It was one of my most memorable hunts and I was hoping to get some time to give the story-writing some due diligence, but I’ve had my hands full butchering, processing, and packaging that beautiful buck, so this will have to do. My first thought is, wow, what a fast hunt, over before 8:00 a.m. on opening morning. But the real hunt started last fall, after a 2020 deer season that was a total bust for me. Events allowed me few opportunities to hunt, let alone harvest a deer. But I had a couple buck sightings in an area that I just started hunting, and that got me excited enough to wear out a lot of boot leather since then. I put up a few cameras and got a pretty good sense of what a bachelor group of bucks was up to. I was also having a lot of fun SRT climbing with a Kestrel Flex, and I would look for good trees to climb on and practice setting up in the same area where I was scouting.Beautiful buck. Congrats. Let's hear the story of the hunt. I love a good hunting story.
I know that sounds risky, and it is. One time I found a perfect, telephone-pole sized ponderosa pine overlooking some fresh beds. This was back in June and I just wasn’t thinking. I got a rope up that tree, set up a platform, and started getting comfortable and checking out possible shots. Well, five bucks decided to come in and chew the cud for a spell right there in front of me. They bedded down 20-50 yards away. I just sat there and watched them. They were yearling, 2 year, and 3+ year old bucks, and they were a blast to watch for a half an hour. They were still a lot of fun to watch after an hour. After an hour and a half, I was wondering what is wrong with these bucks, don’t they have something better to do than hang out all afternoon? I had an appointment, had only planned on spending an hour before I headed back, and I wasn’t in cell range. So I, as quietly as possible, tried to sneak out of that tree. Those bucks crashed out of there like you would expect and I didn’t see any signs of them using that bedding area for at least a month. I was worried all summer that I’d spooked the big boys out of the country, but I’m pretty sure that one of those bucks was the buck I killed on Saturday.
About a month ago I switched saddles from a Flex to a Merlin, so I took a little break from scouting and spent some time at home shooting out of it. The oaks started dropping acorns early after that. Not mature acorns, but for some reason many have been dropping in a green stage in my area. The deer responded to that as a food source and changed their patterns. I found a really fresh and active trail near a 26” diameter ponderosa pine with some branches a little over 20’ high. There were a lot of Oregon white oaks and a few California black oaks on one side and thick brush and young conifers on the other, and the tree overlooked a trail between these two areas. The trail had a lot of fresh tracks and droppings on it. The tree was clean and straight and would have been great to hunt out of with a conventional lock-on, but I only located this area on the Sunday evening before the opener, and the extra time it usually takes me to set up a lock-on would have been a problem. By contrast, the saddle is really fast and easy. I threw up a rope and headed up, and on the way I screwed a ring of 5 steps at 17’. Then I stood on the steps, screwed in an arm for my bow about 45 degrees to my left, a hook for my pack the same angle to my right, and scanned for branches that might block a shot. I climbed down and replaced my rope with a loop of 550 cord so I could reset my rope when I hunted there. I trimmed a few branches that I thought might block a shot, and headed out of there.
Opening morning broke in the upper 40’s, very smoky from the wildfires, with a calm wind. I had several options for stands, but I really felt good about hunting out of the ponderosa I found the weekend before. The sign was fresh, and it made sense to me why the deer were moving through there. Even though the air was calm, I felt that movement of air along the local topography would carry my scent away from where I would get shots at deer. I was pretty confident that I’d see deer moving through there, the only question I had was when. Well, I have to hunt when I can so I thought I’d hunt it in the morning until it got hot, and then I’d head home for a siesta, and then take my son out for the afternoon and sit in a ground blind near home.
Legal shooting time was 0600, and I wanted to get up in that tree a good hour before, but I was late. I forgot my phone and had to run back for it. Normally it wouldn’t have been such a big deal, but we had a pretty sizeable wildfire burning about 8 miles away, and I needed to stay in touch. So I got up there and settled in with the shooting light, and the woods were alive. It was smoky, but there were a lot of things rustling in the woods around me. I could only shoot about 30 yards in two directions (along the trail) and 10-20 yards through pockets in the brush and trees perpendicular to the trail. I could see a little farther through the trees and brush in places, but it was thick. So I heard things all around, and my hearing is terrible by the way, but I couldn’t really see what was moving. The woods just felt gamey.
