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Solving the blacktail mystery: the tales of two deer reveal truths about these ghosts of the Western rainforests.

GROWING UP IN Western Oregon, I've always been intrigued the native blacktail deer there. Over the years I've killed a number of blacktails, but not until a few years ago did I really get serious about hunting for trophy blacktail bucks.

Through experience I have learned a lot about mature bucks, and I have managed to take a few. But to broaden my knowledge I have also quizzed many knowledgeable hunters about their methods for taking big blacktails. Two of those hunters are Dennis Middleton and Tony Ludwig, residents of Oregon's Willamette Valley, home to some of the world's biggest blacktails.

Both of these hunters have taken huge bucks, and to get some background on their success, I recently interviewed Dennis and Tony separately.

As might be expected, finding a mature buck to hunt in the first place is the biggest challenge. You see, in many locales, Western Oregon receives in excess of 100 inches of rain each year. Thus, the rainforest is dense. No, it's a jungle, where blacktails can live out their lives in a few acres of timber without ever being seen. They are truly mystery animals.

In my interviews with Dennis and Tony, three truths about finding and hunting big blacktails clearly emerged:

1) Searching for shed antlers is one way to determine the presence of big bucks, and January is the best month to search for sheds. Blacktails drop their antlers from late December through the end of January, and the antlers will be easiest to find before they get covered with debris--or before someone else finds them.

2) You often can locate trophy bucks by glassing clearcuts during the summer. in July and August, bucks are growing their antlers and putting on fat for winter. Thus, their metabolic rate is high, and they feed in the open more than at any other time of year. By glassing clearcuts, agricultural fields, and other feeding areas, you often can spot bucks in velvet--bucks you will never see later in the fall.

3) The best time to hunt is during the rut. Oregon has two archery deer seasons: Early season runs from late August until late September. Late archery season extends from mid-November into December. Mid-November, during the rut, is the best time to take the buck you have located via steps 1 and 2 above.

Here are the tales of two bucks to show how two hunters have used these three steps to solve the blacktail mystery.

Dennis Middleton

"With his home in Lebanon, Oregon, on the east side of the Willamette Valley north of Eugene, Dennis Middleton lives in the heart of trophy blacktail country. For years Dennis has searched for shed antlers, and about 8 years ago he found some exceptionally large sheds. Knowing such a buck lived in property he could hunt, Dennis began a quest for that buck.

While he continued to find the deer's shed antlers several years in a row, he never did see that deer during the hunting season. At one point Dennis assumed the buck he was after had died. But then, one July, while glassing a draw from a distance, he spotted the buck in velvet.

"That's the only time I saw him in the daylight. I did see him a few times in my headlights as he crossed the road, but otherwise that was it. In 1997, I found one of his antlers. I didn't find his sheds in 1998 and assumed he might have died, but in 1999 I found both sheds. So I knew he was still alive."

Prior to Oregon's late archery season in 2000, Dennis already had four stands in place and shooting lanes cut. He moved one favorite treestand 50 yards from its 1999 position to the edge of a thick bedding area.

"I was able to get to the stand in the dark without spooking deer, and I figured that big buck might feel comfortable walking the trail during daylight because of the thick concealment there. My longest shooting lane allowed me to see 40 yards into the brush, but down the others I could see only 20 yards. So I knew I would really have to stay alert and ready, or he would catch me off guard."

After taking great pains to minimize his scent, Dennis crept to that bedding-area treestand and was sitting quietly in place 45 minutes before daybreak. It was a quiet, cool, overcast November morning.

At 7:45 a.m. a 3x3 buck fed into view, turned left at 22 yards, and walked right down the trail Dennis had used to approach his treestand.

"I was pleased because the buck never indicated he'd detected my odor. So I knew my cover scent was effective," Dennis said.

Some 15 minutes later Dennis spotted a brown flicker of movement 45 yards into the brush. "l honed in on the movement and could tell it was a deer. Seconds later I gulped as I spotted his rack. Instantly I knew this was the ghost buck I had been hunting. He would cautiously take a few steps, look right, look left, and stand listening. Then he would take a few more steps. I hardly dared to breathe for fear he would hear me. At this point I found myself praying, 'Lord, if you ever let me bag another deer, let it be this one.'"

The buck lowered his head and followed the scent of the 3x3 buck toward Dennis. "As my heart sped into high gear and my breath quickened, I began to go through my mental checklist to make sure all was ready."

But then the buck turned from the trail and walked into the thick brush out of sight. "I began to beg God to bring him back to me--and my prayer was answered as he came back out of the brush and followed the trail on toward my stand.

"I waited until his eye went behind an oak tree before easing my bow to full draw. When he emerged he was quartering toward me. So I waited until he was broadside and had stopped to listen. Then, as he began to walk again, his leg came forward, and I released."

