts that offer a backpacker early enough dates to hunt bucks in more open alpine basins and some units that have late November hunt dates that will have deer more congregated. Washington flirts around the rut period of late October and early November on their rifle and archery season dates, but they reserve the prime rut dates for the Special (draw) hunts.
Oregon has some great blacktail hunting options with a few great draw hunts as well as general over-the-counter hunts in all blacktail zones. Oregon has very liberal season dates for their western Oregon deer tags with the rifle seasons beginning at the end of September and running into November. Archery seasons have varying dates from late August through September and mid- November to December, depending on the units. General deer tags in Oregon are weapon specific. You must purchase the western Oregon deer tag, which is essentially an any weapon permit, which will allow you to hunt during the centerfire rifle season dates. In order to hunt during the general archery season dates, you must purchase a general archery tag.
The Coastal and Cascade regions have a mix of public and private land. The Coastal region has a bit more private timber company land, which, for the most part, is accessible by permit only. Timber company access permits cost about $200-$500 for a motorized permit and about $75 for a non-motorized permit. Timber company land has excellent habitat to support a good population of deer that can handle heavier hunting pressure. Although most timber companies have a quota on how many permits can be issued within a certain timber harvest area, don’t expect to have your own piece of real estate to hunt on. There are open and closed roads all over the landscape, which allows for good access to most of the property. There is some phenomenal hunting on these lands, but mature bucks here are just as cagy and nocturnal as any other blacktail buck.
There is great hunting on USFS land, despite it having a lower deer population. USFS land has more old growth stands of timber but doesn’t have nearly as much vehicle access as the BLM and timber company lands. Hunting pressure is not as heavy on USFS land as most hunting consists of still hunting dark, thick, heavy timber pockets with deadfall and loose soil that will take patience and persistence to be successful. BLM land has a few more access roads with some logging practices that create more glassable terrain in and around new timber harvest areas. The habitat can hold a better population of deer in and around these timber harvest areas, but it will be pretty crowded with hunters. Oregon has a few standout hunts that can only be obtained through the draw. Two hunts that are easy or guaranteed to draw are the High Cascade hunts. The W High Cascade and Hood-White River hunts allow tag holders to hunt early rifle season dates on specific public land within certain units, depending on the hunt. If those tag holders are unsuccessful during the early seasons, they may take their western Oregon general rifle deer tag and hunt the general hunts as well. The muzzleloader hunt in the Applegate unit is the best for a true Columbian blacktail trophy, and the rifle hunts in the Hood and White River units are the best for a Cascade blacktail trophy. Both rifle hunts are very restrictive with only up to one non-resident tag being available, and they will take at least 16+ points to draw. The Applegate muzzleloader hunt will take at least 9 points to draw and has up to 10 non-residents tags.
Blacktails in Oregon are basically separated along Interstate 5. Blacktails on the west side are considered true Columbian blacktails, and blacktails on the east side are considered Cascade blacktails, which are thought to be blacktails that have some mule deer genes from possible crossbreeding. The most noticeable difference is that blacktail bucks within the Cascade region are typically larger in body size and mature bucks can reach into the 140-160" range, while west of I-5 it is very difficult to find a mature buck over 120". Arguments can be made on both sides of this debate, but one thing is for sure, Oregon would have significantly more B&C entries if they allowed blacktail bucks from the Cascade region to be entered.
California, while not often thought of as the best state for hunting in general, is the clear leader when it comes to big blacktail bucks. In the last 10 years, the top three counties in California have produced more B&C blacktail bucks than all of Oregon and Washington combined during that same timeframe. The beauty of this is that all of these areas can be hunted with a general rifle or archery tag. The two zones that have blacktail hunting are A and B. As a general rule, A zone is highly private land that is inaccessible and B zone has more USFS and BLM public land with some private land in the lower elevations and valleys. Mendocino County had the most B&C bucks harvested, but access is very difficult as most of it is within A zone. Trinity and Humbolt were the next highest counties in B&C production, and they are both located in B zone, but Humboldt County is a lot like Mendocino County with a lot of private land.
