Even when a whitetail hunt does not go as planned, the outcome can be truly fulfilling.
The big woods of Saskatchewan's "fringe" forest scream, "Big bucks!" Deer sign is everywhere.
AFTER SETTLING IN AT Kent Wolowski's RockRidge Outfitting lodge the previous evening, I had a choice to make: Would I dress in all white, yellow, blaze orange, or red? Gun season would open the next morning, and Saskatchewan law dictated that I wear one of the aforementioned colors. Camouflage would be illegal.
Reluctantly, I chose red, thinking it would be the least conspicuous. While that probably was true, I sure didn't feel inconspicuous as I climbed into my stand the first morning of the hunt. And one look at video cameraman/editor Josh Viste, who was also dressed in red from head to toe, reinforced that feeling. Sitting in a stand near me, Josh looked like a giant tomato waiting to be picked off the vine. Since I'm bigger than Josh, I must have looked twice as goofy.
This color thing was probably more of an issue for me than for any deer, but it took some getting used to. Well, actually, I never did get used to it, because my entire body seemed to glow. I was dressed more for loading toys into a sleigh and cracking the whip over a nervous team of caribou than for bowhunting. I could only hope the Canadian bucks were colorblind.
Okay, I'm whining, but some aspects of this hunt were foreign to me and not just the dress code. The hunting tactics proved to be as well. To relax and enjoy the hunt, I had to accept the time-proven saying, "When in Rome..."
Ah, but I'm jumping ahead. Let's begin at the beginning.
Cameraman Josh Viste and I looked like ripe tomatoes in a tree as we waited for action.
OUR INITIAL HUNT STRATEGY was simple: Josh and I would sit in treestands while Rob Nye, a well-known Canadian outfitter, guide, and outdoor writer, worked his deer calls and rattling antlers at ground level.
The approach seemed flawless. The Carrot River area lies at the edge of Saskatchewan's agriculture lands. Nonresidents are not allowed to hunt on the ag lands, so we were hunting the fringe where farmlands meet forest, an ideal mix of large, open fields surrounding dense patches of spruce, pine, and poplar. The region is known for its huge whitetails, and we found deer sign everywhere.
To clinch the deal, we were there in early November, prime time for rattling. Unfortunately, that's where we hit a flaw. Temperatures were 20 to 30 degrees above normal, and as every whitetail hunter knows, warm weather is a plague that suppresses daytime deer activity. Most of North America had a severe outbreak in the fall of 2005, and we were at the core of it.
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Guide Rob Nye typically rattles in numerous big bucks during November, but warm weather squelched deer movement on our hunt.
Still, beginning on opening day, we gave it our best. In the dark on the first morning, the skies were clear, the air almost cool. We drove several miles of gravel roads to one of Rob's favorite rattling spots, where we strapped on our headlamps and hiked into the dark bush. Josh and I climbed into treestands in a spruce tree overlooking a tiny L-shaped opening in the bush while Rob planted his folding stool in a clump of pines, 15 yards behind.
We ascended the tree, clipped on our safety harnesses, and sat waiting for shooting light. Rob would remain quiet until I gave him the signal that we had adequate archery and video light. He would then begin his deer music.
At the break of dawn I expected to hear gunfire, but the woods remained silent. In fact, we didn't hear a single gunshot until late afternoon. That seemed odd. Back home in North Dakota, the area would have sounded like Gettysburg by sunrise. Here we heard only the honking of Canada geese and the occasional gravelly-voiced raven.
Finally, I nodded at Rob, and he started with a couple of soft grunts. Then the sudden crack of his rattling antlers in the calm morning air almost made me jump into Josh's stand. Any buck within miles would hear that racket.
Knowing something might happen fast, I put a stranglehold on my bow and clipped my release to the loop. My ears reached out for sound, any sound, and my eyes darted from one shadow to the next. Certainly, a buck could not surprise us in the dry, noisy woods.
Of course, that doesn't mean one couldn't come from the wrong direction! From behind Rob, we suddenly heard deer sounds -- hooves in the leaves, branches breaking. A deer was coming fast. But then the woods went quiet. Apparently an approaching buck had sensed our ruse and exited stage left.
That immediate response got us excited, but the excitement soon died down. Over the next three days we covered miles by truck and on foot, hiking into one setup after another. At each spot, we climbed into existing stands, hung stands in new locations, or hunted from natural ground blinds or pop-ups. Rob called and rattled until his arms ached. We never encountered another buck. The deer just weren't moving. We blamed the hot weather. The big November bucks with their heavy winter coats most likely were curled up in the cool shade during the day. They sure weren't running around, demonstrating their high testosterone levels.
CLEARLY OUR STRATEGY WAS not working, the weather was not changing, and Rob was getting anxious.
"In these conditions I think we need to put you guys on a bait," Rob said. "I know you'd prefer not to hunt over bait, but baiting is legal here, and you should at least try it so you know what it's like."
