Gray Ghosts of the Timber

A bucket list hunt for a North American apex predator ends with a big, fat check mark in the “been there, done that” column.

Gray Ghosts of the Timber

Sadly, American hunters who want to draw a line through this item on their bucket list must jump the border into Canada or travel to one of the three Western states where such nonsense is shunned, with Ontario being a prime destination. Photo:

It felt like salt in an open wound, watching four large gray wolves lope across a snow-packed field as I eased up the gravel road that ran past my nephew’s cabin in northern Minnesota. I’ve seen wolves many times in my home state, but this was different. I had just recently returned from Ontario, where I’d spent three dark-to-dark sits without seeing hide nor hair of the apex canines — even though sign was abundant and my hunting partner had seen several and shot one.

The reason I was hunting north of the border, just a stone’s throw across Lake of the Woods where I grew up, is a sore spot with rural Minnesotans who live in wolf country. Despite a stable population of nearly 3,000 wolves in the Gopher State — almost double the population goal set by the DNR — they are a federally protected threatened species and hunting or trapping them is forbidden. Please, don’t get me going.

Sadly, American hunters who want to draw a line through this item on their bucket list must jump the border into Canada or travel to one of the three Western states where such nonsense is shunned, with Ontario being a prime destination. Ontario lawmakers sensibly view the gray wolf as a renewable resource whose numbers need to be controlled to protect other renewable resources such as whitetail deer and moose. And even with a somewhat liberal hunting/trapping season, the province has an estimated wolf population that numbers between 8,000 and 10,000 individuals.

I watched the landscape modulate from a jigsaw puzzle of snow blanketed agricultural fields, stands of dormant deciduous trees and scattered pines and spruce to Northern boreal forest smattered with rocky outcrops as we cruised north up Highway 71 on our way to Sioux Narrows, Ontario. My hunting compadres — Jason Vanderbrink and Brian Kelvington from Federal Premium Ammunition — and I would be hunting out of Crawford’s Camp with outfitter and owner Matt Rydberg — a fishing/hunting lodge and cabins that has been in his family since 1978 when his parents bought it. His buddy/sometimes partner, Jess Swenson, who owns Swenson’s Bait and Marina, would serve as our second guide. 

Rydberg is basically my Canadian counterpart — both of us growing up in wolf country on the opposite shores of Lake of the Woods (LOW). And he agreed with me that for most of us, living with these incredible predators is a love/hate relationship. He explained that in Ontario wolf numbers fluctuate with the whitetail deer population, and it’s when deer numbers decline that residents must deal with wolves targeting whatever other food sources they can find. And that often means livestock and pets. “Being in a remote area such as this, locals have always had to deal with pets gone missing,” Rydberg said. “Multiple times we’ve had wolves come through and try to get at the dogs right here at the resort.

“But for the locals, the wolf is part of our economy — part of our life — part of the ecosystem — just like the deer and the moose and the bears,” Rydberg said. “But they definitely need to be controlled. Previously, the provincial government allowed hunting wolves on a small game license instead of the tagging system they have now. So now we have fewer hunters and a reduced wolf harvest. And when the wolf population is high, we lose much of our moose and whitetail populations. 

“During the past two years, we’ve had a big drop in deer numbers because of the deep snow and horrible weather conditions,” Rydberg continued. “And those same conditions, and the loss of that food source, have affected the wolf population, too. We’ve found wolves dead from starvation and from mange — from the stress of not being able to get enough to eat. This year, we’re seeing smaller packs and [as an outfitter] you’re trying to do what you can [for your clients] but the wolves are not as abundant.” 

But Rydberg says that in some respects it creates a good news/bad news scenario. Overall, there are fewer wolves, but the smaller packs are easier to target and more frequently come into the baits. “If you have larger packs, they feel more confident on the hunt,” he said. “But honestly, when you get lower pack numbers it seems like you have more success hunting them.” 

