As I sit in my office in July, the hot Tucson summer air is almost stifling. Every day for a week I have been in the desert at dawn, shooting arrows before work to beat the heat as I prepare for another exciting early-season bowhunting adventure. On my desk to remind me of how good it can be when things work out are a beautiful set of Columbia blacktail antlers taken in August, 2005. As I look at them I begin to dream of that superb hunt. Here’s what happened ?
It was hot. Damn hot, real hot. The last weekend of August in southwestern Oregon is always hot, making hunting the secretive Columbia blacktail deer about as easy as finding a four-leaf clover or picking a winning Power Ball ticket. With temperatures near outfitters Doug and Janet Gattis’ Medford home soaring past the 100-degree mark, it was too hot for even the biting insects to be out, much less a deer subspecies where the mature bucks easily rival mature whitetails in their nocturnal nature.
I have hunted Columbia blacktail hard since I was a kid. No deer I have hunted do a better imitation of Count Dracula than these guys. Their preference for nighttime movement was underscored by an Oregon Department of Fish and Game research project that used cameras keyed by an electronic beam/receiver set-up that took pictures of the deer as they moved through their natural habitat. The cameras were set up on several well-known trails. According to this study, only 17% of all bucks moved during legal shooting hours – meaning that 83% of all the bucks in the study area did not move when it was legal to shoot. In fact, prime buck movements occurred between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m., with more than 40% of the bucks photographed during the after-dark period being mature 4-point-or-better bucks. Interestingly, during this survey the does and fawns displayed a more balanced travel tendency, with 44% of them being photographed during daylight hours.
However, Gattis – with whom I have hunted regularly for several years and who has put me on some absolutely superb bucks with both muzzleloader and bow – told me he had an ace in the hole. Just like many eastern suburban areas have found that high deer numbers have forced governmental officials to allow some sort of lethal control which can include carefully regulated bowhunting, in this part Oregon enterprising bowhunters can find the same thing.
“I know it sounds weird, but here we can bow hunt on private property during the archery season if the acreage is large enough,” Janet Gattis told me. “We have access to some suburban acreage where the deer have become something of a nuisance, eating people’s flowers and gardens and they’re starting to be a traffic hazard. We found out it is legal to hunt here during bow season if you follow some specific guidelines and the property is large enough. There are some really nice bucks hanging around, and we’ve sometimes even seen them out during the day. I really think it will be a great way to get a shot at a nice one, if you don’t mind the setting.”
Why not? I have bowhunted whitetails from a tree stand east of the Mississippi River in many different states where the view was as much of someone’s driveway, a factory, or a new subdivision as it was the woods or a crop field. I had just never even thought about having the same opportunity out West.
A ground blind allowed Robb to wait the passing of his trophy buck as it came to water on a very hot late August morning.
Fast forward to the last weekend of August. Saturday morning finds me in a comfortable ground blind. It is hotter than the gates of Hades – it will be near 100 degrees before the day is over – and I am hoping a good buck comes by. As I waited I got to thinking. In whitetail country more and more bowhunters are being called upon to help control what has become an out-of-control suburban deer population. Is that what the future holds for the West, where urban sprawl is rapidly encroaching upon wildlife habitat? One time a few years back I was witness to an elk hunt where the herd traipsed right through a small town just outside Denver, the only rule being the animal had to be shot on private property. Rifles were used, and the hunters simply sat in lawn chairs in the landowner’s driveway and waited for the herd to march through his lower 20 acres. It took them three days to show up but when they did the hunter shot a young 5×5 bull, after which we backed the truck up to him, winched him whole into the truck bed, and drove him all of a quarter mile to the barn for processing. To a hardcore wilderness elk hunter it wasn’t much, but the hunter was tickled to death with his first bull.
It was late morning when the buck came, a dandy 4×4 that had scraped his velvet off just a few days before. As he ambled along, I remember thinking, “What the heck is this guy doing out during broad daylight?” Of course it was hot, the water was needed, and he was quite secure after spending much of his life right here, near these houses and dogs and cats and cars and people, and he has probably become pretty acclimated to his surroundings. He was in his core area, and like many of the suburban whitetails back east, he was comfortable with these sounds and smells.
Today would be different. Not unlike the evening a few years before, when I sat in a tree stand in the timber and that 144 P&Y buck came past on his way to search for a doe in estrous, this buck came by my blind at 20 steps. The 28 ½-inch Gold Tip 7595 shaft flew like a laser beam through his lungs; the buck never knew what hit him.
An early-season five-year old blacktail taken during scalding weather is a true trophy animal to be proud of. This 4×4 buck was 5 years old and scores 133 ½ Pope & Young points – a whopper buck by anyone’s standards and one I am most proud of.
At 133 ½ Pope & Young points and five years of age, he is a true trophy Columbia blacktail buck. And just maybe, I thought, this is what the future holds in the suburban West, where in some areas deer – and other game animals, like mountain lions, black bears, bobcats and, yes, even elk – have begun to come into conflict with the expansion of the human race. And while some hunters might poo-poo something that isn’t wilderness hunting, it is ? fun, and also satisfying. It is fair chase hunting of a different nature. And it is here to stay.
Doug and Janet Gattis are superb outfitters. They charge $2950, plus license and tag, for all their 5-day blacktail hunts – general archery, general rifle, and limited-entry late muzzleloader hunts. Fees are all-inclusive, including airport pick-up, trophy preparation, food, lodging, guide service, etc. If this intrigues you as it did me, contact Southern Oregon Game Busters, Doug & Janet Gattis, P.O. Box 1576, Medford, OR 97501; 541/770-5050; 541/734-9008 fax; www.blacktails.net.