December 23, 2022
Why didn’t I become a golf writer? Why am I not spending my time in a beautiful clubhouse, strolling across green, manicured fairways and enjoying fine meals after a day of leisurely searching the woods for my golf ball?
Despite being a tragically unskilled golfer, those illogical thoughts have crossed my mind countless times over my 40-year history of bowhunting.
I’ve asked myself those questions as I belly-crawled for four hours in a drizzling rain, trying to get within bow range of seven bedded mule deer bucks.
Those thoughts came to mind when the floatplane landed on Earn Lake in the Yukon as I began my eighth moose hunt, still looking for my first moose.
And, as I was in my seventh hour of climbing the mountains of British Columbia with a 65-pound pack, working toward the remote possibility of getting close to a mountain goat, at the age of 67, those same questions nagged at me.
If you spend a significant amount of time in pursuit of big game with a bow and arrow, you’ve probably asked yourself: “What is wrong with me?” Or, “Am I really ready for this kind of challenge?” Or, “Am I too old to be doing this?” Or, “This stalk is never going to work, is it?”
If you haven’t asked yourself those questions, you either haven’t bowhunted long enough, or you need to try harder. Every bowhunt has the potential to make you question your sanity.
Flashback to 2014, when I booked a December whitetail hunt in Saskatchewan with Fred Lackie at Candle Lake Outfitters. I expected cold temperatures, but when my weather app called for low temperatures of –18 degrees and highs of only –10 degrees, all week, and the hunt plan was to sit in a ground blind from dark to dark, it made me wonder what the weather was like on a golf course in Florida…
If you’re familiar with hunting deer in Saskatchewan, then you understand the need to sit all day. Nonresidents cannot hunt in the southern agricultural country of the province; they are restricted to the heavy timber country to the north. These areas are almost limitless expanses of timber, and much of the terrain is relatively flat, so you can’t hunt ridgelines, funnels, draws, or other features. The deer there move randomly for the most part, making their travel patterns unpredictable.
However, deer populations still must be managed — even in the “big woods” — where forage can be scarce compared to agricultural country. Hunter densities are also low, thus the need for hunters and outfitters to use some type of bait — typically alfalfa — to pull the deer from the deep timber and establish some kind of pattern.
Baiting is a controversial subject and is a practice that can cause all sorts of problems. In some states where “baiting wars” break out, it can be a huge problem — particularly for public-land hunters who don’t own property. That’s because baiting is illegal on federal land and is often banned on state land, so the public hunters must sit and watch all the deer hanging out on the private land where baiting is legal. Every location is different and comes with its own set of consequences, but some places are better off without baiting.
In Saskatchewan, though, it works. In fact, with low deer and hunter densities, using bait to attract deer is about the only way to manage the herd. You’ve heard all the arguments about alfalfa being no different than a food plot or a waterhole to attract thirsty pronghorns. That’s arguable, but most of us use some kind of “advantage” to get close to big-game animals, whether it’s a set of rattling antlers, decoys, or some sort of technology.
So, back to the Saskatchewan hunt plan. Years of experience have shown that the deer there tend to hit bait sites at all times of the day, with midday, say from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., being most active. Since you must be there for the early morning activity, and the “magic hour” before sundown, you’re compelled to sit all day. Lunch happens in the blind or treestand. It’s a brutal fact of life, but if you hope to maximize your chances of killing one of those husky, chocolate-antlered Saskatchewan beasts, you will need to conform.
This is where the challenge of bowhunting Saskatchewan makes its demands on your body and mind. No, you’re not hiking a 10,000-foot mountain or belly-crawling on a bedded grizzly, but you will be challenged. You’ll have to stay warm and comfortable, focused, and alert all day long. No lapses or quick naps.
Opportunities can be fleeting. And, of course, you’ll need the most common word in a bowhunter’s dictionary — patience. But even that’s not enough at times. Perseverance, otherwise known as “grit,” is a must.
Put simply, perseverance is what is needed when patience isn’t working. And sometimes you need perseverance right off the bat, as was the case last fall on my second hunt with Fred.
It was mid-November and not as cold as my 2014 hunt, but the snow was piling up in the woods and I knew the entire week was going to be cold — “chilly” by Saskatchewan standards. Contemplating and accepting the possibility of spending a week of 10-hour days wrapped in snow and cold air requires perseverance from the moment you lay out the clothes you’ll be wearing the first morning. Anyone who believes such a hunt is “easy” because you’re hunting over alfalfa, is sadly mistaken.
The first morning began with a UTV ride through several miles of snow-laden spruce trees. So much snow had fallen overnight that we weren’t sure we could make it to the blind, but we plowed our way through and crawled into the blind well before daylight. Driving right up to the blind offered the advantage of not having to hike our way in, working up a sweat that would make staying warm difficult. Also, most bowhunters, guides, and outfitters have learned that a motorized vehicle of some kind is far less alarming to deer than a walking human.