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Rob Nye and Josh Viste study maps of our hunting area. They're probably speculating on where they might find the donor of those shed antlers.
He was right about
one thing -- I was reluctant. Baiting is also legal in my home state of North Dakota, and it has created raging controversy there. Ethical considerations and the spread of disease such as chronic wasting disease fuel some of the controversy, but I oppose it primarily because it inflames baiting wars. A landowner, or outfitter who has leased private land for hunting, will put out a five-gallon bucket of corn to attract deer. The neighbor decides he has to put out 10 gallons to bring the deer back onto his land. Soon guys are dumping truckloads of corn along fencelines, even adjacent to public lands. A hunter on public land can sit on dead ground with little to no chance at a deer while dozens of deer munch corn just across the fence on private land. It is getting out of control in North Dakota.
I had to concede that "baiting wars" were a small problem in Saskatchewan. Hunter densities are too low to create serious competition, and provincial law restricts bait sites to something like five gallons, which prevents escalation into all-out wars.
"You guys hunt this ground blind this morning and I'll go hang a couple of stands near a small bait. You can hunt there this evening," Rob said convincingly. I hoped a buck would present an opportunity that morning, but once again it didn't happen.
Some people have chastised me for speaking out against baiting. "Don't talk smack unless you've tried it," they say. Well, I was about to try it.
Let me make one final point clear: This hunt will appear on Bowhunter Magazine TV. Because of the way the footage was taken, we easily could have "overlooked" the fact that we were hunting over bait. But we believe in telling things as they are, and we hunted over bait, pure and simple.
THAT AFTERNOON JOSH AND I wiggled up through the branches of a pine tree to get to our stands placed side-by-side. Rob had told us the bait was some small grain on the ground 34 yards to the west, but we could not see it in the leaves and grass.
The distance concerned me, but we occupied the only tree close enough and large enough to hide two giant red Santas. The sky was cloudy, but the air was still warm, considering the time of year. I'm not sure Josh would have agreed, but I personally would have preferred below-zero temperatures and snow.
I've always been amazed at how the tiniest movement can catch the eye, human or otherwise, and it was a tiny movement that caught my eye now -- a patch of brown slipping between two aspens. With the naked eye, I could not identify it, but looking through binoculars I made out the form of a mature whitetail buck. He was a 5x5, the first buck we'd seen in four days. With only two days to go, I was not going to be picky. This buck was clearly a shooter.
He was also ultra-cautious, nearly bolting at the sound of his own movement. Focused on the bait, but scanning the area for danger, he studied each step as if walking through a minefield. He took long minutes to get to the grain, and then he hesitated to commit to a bite. He trusted nothing.
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Plagued with unusually warm weather, my hunt was slow until this unique buck came my way. Although circumstances may not have been perfect, the outcome proved gratifying.
Meanwhile, I was preparing for what would be a difficult shot. The air was dead calm, and this buck was wired to explode. The slightest noise would detonate the bomb. My rangefinder told me he was exactly 34 yards away. I had no doubt this buck would jump the string.
Waiting several minutes for the right shot angle, I finally drew and placed my 30-yard pin in the center of his vitals, which put my aiming point well below where I wanted to hit. If he doesn't jump I'll probably shoot under him, missing clean, I thought. If he does jump, the hit will be good.
When I touched off the release, the buck immediately coiled downward, and just as he was launching himself forward, the arrow caught him in the spine and dropped him cold. I'm no fan of spine shots, but I must admit they do the job.
WITH A RED FOREHEAD, dark antlers, and crab-claw points at the tips of the main beams, the buck was unique. Considering the conditions we faced, we were lucky to get him, even if the method was not my first choice. I doubt we'd have got an opportunity at this buck without the bait.
Did this hunt change my view of baiting? No. For the reasons previously stated, my views of baiting have not changed. But, now, when a proponent of baiting asks me if I've ever hunted over bait, I can answer, "Yes."
Do I apologize for the outcome? No. My Saskatchewan buck was a beautiful deer, and any buck taken legally is a worthy trophy. And he taught me a valuable lesson: "When in Rome..."
But next time I'll choose white. Like Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Author's Notes: We hunted with Kent and Lori Wolowski at RockRidge Outfitting, Ltd., (306) 768-2617, www.rockridgeoutfitting.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. Rifle hunting pressure was virtually nonexistent, so bowhunting the rut is quite possible. Had the weather been kinder, I'm confident we'd have encountered a huge Canadian buck or two. Kent and Lori run a great operation.
I was using a Hoyt VTEC, Carbon Express Terminator arrows, Barrie Ti-100 broadheads, Ripcord rest, and Fuse Accessories. Under my Santa suit was a ScentBlocker suit, my boots were Redhead Side Zips from Bass Pro Shops, and my daypack was a Badlands 2200.