The Ghost of the Pacific

The typical experiences of Western big game hunting involve spot and stalk Mule Deer hunting in open country, or calling a screaming bull into bow range. But here on the West coast, we have the unique opportunity to hunt an animal that does not exist east of the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades. "The Ghost of the Pacific," or Columbian Blacktail Deer, is a species that gets little attention in prominent Western hunting magazines and television shows. A closer look at this magnificent animal will reveal the ultimate challenge for even the most experienced hunter.

By Walter Siegmund

Evolution of Species

It is a common misunderstanding that blacktail deer are the hybridization of mule deer and white tail.Even taxonomists have named the Blacktail as a subspecies of Mule Deer; Odocoileus Hemionus Columbianus. However, mitochondrial DNA testing has revealed that mule deer are actually the product of blacktail bucks breeding whitetail does. According to theories by prominent environmental scientist and North American large mammal specialist Valerius Geist, during the pliocene period, the whitetail deer extended its range down the US' east coast, across what is now Texas and Mexico, and up the west coast, reaching British Columbia and Alaska. After a retraction of habitat, the whitetail population drew back east, leaving remnant populations along the west coast. The "founders" of these remnant populations carried certain characteristics that allowed them to thrive in their new ecosystem. Over time, these remnant populations evolved and adapted to their new environments, forming Sitka blacktail in northern BC and Alaska, and the Columbian Blacktail from there southward. This process is described in a theory called "The Founder Effect." Later, the established Blacktail population expanded its territory eastward, as the Whitetail again expanded westward, where they met in the middle. Here, Blacktail bucks bred Whitetail does and created a hybrid; Mule Deer. The hybrid species took hold of this middle ground, and Blacktail retracted back westward, as Whitetail retracted back eastward. The result is the dispersion of the many deer subspecies that exist In North America today. Similarly, the Coues Deer found in the South West are a result of an isolated  founding subspecies that developed over time in a particular environment.

The current range of the Columbian Blacktail Deer is outlined by Boone and Crockett from central BC south to California's Monterey Bay. The seemingly arbitrary eastern boundary for record purposes is Interstate 5, roughly 100 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. This boundary is the source of much controversy, as it is not inconceivable for a deer to cross the freeway and be considered another species, but the line must be drawn somewhere.

Blacktail are relatively smaller than Mule Deer, both in body and antler size. An adult male can range from 120 to 200 lbs on the hoof. Of course, this varies based on geography. According to Bergmann's rule, mammals within the same species have higher body mass in colder environments, to better retain heat,  and lower body mass in warmer climates to dissipate heat. Blacktail Deer follow this principle, although of course there are some exceptions. The antler configuration of Blacktail deer is similar to that of the Mule deer, and is scored along the same principle. A mature buck, depending on genetics, will carry three to four points on each side, in addition to eye guards. The antler size, and the spread is proportionately smaller than that of the Mule Deer however, with the Boone and Crockett threshold at 135" and Pope and Young at 95."

Hunting Tactics

Hunting Blacktail Deer successfully can prove quite difficult. Their highly nocturnal and skittish nature combined with the often steep and dense country they inhabit provides quite the challenge. Opportunities to hunt them when they are vulnerable, such as during the rut, are often limited. In California, archery seasons begin as early as mid July when temperatures in the high 90's are common. In such heat, mature bucks spend very little time out of the dark timber. Once rifle seasons open, the velvet is stripped, and even when feeding, mature bucks spend much of their time in thick brush. Blacktail are not as patternable as their Whitetail cousins, but an ambush approach can still be an effective method for harvesting a trophy. If one is fortunate enough to draw a license to hunt during the rut, rattling antlers can yield success. The spot and stalk method can be effective, but the heavy timber and brush that these deer call home can make it difficult to spot a bedded Blacktail. For these reasons, the Columbia Blacktail has earned such nicknames as "The Grey Ghost," and "The Ghost of the Pacific."

As a Northern California native, I have grown up hunting these "ghosts," and I am obsessed with their pursuit. Columbia Blacktail are truly an incredible species, and will test the mettle of any seasoned hunter. We would love to hear about your experiences chasing the Ghost of the Pacific. Please feel free to share in the comment section below.