Dennis Middleton's buck officially measured 135 2/8 P&Y inches, truly the buck of a lifetime.

Tony Ludwig

Tony Ludwig lives near Marcola, Oregon, northwest of Eugene. Tony found a monster blacktail more or less by accident. On August 15, 2001, he was scouting for elk when he spotted a buck in the faint light of dawn. The buck was just leaving a clearcut and walking into a plot of 15-year-old reforested timber commonly known as "reprod" by western hunters. Tony didn't really know how many points the buck had, but he knew his headgear was massive, wide, and tall. He saw the buck again the next evening as it cautiously left the protection of the thick reprod just before dark.

Tony scouted the area where he'd seen the buck and placed a treestand where a 2-year old clearcut necked into the reprod. Crisscrossing trails and a dirt cat road ran from the clearcut and ended at a creek just behind his stand.

Tony hunted that stand for 12 days during Oregon's early archery season in August and September. "I had a good time watching two does and their fawns as they came from the clearcut each morning. But I got a little discouraged, because I never did see the buck."

Tony's son, Tyler, had a general season rifle tag, and Tony accompanied his son as a spotter and a pusher as they hunted 6 days during October. Tony told me, "I tromped through the 15-year old reprod where I figured the buck was bedded, but we never saw him. A lot of hunters were glassing from an upper road and stomping through the area, so I figured one of them would surely kill the buck."

But Tony never heard that anyone had killed the buck, so he was right back out hunting when the late archery season opened. During his first 3 days on stand, Tony saw only the same does and fawns he had watched in September.

Early in the morning on Tuesday, November 20, the wind was gusting and blowing sheets of rain. As Tony crept up the cat road toward his stand, he spotted a forked horn buck just as it saw him. The unsure young buck stomped his hooves, trying to get Tony to move. Eventually the buck gave up and walked stiff-legged into the reprod.

Tony hurried ahead and was almost to his treestand when the forked horn reappeared. But now he was panting, his tongue was hanging out, his hair was roughed up, and he was bleeding. He obviously had been in a fight. Tony thought about shooting him, but the buck never presented a dear shot before he turned back into the reprod.

With this buck out of sight, Tony climbed into his treestand and attached his safety belt. Rain pelted him and the tree swayed from the gusting winds. At 8:10 a.m., he was considering getting out of the tree when he thought he heard a buck grunt. He had forgotten his call, so he urped loudly two times with his voice. At 8:15 he spotted a buck 80 yards away as it emerged from the reprod.

"I nearly had a heart attack when I realized he was the monster I'd seen in August. He'd grunt, sniff the ground, lift his head, look around, grunt, and then take a few steps," Tony said.

The buck kept this up as he circled 80 yards away. Unsure what to do, Tony realized the buck was leaving the area, so he made two more loud urps. The buck turned and headed right for him.

"I urped again, and he came faster. I quickly removed my rain jacket hood, almost dropping my hat, which would've spooked him. I stuffed it in my jacket, stood up, and was fumbling to attach my release when the buck walked under my tree and kept going. I urped again, and he stopped 10 yards to my left, by the creek. He turned away, looking toward the timber. The angle was perfect except that it was almost straight down.

"Quickly I drew and released, dropping him in his tracks. He grunted twice and then faded away. I was shaking so much, I decided to sit down and take deep breaths to avoid falling out of the tree.

"Then I contacted my son on the cell phone and told him I had shot a forked-horn buck and needed help. When Tyler arrived at my treestand, I called down and told him to see if he could find some blood. As he searched around, he saw the forked part of my buck's antler projecting from the creek bed. He quickly walked to the deer and said, 'Dad, do you realize how big this buck is?'"

"It was great to have a little fun and share those moments with my son."

Tony Ludwig's fun little buck measured 141 P&Y-style inches, a monster blacktail in anyone's book.

Author's Notes:

Each year, the Oregon Foundation for Blacktail Deer (OFBD) conducts a hunting contest for blacktail deer in Western Oregon. Hunters can register as an individual, an open team (three person), an open team (two person), and a dealer/manufacturer team (three person). Teams may register an alternate, but unless OFBD is notified prior to season opening date, the alternate automatically will be placed in the individual division.

First place winners in each division will receive a prestigious bronze bust of a blacktail buck, sculpted by award winning artist Dennis Jones. Award certificates are presented to second and third place winners in each category. Awards are presented at the Blacktail Rendezvous fundraising banquet held in early January in Eugene, Oregon. The contest helps to raise funds for blacktail deer and other wildlife.

For OFBD information, contact: Miriam Jones, (541) 741-0263, or click on
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Title Annotation:bonus feature
Author:Jones, Larry D.
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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