Tips For Hunting Big Deer In The North Woods

You can find trophy whitetail deer in the thick North Woods, but you'll really have to work for the opportunity.
Tips For Hunting Big Deer In The North Woods

When you hear one deer hunter tell another it’s better to be lucky than good, you’re probably hearing a jealous man.

And when your hunting buddy shoots about 10 a.m. on the ninth day of deer season, you know this: The harder you work, the luckier you get.

That was the situation one Sunday a few Novembers ago as I watched a clearcut in northeastern Minnesota. Only 10 minutes before, longtime friend Stu Osthoff of Ely had stopped by my stand, and he sounded more frustrated than I’ve ever heard him. “I just can’t get on the same page with them this year,” he said. “This is tough.”

I reminded him he entered the season’s second Sunday equally frustrated the previous November. And when I heard a midmorning rifle shot from his direction that day, I knew I’d soon be photographing him with a good buck and helping him drag it out.

But that was then, and here we were again — Day 9 and no bucks to show for our efforts. Osthoff suggested I stay put while he hiked east, then waited 10 minutes before still-hunting northward through the forest. Maybe he would push deer toward me.

About 15 minutes later, I jumped in surprise as Osthoff’s .270 fired about 300 yards to the east. I shook my head with appreciation and started packing. I had work to do.

After finding him in a small opening above an alder-choked creek bottom, I asked, “Well, what page was he on?”

As planned, Osthoff had stopped to snack before swinging north. As he chewed his trail mix, he saw movement deep inside the creek bottom’s firs and spruce.

“I thought maybe it was my imagination, that maybe I just turned my head too fast,” Osthoff said. “But then I saw a deer walking, and then I saw antlers.” His quick, well-placed shot dropped the mature 9-pointer into the sphagnum moss.

Perhaps to prove those two straight Day 9 bucks weren’t flukes, Osthoff repeated the feat the next year. Sure, luck plays a role in hunting, but it seldom determines the outcome by itself. No, determination keeps you in the woods, optimism keeps you watching and listening, and marksmanship steers your bullet or arrow true.

If you don’t have those skills and virtues, you’ll struggle to even see whitetails in the Northern forest. You must be willing to walk, navigate areas with few trails, and look forward to getting out of bed to hunt each day.

Get Back In There

Seeing and shooting North Woods bucks requires something many hunters lack: The desire and confidence to hunt deep within huge forests. Sure, plenty of deer fall to hunters within a half-mile of two-track trails, logging roads and county highways. But consistent success usually requires hiking a mile or more into the woods, and sometimes before first light with only your head lamp, compass and GPS unit to help you get in — and get out.

It’s really not that difficult, providing you’re in decent shape, you don’t fear the dark in a sprawling forest, and you plot routes that keep you out of bogs. Then it’s just a matter of using your compass and GPS to stay on course. On clear mornings, it helps to pick out a star in a familiar constellation, and try to reach it while it remains visible.

Of course, you don’t necessarily have to walk in. When I’m hunting northeastern Minnesota with Osthoff and friends like Mike Kolbeck and Craig Stephani, we sometimes paddle a canoe a mile or more before first light to reach an area to hunt.

And you don’t necessarily have to greet first light from your stand or a still-hunt’s starting point. Kolbeck, for example, is careful about paddling in the dark, especially when it means crossing a lake. On days he hunts the far side of a favorite lake near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, he reaches his launch site at gray-light, which puts him at his stand at sunrise.

Besides, we find that sitting a half-hour or more in the pre-dawn darkness is overrated. Depending on who’s asked, the best time to be on a North Woods deer stand in November is 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., with some people nominating the 10 o’clock hour as prime time.

Either way, although we prefer maximizing our hunting time, we don’t let travel schedules determine our happiness or frustration. On opening day of Minnesota’s firearms season in 2012, Stephani slept later than his normal time because he arrived in camp only hours before. After rising with the rest of us, he hurriedly drove off to hunt a site he has never revealed, except to his own memory. Ten miles down the road, he changed his mind. Experience told him it would be best to try again on Day 2 with an hour’s earlier start.

So he U-turned without another thought, returned to camp, and hiked southward to high ground overlooking a dense bog of alder, dogwood and black spruce. Soon after daylight he spotted a buck moving through the brush, but it never offered a shot.

Not quite two hours later, the buck returned — at least Stephani assumed it was the same 8-pointer with inward curling tips on its main antler beams. One shot from his .30-06 dropped the buck as it crossed a creek 75 yards away.

Four mornings later, Kolbeck was the last hunter to leave camp. Three miles down the road, he drove past as I stood atop a rocky knoll to watch his truck lights round a road bend and disappear. I silently wished him luck and continued hiking toward the stars in Orion’s shield.

By the time Kolbeck reached the landing a few miles away, launched his craft and paddled to the lake’s northern shore, it was after 7:30 a.m. No hurry. No clock-watching. No schedule to fret. That just isn’t Kolbeck’s style.

Before landing, he let his canoe drift parallel to the red oaks rimming the lake’s shoreline, hoping to catch a buck cruising through. When none appeared, Kolbeck beached his canoe and slowly hiked through the aspens, birch, spruce and scraggly oaks to his stand beneath a white pine.

