Blacktails in the Mist
By Gary Lewis
High above the river, there's a quiet place on a mountaintop where a few rocks have been piled atop one another. It was a place where young Indians used to go in search of their vision. I've been there. As we passed the trailhead, I remembered.
That night, the fog settled along the river like a blanket. By morning, dew sparkled like diamonds on the long grass. 14 year-old Nolan thumbed four orange-tipped cartridges into the magazine of the borrowed .22-250 and flipped open the scope caps. Lee Sandberg of Black Oak Outfitters led the way into the mists along the river.
When night conditions are clear, cold and calm, the ground releases the warmth it absorbed during the day. As the temperature of the ground decreases, the air cools to the point at which water vapor condenses into droplets of liquid water forming a cloud of water droplets.
Fog is common in blacktail country, especially during later antlerless hunts, controlled blackpowder hunts and archery hunts.
To a blacktail hunter, thick fog can be a boon or bane. It comes down to attitude. When visibility drops to 30 feet, the spot-and-stalk hunter better change strategies or stay home. Yet, spot-and-stalk tactics work for foggy day blacktails on the edge of thick cover, in clearcuts and oak savannah.
Hunt the Openings
We'd scheduled the hunt for the last two days of the season, but Nolan only needed ten minutes. Near the river, visibility was good for about 150 yards. Tendrils of stratus drifted in the treetops. Lee stopped to glass a field and Nolan looked upstream along the creek. “There's one,” he said.
A lone blacktail fed in the blackberries on the other side of the creek. The dance began, as the deer put bushes and willows between itself and the hunters. Patient, Lee and Nolan eased along the fence and waited for the deer to move into the open.
The deer was out of our sight then it was visible again. I saw Lee's shoulders tense and he pointed. Nolan slid the rifle onto the fence and took a rest. A moment passed, the deer took a step and then the gun spoke. Nolan turned with a broad smile.
The important thing is to know the country before the fog settles in. When the clouds touch the ground, there is little breeze to carry the scent of predators to their prey. Deer, encased in the mist, move toward feeding areas along established trails. They may bed down out in the open, feed well into the morning or start earlier in the evening.
Fog seems to put the animals at ease. Now, they rely more on scent and hearing to alert them to danger.
Glassing from a nearby ridge top seldom works on a foggy day. When clouds carpet canyon slopes, the best approach is to put your nose into whatever slight breeze is blowing and hunt quietly up the hill. Head toward known food sources, places where you spotted deer on preseason scouting trips.
Leave the spotting scope at camp and carry binoculars on a harness around your shoulders.
If the wind shifts, change with it, keeping the slight breeze in your face. Move too fast and deer will see you before you spot them. Slow way down. The fog drifts constantly. Where there was ten foot visibility, a new window opens and you can see 150 yards. Look for the horizontal line of a back, the black of a nose, the flick of a tail, or the crook of a leg. Use the binoculars more than your boots.Take a step, look and listen. Wait 30 seconds, 60 seconds, or five minutes before taking the next step. Don't make a sound. You know the deer are here. The success of the hunt hinges on the confidence you've placed in this piece of real estate.
Listen. When deer are calm, they are more apt to make vocalizations – grunts or bleats – that might give them away. The sound of a hoof striking a stone can carry a long way in the still air.
Hunt all Day
Take your lunch and water in a pack and plan to hunt all day. With a cloud bank for cover, deer may feed off and on throughout the daylight hours. With that much movement, a patient hunter can count on multiple deer sightings all day long.
But don't plan on covering a lot of country. Stick to pre-scouted ground and known food sources.
It was lunch hour by the time Nolan's deer was in the cooler, but lunch could wait. It was Tiffany's turn to hunt. Into the mist, we climbed. Uphill, less than 50 yards above the trail, a whitetail buck was bedded in a patch of thistles. He looked at us, then ghosted away, his shadow swallowed by mist.
A hundred yards farther up, we crossed a fence and turned right along the top of the finger ridge. A breath of air drifted out of the north into our faces. The fog stilled all sound. Lee looked back and touched his nose. “I smell them,” he said.
In a few more steps, we saw a doe, less than 30 yards out, but on the other side of the fence. Tiffany chose not to take the easy shot because her bullet might hit a wire. The deer drifted back into the fog and we moved on.
We topped out on the spine of the ridge and eased through a squeaky wire gate. We paused to decide whether to go after the deer we'd seen or find some others. I heard a deer bleat to our left. Lee led the way and we saw a blacktail buck go down the hill and vanish into the mist. And then three deer materialized, 60 yards away.
Blacktails or whitetails? One turned and showed a short brush. Blacktails.
Tiffany bent to the shooting sticks. One deer crossed the fence onto the neighboring property. Two stood side by side and then one stepped forward. Tiffany found the biggest in her scope. She squeezed the trigger and dropped the deer with one well-placed shot from her left hand 7mm-08.
Find the Edge
A bank of fog has many edges. Some are interior and you'll find them as they drift across the landscape. These openings can reveal deer you'd never see out in the middle of a clearing on a bluebird day.
A month after our mountaintop hunt, I accompanied my 14-year-old, Jennifer, on a November youth hunt. We saw two great bucks on the first evening, but were unable to close the distance on the biggest one before dark. The next day, we climbed the hill into a fog bank. And because Jennifer had to get back for basketball practice the next day, determined to take the first legal buck we saw.
All morning, we hunted in and out of the fog, counting blacktail does at close range in the blackberry bushes. Halfway up the ridge, we caught the edge of the bank and hunted in and out of the clouds until we hit the ridgeline.
400 yards away, a spike buck fed facing away from us. We used an old oak tree for cover and were able to close the distance to 61 yards. I set up the shooting sticks and Jennifer set her rifle in the fork and waited for the buck to turn.
After a minute or two had passed, the deer turned. Jennifer waited until it took a step forward and laced the buck with a 165-grain Nosler AccuBond.
Find Your Way
Carry a compass and a GPS unit if you've got it. Mark a waypoint at the truck and take a compass heading. Calculate the course you'll have to take to get back before dark. Keep track hour by hour. Everything looks different when it is cased in fog. It's easy to get lost even on ground that is very familiar. And on a cold, windless day the stratus may never burn off.
The GPS doesn't just have to be a tool with which to get out of the woods. On a preseason scouting trip, mark key feeding and bedding areas as waypoints. That way, when the cloud sets in, you can move from spot to spot without aimless wandering.
Whenever I hunt in western Oregon, it is with the awareness that we are not the first hunters to climb these hills. Our quests for blacktails are as much a vision quest for the young hunters that accompany us as they are for those of us with a little gray on our heads.
On a foggy day, the world is quieted, stilled by the mist and the ever-present chance that a blacktail deer will materialize at close range. Like those that went before us, our lives are richer for these mountaintop experiences.