Wine Country Blacktails

A unique Western blacktails hunt provided a proving ground for an affordable, functional long-range rifle and ancillary gear — and a whole new set of hunting skills.

Wine Country Blacktails

When New York Tribune founder Horace Greeley penned the famous phrase, “Go West, Young Man,” in 1865, it set the stage for the exploration and exploitation of America’s remarkable natural resources — many of them four-legged and sporting coveted antlers or horns. North American hunters have been “going west” in droves ever since.

The pioneer spirit that drove westward expansion across the vast American frontier was vital to our nation’s early development. Young men from every imaginable calling felt the primal tug to tame the Wild West — to see what lay beyond the next rise. They migrated from points east in great numbers, seeking fame and fortune in a land of bountiful opportunity. And while their motivation was arguably self-centered, their actions laid the foundation on which this great nation now rests.

Frankly, I was devoting little thought to Horace Greeley or the American pioneer spirit as I gazed out the passenger window of Ryan Newkirk’s Ford pickup as we methodically cruised the narrow two-tracks that dissected the Steinbeck Vineyard & Winery’s 500+ acres near Paso Robles, California. It was just a half-hour till sundown on day two of a four-day hunt for Columbia blacktails, and we’d been playing cat and mouse with a handsome 4x3 buck since early the first morning. Crammed into the truck was the rest of our motley crew — Linda Powell, director of media relations for Mossberg, wordsmiths Dave Draper and Jeff Johnston, and Brooks Hansen, marketing communications manager for Camp Chef.

Ryan, our host and guide, represents the sixth generation of a family that moved to the Paso Robles area in 1884 and purchased the property we were hunting on in 1921. It was originally a barley and cattle farm, and Ryan’s great, great grandparents put down roots — working the land and building the original house and outbuildings. But it wasn’t until 1982 that the Steinbecks began growing grapes and distributing their yield to area winemakers. The deer came with the property, a product of the cultivated crops and temperate climate of California’s Central Coast region.

“That’s him,” Ryan lowered his bino and eased the pickup forward to get a better angle on a cluster of deer that were milling around in the rows of neatly planted cabernet grapes that stretched to the skyline and then disappeared over a rise in the field — a couple of smallish bucks, a handful of does . . . and the buck we had been stalking. “We need to get some elevation if we’re going to get a clear shot,” Ryan said as he dropped the truck into gear, slowly drove around the back side of the opposite hill and then parked out of sight.

A stiff wind helped mitigate our sound and movement as we exited the truck and sneaked diagonally across the hillside trying to work into position for a shot. Just as we got to where we had a clear look at the buck, he bedded. And to make matters worse, a small buck laid down right in front of him. Visibility was limited, so I got on Ryan’s tall shooting sticks for a standing shot and prepared to wait out the buck.

The wind was shoving me around like a schoolyard bully, and I was completely uncomfortable as I tried to settle my riflescope’s dancing crosshairs on the buck’s body 150 yards away. “Let’s try to get a different angle on him,” Ryan said, seeing my dilemma. “Maybe get a little higher where you can get down on your bipod to get out of the wind a bit.” Ryan folded his shooting sticks, and I followed him as we eased through the rows of grapes.

We moved about a dozen rows over where the visibility was better, and I was able to get into a kneeling position and firm up the sight picture. We had about 40 minutes of legal shooting light left, and the bucks were giving no indication they were going to move anytime soon. We weighed our options, each with its risks. Do we try to go around and come at the buck from another angle — try to shoot him in his bed? Do we make some noise and try to get him to stand? Or do we back out and come back in the morning?

Ryan decided to try some soft whistles. “Get ready — there won’t be a lot of time when he stands up,” Ryan whispered. “He’ll be on the move.” The little buck became agitated and stood, looking our way for the source of the sound, but even when he stepped out of the way, there was no ethical shot at the bedded buck. Then, as if on cue, the big buck stood and immediately began walking directly away from us. He was climbing toward the skyline, and my window of opportunity was closing with each step. In seconds he would walk out of my life.

I was easing off the trigger when he gave me the opportunity I was waiting for, turning slightly to exit the row of grapes. I quickly found the crease behind his shoulder and tugged the trigger, sending 130 grains of Hornady CX copper into his boiler room. The buck bolted and made a death run, the drama ending when he piled up a half-dozen rows over. Ryan slapped me on the back, and we walked over to have a look at my first-ever Columbia blacktail.