Once the timber swallowed the UTV’s red taillights, cameraman Bill Owens and I were pretty well settled in for the day. Warm clothing and boots, plus chemical warmers for our hands and feet, and a massive lunch prepared by Fred’s wife, Collette, ensured we would endure the long hours in comfort. A good cell signal helped as well.
Daybreak delivered several does and fawns to our ambush site, but we did not see a buck until 2:45 p.m. He was a miniature version of the typical Saskatchewan whitetail buck. His body was well-built for a 1½-year-old, and his chocolate antlers were small but heavy for a buck of his age. Should he survive another three or four years, I had no doubt he likely would make some deer hunter’s heart race wildly one day.
That was it for Day One. No evidence of rutting activity, which was strange for November 15. One assumes that the rut tends to be earlier the farther north you go, but Fred said there hadn’t been much chasing going on just yet...but it was coming.
Day Two was a carbon copy, with pretty much the same visitors slipping in and out of the dense forest. You hardly ever hear them coming, even though the woods are typically so quiet that if your stomach growls, you fear it will spook the deer.
Not one to allow his clients to suffer from boredom, Fred decided to move us to a different blind for the morning of Day Three. At our new location, the Browning trail camera had captured a good buck that appeared to be harassing the does in the area. We got another dump of fresh snow that night, so the early morning ride in was quite the spectacle with the ATV’s headlights dancing off the sparkling fresh snow that hung heavy on the tree branches, pushing them near the breaking point.
This blind was smaller than most, so Bill and I had to strategically place our gear and squeeze in. With everything ready, and my gloved hand wrapped around an insulated mug full of coffee, I sat back in my chair and pondered the implications of the full moon shining through the trees directly into our shooting window. This prompted the age-old question: How does the moon phase affect the movement of big game and other wildlife? While I enjoy hypothesizing about the influence of the moon, I don’t have a clue how animals react to the lunar phase. Just when I think I have a pattern or theory, it ultimately gets destroyed by reality. I don’t believe anyone knows the answers, which leads me to the conclusion that the best time to hunt is whenever you can — moon phase be damned.
Case in point… Just as I was thinking the full moon likely would mean very little action until midday (a common theory), a large shadow suddenly ghosted toward the alfalfa. I probably wouldn’t have even seen the buck were it not for the snow-white background. My binoculars helped me discover this was the buck Fred had captured on his trail camera — at least I thought so.
The buck sniffed around the alfalfa without taking a bite, likely searching only for the scent of a doe. He dallied around long enough that we were within eight minutes of legal shooting light. I hoped he would stick around, but with just three minutes to go, he turned and retreated into the snowy timber.
After about 20 minutes of feeling sorry for myself and thinking that was the last I’d see of the buck for a while, I was surprised to see the buck return and follow a young doe to the alfalfa. I confirmed the curved right brow tine this time — it was definitely the buck from Fred’s photo.
I slowly reached for my bow and waited for a good shot angle. The buck pivoted back and forth and never really settled down. I didn’t have a shot I liked. Again, the buck walked back into the timber. Within minutes, I could see and hear the buck chasing a doe along the edge of the timber.
Another doe came from the left and caught the buck’s eye, and for a third time he approached the bait. I carefully drew my Hoyt, and when I did, I felt my top cam just touch the blind’s roof. I leaned foward as far as I could, but failed to remember the roof of the blind also angled downward. When the buck finally turned broadside — the explosion happened!
Snow and pine needles flew everywhere! It took me a second to realize what had happened, because my focus was on the deer. My arrow struck high, but as the buck ran off I could see the snow was being painted red by profuse arterial bleeding. I had hit the descending aorta that runs along the spine, and the buck was down in seconds.
I inspected the blind’s roof for damage, but it was fine. The cam-to-roof impact had caused my bow to kick up, thus accounting for the high hit. In hindsight, I was fortunate to have hit the buck where I did.
I sent a text to Fred, and only minutes later he and the guide, Emmett, showed up for the short tracking job in the fresh snow. It was a fine, long-beamed buck I was happy to tag.
This hunt lasted only 2 ½ days, so I didn’t have to dig too deep for the perseverance or grit that would have been needed for the six-day hunt. I was ready to tough it out, but thankfully, this time I didn’t spend a second thinking about golf.
On this hunt, I used my Hoyt RX-5 bow, Easton Hexx arrows, Rage Trypan broadheads, Spot-Hogg bowsight, Browning clothing, Ozonics, and Lumenok lighted nocks. If you’d like to book a deer or bear hunt with Fred Lackie at Candle Lake Outfitters, you can contact him at candlelakeoutfitters.com, or call (306) 491-9750.