When Lewis and Clark struck out on their expedition to explore the western half of America, they couldn't have imagined the habitat they'd encounter at the end of their journey.
The Pacific Northwest is considered temperate rainforest. The giant trees and endless ferns create a dense jungle like environment. The lush, thick habitat makes it quite a challenge to take an elusive black-tailed buck.
Nathan McLeod grew up in the small, blue-collar town of Clatskanie, Ore. This quiet community of approximately 2,000 is about 40 miles inland from the mouth of the Columbia River. The entire region relies on the lumber industry and McLeod's family is no different. His father, Larry, and his father's brother, Steve, both spent their careers working at the local paper mill. On the weekends, they hunt, fish and gather.
I understand this sort of community. Growing up in northwest Indiana, the men like these worked in the steel mills. I get the gritty culture, and I like it.
McLeod and I partner to co-host the Driftwood Outdoors Podcast. We spend at least a couple of hours a week talking about the outdoors. For the last few years, I've listened to him describe in depth his lifelong experiences of hunting black-tailed deer on the Pacific Coast of Oregon. He piqued my interest to the point at which I knew I had to experience a coastal black-tail hunt of my own.
Uncle Steve, as we've affectionately dubbed him, although he technically is Nathan's uncle, served as our guide. Steve is an accomplished hunter, and recognized locally as one of the best black-tail hunters around. Let's put it this way, Steve had to add onto his house to have room for all his taxidermy. Which includes, a wide variety of African game mixed in with giant elk, mule deer and black-tailed deer.
Costal, rain forest black-tail don't grow nearly as big as their Midwestern white-tail cousins. But black-tail offer a far greater challenge to kill, making them a trophy regardless of size. I learned quickly to have no expectations of large antlers. A "fork-ed" horn is a shooter buck.
Uncle Steve is a testament to hunters who have become an expert at a specific experience based on a lifetime of participation. He's been hunting the same hills for black-tail bucks since he was a boy. Sadly, in recent years, much of the paper company land has been leased off and locked behind gates. Although the number of spots Steve can hunt has greatly diminished, he still knows more than one good place to punch a tag.
On the first day of my hunt, we laid down a lot of boot leather, giving me a thorough lay of the land. Quite a bit of road hunting goes on in these parts. Uncle Steve's year-after-year success has a lot to do with his willingness to lace up his boots, strap on a pack and hit the backcountry. We didn't see but three does the entire first day and we covered many, many miles of terrain.
The second day started off just as slow. Steve was cursing the weather. Sunny and 65 seemed nice, but he said you want it to be rainy and miserable when black-tailed hunting.
As sunset approached, we decided to crest a tall hill and sit triangular glassing for deer in three directions. Nathan was left to look north, I was sat facing south and Steve was going to face west, but before sitting down, he spotted a deer in a clear cut and called me over. It was a buck. We took off after it. After closing the distance quite a ways, I got my black-tailed buck. A wonderful "3 by fork" representative of the species.
The greatest part of this experience for me was getting to know the people and place that built my good friend. I was able to come to understand traditions and passions of like-minded folks from across the country. The Oregon Coast couldn't be any more different than the broken forest, agricultural lands of Missouri I call home. Their deer hunting and our deer hunting is nothing alike, but the love of the outdoors and the passion for wildlife and wild places is shared as strongly as if we've been neighbors all our life.
I took the backstraps from my buck and prepared them on a pellet grill. This meal brought a dozen people together around Uncle Steve's dinner table. As a hunter, I felt a sense of pride in providing meat that led to the fellowship of a family gathering.
I asked Nathan what makes hunting black-tails back home so special. He said, "The vast terrain of rolling clear cuts edged against massive forests filled with lush vegetation is the type of environment I was raised hunting. The scenery and experience is something I'll carry in my soul to the end of my days. The sheer scope of the landscape with the challenge of finding a small, skittish, elusive black-tail deer makes it one of the most challenging and rewarding hunts I've ever seen."
With my buck tagged filled on the second day, I was afforded time to spend exploring the area. It was not wasted. We dug razor clams in the Pacific surf. Nathan's mother, Connie, and his buddy, Brad, both took me under their wing and helped me enough to dig my limit of 15. We launched Larry's boat to go crabbing, but it was too rough. We still caught a few in the harbor. I visited a maritime museum, hit a couple of antique shops, ate local seafood and to top it all off, visited Fort Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark stayed the winter before heading home.
When it comes to special outdoor destinations, the mouth of the Columbia River has to be considered special. As Nathan said, "There's deer, elk, salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, sea-run cutthroat trout, some of the best waterfowl in the state, waterfalls, hiking trails, historical sites and that's just scratching the surface. There's really something for everyone."
See you down trail.
Brandon Butler is an outdoors columnist for the News Tribune. Contact him at [email protected]