The author with his first-ever Columbia blacktail, a “cabernet buck” harvested on the Steinbeck Winery vineyard.
The author with his first-ever Columbia blacktail, a “cabernet buck” harvested on the Steinbeck Winery vineyard.

Go West, Young Man!

I vividly remember my first hunting trip out West, and this unique hunt reminded me why I love hunting the western reaches of this great continent. Growing up in northern Minnesota, I’d often dreamed of exploring those expansive and exotic lands beyond the “Big Muddy.” So, I’d saved up my pennies and heeded Greeley’s inspirational words and went west — two full days of it. I was awed, almost overwhelmed, by the beautiful vistas, the wide-open spaces and the abundant game.

But like too many Eastern hunters who venture west for the first time, I was ill prepared for the task in many respects. My equipment was a hodgepodge of gear more suited to the Midwestern terrain I’d grown up hunting — from my rifle, optics and bullets down to my boots. I hadn’t even thought to bring a daypack. I survived that hunt — enjoyed it, even — but it could have been so much more if I’d been better prepared. So now, after nearly four decades of “going west,” I take a more educated approach based on accumulated experiences. I even have specialized gear lists on my home computer to remind me of which gear to pack for specific locales, species and terrain.

As an example, here’s a short list of the gear I selected for this hunt.


The Rifle

Hunters with an appetite for precision and in-the-field durability appreciate the commitment and extraordinary treatment that go into building special-purpose rifles that serve a wide variety of hunting wants and needs — from anchoring deep-woods Northern whitetails and black bears to blacktails, elk, pronghorns and mule deer in the wide-open West. Whether it’s a quick-handling AR-platform rifle or lever gun for swift and decisive action, or a precision-built bolt gun fine-tuned for superior long-range performance, these firearms are tailor made for today’s equal-opportunity multi-species hunter.

“That was the whole idea when Mossberg came up with the Patriot bolt-action lineup — that we’d have a classic hunting rifle platform, and from there we would make specific and dedicated models,” said Linda Powel as we chatted about the Patriot LR (Long-Range) Hunters we were using on the blacktail hunt — a rifle fine-tuned for hunters who exploit wide open spaces. “We have a precision rifle that’s dedicated to those people who want to get into that type of long-range shooting, and that led us over to the Patriot LR Hunter. And as long-range shooting became more popular, it migrated over to the hunting market as well. But some of the rifles that are dedicated to long-range shooting aren’t necessarily equipped to take out into the field — they’re too heavy and too bulky. The LR Hunter is a portable and carriable hunting rifle with the benefit of a long-range platform.”

Mossberg’s Patriot Long Range Hunter chambered in 6.5 PRC provided all the muscle needed to anchor the author’s big-bodied blacktail buck.
Mossberg’s Patriot Long Range Hunter chambered in 6.5 PRC provided all the muscle needed to anchor the author’s big-bodied blacktail buck.

Available in four popular calibers — .308 Win., 6.5mm Creedmoor, 6.5 PRC and .300 Win. Mag. — the Patriot LR Hunter is based on Mossberg’s twin-lug, push-feed machined-steel action and features a standard contour, free-floating barrel with an 11-degree match crown with straight-edge fluting and is threaded for the addition of a suppressor. Its button-rifled barrel is constructed of carbon steel with a matte blue finish, and a top-mounted Picatinny rail accommodates the addition of optics. Other standard features of this classic bolt action include a Monte Carlo synthetic stock, oversized bolt handle and Mossberg’s Lightning Bolt Action 2- to 7-pound user-adjustable trigger. MSRP: $766. Contact:


The Optics

A wise hunting buddy once told me, “Buy the best glass you can afford. You can’t hit what you can’t see.” That golden nugget emphasizes the need to top your long-range rifles with optics that will allow you to obtain optimal performance. It doesn’t make sense to invest a bunch of Benjamins in a tack-driving rifle capable of punching minute-of-angle groups and then equip it with substandard glass that inhibits that capability.

There are several factors to consider when purchasing a scope: the type of firearm on which it will sit, the critters you will be hunting, and the type of terrain in which you will be hunting. When hunting the wide-open West, it’s important to select optics that match the long-range capabilities of your rifle — and to also have the magnification range to deal with close and personal encounters when hunting broken terrain. 

It would seem intuitive that a low-power scope — say the 2-7x40mm that served you well in the whitetail woods back East — would leave you wanting more when a boisterous bull elk or monster muley or blacktail buck steps out of the scrub brush and gives you the bad-eye at 400 yards. Also important are those features that aid in long-range accuracy and efficiency, such as a first focal plane reticle, large, light-gathering objective lens, fast-focus eyepiece and zero-stop turrets to mention a few. Only when the long-range hunter is equipped with such will he or she wring every ounce of accuracy from their rifle.

