Trying my best to not work up a sweat, I methodically trudged through the thigh-deep snow, wading across a small opening in an island of woods to where I’d spend the first few hours of Minnesota’s November deer opener. It was by far the coldest morning of the premature winter, with temperatures plummeting through the minus 20s during the night. I’d selected a specific hidey-hole on the far end of the willow-dotted clearing because I’d frequently seen deer cross into the woods there as they came off a large field just before first light as they worked back into the security of thick aspen and clumps of willows, where they’d bed during the day. Sitting on the ground, I figured, was a much better option than toughing it out in a treestand where I’d be exposed to the brunt of the frigid wind. Finally, I reached the far edge of the clearing, where I kicked out a depression in the powdery snow, settled in and waited for first light.
My trusty Model 70’s bolt felt gummy as I labored to chamber a round at legal shooting light, and a quick look through my weathered “Brand X” scope told me I was in trouble. Not only were both lenses severely fogged, but also the reticle appeared to be partially detached and loose. Resigned to the fact I’d have a tough time acquiring my target, much less hitting it, I snuggled deeper into my wool coveralls and tried to think warm thoughts.
I had zero feeling in my toes and was shivering uncontrollably when I spotted a deer sneaking up the edge of the tree line an hour later.
I eased my rifle onto the shooting sticks and did my best to make sense of the blurry sight picture. It was a decent buck, and well inside 100 yards. I could just make out his outline in the fogged scope and tried to justify taking a shot. Maybe if I center what’s left of the reticle center mass I’ll hit him. In the end, good sense prevailed, and I lowered the rifle and watched the buck melt into the mystery of the thick brush. I’d had enough, and stood and shook the snow off my crusted pants and started back across the field, pushing harder this time to get my circulation going. My lever-action backup rifle with open sights was waiting back at the truck and would have to get me through the rest of the weekend.
Nowhere is hunting gear put to a more stringent challenge than under severe weather conditions. I expected no less when I boarded a plane for an early November Saskatchewan whitetail hunt more than 10 years after that brutal northern Minnesota deer opener. I’d learned a valuable lesson that morning. For my trip to Canada, I’d be toting Remington’s Model 700 XCR (extreme conditions rifle) topped with high-quality, weather-resistant Swarovski optics.
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If there’s a Mecca for whitetail hunters, many would agree it is Saskatchewan. Expansive swamps and deep, dark forests adjacent to lush agricultural cropland coupled with minimal hunting pressure produce conditions conducive to growing big bucks. In fact, four of the top five Boone and Crockett Club typical whitetails were shot in Saskatchewan, including Milo Hanson’s world-record bruiser in 1993.
The Boeing 757 that deposited me in Saskatoon resembled a chartered flight, as most of the camo-wearing passengers had the same singular goal as I did — tying their tag to a heavy-horned Saskatchewan buck. I sat next to a gentleman from out East, and we spent the three-hour flight from Minneapolis exchanging hunting tales. In fact, the entire plane was abuzz with similar conversations. You could almost smell the anticipation.
Once on the ground, I hooked up with hunting buddies Dean Capuano from Swarovski Optiks and freelance writer David Hart for the three-hour drive to the Overflow River Outfitters lodge, where we were greeted with good news: We’d have hunting access to nearly 10,000 private acres and a half million acres of Crown land. Then the bad: Unseasonably warm temperatures — at least by Saskatchewan standards — and a lack of snowfall had the big bucks lying low.
Flipping through the outfitter’s photo album produced instant buck fever and reinforced why so many dedicated whitetail hunters make the pilgrimage north each year. Even so, I was well aware that bucks of the 160-inch and bigger ilk are rare creatures, even in Saskatchewan, and hunters must be patient if they hope to tie their tag to one of that caliber. I knew that if I wanted a chance at a gagger buck, I’d have to tame my trigger finger and pass on bucks I’d normally drool over back home. I figured to spend the first morning or two sizing up deer to get a feel for what’s out there.
I fall somewhere between quasi big-buck hunter and an avid meat hunter. Back home, I would consider all three of the solid 130-class bucks I saw the first morning shooters. But I’d decided from the get-go I would take my time and savor the Saskatchewan experience — and that meant holding off on bucks I’d normally shoot, at least early on during the hunt. It would take a heavy dose of self-control to let “smaller” bucks pass to have a chance at Mr. Big, even if it meant eating my tag.
The Waiting Game
Be forewarned: If you’re not a big fan of sitting on stand for extended periods of time — like, all day — you might have a problem with hunting whitetails in Saskatchewan. Typically, your guide will deposit you at a ground blind or treestand before first light and won’t retrieve you until it’s too dark to shoot. Often the temperature will be way below zero. But staying put is the most effective way to hunt these up-north whitetails because the landscape is so vast, and baiting, which is legal Saskatchewan, helps to concentrate the deer.
To help break the monotony, I brought my rattling antlers, which proved to be effective on bucks that were just coming into the rut.
During my five-day hunt, I rattled in six bucks, one from 500 yards away. I also brought a lot of reading material to occupy my time during the midday lull.
On Day 3, my guide moved me by Argo to a desolate island in the middle of an expansive swamp. It was evident the bigger bucks were avoiding the field edges where I’d been hunting, and a change was warranted. I rattled in a hog of a 10-pointer at 3 p.m. but decided to pass. He was one of the largest-bodied whitetails I’ve ever seen, but I had a difficult time sizing him up antler-wise. I have to admit that to this day, I’m not sure if I was looking at a 130-inch buck or a 150-plus bruiser whose body dwarfed his rack.
The Witching Hour
Day 4 passed without any big buck encounters, and it was now the witching hour — the final 60 minutes of my five-day Saskatchewan whitetail hunt. Temperatures had turned progressively warmer throughout the week, and while I was still seeing deer, buck sightings were becoming increasingly rare. Consequently, I had lowered my standards and would shoot the next mature buck I saw. Chances were, however, the opportunity to fill my tag had come and gone.
After a quiet morning, my outfitter had moved me to a honeyhole behind his farm for the evening sit. Deer began showing up almost immediately, pausing briefly on the trail in front of my blind, before wandering back into the brush. Several does and small bucks hit the bait pile 150 yards down the dim trail, but the larger bucks remained elusive.
I rattled every half-hour or so and called in a nice 130-class 8-pointer and a decent 9-pointer just as the sun cut the tree line. Both were young deer, however, and I watched as they sparred before ducking back into the heavy cover. With about 30 minutes of shooting light left, the bucks made an encore appearance but suddenly became agitated and ran off. I reached for my rifle as a large 9-pointer with considerably more mass and width walked into my shooting lane. This was the best deer I’d seen all week, with tall G1s and G2s and wide, heavy main beams. I wasted no time deciding this was “Mr. Right” and slowly shouldered my rifle. I scarcely recall tugging the trigger, but a bright white flash of light as the scope slammed the bridge of my nose got my attention. In the waning light, I had crowded the scope without realizing it. The 180-grain bullet quickly found its mark, dropping the buck in his tracks.
I sat in the stand for several minutes, soaking up the ambiance and rubbing my injured nose. For several days, it would serve as a reminder of the hunt. As I gathered my gear, I could hear the outfitter’s ATV in the distance and climbed out of the stand to have a closer look at my Saskatchewan trophy.
Featured photo: iStock