Pacific Phantoms

He is secretive and mysterious, a faint wisp of smoke that ghosts unseen through the darkest stands of Douglas fir, hemlock and bracken fern. His home is the Olympic Range, where he beds in the murky shadows of volcanoes and roams, a creature of twilight.

This is the essence of the blacktail deer--a diminutive second cousin of the unicorn, and in many cases as much a mythical being as its one-horned kin. For those raised on whitetails of the farmland and North Woods of the Midwest or on open-country mule deer, blacktails are an enigma--an annual frustration for which a cure might be little more than a fleeting glimpse, a confirmation that these creatures not only exist as two-dimensional descriptions within the pages of your favorite outdoor magazine, but are indeed born of flesh and blood. And legend.

FIRSTHAND PROOF

It was in 1993 in Washington that I, an Ohio-born-and-reared whitetail chaser, was introduced rather indelicately to the whims and ways of the blacktail deer. High in the timber of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, among that evergreen ribbon of wondrous country that lies between the Cascades and the pounding surf of the Pacific, my wife--a native Washingtonian and lifelong devotee of the blacktail--sat me down. I was at the edge of what seemed to be an impenetrable tangle of pecker poles (small trees, usually sent to the pulp mill), reprod (or reproduction--trees planted following a logging operation) and devil's club (looking to me like the steroid-enhanced offspring of a blackberry thicket and a stinging nettle). "We sit, and we watch," were her whispered instructions. Blacktails force the art of observation to extraordinary levels. "It's not enough to look," I was told. "You have to see."

"The Cascades," she continued, "are like clear plastic sheets--layers, one on top of another. Somewhere among those layers is the blacktail. The art lies in separating the layers until the deer becomes visible." I was ill-prepared for this task.

My Midwestern whitetail background proved to be a disadvantage in pursing blacktails in western Washington's green quagmire. Slowly, though, and not without much guidance, I began to differentiate between fir and fur, to make tangible the ethereal blacktail.

I didn't notch my tag that year. But the following season, when the crack of my .243 Winchester echoed down the valley toward Chelatchie Prairie and bounced off the tumbling waters of Canyon Creek, it occurred to me that I had played tag with a phantom--and was no longer "it."

HUNTER OR HUNTED?

You must hunt blacktails from minute to minute--a statement with double meaning, to be sure. All too frequently, they appear as images sent to test sanity as well as ability. Optics are as important to the blacktail hunter as his rifle, and as ever-present as timeworn red-and-black plaid wool clothing. Without a good binocular and spotting scope, it's nearly impossible to see clearly through the dense vegetation and pick out that brief flash of brown fur.

And don't think for a minute that you're alone among the firs. Since the use of hounds to hunt mountain lions was outlawed years ago, more of the big cats prowl the same clearings and meadows as humans. In this environment, we are the interlopers. Like the blacktails, we too must constantly be on guard, watching, listening and waiting. Was it the black tail of a deer you spied through the thick vegetation, or the black tip of a cat's tail?

WELL-EARNED REWARDS

At the end of the day, though, all is not high drama on the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains during blacktail season. When the hunt is done, it will be time to sit back around a campfire with your buddies and feast on sizzling slices of backstrap cooked in the blackened hull of a cast-iron skillet.

"Trout tomorrow," says one, motioning to the lightweight pack rods stacked against the tent that has served as home for the past week. "Maybe grouse," says another, recalling the dozen or so blues and ruffs he'd flushed that morning while still-hunting the edge of a clear-cut.

Through the swaying tops of the firs, the cold Canadian air moans a rhythmic sigh not altogether different from that created by the meeting of sand and surf some 100 miles due west, and another day comes to a close in blacktail country.

TWO-WHEEL TERRITORY

With an increasing number of national forest and private timber company acres being gated and posted "No Motorized Vehicles" each year, blacktail hunters have taken to using customized mountain bikes complete with pack tents and all the gear necessary to set up shop, not only behind the gates but far from the crowds.

"I started riding a bike into these areas simply because the bike afforded me better access to places that the majority of guys weren't willing to walk to," says Ridgefield, Wash., resident Tony Miller.

Many hunters, Miller included, retrofit these mountain bikes to make them more hunter-friendly. "I custom-built a packboard and attached that to the bike frame," says Miller. "I also have a gun rack on the handlebars, as well as a Game Hauler cart that I could tow, if necessary." Some outfits will include accessories like saddlebags, lights, a lightweight tent and a camouflage finish. "I always recommend hunters take a map, compass and GPS if they have one, regardless of how well they know the area," says Miller. "A first aid or survival kit goes without saying."

By bike or on foot, blacktail country and the deer that live there lend themselves to flat-shooting centerfires or a muzzleloader. Popular rifle calibers include the .270, the .25/06, and the venerable .30/06. I shoot a Remington Model 700 in .243 Winchester. And since you're going to be doing a lot of looking, a high-quality, easy-on-the-eyes 10x42 or 10x50 binocular is highly advised.--M.D.J.