October 04, 2010
Pennsylvania resident Steve Minder is addicted to hunting whitetails in Saskatchewan, Canada. On his ninth consecutive trip to the province with Rockridge Outfitting, we caught a bruiser buck making a rare mistake. It dawdled too long in an open grain field and was more concerned with the hot doe it was following than retreating to the safety of the forest before legal hunting time arrived. One well-placed shot from Minder's 7mm Browning folded the 17-pointer in his tracks. When Steve lifted the 175-class buck's head from the stubble and gazed at his dream-come-true, he remarked, "Well, no point in coming back, this is the biggest buck I'll ever shoot."
My quick reply was, "Give your head a shake, Steve-o. Don't get me wrong, that is a great buck, but bigger ones are here to be had, so don't give up!" Two years later, he found out I wasn't lying when he dropped a giant 6-by-7 that grossed more than 204 inches.
Every trophy whitetail hunter is aware that Saskatchewan is a legendary destination that produces some of the largest-bodied deer in the world sporting massive, dark-colored racks that can make even veteran hunters go weak in the knees. As a life-long resident and long-time hunting guide in this province, I've helped make some big buck dreams come true, and I've also heard stories of hunters who went home empty handed and disappointed with hunts they dreamed of ever since they picked up a gun or bow. I'd like to offer some valuable advice to up your odds of success if Saskatchewan is on your list of places to pursue a giant Canadian buck.
Non-residents of Canada are allowed to hunt only the northern portion of the province, commonly known as the "forest fringe" region. This is where vast reaches of farmland give way to boreal forest (referred to as "the bush" by residents), comprising thousands of acres of government-owned Provincial Forest where travel is mainly on gnarly logging roads and rudimentary trails. ATV's and Argos are often employed as the only way to gain access to hunting areas, and most first-timers are in awe at the size and expanse of this mainly uninhabited region. Much of the terrain is considered relatively flat and featureless by most hunters used to pursuing deer in river valleys or small farms with woodlots back home. While whitetails do occupy Saskatchewan forests almost to the NWT border, there are few deer outfitters operating in the northernmost reaches of the province due to lower deer numbers and lack of roads.
When you see "the bush" for the first time, you will understand why baiting deer with grain, alfalfa and minerals is a common hunting method. In the relatively flat terrain and extremely dense Saskatchewan cover, deer trails are seemingly everywhere. Common hunting methods like setting up at funnels and pinch points is extremely difficult in this type of terrain. That being said, savvy outfitters look for preferred travel routes, ridges or favored rutting areas to locate their baits to attract and concentrate deer where hunters can get a good opportunity for shots at animals that roam a very large area.
The number of outfitters is strictly controlled by the government and each of them is allocated a particular area. The number of non-resident tags allowed to each is determined by the quality of the habitat their area contains and to some extent the size of the area. All the non-resident hunting areas were allocated by the late 1980s. Many outfitters have areas that are located only in the Provincial Forest, and the most common hunting method there is to maintain vigils near baits from dawn until dark. A variety of stands are used, from pop-up tent and elevated box blinds to natural ground blinds.
Some outfits that are located in the eastern portion of the province have areas that comprise large tracts of forest, but their hunters are also able to hunt huge farm fields that draw deer from the forest to feed heavily on lush alfalfa and various grain crops. It is common in these regions to hunt the field edges during the mornings and evenings and retreat to baits located in the forest for mid-day hunts. Some guides often enjoy great success calling and rattling bucks for clients when the timing and weather are favorable. Many forest fringe outfitters will also use common hunting methods like setting up near busy scrape and rub lines or well-traveled routes leading to or from feeding and bedding areas adjacent to the crop fields.
Deer season runs from September first until the end of the first week in December. Archery and muzzleloader seasons for non-residents run through September and rifle seasons in Provincial Forest regions start in October. The majority of non-residents hunt in November and early December to take advantage of increased daytime deer activity during the various rut phases and colder weather. Some great hunting can be had during the early seasons, but hunters should be aware that deer are less likely to visit bait sites at that time due to a proliferation of food in the fields and the bush. It is possible to pattern deer feeding on crops in September, but if those crops get harvested, the outfitter's scouting forays can prove to be all for naught if the deer's travel patterns are disturbed. Once October rolls around, deer are more likely to frequent baits often (and in daylight hours) as they feed heavily in preparation for the impending rut.
