Mining the record books for blacktail gold with binoculars and blackpowder rifles.
By Gary Lewis
The new route follows the California road about 350 miles from here, it then leaves Ogdens or Marys river and enters Oregon by the way of the Clamet Lakes, Rogue river, Umpqua and the head of the Willamette valley—it shortens the road—avoids the dangers of Snake & Columbia rivers and passes S. of the Cascade Mts.—there is almost every place plenty of grass and water & every wagon ox or cow may enter Oregon.”
– from a letter written by Jesse Applegate in1846
In 1846, Lindsay Applegate, Jesse Applegate and 13 other pioneers established the South Emigrant Trail. From Fort Hall, the route headed south following the Humboldt River before passing through the Black Rock Desert in present-day Nevada. The trail then entered northern California and passed Goose and Tule lakes. After crossing the Lost River, the route then crossed the Klamath Basin and the Cascade Range into Southern Oregon. The trail then followed Keene Creek to the Siskiyou Mountains where it followed the south branch of the Rogue River. Heading northerly, the wheel ruts followed the Umpqua River before crossing the Calapooyas into the southern Willamette Valley. The route came to be called the Applegate Trail.
In 1851 two miners, with a pack train headed south to gold camps in California, chanced on gold in the gravel of Jackson Creek. Three months after that, the new town of Table Rock City, later to be called Jacksonville, was populated by more than 2,000 miners housed in canvas tents and shake-paneled shanties. Gold seekers worked their way up creeks and gulches, cutting new roads into the wilderness.
Fur traders and farmers blazed the trails into the Willamette Valley, but it was prospectors who opened the valleys of the Applegate, the Rogue, the Umpqua and the McKenzie.
Today, most of old the mines are quiet, but the blacktail deer, upon which many a gold miner fed, are still there.
Prospecting for a Blackpowder Blacktail
When my friend Steve Mathers and I drew the Controlled Muzzleloader tags, I put a Thompson Center 50-caliber Hawken back into service. The gun is styled after the frontier rifle designed by the Hawken brothers of St. Louis, carried in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s by mountain men, pioneers and prospectors.
Oregon’s muzzleloader hunts are restricted by a strict guideline. A hunter must use open sights and a No. 11 percussion or musket cap and all-lead bullets. Pelletized powder and sabots had not been invented in Lindsay Applegate’s day and they are not allowed on an Oregon muzzleloader hunt.
Sighted in at 50 yards, the bullet hits one inch high. At 100 yards, the bullet is nine inches high. Beyond 150, the 320-grain projectile drops like a pumpkin. Like the hunters that first trod these mountains a hundred and sixty years ago, I would have to limit my shots to 100 yards or less.
The season was eight days old when we began to prospect for blacktail.
After a look at a nice buck the first morning, I met back up with Steve Mathers and we explored a creek drainage along a trail built by miners in the 1800s. Down in a canyon, I spotted two does. A buck followed, but he could only be identified as a buck by the buttons between his ears.
When the sun was low in the west, a deer trail led me down through the poison oak and I crossed the road in the failing light.
I skirted the top of a canyon and picked up another deer trail. For some minutes I listened and began to imagine a deer moving in the leaves below. With binocular up, I scanned the oaks and firs down slope. There – a barrel-shaped horizontal against vertical tree trunks. The glass resolved an ear, an antler.
The deer took a step and was out of sight again. Night chased away the light.
In the morning, I eased along a hillside on an old mine trail. Instead of rattling, I broke branches and scraped a shed antler against a limb. In two minutes, a deer walked in, I could hear it, but could not see it. It either spotted me or caught my scent. It left, its departure marked by the measured sound of shuffled leaves, then silence.
On this day, my friend John McDevitt was along. The sun was high in the sky when McDevitt spotted a buck in the canyon. We were less than a quarter mile from where I had seen the buck the night before. I had taken the cap from under the hammer, but it was a matter of a moment to pinch it back on. One pass with the binocular was enough. I eased the hammer back, muffling the click to full cock with the blade of the trigger.
Distracted by a hot doe, the buck had let his defenses down. No time for the rangefinder. No need for it. Eighty yards, not more than a hundred. Steep. ‘Nine inches high at 100. Hold low,’ I told myself. ‘Even lower for this steep downhill shot.’
He stopped. I put the front post beneath the deer and stroked the trigger. The Hawken rocked me with the recoil and a cloud of white smoke hung in the still air. The doe jumped a log, made another bound and disappeared into the trees. The buck lay stretched out, dropped by the bullet that struck it high through the top of the lungs.
With a bearing on where the deer lay, we walked down through the trees, through golden shafts of sunlight that beamed through the branches. Gray around the muzzle, the buck was muscular, summer-fat with tall nut-brown antlers, almost 17 inches wide. Three points on one side and four on the other. We struck blacktail gold and there was work to do.
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