For riflemen and women looking for a long-range optics solution, the Riton X7 Conquer 3-18x50mm riflescope I used on my blacktail hunt fits the bill, featuring a first focal plane illuminated reticle with HD/ED glass, integrated removeable throw lever, and advanced zero-stop turrets for an instant and reliable return to zero. It has 41 mils of internal elevation adjustment, six levels of red illumination with an “off” setting between each level, 1/10 MRAD windage and elevation adjustments and fast-focus eyepiece. The Riton X7 Conquer is constructed from aircraft-grade aluminum to hold up in the toughest hunting environments and is 100 percent waterproof, fog-proof and shock-proof.

These Riton optics — X7 Conquer 3-18x50mm riflescope and 5 Primal 10x42mm HD bino — were a great match for the challenges presented by hunting in the of the wide-open West.
These Riton optics — X7 Conquer 3-18x50mm riflescope and 5 Primal 10x42mm HD bino — were a great match for the challenges presented by hunting in the of the wide-open West.

So you can take a good look before you leap, Riton’s 5 Primal 10x42mm HD bino will help pick apart the Western terrain and determine trophy potential. They are built on a lightweight magnesium frame that can handle the most rugged applications and feature Riton HD glass for eye-fatigue-eliminating clarity. MSRP $1,999.99/riflescope; $599.99/bino. Contact:


The Ammo

Forethought and planning are required when traveling to a state such as California, where only non-lead ammunition may be used for taking any wildlife with a firearm anywhere in the state. Thankfully, ammo companies have stepped up to the plate with lead-free offerings that perform admirably on big game.

Hornady’s all-copper CX ammo meets California’s nontoxic requirement and the 6.5 PRC load used by the author and friends provided one-shot kills.
Hornady’s all-copper CX ammo meets California’s nontoxic requirement and the 6.5 PRC load used by the author and friends provided one-shot kills.

Hornady’s new Outfitter Copper Alloy eXpanding CX ammo, as an example, provides uniform, controlled expansion, deep penetration and 95-plus percent weight retention. Its nickel-plated cases are corrosion resistant and waterproofed to ensure protection from moisture. The 130-grain 6.5 PRC loads we used on our blacktail hunt performed admirably — four one-shot kills. MSRP: $72.33/Box of 20/6.5 PRC. Contact:


The Food and Drink

The most popular guy or gal in any hunting camp is, without dispute, the camp cook. A healthy appetite generated by a long day in the field brings out the hungry beast in the best of us. And what better way to tame that beast than to serve up genuine home cooked meals? But doing the job to culinary perfection requires the proper tools.

The folks at Camp Chef have you covered — pellet grills, flat top grills, cast iron cookery, propane grills and smokers — oh, my! And don’t forget the seasonings, pellets and starters, cleaning tools and supplies, grilling utensils and the like. 

Brooks Hansen, marketing communications manager for Camp Chef, served as culinary wizard during our Steinbeck Winery stay and put the company’s top-of-the-line cooking tools to the test. I’d give him an A+. He proved that cooking skills and the proper implements can turn a freshly killed beast into mouth-watering morsels with the flip of a spatula. Check out for more information on Camp Chef products.

What could be better than a venison steak dinner paired with wine from the very grounds where both were harvested?
What could be better than a venison steak dinner paired with wine from the very grounds where both were harvested?

And, of course, no gourmet meal is complete without a fine wine pairing to enhance the delicate flavors of both food and drink — hardly a problem at the Steinbeck Winery. Its selection of California craft wines complements any meal — especially fresh-off-the-buck venison. My favorite mating for the medium rare venison Brooks served was its Cabernet Sauvignon, with undercurrents of black currant and cherry and the smell of the winery’s soil during the cool of the day. The finish is soft and long with smooth and age-worthy tannin. Visitors to the Paso Robles area can stop in for a tour and tasting, or check them out at

The compulsion to respond to the allure of the West has spanned generations of free-spirited Americans. And many of the wonders that first attracted early pioneers to “go west” still tug at modern hunters. To answer the call of the wild. To climb the next rise and view the next vista. To wander for hours without crossing property boundaries. To chase those magnificent Western bucks and bulls. To respond to Greeley’s poetic challenge to “Go West, Young Man!”


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