Hunting the peak of the rut in mid-November is a great time to intercept bucks traveling the fields, as they often throw caution to the wind while seeking or chasing receptive does. Be aware also that this can often be a tough time to encounter bucks feeding at the baits but they will visit them to check for hot does. Big bucks will often cruise right through a bait site without stopping and shot opportunities can be fleeting. For this reason I often tell clients that when hunting over bait they should bring along quality binoculars -- and leave them in the truck. Every deer should be looked over with your scope. Most baits are located within 125 yards of the stands so ultra-high power scopes and big magnums are not a necessity for this style of hunting. If your hunt is booked where long shots on fields are a possibility, then a longer-range set-up may be preferred, but for hunting over baits a good-shooting .270 or .30-06 provides more than adequate firepower even for the largest-bodied Saskatchewan bucks. I'd rather see my hunters carry an accurate .25-06 than a big magnum caliber they don't shoot often enough to be proficient.
Post-rut hunting in early December is often preferred by experienced northern hunters because the bucks commonly feed heavily after the rut winds down. The downside of hunting late in the season is that the rut in Saskatchewan can be very competitive and deer that often push 300 pounds can have some vicious battles that often result in broken antlers.
Regardless of what point in the season clients choose to hunt, my job as a guide begins in April. Make sure you ask prospective outfitters about their spring scouting excursions. If they say "Huh? Spring scouting?" you may want to keep looking. Spring scouting is the most important thing on my agenda as a guide. As soon as the snow melts I start hitting the bush, looking for rub and scrape lines that were created the previous autumn. Many of my client's biggest trophies were killed in areas I found in April. Rubs on trees with diameters upwards of five inches are a sure sign that at least one hawg was running that region the previous fall, and you can bet I'll be setting up there when the deer season approaches. While I do occasionally find some whopper shed antlers on these scouting missions, I am primarily seeking heavily used scrape and rub lines.
Some people claim that hunting deer at baits is "cheating" or "too easy". Further investigation will likely show that these nay-sayers have never tried it. This hunting style takes patience, stamina and mental toughness. Sitting quietly in one spot from dawn until dark for days on end (often in sub-zero temperatures) is a lot tougher than it sounds. Proper clothing and footwear is essential to success; if you can't stay warm, you won't enjoy the vigil and be able to maintain silence and alertness. Mature bucks will often stand back in cover for a long time watching and listening for danger before showing themselves near bait. A cold hunter will not be able to maintain the quiet stillness necessary to be successful. Bring plenty of chemical hand and foot warmers; they are invaluable tools for the northern deer hunter. Many recent clients have fallen in love with the heater body suits, claiming they are worth their weight in gold for enduring freezing Saskatchewan weather in comfort.
A few years ago, I guided a 76-year-old Californian during a late November hunt. Don Turner had been hunting whitetails seriously for more than 20 years but had never killed a buck breaking the 170 mark. He informed me that what he really wanted was a 180-plus and was determined to hold out to the end of his hunt and go home empty-handed if necessary. I asked him, "Is that 180 gross or net?" His quick reply was "Nets are for fishermen!" When I told him that my Spring scouting had revealed a new area that appeared to be a transitional travel route between a couple of feeding areas about three miles apart, he was all for giving it a go. I opted to locate a bait about mid-way, in a narrow strip of trees that bisected a large clear-cut. Deep, pounded scrapes and huge rubs on 8- to 10-inch diameter trees revealed that at least one giant buck was inhabiting that area the previous autumn. When giant fresh rubs appeared in mid-November I knew that this was where Turner's patience would be tested. It was not an area that held a lot of deer, but we both agreed the big buck sign on display there was worth the wait.
On the first morning, well before daylight, I accompanied Don for the half-mile hike to the blind. The weather was brutally cold but he assured me he didn't want a "noisy, smelly" heater and he would be fine in his King Of The Mountain wool suit and Northern Outfitters "moon boots." He said he would call me on the radio if he shot one, otherwise, "See ya at dark." He passed up a solid 160-plus buck (that he never saw again) early in the morning and saw a few respectable bucks. And so went Turner's week; some days he saw several bucks and at least one day was excruciatingly slow, with very little deer movement. Over breakfast on the last day of his hunt I asked him if he wanted to try a different stand. He informed me, "Every minute I spend there means I'm a minute closer to seeing the buck that made that giant rub." Everyone in camp admired his determination.
My radio was depressingly quiet all day until it crackled to life with just 10 minutes left in legal hunting time. It was Turner informing me that he had just shot a buck and it was down for good after stumbling just a few yards. When I got to the blind he seemed rather glum and informed me that when he got home he was going straight to the eye doctor because "he sure couldn't judge 'em like he used to." At first I was crestfallen but then figured he was likely sandbagging. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw what lay on the forest floor, very close to one of the giant rubs that had given away his presence in this "unlikely" area. The great 11-pointer would later stretch the tape to a gross score of 182 3/8, and I'm sure that Don's grin would have lit up the dark Saskatchewan night if the batteries had died in my flashlight