Cover Photo Caption: Parke Berolzheimer with his 148-inch “Mendicino Monster” blacktail.
By Michael Deming
The blacktail deer is considered to be a subspecies of the mule deer by many. It was originally considered that the blacktail bucks had bred whitetail does creating what we call the mule deer of today. However with the evolution of DNA testing, it is now considered that it was the whitetail bucks breeding blacktail does which gave us the much larger mule deer as we know it today. One quick web search will provide you with a lot of information on the subject. I’m not a scientist, but I’m having a hard time figuring out why it is called a subspecies when it was the originating breed. The one thing that I do know about the Columbia blacktail is that they are extremely challenging and exciting to hunt.
These coastal deer are located from northern California along the coast to about 100 miles inland and all the way north into British Columbia. A big buck will weigh in at about 140 pounds on average, so they are much smaller than their mule deer cousins, but look very similar. Although the world record typical blacktail is 182 2/8 and the non-typical is well over 200 inches, these are true beasts in proportion to what is out there. The Boone and Crocket minimum for awards is 125 inches and a lifetime award starts at 135. Pope and Young awards start at 95 inches, but for anyone who has the benefit of hunting most of their time on public land, most will tell you it is a tough goal to achieve. However, private land is a whole different story.
Dale Soditus and Wildlife Out West Hunting Services provides one such experience on 10,000 acres of pristine private land loaded with blacktails, hogs and bears. The blacktail is the only North American deer that I am missing to complete my deer slam and after a conversation with Dale this summer, I was pretty sure that he was the solution to my missing slam member. A handful of calls to past clients assured me that I was making the right decision and booking with a top quality outfitter. I would have to wait until the end of August to complete my quest, even though the hunt gets rolling in late July in this part of California for archery hunters.
When I arrived in northern California in late August, I was greeted with cool mornings, but eighty degree days. So, we knew the deer would move early and shut down relatively quickly in the thick of the poison oak to wait out the heat of the days. We would spend our heat of the days back in the main lodge, which is a remodeled late 1800’s Victorian style home with all of the modern amenities of today’s world.
After launching a few arrows out of my Elite Pulse bow, it was time to hit the field for an afternoon hunt. Dale said that a couple of really good bucks in the 120-130 class had been coming out of this stand of timber and passing within seventy yards of a blind he had set up and become accustomed to. I have the patience of a 3-year-old to sit in a blind, but if this was our best chance at a good P&Y quality buck, I figured I could pull it off for at least one night.
Twenty-five hundred acres of the 10,000 is set aside specifically for archery hunting these Pacific ghosts and it truly pays off. The deer filtered into the field until it was too dark to see and unfortunately no shooter bucks were ever seen. My typical luck was kicking in. “They didn’t do that last week”, was Dale’s first words when he picked us up. I wasn’t worried, knowing that we had five full days to hunt.
I informed Dale that it was probably out of the question for me to spend another minute in the blind and that I would much rather do spot and stalk tactics for the remainder of the trip. I shoot over 200 arrows each and every day and practice out to 125-130 yards with the use of my Black Gold Ascent sight and feel that I can make something happen if I am on my feet. Dale said he was up to the challenge and the morning hunt was planned. We would use the Polaris Ranger to get into the ranch and then spot from some vantage points and look for a quality buck to stalk. Once spotted, we would sneak in for a shot.
Hogs were everywhere that first morning and even though I had a hog tag in my pocket, we decided to stay focused on blacktails until the tag was filled. It didn’t take long for Dale to spot a solid 120 class buck. He said that he was the same buck that had been hanging with a good 130 buck and just as he finished making the statement, the 130 materialized. We had limited cover, but we had to make an attempt. Within minutes we had closed the gap to inside 100 yards. I was absolutely sure that I could make the shot, since the buck had no idea we were even in the country. He was relaxed and feeding in some tall grass. I was having a very hard time getting a solid reading from my rangefinder with the low light and grass. Once I was able to get several consistent readings, I drew my bow and steadied my pin low in his chest, only to watch the arrow sail over his back without as much as spooking the deer. As the buck stepped out in the open, I was able to get an accurate reading which was 15 yards less than I had shot for. The smaller body size on this animal had really thrown me off and even though this buck was still within my range, his body language was much different. He was alert and knew something was in the area, which at this distance would be a huge chance for a wounded buck. I watched him and his buddy slip into the timber as I wondered if I would get another chance during our hunt.
“Shake it off” Dale said. I’m sure he was questioning my shooting ability at this point, but an hour later I drilled the heart out of a jackrabbit at 55 yards, building my own confidence back up as well as my guide’s confidence in his client.
Each and every day provided more and more stalk opportunities at good bucks, but the hot, dry weather had made stalking nearly impossible. I was afraid that Dale was going to throw me back in the blind at any minute. We decided to venture out of the bow only zone on the ranch and hit the mountains. From the comfort of the Kawasaki, I put my eyeballs on an absolute monster blacktail. He was a solid 26 inches wide with four long tines on each side and 3-inch eye guards. We watched him through the spotting scope for twenty minutes as he fed into a clump of bushes where he and his two buddies bedded for what I hoped would be the afternoon.
I knew that this was the quality of buck I had come to California to harvest. As I added the inches in my head, I kept getting over 150. 152? 154? He was big and I needed to get closer. Steve Mayer, my cameraman and I grabbed our gear and started closing the distance. Within an hour, we were hunkered down in the shade at a scant 62 yards away from this giant. I watched him flick his ears to shoe the flies away. Our wind was perfect and I just needed the big boy to stand up. After 20 minutes of torturous waiting, the wind swirled and all three bucks blew out of their beds, never to be seen again. It was a heartbreaking experience to be well within shooting range of a B&C monster and never get off a shot. Oh, the joys of bow hunting.
I’m known for getting things done at the last light of the last night and I have many gray hairs to prove it and with an unsuccessful morning hunt, I was going to once again get my chance. Dale recommended that we go back to the archery only area and see if the 130 buck and his little buddy were back in the same spot. We had seen them several more times throughout the week, but not in an area that would provide a good stalk opportunity. It was as good a plan as any for our last night.
As we drove into the ranch heading to the known haunts of the 130 buck, we caught movement in the oaks just off the road. We shut the truck off and slithered out. Unfortunately, the deer heard the commotion. It was the big 130 class 4-point, nearly a mile from where we had expected him to be. He was at 92 yards and within my effective range, but was on high alert providing no safe shot opportunities. He finally wandered over the top of the hill. My heart sank because our entire evening plan was now blown. Just then the 120 class three-point stood up out of his bed, with no idea we were there. He lowered his head to feed as Dale whispered “87 yards” into my ear. I adjusted my sight and settled my pin low in his chest. My Gold Tip arrow raced through his heart and the buck piled up in less than thirty yards. He wasn’t the monster Boone and Crocket buck that lived in my dreams, but he beat the Pope and Young minimums by a whopping 26 inches. My buck scores 121” and is the completion of my North American deer slam. I’ll be back next year to chase that 150” plus monster. Who knows, maybe he will be 160 inches by then.
We finished off the hunt the next morning with a successful hog hunt, which took literally only a few minutes. During our trip, we were able to see nineteen different deer that made 120”, two that were over 140” and a giant 150 class deer, as well as hundreds of pigs and nine different bears. Wildlife Out West and Dale Soditus run a world class operation that is managed for true quality and we are proud to endorse his operation as one of our newest Platinum Approved Outfitters. If you are interested in harvesting a blacktail, hunt hogs or kill a trophy black bear, you can’t pick a better outfitter anywhere. Space is very limited on these trips as he only harvests 10 deer a year. So, book early for 2012.