A and B zone tags are unrestricted deer tags with a quota. B zone has been selling out its entire quota earlier and earlier every year, with 2016 tags selling out by August 9th, while A zone has yet to sell out its quota. These tags allow hunters to hunt archery and rifle hunts or until they have harvested. California also has an AO (Archery Only) tag that allows hunters to hunt archery and rifle seasons in A, B, and D zones with archery equipment only. The AO tags are unlimited and are a good backup if you did not get a B zone tag in time before they sold out.
California has very early archery season dates with A zone opening in early July and most B zone units opening in mid- August. Archery season in most of A zone and the lower country in B zone can be brutally hot, and most bucks don’t venture outside the thick cover during daylight hours. This is when high elevation wilderness areas like the Trinity Alps in B2 are great to hunt if you can get away from the hikers and get into bucks that are still somewhat lackadaisical.
For the most part, public land hunters should look toward B zone, in particular units B2, B5, and B6. B1 is the largest unit within B zone, but it is heavily private land on the western side with some USFS land along the eastern boundary. A zone can be a bit challenging, but if you are determined to hunt this zone, there are some areas that can be productive for hunters who are willing to put in some time researching and scouting.
California has a couple of draw tags that are good hunts with later season dates. A30 can be a great archery hunt for bucks that have moved out of some of the higher elevations into lower elevations to winter. There are always a few 130-140"+ bucks that come from this hunt. It took at least five points to draw this permit in 2016.
M11 is a muzzleloader hunt that takes place in November and basically takes in all of B1. It has pretty good potential for a mature buck in the 140"+ range. M11 took at least 12 points to draw in 2016, partly because they only issue 20 tags for this hunt.
Last but not least are the Sitka blacktail deer that call Alaska home. Hunting options for this species are not quite as complicated as the Columbian blacktail with all of the different season dates, weapon specific permits, and draw tag options throughout various states. Most islands in Alaska that have blacktails on them have over-the-counter tags with hunting season dates that run from August through December and are open to any weapon.
The hardest part about hunting these deer is all of the logistics that are involved in planning your trip. From scheduling plane flights and figuring out what to take and what to leave behind to keeping your bags under the weight limit and avoiding overages on your bag fees, issues like these are what can seem overwhelming if you are just starting the planning process. Fortunately, you can refer back to our July 2017 issue where Huntin’ Fool PHA Austin Atkinson wrote a very informative article that goes over all the details for planning your own Sitka blacktail adventure.
When most people think about Sitka blacktail hunting, they think of Kodiak and Prince of Wales islands, and for good reason. These two islands are dominant in the output of B&C bucks. While both islands have their fair share of thick, open terrain, most of the open terrain on Kodiak consists of alpine ridges and basins while most of the open terrain on Prince of Whales is timber harvest areas. Most transportation on Kodiak is by boat or plane, while Prince of Wales has a road system that is made up of both open and closed logging roads.
Chichagof Island has a great population of deer and typically has one of the highest, if not the highest, harvest rates out of all the islands. It produces some great bucks but not to the extent of the abovementioned islands. The landscape of this island varies greatly, depending on which island within the Chichagof Island chain you are hunting. It has timber harvest areas and open alpine basins scattered throughout. All of these islands are made up of multiple different islands, bays, and huge mountain ranges, so pinning down a certain mountain or series of mountains that is going to be better than another for trophy quality can be overwhelming. B&C records is one way to narrow your search, but talking with local pilots and biologists can be a huge help. Most of the time, it just comes down to getting as far away from access points as you can and then you will turn up mature bucks.
If you are up for an adventure and you want to see a lot of game on your hunt, start researching Alaska for Sitka blacktail. If you are up for a true challenge and you want a better chance at a trophy Columbian blacktail, then California and Oregon are hard states to argue with. If you are prepared to be wet and cold and maybe find a few mature bucks, then a general rifle tag in Washington is the most logical destination. Trophy bucks in any of these states are truly rare but not extinct.
Some of the old growth forests in Washington and Oregon are breathtaking to those who have not had the luxury of growing up around them. It is worth the trip just to experience them, so throw a tag in your pocket one of these years and go exploring. Also, if you’ve never experienced northern California and the only picture you have in your mind is of traffic jams, smog, and long lines to the churro stands, then you owe it to yourself to purchase a B zone deer tag and witness California’s true theme parks in the Trinity Alps and Marble Mountains wildernesses, or you can venture over to A zone and you might be surprised to see vast acreage of farmland, vineyards, and rolling grass hills that are equally as beautiful.