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July 2018
Story by Lucas Paugh
State: California
Species: Deer - Columbia Blacktail

The month of July is not normally synonymous with hunting in the dead of summer. However, in California, archery blacktail deer season is abnormally placed during the hottest month of the year. Most do not go in pursuit of the “black ghost” because of the extremely hot temperatures and dry landscape they inhabit. For some, though, that is more reason to get out and test new gear and chase what Chuck Adams called “one of the most difficult mammals to harvest in the North American 29.”

During the previous spring months, I had made a commitment to shoot my bow daily with the mental blueprint process of “perfect practice makes perfect.” This meant I would routinely only shoot three to five arrows every evening with the commitment to focus intently on each shot like it was my last. In addition to that, I would participate in a few of the local 3D shoots to help with shooting at various distances and angles not normally practiced in the backyard. Day after day, I could feel myself becoming more and more comfortable and locking that shot routine into muscle memory. I was ready to put my process to the test.

It was opening day, and I had spent a lot of time with boots on the ground the previous month, scouting for deer. With the moisture year California had experienced, it provided lush foliage and water pockets that had been dry for many years previous. With the limited amount of public land in California, it makes it difficult to turn up a good deer during the early part of the season. Like deer hunting of all types, weather plays a large part in hunter success. When temperatures exceed 100 degrees, blacktail deer move very little during daylight hours and can become nocturnal. They tend to feed late in the evening and come to water sources throughout the course of the night. When you boil it all down, you either tolerate the heat or go home eating tag soup.

I spent the afternoon of the opener with my hunting partner, Brandon Williams, glassing thick, forested timber pockets in hopes of a flicker of an ear or tail. Not only are blacktail deer one of the more challenging mammals to harvest in the West, but trying to find them in the hottest part of the day makes for an even tougher contest. After continually wiping sweat away from our eyes, we remained persistent on putting hours behind the optics in search of that one deer we had been scouting all preseason. Slowly pacing through the thick oak scrub and manzanita, we continued our quest in search of that mature deer with hopes of having one opportunity.

As we began to walk out for the evening, we had spotted four deer feeding in a flowing riverbed below. The grass was so tall that it was hard to depict what we were looking at as they continued with their heads down, feeding on the lush green grass. When we both focused our glass on them, it was obvious there were mature bucks in the group. Brandon glanced over at me with “that look,” and I knew right then that there was a good buck in the bunch. Three of the four were considered California legal deer with at least having a forked antler. However, there was clearly one that towered above all the others, and he had picked the wrong day to be out feeding before dusk.

With only having a glimpse of light left on opening day, it was time to make a move on these deer. I slowly worked my way down to 77 yards, which was the last range I had shot. Based on the topography and loud crackle of the dead oak tree leaves, I could not get much closer, so I settled in and quickly adjusted my single pin sight to 81 yards. The deer was slowly feeding towards my direction, only giving me a straight on frontal shot. It was time. With arrow nocked and bubble level set, I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. My arrow set flight, arriving at its destination with a loud pop. It was not obvious as the arrow struck a rock pile in the ground and the four deer scattered. I could see the nock wedged in the dirt and figured I had shot low. Brandon was under his optics during the shot and also thought the arrow had landed short of its mark. As we glassed the deer trotting off, we only counted three that left the area. I immediately felt my adrenaline dump and thought that all of the preseason shooting and practicing I had done had possibly paid off.

A few minutes passed, and we continued to pan the area, sweeping left to right in hopes that the deer was lying down in the riverbed. We both agreed it was time to go retrieve the arrow. That was a slow 77-yard walk, playing back my pre-shot routine over and over in my mind. As luck would have it, I could tell there was a slight color variation on the fletching. When I put my fingers on the arrow, it was obvious the color distinction was blood that had coated it from the broadhead to the nock. My body filled with joy knowing the arrow had made a full pass on the animal. I looked off to my left and could see the silhouette of an antler in the green grass about 30 yards away. As I walked up to the motionless deer, it was the most surreal emotion to see this giant up close. There was no better feeling than wrapping my hands around this tall, typical 3x3 basket-framed deer covered in velvet. The fuzziness of the antlers added a new dynamic to my portfolio as I had never taken an animal in the early velvet stages of antler growth. This buck had everything a deer hunter on the central coast could ask for – eyeguards, symmetrical G2 tines, tall G3s, and mass carried throughout the rack.

On that warm summer evening, Brandon and I sat under the light of the full moon enjoying the camaraderie that goes along with a successful harvest. Many go for the thrill of the chase on public land and never prosper. Others make a personal commitment to pursue one of the most treasured species of deer on the West coast. I’ve always said that hunting is a journey, not a destination. We should always strive to push the limits and continuously learn how to better our preparation and skills. These attributes are what create accomplishment and make the reality of an ethical harvest come true. On this night, we found success, and it will be a memory that is forever imprinted in our minds. This hunt is a true testament to the statement, “Hard work pays off every time!”