For many years the Columbian Blacktail Deer has been considered a subspecies of the Mule deer, however recent DNA testing has proven this not to be the case. In Valerius Geist's informative book Mule Deer Country he explains that by testing the mitochondrial DNA (the mothers DNA ) of the three species (blacktail, whitetail and mule deer), researchers have now determined that it was the mating of Whitetail does, and Blacktail buck's, that gave rise to the Mule deer and not the opposite as was once suspected.
Many now believe that millions of years ago the Whitetail expanded its range down the east coast of the United States, across Mexico and up the West coast where it evolved into the Columbian Blacktail. This migration and relationship may help explain the strong resemblance in appearance and psychological characteristics between the Blacktail and Whitetail.

Thousands of years later the recently evolved Blacktail's range spread eastward from the Pacific coast and the Whitetail's range again expanded westward. As some point the two deer species met again and the Blacktail bucks, displaced the Whitetail bucks, and bred the Whitetail does. Many researches now believe it is this hybridization that produced what is now known as the Mule Deer.

The Columbian Blacktail's Range

For those not familiar with the Columbian Blacktail, their range, as recognized by Boone and Crockett (B&C), extends form central British Columbia, south to the Monterey Bay in California. Columbian Blacktails only inhabit a narrow strip of land from the shores of the pacific ocean, inland for approximately a hundred miles. This distance of course varies from location to location

In regards to the geographic boundaries of the Columbian Blacktail one must rely on the observations of wildlife biologists, graduate students and scientists who have done extensive scientific research and identification on the Columbian Blacktail. I wish it was as simple as having years of hunting experience in order to be able do identify the possible genetic make-up of a particular deer but unfortunately it’s not. This is why DNA is such an important tool in deer identification.

When I refer to the boundaries of the Columbian Blacktail, I am referring to the
boundaries recognized by Boone & Crockett. B&C's boundaries are not the exact boundaries of the Columbian Blacktail they have been moved slightly inward to reduce the possibility of hybridization with Mule Deer and Mule Deer/Blacktail crosses. There are undoubtedly pure Columbian Blacktail in other area's, but because of possible hybridization they are not considered pure Columbian Blacktails by B&C.
As mentioned above, these are not the exact boundaries of the Columbian Blacktail but because we are a hunting web site these are the boundaries we recognize.

The Columbian Blacktail's Size

Blacktail deer on average are smaller than their Whitetail and Mule deer cousins. Here in north western California a 150-160 pound buck (live weight) is considered large. California Blacktail bucks occasionally approach 200 pounds, but from my experience, it's a rare occurrence. Years ago I killed a huge bodied forked horn in San Joaquin county that tipped the scales at 171 pounds field dressed. To date this is the largest Columbian Blacktail buck I have ever personally witnessed.

Although I have limited personal experience with Oregon Blacktail I am told they are slightly larger in body size than California bucks. Washington on the other hand produces some extremely large bodied Blacktails. If my experience with this web site is any indication, it appears that bucks weighing 175 lb. field dressed are not that uncommon in the "Evergreen state".

Antler size in Blacktails runs contrary to what one might expect and is an often debated topic among Blacktail hunters. In the Columbian Blacktail, body size appears to have little relationship to horn size. This is generally not the situation with Whitetail and Mule deer. In their case, body size and antler size are usually closely related. As a rule of thumb, both get larger as you travel north. The larger the bucks body the larger it's antlers. This is very evident when you compare a Florida Whitetail to a Michigan Whitetail, or a Desert Mule Deer to a Canadian Mule Deer.

In the case of the Columbian Blacktail, as mentioned above, this circumstance does not seem to apply. California is the southern most state in the Columbian Blacktails range, yet it has produced more B&C Blacktails than Oregon or Washington. One would think that the opposite would be true but the record books state the fact clearly. The largest antlered Columbian Blacktail are found in the southern portion of their range. Even though California and Oregon produce more record class Blacktails than Washington, Washington state holds many incredible Blacktail bucks. Their heavy dark horns, and large body size, give them a truly unique appearance. Not to mention, the current world record Columbian comes from Washington state.

