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1988 Battleground Washington blacktail hunt

(Jeff Larsen)

Kirk and I were in our Junior year at Washington State University.  It was Thanksgiving break and Kirk and I had yet to fill our deer tags.  Kirk had opted for the muzzleloader season tag and I had purchased the modern firearm deer tag.  Our early season hunting pursuits did not result in any filled tags.  I had gone to the Snake River breaks to pursue Mule Deer and Kirk had gone North to go after Whitetails.  We had seen that in the late season, the only overlapping unit open for both muzzleloaders and modern firearms for this season was the any deer Battleground unit (GMU 654).  There was a firearm restriction in the unit which meant I had to use a battered old Remington 870 with deer slugs and open sights.  Kirk brought along his .54 Hawken.

 

Kirk and I drove from Pullman through the night to hopefully reach the Yacolt burn area well before dawn to hopefully settle down in a promising 5 year old clearcut.  We pulled down an old logging road and drove for 5 or so miles and pulled to the front of a tank trapped skidder road and parked.  It had been torrentially raining since we left Pullman.  This rain was one of those infamous rains that happens in November in Washington where the Pacific Ocean pushes a massive cloud front over North America and dumps its entire load of collected tropical moisture onto the colder Northwestern Oregon/Southwestern Washington slopes.  It is not uncommon to have well over a foot of rain drop in a 24 hour time span.  There is a very good reason why Washington is known as the evergreen state.  It is also important to note that, the State of Washington is home to the only temperate rain forest in North America. Jeff's 4 x 4 Battleground rut hunt

 

Kirk and I debated on what the deer would be doing during the heavy rainfall.  We decided that the deer were probably hunkered down in amongst the bigger stands of cedar in an attempt to stay relatively dry.  It had been our experience that even Blacktail deer won’t come out of the safety of heavy older forest to feed in the more desired browse contained in clearcuts when it is raining heavily.  We stayed in the vehicle drinking coffee hoping for some let up in the deluge happening before us.  The rain continued until around 8 AM and suddenly stopped when the front pushed through.  Kirk and I donned our hunting gear and began our trek down the closed logging road. That road had begun the cycle of re-growth common to cleared patches in Western Washington.  The road was dotted with 5 to 6 foot tall alders, fireweed, and bracken ferns.  The previous night’s rain made for very quiet walking conditions.

 

Kirk and I made our way down to the top of the very large clearcut.  The roughly 3 to 4 square mile area was logged 4 to 5 years prior.  The logging crews had left standing timber in the creek bottoms and in small patches on the slopes.  These small stands of timber are designed for keeping creeks cool in the summer and also provide escape cover for deer and elk.  The clear cut was textbook designed and was prime blacktail habitat.  Now, we just needed to go find the deer.

We made our way along the west edge of the clearcut.  We made our way by hiking up and down the undulating bordering trails which are created first by the logging crews and then continued to be trampled down by resident deer and elk which travel these trails for easy access to the clearcuts with easy escape into the heavier timber.

We made our way along about a mile and continued to glass every time we came to a new ridge line.  We crested the top of one hill and Kirk did a quick whistle which alerted me to immediately stop and scan the surroundings.  Kirk had spotted 500 yards below us a bunch of movement which resembled a pack of dogs running every which way along the logging road main line abandoned 5 years prior.  Using the binoculars, we could make out almost a dozen deer running back and forth along the road into the clearcut and then back into the road.  Almost as if they were playing.  Perhaps they were simply relishing the fact that they were no longer getting rained on.  We also surmised that we were probably thick in the middle of the rut and perhaps this had something to do with the behavior of interested bucks chasing estrous does.

 

Kirk and I quickly came up with a plan to make our way down the opposite side of the clearcut and use the terrain to our advantage.  The thought was to come down on the animals, pop over the ridge line and be within fifty or so yards of where the animals were located and get a shot.  We picked our way through the slag and blackberry vines and finally made it down to the same elevation to where we thought the deer would most likely be.  Kirk went lower down to intercept the deer on the low section of the road and I went laterally to go high on the animals.  I figured we were still a good hundred yards from the animals and per our prior discussion, moved over the ridgeline quietly to get into position.  We had previously agreed that either person should shoot whenever they had a solid shot.  The other person would need to quickly adapt and handle the confusion which typically follows after another person shoots.

 

I made my way over the ridge and down toward the V of the small valley.  I could not see any sign of the small deer herd we had seen 20 minutes before.  I made my way down to a stump and assessed the situation.  Then, all of a sudden 45 yards down the ravine a doe was stiff legging it up towards me.  A thick necked large bodied 4 Point buck was 3 feet behind her with his nose down and in hot pursuit.  The deer were momentarily blocked by a small knoll between us.  I used that time to bolt straight down to the top of it and get a shot off while they passed by.

