Blacktail Huntin' With A Buddy
By Dave Gibson

..There is no better huntin' buddy than a young son or daughter. No hunter is ever more enthusiastic, more energetic or will be more elated to take a buck than a young boy or girl. I've hunted Blacktail bucks for most of my life. In some ways my life has revolved around Blacktail hunting. Over the years I've killed my share of decent bucks but my fondest memories of Blacktail hunting are the memories of hunts that I've shared with my son Doug.
I clearly remember the first buck that Doug and I got together. Doug was only four years old. I was the one with the rifle and the tag, but the average sized forked horn that we took on that August morning in the hills near Livermore, CA, was "our" first buck. Doug quickly named him Rosie. I don't know why he wanted to name the buck but I guess four year old hunters can make up their own rules.
Several years later when Doug finally got his hunting license and became proficient with his 6 mm Remmington, It was time for him to try for a Blacktail of his own. It was not at all easy. That deer season we hunted every weekend, vacation and holiday that we could. We were hunting public land in Lake and Mendocino counties in Northern California.
.One hot August afternoon we jumped a nice forked horn on Cow Mountain. The buck loped slowly, crossing in front of us. I was behind Doug and gave him the quick command to sit down and rest the rifle on his knee for a steady shot. He sat down and couldn't see the trotting buck at 50 yards because the brush was too tall. Doug had done as I had told him. He put all his faith in my experience but I blew it. In retrospect, I know Doug could have easily killed that buck shooting off hand. I made a bad call and worried that that might have been the only chance Doug would have at a buck that year.
.. Later that year in Mendocino National Forest Doug did kill his first buck. We were working out a heavily timbered hillside, hunting parallel to each other. I jumped a fat forked horn that I never saw. It ran up hill and right by Doug. Without me to give instructions, Doug reacted instinctively and killed the running buck with the proficiency
of the most experienced hunter. Later, while video taping Doug and his "Trophy" Blacktail, I found that narration was difficult, if not impossible because of the tears of pride that I was trying to fight back. To this very day when I watch the tape it brings tears to my eyes.

Doug with the Livermore, CA. buck he named "Rosie" and his first buck from Mendocino
National Forest. Taken when he was 12 years old
..Through the next several years Doug and I hunted together each fall. Doug proudly became camp cook. He could heat up beef stew on the propane stove, on the tailgate of the pick up, like no one else ever could. Jake the border collie looked on. We killed bucks . We ate venison. We planned future hunts. But time moves on and things change. Young huntin' buddies become men.
.. Doug is now a young adult. He leads an adult life with adult relationships, adult responsibilities and unfortunately an adult shortage of free time.
.. After my divorce a few years ago, I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area and now live on our ranch in Mendocino County. It's is undoubtedly some of the most beautiful country in Northern California and it's not too bad of a place to hunt Blacktails either. My one and only complaint is that there aren't more available women in the area.
.. Now days we no longer have the challenge of trying to find a place to hunt, but harvesting a good buck is as much of a challenge as it has ever been. In some ways it may even be more challenging than in the past. My brother Dan, Doug and myself are usually the only ones who hunt our ranch. We have agreed that for a buck to be "shootable" he must have antlers measuring at least 18 inches wide, 3 or more points on each side and strong "eye guards". We pass on numerous bucks each year that don't meet these requirements, as well as passing up quite a few that do, simply because we don't want to end our hunting season prematurely. We could each easily harvest the two buck yearly limit that California allows, but instead we choose to let the young bucks grow older and bigger.
.. Dan and I hunt every day during the six week deer season. We love to hunt but to us it really doesn't matter if we kill a buck or not. Some years we can't find one big enough so we never fire a shot. For the last three years, Doug has been able to manage only two or three days of deer hunting each season. I really look forward to hunting with Doug each year, even if it is for only a couple of days. We see each other a few times each year, but the deer season visits are the most special. I would hate to ever take for granted one of the most incredible gifts of my life, the bonding and camaraderie that Doug and I have shared while deer hunting. I hope those memories never fade. Each deer season when Doug visits I have a great desire to strengthen the bonding and camaraderie with a successful hunt.
.. As I mentioned earlier, my brother Dan and I hunt nearly every day during our 44 day deer season. I will kill a good buck if I see one but most of my hunting is actually "scouting" for when Doug and I can hunt together. Doug usually plans his hunt for the last week of the season when the Blacktail bucks have turned "blue" and there is a chance of seeing the first signs of the rut.
.. Each time I go out I make mental records of all the deer activity that I see. I try to "pattern" the bucks, remembering how they move from feeding areas to bedding areas and at what time of the day. I also note the areas that the does are using. As the rut nears, late in our season, bucks may be found in the vicinity of the does. The bucks will join the does with increasing regularity, checking for the first signs of estrus.
.. Hopefully, by the time of our family hunt, I will have a good idea of where the biggest bucks can be found and how we should hunt them. I draw maps and make notes. On the maps I indicate my suggestions for hunter placement and hunter movement whether it be for glassing, still hunting or drives, Another key aspect of my maps is the trails that the deer use when not harassed and escape routes they will use when driven.
.. This method of scouting and hunt planning has proved effective in making the short hunts that Doug and I share more successful. Three years ago, Doug killed a heavy horned, big bodied, worn toothed, old Blacktail buck that I ran out of a Madrone thicket. It was a basic strategy that we have all used hundreds of times while hunting with a partner, "you go over there and wait and I'll go through here and see if I can run you a buck", the going through part is pretty straight forward but where does the other hunter wait? This can make the difference between seeing a sneaky old buck as he leaves the area or not. There are usually many more escape routes than a single hunter can cover. That is where pre-hunt planning comes into play.