Many hunters look at the field photos section of and are amazed at the size that Columbian Blacktails are capable of attaining. A few have even gone as far a accusing me of posting photos of Mule Deer. If in doubt, please take a look at these numbers which were gathered from Boone and Crockett’s Records of North American Deer and Elk, and decide for yourself.

Ironically, even though most Blacktails hunters readily agree that there are areas known for producing large Mule Deer, such as the Paunsaguant, the "Arizona strip", Mexico, and the "Grande Mesa" in Colorado, many refuse to believe that the same holds true for Blacktail. Instead they claim that the Blacktails that come out of northern California and southern Oregon are not true Columbian's, but rather Mule Deer crosses. In most cases their reasoning is simple. They can't be Blacktails because they have never seen a buck with antlers that large in their hunting area. The truth of the matter is that good ''genetics'' and ''nutrition'' also apply to antler growth in Blacktails.

Hunting the Columbian Blacktail

Anyone who has hunted Blacktails knows what a difficult proposition it can be. Blacktails are every bit as sneaky as their ancestors, the Whitetail. There are even those that claim there is no comparison between the two, saying without a doubt, the Blacktail is the most difficult deer species of all to hunt. This is not meant to diminish the Whitetail's or Mule deer's intelligence as there are many other factors that must be considered when determining how difficult a particular type of deer is to hunt.

In my opinion the most significant difference between Whitetail, Mule deer and Blacktail hunting is the time of year the seasons most often take place. Like deer hunting of all types, weather and rut play a large part in hunter success. In California's vast A-Zone, the archery season opens in mid July, with the rifle season opening one month later. At that time of the year, temperatures are often in excess of 100 degrees. When it's that hot, Blacktail bucks move little during daylight hours. Many ‘’northern’’ hunters wouldn't even consider hunting in such conditions but if you want a California Blacktail you don't have much choice. You either tolerate the heat or go home empty handed.
California's B-Zones open in mid September and run through late October and occasionally offer a little relief from the heat but there is no guarantee.

Oregon and Washington's Blacktail seasons aren't much better, regularly taking place when temperatures are high, but both states have limited late season hunting opportunities available. Washington has a split season which often gives hunters a chance to take advantage of cooler temperatures and the onset of the rut. Oregon also offers limited rut hunting opportunities.

If you get lucky and it rains before the season ends, or there is a prolonged drop in the temperature, bucks just might become more active and begin chasing does. That was exactly what happen to me and a group of friends during a recent California B-Zone hunt. In three days of hunting we took five bucks, all with spreads in excess of 20 inches, and passed on numerous others.

Weather's Effect on Blacktail Hunting.

If Blacktail season is open and it rains, drop everything and go hunting! One rainy morning last season I took a quick drive and saw 33 deer in about an hour, with twelve of them being bucks. It was still early in the season so I never fired a shot and by the end of the season I was regretting my decision, as I never again saw the big rain-soaked 4x3 that stared at me through the early morning mist. That's just how Blacktail hunting goes, they're everywhere one day and they're nonexistent the next

Another factor that makes Blacktails so difficult to hunt in California is that Blacktail hunters rarely get to take advantage of the rut. Most seasons are set so that they end before the rut begins. However there are a few late season draw hunts available for those lucky enough to pull a tag. ..

Blacktail Hunting Techniques

Blacktail bucks, especially mature ones, love the brush and don't often leave it during daylight hours. I am out looking at bucks nearly everyday so I learn to recognize many bucks by sight. Before the season opens when the bucks are still in velvet they are often very visible, feeding in openings in large bachelor herds (a group of bucks.) At that time of year Blacktails would appear fairly easy to hunt, but once their velvet is shed, they become a different animal. They stick to the brush and travel very little during daylight hours. Many of the bucks I have watched all spring are never seen again until the rut begins. Proving it is not always hunting pressure that causes them to disappear. It is simply their nature. Even in areas with no hunting pressure the bucks fade into the landscape with the shedding of their velvet. During the season you may occasionally see younger bucks out feeding in the open, but it is rare that a mature Blacktail finds himself in that situation.

One very successful way to hunt Blacktails is by making drives through thick cover. A good drive usually requires several hunters. If you have the people, it can be a very effective method. One important thing to remember is that Blacktails will often hold tight and let you walk past. Once you have passed they will sneak out the back and the hunters will never know they were there.