He had found this site in late October when spotting the oaks from the distant launch site, their auburn leaves rustling in the breeze. After paddling over to scout that day, Kolbeck was pleased to find fresh rubs and pawed scrapes among the oaks, which had shed a heavy acorn crop.

Kolbeck’s confidence never wavered through the season’s first four days, even though no mature bucks appeared. He just figured if he stuck to his stand most of the day and paddled back to his truck before dark, a buck would eventually show up to hound the adult does that occasionally came for the acorns.

His plan fell into place that fifth morning. About 8:30, a buck burst into the oaks, vacuuming the ground for the scent of a receptive doe. Kolbeck fired his .30-30 and the 8-pointer collapsed a few yards later. The buck’s timing couldn’t have been better. Kolbeck had all day to take photos, dress the buck and drag it back to his canoe. From there, he enjoyed a slow, relaxed paddle across the lake, arriving long before day’s end. Talk about flex scheduling, huh?

Are You Feeling It?

No matter how or when you reach your hunting area, once there you need determined optimism to succeed. You must believe just one turn of your head can turn your hunt from ho-hum to “holy cow!”

Or words to that effect.

In other words, you need some faith. After all, when hunting the North Woods, you often find few deer trails to keep you motivated. And you’ll seldom see more than one or two deer daily. It’s more common to go a day or three without seeing deer.

Therefore, scout for terrain and habitat features that funnel deer, and look for clues about what they’re eating. Whether its acorns, arboreal lichens, white-cedar fronds or twig tips on aspens and maples, it’s not as easy as watching bait piles, food plots or crops in farm country. Natural deer browse seldom grows in concentrated abundance.

As a result, you must be flexible in how and where you hunt, and stay vigilant. Whether you’re still-hunting through the woods or resting your butt for what seems eternity, you must be optimistic. That might be the greatest challenge of hunting low-density whitetails in Northern forests. It will never remind you of bunnies bouncing from farmland fencerows.

My most memorable whitetail fell on Day 7 of an eight-day hunt north of Fort Frances, Ontario. My plan was to spend that day still-hunting the perimeter of a huge clear-cut. I hadn’t hunted it before, but a light overnight snow would let me know whether it was attracting deer. But by noon I’d seen few tracks and only random rubs on thumb-thick saplings. Things looked futile, and time was short. With my hunt ending the next day at noon, I decided to return to an area where I’d found huge tracks and fresh scrapes in previous days, but only one sighting — a doe that snorted and fled as I still-hunted a ravine inside a 5-year-old clear-cut.

After eating lunch during the 10-mile drive, I planned a still-hunting route to a granite peak overlooking a 10-year-old clear-cut. I’d never been atop the peak, but from a distance I’d seen the cut was thick with young aspens, jack pines and red pines. The trees more resembled brush at this stage in life; few looked tall enough to hide a deer’s upper body.

About 2 p.m. I stood atop the peak beside a gnarly old jack pine, and looked across the gorge and opposite slope. Man, what a view. Why hadn’t I climbed up here the past week? I locked the location into my GPS unit for future reference, and then slid it back into my pants pocket. When snapping the pants button together, the metallic click made me wince.

I froze. If a deer was near, it would be staring my way. After about a minute, I looked left down the gorge and slowly scanned all the young growth on the opposite slope. Seconds later I spotted a deer’s haunch beneath the skyline — at least it looked like a deer’s haunch. I studied it further. That has to be a deer’s haunch, right? And so I raised my .35 Whelen and peered through the 1.75-6X Leupold. Although invisible to my naked eye, a high, tight rack stood out between two small pines 125 yards away. Just below it, a buck was staring back at me over his broad right shoulder. My crosshairs wavered over his shoulder blade and kept wagging and twirling as adrenaline roared through me. Clamping my left elbow tightly to my torso, I steadied my aim and fired. The buck collapsed onto its side, hoofs kicking in futility in the grass and snow.

My friend Chris White had a similar experience in northwestern Wisconsin in 2013. White spent opening morning on a treestand overlooking a boggy meadow behind an abandoned beaver dam. Even though we both killed a deer there the previous November, White had lost faith as noon approached.

“I just wasn’t feeling it,” he said, recalling the endless snow devils pirouetting across the frozen ponds and bog. We have another treestand about 200 yards north, but inside the forest. We’d never killed a deer from that small knoll, but it’s more protected from wind and snow, and we had found deer sign nearby.

By 1 p.m., White was settling in atop the nearby knoll stand. Three hours passed with no visible signs of life. Then, about 4 p.m., White swore he saw something move to the northeast. Seconds later a dark form moved between some spruce. That’s a deer! Antlers dipped and swayed as a buck weaved between brush and fallen trees, walking steadily closer.

White fired when the buck exposed a shoulder between two balsams. The buck bulldozed westward into the forest, disappearing with a crash into the snow and approaching darkness. The slug from White’s 7x57 Mauser put the buck down within 50 yards of its impact.

We congratulated White with sincere admiration. Sure, we were a little jealous of his buck, but we knew it wasn’t a victim of chance. White had earned it through confidence and perseverance. Virtues like those consistently produce more bucks than luck.


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