Eventually I saw a big jackrabbit moving up the trail. If it seems strange to see big jackrabbits in the heavy woods, it is, but I see them all the time out here. That’s a good sign because it reassures me that there isn’t a predator like a coyote or mountain lion spooking deer in my immediate vicinity. Then I saw a covey of mountain quail. All this was in the first 15 minutes of shooting light. Another 20 minutes later, I heard, then saw a 2-year old forkhorn in the thick conifers in front of me, heading towards the oaks. He wasn’t traveling exactly where I expected to see him but was about to cross the trail about 25 yards away from me, on my left, and away from where I thought my scent was going. I got in position for a shot and normally I would have taken one. But he never stopped walking, and I didn’t stop him because it was so early in the hunt and I thought he was part of a bachelor group. I was right, and a minute later out came a 3X3. He didn’t stop walking either, and I almost made a noise to get him to stop, but didn’t. I waited there a few minutes and nothing happened, and I started getting the feeling that I shouldn’t have let the three point pass. He was a fat buck and his antlers weren’t tiny, especially since they were still covered in velvet. Another buck started making his way through the conifers towards the oaks. This one was a yearling forkhorn in hard antler, and I just wanted to let him walk. I knew that there were at least a couple more mature bucks in this bachelor group and I was hoping one would show up next. I didn’t have to wait long. A big 4X4 with a single eye guard walked out of the woods and headed towards the trail to my left. He was crossing even closer than the other bucks, at 12 yards. He was moving, and I drew, and made a snickering sound with my mouth. I’m not sure if he stopped or not, but I released and hit him several inches farther back than I intended to. That was the worst part of the whole hunt- I thought I gut-shot him. It turns out that I hit him in the liver and miraculously avoided hitting his gut, but for the several minutes following the shot I was hit by a strong feeling of, “this is gonna be a long, hot day, and the venison is going to taste like it”. The arrow passed through and I heard it hit the ground. The buck trotted off in the direction of the first three bucks, and I could see through the trees where he laid down about 60 yards away. I watched him for about 5 minutes, paying attention to how he was holding his head, and it wasn’t dropping like I hoped it would. I felt good that he laid down so fast but he just wasn’t bleeding out like I thought he should have been, and if he was gut-shot I wanted to finish the job without delay. So I got down from the tree, packed up my gear, and headed his way. While I was climbing down from the tree I saw him get up and try to run, and he humped his back when he got up and then went back down about 40 yards further away. There was a fallen log blocking his view of my approach; and I got within 20 yards of him before he picked his head up and looked in my direction. Because he was laying down and facing me, the shot window was pretty narrow, but I put another one through his lungs to finish him off. You might be able to see where the Muzzy 4-blade nicked the left side of his face on the way in. He got up and then flopped right down again.
I cut the antlers off the skull and took them to the taxidermist so that he could preserve the velvet. He weighed 160# live. He had big strips of white fat down his back and smaller layers all over the rest of his body- one healthy buck! I corned about 5 pounds, ground about 15, and cut the rest into steaks, roasts, and chops. I went back and got the first arrow, which I didn’t immediately retrieve because that would have visually exposed me to the wounded buck, and it had dark, heavy blood on it, and it was especially obvious on the vanes. That was the first buck I shot out of a saddle; my biggest velvet buck; the culmination of not just a hunt, but a whole hunting plan; and a bountiful California harvest to boot. What a great experience and thanks for letting me tell it to you all.
A big part of this success story is that I’ve been having a blast finding trees to saddle hunt out of and then climbing them for the past couple of years, and that has not only motivated me to put in some extra time scouting, but it’s also opened up a lot more trees for me to hunt out of. Treestand bowhunting isn’t very popular out here in California. So when you encounter deer it takes them awhile to figure out that you’re a threat, if they perceive you at all, and you get great shot opportunities on undisturbed deer. The flip-side of that is that blacktails aren’t quite the creatures of habit that whitetails are, and they inhabit big country with huge patches of cover where their movement isn’t as restricted or visible as whitetails in agricultural or suburban areas. That means that you might spend a lot of time up in a stand not seeing many deer and wondering whether they’re not moving during daylight or have simply moved to another area. To keep from getting discouraged if I don’t see deer from a stand, I keep track of deer with game cameras and sometimes take a break from hunting to drive or hike around. It takes some discipline to commit to a treestand for blacktail hunting, but this is my third blacktail buck that I took from a tree while bowhunting, and it really pays off.
Good luck to you all this season!
BTW, the photo without a buck in it is my view of the trail from where I was hanging from the tree.