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Misty Morning Black Tail Deer Stalk

When Rio Wheeler discovers a mature buck inside the very first hour of his California black tail deer hunt he has to rely on his hunting ‘motto’ to help decide whether it’s going to be the one to hit!

Article by Rio Wheeler for BIGSHOT Magazine

The A Zone is California’s largest deer zone. It stretches from Mendocino County in the North to Los Angeles County in the South. The ranch we were about to hunt is located near the Town of Cambria along California’s Central Coast. I believe the Black-tailed Deer is one of North America’s most underrated big game species to hunt. You won’t find these animals lounging in alfalfa fields or roaming the open prairies of the west. This secretive deer prefers to spend its time hiding under the dark canopy of the Pacific Rain forests or sticking to the dense cover of the steep coastal mountains. Adding to the fore difficultly of hunting this deer is that the season can start as early as July and end before October. During the season, temperatures over 100 degrees are common and make it difficult to hunt anytime other than dawn and dusk. It is also estimated that up to two-thirds of Black tailed Deer are completely nocturnal.

With elevation ranging from sea level to the coastal mountaintops exceeding 2,000 feet, our hunt took place during the middle of the rifle season mid September. Don, the outfitter, said the rut could be starting at some point during the week. I have spent time hunting Free Range Aoudad in this mountain range along the coast of California before and you need to be prepared for hiking up the step rocky terrain. If you’re not well prepared for these hunts, the mountain will make you pay. There’s sitting in a blind or being strapped into a tree stand during this expedition, its all spot and stalk in the step and densely covered coastal terrain.

During our drive up to the ranch I ask Don how are we going to deal with the heavy fog. Don told me that hopefully we can climb out of the fog and it will be clear in the higher elevations of the coastal mountains. Don also states that up until now the bucks are solitary and stick to higher elevations. This won’t change until either the weather cools or the rut starts. In either case, the bucks will start moving down from the mountaintop. We were hunting towards the end of the A Zone deer season hoping that the rut would begin and spur some of the old solitary bucks to come down and chase does.

Twenty minutes later we arrived at the ranch entrance. Our visibility was measured in feet due to the thick ocean fog. Don said we had to make our way up to the higher elevations of the ranch and hopefully we could get above the fog. The Jeep continued to climb up the pacific mountains and 30 minutes later we break free of the fog. Looking back towards the Pacific Ocean it seems as if we were floating on an island in a sea of clouds with only a few lonely peaks being tall enough to break through.

We continued to climb to a vantage point where we would begin to glass for deer. As the Jeep crests the first mountaintop, Don quickly stops the Jeep. He had spotted the first buck of the hunt. The buck was well past 500 yards on the opposing hill. Don gets out of the jeep with a spotting scope in hand to get a better look at the buck. It’s wide, well past its ears and fairly tall. It’s a mature 3X3 with eye guards (an 8 pointer to Whitetail hunters). It is a good buck, not a monster but a solid buck for sure. Don looks at me and says “what do you think?” At this point we had be hunting for all of an hour or so. It’s my first decision of this three-day hunt. I don’t take lightly the time I get to spend in a special place like this. But my personal hunting motto is running through my brain “don’t pass on something the first day (or hour) you would shoot on the last day”. I’ve eaten my fair share of “tag sandwiches” over the years. I grab my shooting sticks out of the Jeep and we start putting our game plan together on how we should cut the distance on this buck. We have a good steady wind hitting us square in the face. We see a deep gulch that leads to a row of Oak Trees that should put us three to four hundred yards out if we can make it there without being spotted. With our route established, we begin our stalk.

As we move to our first opening in the Oak trees Don gives me the yardage, 370 yards. I started to put my sticks down but Don says we can sneak closer. We slowly make our way up the hill, hidden by the Oak Trees. As we near the end of our cover, we stop and take a longer look at the buck. We both gave him the thumbs up. It was now 8:30 in the morning. As I started to put down my shooting sticks, my mind went wild with thoughts such as “we’ll be done before noon with the buck in the Jeep and drinking beers beach side”. I got settled on my sticks. Don said we were at 300 yards with a slight breeze in my face. I settled into my rifle, concentrating on the crosshairs and slowly squeeze the trigger. The shot breaks and I am waiting for the buck to fall over as I peer through my scope. Then I hear Don, “you I missed him, just high over his back.” The buck launched full speed down the hill and off to a different county I’m sure. My mind quickly changes gears from the happy dance and drinks to, “Oh no, I missed and I bet the noise from the shot blew out all the bucks in the county with that miss”.

