The blacktailed deer are smaller bodied and smaller-antlered cousins of the muley and are generally recognized as a subspecies of mule deer. Their range is actually extensive, stretching along the Pacific Coast from at least California’s Central Coast to Southeast Alaska. Within this large range they are very much “insider deer”; although avidly pursued by local deer hunters, they have attracted limited national interest and relatively few outfitters specialize in hunting them.
This is unfortunate, as I consider them one of our most attractive deer. With body and antlers “scaled down,” their appearance is similar to mule deer—but in miniature. With a darker coat and a very distinct white throat patch—often a double throat patch—and rounder ears that are less outsized, a mature blacktail is just plain gorgeous. Of course, the blacktail “signature” is its tail, a bit longer than a mule deer’s tail and typically covered with a black stripe from base to tip on the upper surface.
As with mule deer, the ultimate goal is always to find a “four-by-four with eyeguards.” But many blacktail bucks never grow that many points even at full maturity. The Boone and Crockett listings for the larger Columbian blacktail are well sprinkled with three-by-threes, the listings for the smaller-antlered Sitka blacktail even more so. Count points, of course…but also pay attention to height, spread, and antler mass.
Non-typical antlers do occur, and although genuine non-typical bucks (with lots of extra points) are always rare, they seem less common with blacktails than with other North American deer. Boone and Crockett’s typical listings for Columbian blacktails extend to 944 places in Records of North American Big Game, 13th Edition, but there are just 25 for non-typical Columbian blacktails. The Sitka blacktail category is much newer—instituted in 1984—but the difference is even more striking. There are 133 places in the typical records for Sitka blacktail but just three formally accepted in the non-typical category.
Although some blacktail populations migrate from summer to winter range, the blacktail is more of a homebody than the mule deer, usually establishing a much smaller home territory. Hunting him is thus often more like hunting whitetail deer than hunting mule deer, with stand hunting or “trail sitting” often practiced, especially in the very dense cover of the Pacific Northwest. But that depends entirely on habitat and terrain. In the more open country along the eastern fringes of its range —and on the wind-beaten slopes of Kodiak Island —the blacktail is usually hunted by glassing and stalking. Except you often find yourself glassing smaller country, tight poison oak-choked canyons and brushy hillsides, rather than the larger vistas one seeks when glassing for mule deer.
Boone and Crockett identifies the Columbian blacktailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) as occurring in coastal California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia from, roughly, Monterey Bay north to the British Columbia-Alaska border, but excluding the Queen Charlotte Islands. Safari Club International extends the boundary southward to include California’s Central Coast region from Ventura northward. This delineation almost certainly includes some transition to the larger California mule deer subspecies. This has minimal impact on the records listings because these tend to be small-antlered deer due to periodic droughts and long, hot summer stress periods.
The Sitka blacktailed deer (O. h. sitkensis) is generally smaller in the body on the mainland and the Queen Charlotte Islands but actually developed larger body size after being introduced onto Kodiak Island back in the 1920s. Either way, the antlers are considerably smaller. Legs tend to be shorter, giving them a barrel-like appearance. Coats tend to be darker, but retaining the brilliant white throat patch, more commonly doubled.
Kodiak populations fluctuate quite a bit depending on the winters. In 1992 I caught it just right and may have seen 500 bucks in a week! Of those, I never saw a single clean “fourby-four with eyeguards,” although I did see two three-by-fours. The biggest buck I saw was a clean three-by-three with eyeguards, sort of like a Maine whitetail…it’s still holding about halfway up the Boone and Crockett listings. Similar to their position on Columbian blacktails, SCI starts their Sitka blacktail listings farther south, at Bella Coola, British Columbia.
Is there a third blacktail race? Since all muleys and blacktails are subspecies of each other, this is a matter of interpretation. From Orange County, California, halfway down the Baja one finds O. h. fuliginatus, generally called “southern mule deer.” In southern Baja one finds the peninsula mule deer (O. h. peninsulae). Neither has antler potential to approach mule deer standards. In recognizing Mexico’s numerous (and little-known) varieties of deer, SCI has recently opened a category for the “Baja blacktailed deer,” including both of these subspecies from the Mexican border south through the Baja Peninsula. Years ago, I hunted O. h. fuliginatus in Orange County and on Camp Pendleton. In retrospect, and from a distance of 30 years, I must agree that they are much more like “blacktails” than “mule deer”—smaller in body and antler, stockier of build, and much darker in color… but I never took a close look at their tails.
BEST HUNTING OPPORTUNITIES
For Columbian blacktails, northern California and western Oregon…but in the brushy foothills before you reach the thick forests along the coast. For Sitka blacktails, definitely Kodiak and the Queen Charlotte Islands… but pay attention to local conditions and try to avoid the downward trends in the “bust and boom” cycles of these northern deer. There is plenty of public land available for both subspecies (though British Columbia requires guides for nonresident aliens), and local interest in trophy hunting is generally limited. These factors combine to create excellent trophy potential for serious deer hunters.
SHOOTING AND SHOT PLACEMENT
The blacktail is not a large deer and should succumb readily to a behind-the-shoulder lung shot or, if preferred, a central shoulder shot. Ideal cartridges depend on the terrain, but sen-sible blacktail cartridges probably range from .243 Winchester on up through the .25s and 6.5mnis to .270.
POPULATION: Because of large areas where blacktails hybridize with mule deer, it is difficult to estimate total population. Alaska estimates 200,000 Sitka blacktails, and populations are healthy in coastal British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and in northwestern California. Total population certainly exceeds 700,000 and could approach one million.
MOST EXPENSIVE HUNTS: Guided hunts on well-managed private land in Oregon and northern California and guided hunts in coastal British Columbia.
LEAST EXPENSIVE HUNTS: Do-it-yourself hunts on public land…and there is plenty of public land in all four states that host blacktail deer. Although transportation and logistics increase the cost of any Alaskan hunt, a well-planned hunt for Sitka blacktail is one of Alaska’s best DIY hunts.
DID YOU KNOW? Recent DNA research suggests that blacktails are most likely the “original” North American deer, with mule deer evolving from blacktails rather than the other way around. In some ways blacktail behavior is more similar to whitetails than mule deer. They are much more likely to respond to calling and antler rattling than mule deer.