.. About three weeks earlier I must have spent two hours in and around that same Madrone thicket planning a drive. I decided on the direction that I would be moving and the route that I would follow through the Madrones. A mature buck will always run towards the nearest thick cover available provided it's not in the direction of a hunter that he is aware of. I have found that they prefer to run down hill and will only cross open ground when absolutely necessary. So I felt that if I did jump a buck he would move down hill along the creek below the Madrones, heading towards a large steep brushy ravine. I figured he wouldn't cross the creek up high because the banks were too steep, instead he would run parallel to the creek using one of three trails. These trails led out of the Madrones through some fairly thick oaks and then continued to the dense brush of the ravine below.
.. Where should I place Doug? I wasn't satisfied choosing a vantage point on just one trail. I zigzagged across and went up and down on that hillside about twenty times. Finally, I found a small rise from which a good portion of all three trails was visible. I marked the spot with a small green ribbon. This is where three weeks later, I told Doug to sit and wait.
.. I hiked back to the top of the grove of Madrones and began to walk through. There are no leaves noisier to walk on than Madrone leaves. This may be why so many smart old bucks choose Madrones to bed down in during the day. Predators can be heard approaching from a great distance.
. I hadn't taken more than 20 steps when a single shot rang out from Doug's direction. I crunched through the remaining two or three hundred yards, emerging in the scattered oaks. I called Doug's name. He responded "Down here, I got a buck". I headed in his direction, down the dry rocky creek bed.
The buck on the left was taken by Doug when he was 14, in Sonoma County. The buck on the
right is a 10 year old, 160 lbs regressing buck, taken by Doug in Mendocino County.
...I found the smiling young hunter among the boulders and dry leaves in the very bottom of the drainage. It was dark and cool down there because of the thick Laurels that completely blocked the sky. We sat there for quite a while savoring the excitement and accomplishment of a successful hunt.
.. Doug told me what had happened. He took his stand on the rise and waited. He was aware of the two trails visible below him through a lane in the oaks. The third one was on the opposite hillside, downhill from the only place where the creek could be easily crossed. Doug explained that he saw glimpses of a nice buck as it slipped out of the Madrones, down low. The buck crossed the dry creek bed and angled down the far hillside. It was heading toward the impenetrable brush and nearly vertical terrain of the lower ravine.
.. The buck then reached the only part of the trail that could be clearly seen form Doug's direction. The lane through the oaks was only about 20 yards wide but because Doug was completely ready; heels dug into the hillside, rifle resting on knee, thumb on safety, he had no problem taking a confident 150 yard shot at the running buck.
.. An instant after the shot, the buck disappeared into the ten foot tall Manzanita. "At first , I didn't know if I had hit it or not. Then when I saw the buck disappear into the brush, I thought that even if I had made a good shot, we may never find him." Doug explained. ..This concern quickly passed as only five seconds later, Doug heard the loud sound of what could only be the dead buck tumbling and sliding down the steep, brushy hillside to the creek bed below. That's just where Doug found that "Old Timer" with a perfectly placed shot right behind the shoulder.
.. Two years ago, Doug and I had only one full day to hunt together. I really wanted him to get a nice buck but each of the four drives we tried that day didn't produce a buck in the class we were looking for. It was late afternoon and I was getting desperate.
.. There's a hill on our ranch that faces the west, in other words, towards the ocean which is about twenty miles away. This particular hill has a flat top on which grow tall pines. The breeze blowing off of the ocean offers some relief from the afternoon heat as it passes through the shade of the big pine trees. Bucks like this spot. Twice that season, I had still hunted around those pines and each time had jumped the same buck. I called the buck "519" because he had a total of 5 points, three on the left and two on the right and his horns were about 19 inches wide. His rack was very respectable, high ( probably 17 or 18 inches ) and boxy with no hook, but his horns were not very heavy and he lacked eye guards.
.. Both times I jumped 519, he did the same thing. He ran down hill, crossed the drainage, then ran up the opposite hillside. He would then crest the ridge which was only about 75 yards away and disappear into the wooded draw on the other side. Both times he did this I had my cross hairs on his shoulder but did not shoot. He was a pretty nice buck but it was still early in the season and I believed that I could do better.
.. Doug and I had only enough daylight left for one last drive, I decided to give 519 a try. I positioned Doug on a rock outcropping overlooking the oak studded creek about 250 yards below the pine flat. I decided that this time as I entered the pines I would change my direction of approach so that If I did jump a buck he would run down hill, along the creek and toward Doug.
.. I was sneaking along very quietly. As I passed above a small patch of dead Manzanita snags, a group of three bucks jumped to their feet and headed down the hill toward Doug. I saw horns but couldn't tell how big the bucks were. I hoped to hear a shot but did not.
.. When I reached Doug, I asked him what had happened. He said that the three bucks, two forked horns and a fairly heavy horned 3 x 3 (519 was not among them) had trotted right below his stand at a distance of only 50 yards. "Why didn't you shoot the 3 point?" I asked. "He wasn't quite big enough, Dad" Doug replied, "and besides, he might be a nice 4 point next year."
.. That's how Doug's deer season ended that year. No buck, but in a way still very successful. Doug had had the opportunity to shoot 8 different bucks but had chosen to pass them up because they weren't what he was looking for. I was proud of him for showing so much restraint at his young age.