The Game Plan

That evening in the War Room (our cabin’s kitchen), Rydberg let us know what we could expect in the morning. He was going to take JV out and I would be going with Jess Swenson. They would transport us by snow machines long before first light and deposit us in hidden ground blinds where we would spend the day, with bait piles of moose, deer and beaver scraps positioned on the ice roughly 200 yards from the blinds. “The weather looks good,” Rydberg said as he left us to our thoughts. “We’re just coming out of an extremely cold, windy snap and now the temps are rising, and the wind is supposed to moderate over the next few days so conditions should be prime. With back-to-back brutal winters we’ve lost 70 percent of the deer population, which means the wolves are hungry and aggressively hitting the baits. Get some sleep. You’ll need to stay sharp tomorrow.” 

Our guides had already done the grunt work. For weeks, they’d been patterning the wolves, preparing the blinds and tending the baits. “Over the years, you figure out their hunting patterns,” Rydberg said about the wolves, “which islands they frequent, or which bays they hunt.” From there, Rydberg says, they look for sites that 1) are within the wolves’ hunting patterns, 2) are off the beaten path so no one is screwing with your stuff and 3) provide a good view of the bait from a well-hidden blind positioned downwind. 

Scavengers such as ravens work as a confidence decoy and for hungry wolves signal that a free meal is at hand.
Scavengers such as ravens work as a confidence decoy and for hungry wolves signal that a free meal is at hand.

Nail Biter Snowmobile Ride

The ride in on the sled in the morning was exhilarating — if not frightening. Even though it was late December, the ice on LOW had suffered from a series of heavy snowfalls and thaws that made the conditions far from ideal. Swenson would gun the throttle as slushy ice grabbed at the snowmobile track, bogging the machine down. Each time the back of the machine dropped a foot in the slush I would fight the urge to jump off. There was little comfort in knowing there was 7 inches of good ice underneath the wet mess — a nail biter ride to be sure.

Swenson dropped me off at the blind with some words of wisdom: “They’re called timber wolves for a reason,” he whispered. “They avoid being caught out in the open during the day and won’t hang around long if they hit the bait. So, it’s important to stay alert.” Jess gave me fist pump for encouragement and gunned the throttle. “Knock one down,” he said with a smile and drove off.”

It wasn’t until first light that I got the lay of the frozen landscape. My small box blind was well-hidden in a shoreline copse of spruce with bait scattered about 150 yards out on the ice. Ravens were already hitting the carcasses and their count increased to a baker’s dozen by the time the sun topped the sawtooth tops of the pines on the opposite shore. My experience hunting all sorts of predators has taught me that scavenging birds provide eye candy that works like a confidence decoy and a dinner bell — that a symbiotic relationship exists that benefits both predator and scavenger. 

Predators respond to the sight and sound of scavenging birds, which, in turn, rely on predators to kill and rip open the hides of larger mammals so they can feed. So, I viewed the raucous presence of the conspiracy of ravens as a good thing. I reasoned that any passing wolves would see the large birds circling or perched in nearby trees and assume a free meal is at hand. And being the dominant predator in the area, they could just walk in and belly up to the buffet. 

As more ravens showed up, I continuously scanned the shoreline, imagining a cautious wolf standing back in the brush out of sight, scoping out the area before committing. Finally, I caught the sight of a canine — a winter prime red fox that cautiously approached the bait. And while the fox provided some much-needed entertainment, I couldn’t help but think that he was being pretty bold if there were any wolves in the immediate area. He was later joined by a pair of bald eagles, and doubt crept into my thoughts. What if the wolves took a moose down just a mile from here? Yes, they might still hit this bait — a week from now.

For Jason Vanderbrink, a trip to Ontario ended in crossing a magnificent apex predator off his bucket list.
For Jason Vanderbrink, a trip to Ontario ended in crossing a magnificent apex predator off his bucket list.

JV Bucket List: Gray Ghost of the Timber 

The day was winding down, but I remained alert, knowing that good things often happen during those wonderful crepuscular hours when targeting predators. And sure enough! Just before sundown, I got a text from JV — Wolf Down!!! I gave a silent Tiger Woods-ish fist pump and a half-hour later Jess picked me up and confirmed that my partner had shot a beautiful gray wolf that had come in alone to the bait. 

Matt, Brian and JV were standing over an Otter snow sled when Jess and I pulled into camp. I smacked JV on the back and gave him an “atta boy,” and ran my hand through the thick prime coat of the large female canine that would easily tip the scale at over 80 pounds. I could still hear the excitement in JV’s voice as he told us about his day in the blind and the wolf encounter. Even an hour after the event, the adrenaline was obviously still flowing.