I pick up my sticks with a few choice words for myself and we head back to the Jeep. With the fog showing no signs of burning off anytime soon, we huddle around the Jeep discussing our next move. As we are talking, I notice two Aoudad walking down the hillside across from us. I keep an eye on the pair and trade my rifle for the camera. It was two ewes moving downhill. Female Aoudad typically are found in herds of 20 or more animals in areas with good populations. I watch as they move to the next ridge where I assume the larger herd is gathered. I climb up the hill side that separates myself from the two ewes. As I crest the top, I see the largest herd of aoudad I have ever seen. It is amazing the level at which their light brown coats blend into the golden yellow grasses. This herd was in excess of 100 animals, easily. I was shocked to see so many animals together. It reminded me of something you might see in Africa, but I’m in California? I took some incredible photos of the Aoudad then it was time to get back to hunting the Black-tailed Deer.

We were driving over the ridge tops and stopping to glass wherever we could see through the fog with any distance and be able to park the jeep. Everything below us was still covered in dense fog. I was enjoying the Jeep ride on this cool gray foggy morning but still I couldn't help but think negatively. I was thinking we wouldn’t see any more deer after that last blown shot as the sound of my rifled had echoed through the canyons. Just as we rounded the next turn, we spotted two young fork horn bucks feeding together on the edge some thick brush. While the sound of the shot was loud in the valley we were in, it obviously didn’t disturb these young bucks as they continued to feed. After watching the young deer feed for a few moments, we continued our search for something older and larger.

As the Jeep made its way along the switchbacks I noticed something and asked Don to stop the Jeep. A beautiful buck stood glistened in the sunlight sporting his new gray winter coat. I exited the Jeep with my rifle in hand and reached back for my shooting sticks. Don told me that I didn't have time to set up as the buck was on the move. As I hurried to where Don was standing, he told me the buck was now 200 yards away and walking up a trial along the steep hillside. I could see the dark black antlers as they contrasted with the golden colored dry grass. Don said, “he’s a good buck, shoot it!” I made my way to a tree, leaned in and steadied my gun against it. I took two deep slow breaths and settled the scopes crosshairs on the walking buck. He was heading for a deep ravine. Everything fell into slow motion as I squeezed the trigger and concentrated on the crosshairs of my scope. I lost the buck in the scopes crosshairs as the rifle recoiled. The 165 grain Hornady GMX bullet had just left my S&W MP 10 .308 Winchester. The bullet traveled 220 yards up the hill before hitting the buck with a loud thud. I looked back at Don and he gave me a thumbs up. He said, “you hit him hard”, confirming the hit I had heard. As I regained my senses we both agreed he had to have gone down just out of sight in the ravine. We waited a nerve wrecking 15 minutes before we proceeded to move up the hill towards where we last saw the buck. I found blood and started to follow it. Don went to the other side of the ravine. Those moments spent following a blood trail are full of excitement, doubt and fear all rolled together in a beautiful feeling of ‘I am alive!’ As I continued to follow the crimson red blood trail, I heard Don yell up from the ravine, “I see him”. Fear and doubt are quickly replaced with the pure joy of finding your animal and knowing you made a clean kill.

The buck had been shot through both lungs and ran only 20 yards before rolling a short distance into the ravine. I made my way down the hill towards Don to examine my deer. It was a beautiful black-tailed Buck, with a winter grey coat and his antlers were made black from rubbing them on the tar-weed that grows in this area. His set of 3X3 black antlers are truly impressive with his black forehead and gray coat. He’s a mature buck, about six years of age. Don and I both grab the antlers and pull him up a small ridge to take pictures. After the photo session was completed, we dragged the buck down the hill and loaded him in the Jeep. It’s now noon and the fog is burning off and finally looking like a great day to be at the beach.

Don asked if I would like to see the rest of the ranch since the fog had burned off. I’m not going to turn down a chance to learn more about this beautiful ranch. I had already booked my hunt for the 2015 season. We headed down the mountains and along the way see several forked horn bucks. The lower elevations are covered in golden dry grass and oak trees. We stop the Jeep and sit still with our binoculars. We spot at least a dozen doe’s over the next hour. Don said these meadows will be crawling with bucks once the rut starts in the next few days. I thought to myself, maybe, but this year it didn't matter to me. I had the buck I always dreamed of and big fat ear-to-ear grin to prove it. We continued to drive the ranch for a couple more hours with Don pointing out areas of interest along the way. He showed me the trails the bucks will use as they come down the mountains in search of hot does once the rut starts.

While I was feeling fortunate for the buck I had taken, I knew next year I would be hunting the very last few days of the season and hopefully in the middle of the rut. Until then, I’ll be day-dreaming about the magnificent Black-tailed Deer that call the Pacific Coast its home.

Gear used for this hunt:
Gun used: Customized Smith & Wesson M&P10 chambered in .308 Winchester
Optic used: Nikon M308 4-16X with BDC recticle.
*Ammo used: Hornady Superformace 165 grain GMX .308 Winchester

*Note: The area hunted was in a “No Lead Bullet” zone.