My favorite method for hunting Blacktails is to find a good vantage point, get in place before the sun comes up, and wait for the bucks to move. Blacktails often bed at the edges of thick cover. When the sun reaches their bedding areas they will get up and move to another shaded location. Most of the time they will only move a short distance but for a moment or two they are visible. Once you have located a buck you can then begin your stalk.

When Blacktail bucks travel they often use broken ground or rocky slide areas as main travel routes. Making them good places to ambush a buck. Occasionally when the weather is cool, or at first light, you can catch bucks crossing from one area to another. I have also noticed that the bucks in our area will often move again around nine or ten o'clock making this one of my favorite times to hunt.

I have not had much luck watching water holes but others have. You will probably see deer if you watch an ''open'' waterhole or pond but you most likely won't see many mature bucks. Blacktails have lived in these conditions for a long time and don't require much water. The majority of their water is obtained from small seeps back in the brush. I have seen bucks slip in and out of these seeps so quickly, and quietly, they leave you questioning what you have just seen.

Horn rattling is also an effective technique to use for Columbian Blacktails. Every year numerous hunters use this tactic successfully. It is more productive in areas where seasons take place during the rut or pre-rut but if you are in one of those areas I suggest you give it a try.

Even though Blacktails are difficult to hunt, serious Blacktail hunters often get their buck and many of them take two a year (where permitted), not to mention passing on countless others. More than half of the deer pictured on my web site were taken on public land.

If you are willing to put in the effort and do your research. I am sure you will find Columbian Blacktail hunting to be a difficulty, but rewarding experience, and every bit as challenging, if not more, than any other big game animal you have ever hunted.

Trophy Potential

Many hunters underestimate the trophy potential of the Columbian Blacktail. There are without doubt exceptional Blacktail bucks to be found throughout their range but the Boone and Crockett (B&C) record book has proven that Northern California and Southern Oregon are the places to go for truly big Columbian Blacktails. I had been hunting Blacktails for close to 30 years and had taken some respectable bucks, but it wasn't until I moved to North Western California twenty years ago that I found out just how big Columbian Blacktails can get.

I grew up hunting in the hills of California's San Joaquin and Alameda counties. Where rarely did we encounter truly big Blacktails. We considered a 16-inch wide, 3-point, an exceptional trophy, and it was for the area. There were most certainly bigger bucks in the area, but they were few and far between. Here in Mendocino County a 16 inch three -point would only be considered a little better than average.We spend a lot of time every year, filming, photographing and hunting Blacktails, and every year we see hundreds of bucks in that class

. "Big" in this part of Blacktail Country starts at about 20 inches wide (outside) and 16 inches high. With at least three points per side and lots of mass. A "really big" Blacktail will have a spread in excess of 24 inches, brow-tines and four or more points per side. Every year in our area there are Blacktails killed with spreads approaching 30 inches and others with numerous points and extreme mass. The number one Columbian Blacktail from the state of California (according to the Boone and Crockett Record Book) has an outside spread of 30 5/8 inches and an inside spread of 26 5/8 inches. Another huge Columbian Blacktail taken in Trinity County California, has an incredible outside spread of 35 3/8 inches and an inside spread of 28 6/8 inches.

Many bucks do not make the book because of the deductions that excessive width can cause. I have no idea how many of these type bucks are taken every year but the numbers must be considerable. One thing I do know is that twenty plus inch wide Columbian Blacktails are much more common than many hunters realize.

If you are in search of a truly exceptional hunting experience, give Blacktail Deer a try. There is lot's of public land available and much of it holds trophy class animals. For those of you who can afford to pay the price, there are also limited hunting opportunities available on private land with the average price for a fully guided Blacktail hunt costing in excess of three thousand dollars. Some California hunting guides with years of big buck production under their belt "sell out" of nine to ten thousand dollar hunts every year.

If you have never spent a morning sitting on a mountain glassing the canyons below, or found yourself sneaking through the fern jungles of the west's coastal rain forests, you have missed out on a one of a kind hunting experience. If you have you, will never forget the sights, sounds, and smells of the west coasts awesome Blacktail Country.

Dan Gibson

See for Yourself. B&C Break Down of Columbian Blacktail Antler "Spreads"
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