Vanderbrink: You really have to stay alert and watch the birds! There was nothing but ravens on the bait all day and then just before dark they became agitated and a wolf came charging in out of nowhere, grabbed the bait and was trying to make its getaway. I just couldn’t believe it. It was 4:15 p.m. when I shot that wolf, and I had been there since 7:15 a.m. 

I casually looked over my right shoulder and there she was, coming in on the snowmobile track that we road in on in the morning. I made the shot, and just like that it was over. But, you know, that’s how hunting is most of the time — 99 percent boredom followed by 1 percent of hair-raising action. If I would have been asleep at the wheel for even five minutes, I would have never got that wolf. Literally, in seconds it was over.

This style of hunting wolves is totally new to me. I killed a wolf before in the Yukon, but it was during a moose hunt. We came around a bend in the river and it was just standing there, and I shot it. This Ontario hunt is all about patience, because you’re literally sitting in the blind all day just waiting for a wolf to come.

I was stoked for JV — that he was able to make it happen and return stateside with the ultimate prize. I spent two more dawn-till-dusk days in two different blinds and never saw a wolf — luck of the draw, I guess. I would have to wait to check this magnificent predator off my bucket list. No worries, I would be back to try again. Or better still, my home state would come to its senses and put science ahead of emotion when managing its growing wolf population via a hunting/trapping season.

Rydberg summed up the Ontario experience. “Most of the guys who come up here to hunt wolves have been hunting for years and it’s the challenge of going after an animal that’s on top of the food chain they’re looking for,” he said. “And they know it’s not something they can take for granted. I’ve had guys who came three, four years before they got an animal. I mean you’re not going to see them every day because they’re super smart. You think you’re hunting them, but they’re the ones doing the hunting.” 

Federal Terminal Ascent — The Name Says It All

Only when you stuff your favorite hunting rifle with the best premium ammunition you can get your hands on will you reap the full benefits of its accuracy and terminal performance potential.

OK, you’ve purchased the fur gun of your dreams and topped it with a high-quality scope — the best you could afford. But all of that is for naught if you feed it substandard ammunition. Fortunately, there is no shortage of high-quality ammo options out there for the discerning predator hunter. Federal’s Terminal Ascent is a good example — the ammo maker’s answer to one bullet for all hunting applications. And since I was hunting with the company’s top dog, CEO Jason Vanderbrink — the guy who provided the leadership for the conception and development of Federal’s flagship load — I got a firsthand account of the brains and brawn behind its development.

Federal Terminal Ascent Ammunition.
Federal Terminal Ascent Ammunition.

“You know, whether it’s good penetration, good accuracy, good weight retention or high ballistic coefficient — it’s just hard to get all of the best attributes and put it in one bullet,” Vanderbrink explained. “So, we started off with the Trophy Bonded Bear Claw bullet Jack Carter developed many moons ago, which is still a great bullet for us.” From there, Vanderbrink says, the Federal engineers used their knowledge of various bullet designs to produce a terminal set for a bullet that would produce optimum results across a wide range of diverse hunting applications. Terminal Ascent combines elements from those bullets with modern materials, technology and design into a projectile that kills at varying velocities and ranges.

Federal Terminal Ascent’s match-grade bonded bullet construction delivers deep penetration on close targets, while its patented Slipstream polymer tip helps flatten trajectory and initiates expansion at velocities 200 fps lower than comparable designs for long-range proficiency. The bullet’s long, sleek profile offers an extremely high ballistic coefficient and its AccuChannel groove technology improves accuracy and minimizes drag and wind drift. Its copper shank and bonded lead core retain weight for deep penetration at any range. Terminal Ascent is available in a full selection of long-range hunting cartridges ranging from 6.5 Creedmoor to .300 Win. Mag. 

Said Vanderbrink: “I’ve shot everything from Alaskan moose to Mongolian sheep to mule deer — and now a wolf — with Terminal Ascent and I can confidently say there isn’t another bullet out there that produces better terminal results across a wide range of applications.” — Gordy Krahn


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