 

The doe had gone left up towards me instead of following the v of the valley.  By the time I had gotten to the knoll, the doe had crested four feet directly in front of me.  It took her and me about 3 seconds to figure out what was what.  She turned almost completely inside out as she scrambled up the cut to get away from this intruder wearing hunter orange and a WSU baseball cap.  The buck was not so fortunate.  I had pulled up the Remington 870 and as the buck stared at me in disbelief ten feet away, I fired and sent the 375 grain slug through the deer’s chest.  He immediately collapsed into a heap.  Just as I chambered another round, another shot sounded off 75 yards down and to my right.  The shot came from Kirk’s .54 caliber muzzle loading rifle.

 

I had never shot an animal at such a close range or one of its size.  As I approached the now dead animal I let out a whoop and yelled for Kirk to see how he had connected.  I received no reply from Kirk.  I continued to holler for him every 30 seconds or so, while I tagged the animal and began working on field dressing the buck.  I have always been a big proponent of quickly field dressing animals as it ensures that the animal is truly dead and the deer carcass can quickly cool.  This technique keeps the meat significantly more fresh and tasty.  I had removed the guts rapidly and began to drag the buck down the 100 or so yards to the abandoned road.  It is much easier moving a deer carcass on a logging road than trying to drag it up through a clearcut.  After I got down to the road, I set off to find Kirk as he had not replied to any of my calls.  He was not anywhere to be seen.

Kirk's battleground 2 point

 

I went up to where I thought he shot from and still saw no sign of him.   Tracking in Washington clearcuts is quite impossible.  The underbrush consists of moss, lichen, blackberry, salal, you name it.  Looking for tracks in a clearcut is like looking for tracks on a damp sponge.  I guessed that Kirk had made a shot towards the logging road and decided to make a beeline to the road from where I stood.  The road was covered with deer hoof prints which literally went in every direction.  I quickly spied Kirk’s boot prints in the mud of the road and saw that he had crossed the road and from the spacing of the prints, he was running.  Even with the open terrain of a clearcut it is easy to not see all the dips and valleys contained in the cut.  I set off in the direction he took to see if I could find him.  About 20 feet in, I spied a blood splotch on a salal leaf.  I began to get excited.  I tracked the blood splotches for another couple of hundred yards and crossed a small creek.  Still no sign of Kirk. 

 

I saw that the blood splotches had gone back in the direction of the road.  I followed them about 100 yards back up the cut and almost stepped smack dab in the middle of a fresh gut pile.  Success!  I could clearly see where Kirk had dragged his deer up the hill the fifty or so feet to the road.  I made my way up to the road and when I topped out to the road, I looked down on a long tined 2 point buck with a freshly affixed deer tag on its antler.  Still no sign of Kirk. 

 

I walked down the logging road back towards my buck and just before the bend in the road where my buck lay, I heard Kirk yell out “HOLY CRAP!”  He had happened upon my buck just then.  We spent a few minutes high fiving and congratulating each other.  We then recounted our hunts.  He described what he had seen.  As he came over the ridgeline at the same moment I did, he spied 7 or 8 deer milling about in the road just as we had seen from above.  6 were does, one was a smallish spike and one was his two point 40 yards away.  They weren’t spooked.  They were just moving back and forth.  My shot suddenly rang out and the deer froze.  This was all the time Kirk needed to pull back the hammer on his rifle, aim at the two point and send a ball of lead toward its mark.  As is done with muzzleloading, he dropped down and quickly reloaded another round in preparation for a follow up shot.  He had seen that his buck had been hit high in the shoulder and the animal was trying to move away down the clearcut.  He had heard me yelling for him but was not going to reply to me while he was in pursuit of his mortally wounded deer.  Apparently the buck became uneasy every time I yelled and would push the wounded animal further away from where Kirk was.  He took off after the two point after it had disappeared into a small depression.  He moved below where he had last seen the buck and had jumped the now bedded buck low in the hollow of the hill.  He was not able to get off another shot as the percussion cap had not ignited.  Kirk’s presence had forced the deer to move back up the hill toward the road where it succumbed to massive blood loss caused by a .54 inch hole in its lungs.

We spent the rest of the day packing the bucks back up to where the vehicle was.  We sat back and ate hours old backstrap that night over an open fire.  It had absolutely been the picture perfect blacktail hunt.

 

Never again have I seen the equal of a dozen or so blacktail deer milling about in the middle of a clearcut.  We learned a lot on this hunt.  First thing, the best time to hunt blacktails is immediately after a pouring rain or windstorm, don’t just pack it in if the weather is miserable.  Be patient and wait out the storm.  The saying in Washington is if you want the weather to change, wait an hour.  Secondly, the rut is the magical time of the hunting season.  Deer will do things you never expect them to.  And lastly, never yell to your buddy while he is actively hunting.

 

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