The mercury had dipped to minus 20 degrees by the time my brother, Bob, and I left the warmth of his pickup and trudged down the power line toward our deer stands. I tugged the bill of my cap down tight to deflect the brisk north wind and tried to remain positive about the 4-hour vigil we were about to undertake. Our traditional sit on the power line during the second morning of the northern Minnesota whitetail opener invoked equal measures of dread and anticipation. It was a given we'd see deer. This expansive swath provided a veritable whitetail throughway—deer coming off agricultural croplands on their way to bedding areas deep in a sprawling swamp dotted with stunted tamarack and spruce islands. The bone-chilling cold provided an equalizer. Sitting stoic for hours in the brutal temperatures took all the mental optimism and physical gumption we could muster.
My trusty bolt action 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, the reticles 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 coveralls and tried to think warm thoughts.
My fingers and toes were numb, and I was shivering uncontrollably when a buck and doe appeared on the far edge of the power line an hour later, the first deer I'd seen that morning. Predictably, the huge 10-pointer waited in the security of the brush while the doe meandered across the opening. Once she was half-way across, the buck broke cover and wasted little time crossing the expanse of the power line, eager to make the far side where he would disappear like a ghost back into the dark timber. To say I missed one of the biggest bucks I've ever laid eyes on would be a gross understatement in two respects: This buck was a total toad, and my shot didn't come remotely close.
Nowhere is hunting gear put to a more stringent challenge than under severe weather conditions—what I fully expected to encounter when I boarded a plane for an early November Saskatchewan whitetail hunt more than 10 years after that fateful morning on the power line. 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 a high-quality, weather-resistant Swarovski scope.
If there's a Mecca for whitetail hunters, many would agree it's Saskatchewan. Expansive swamps and dark forests adjacent to lush agricultural crops coupled with minimal hunting pressure produce conditions conducive to growing big bucks. In fact, three of the top 10 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—its camoed passengers with the singular goal of tying their tag to a heavy-horned Saskatchewan buck. I sat next to a gentleman from out East, and we spent the 3-hour flight from Minneapolis exchanging hunting tales. In fact, the entire plane was abuzz with similar conversations—you could almost feel the anticipation.
Once on the ground, I hooked up with hunting buddies Dean Capuano from Swarovski and freelance writer David Hart for the 3-hour drive to the Overflow River Outfitters lodge, where we were greeted by owner Gerald Melnychuk. Gerald has been outfitting for 17 years and guiding since he was a teenager. First he gave us the good news: We'd have hunting access to about 10,000 private acres and a half-million acres of Crown land. Then the bad: Unseasonably warm temperatures and a lack of snow had the big bucks laying low.
Flipping through the camp's photo album produced instant buck fever, and reinforced why so many dedicated whitetail hunters make the pilgrimage north each year. But Gerald was quick to temper our optimism with a dose of reality: Huge bucks in the 160 class and above are rare creatures, even in Saskatchewan. And hunters must be patient if they're going to tie their tag to a deer of that caliber, if at all.
I figure I fall somewhere in between quasi big-buck hunter and avid meat hunter. Back home I would consider all three bucks I saw the first morning to be shooters—solid 130-inchers. But I'd decided from the get-go I would take my time and savor the Saskatchewan experience. That would mean holding off on bucks I'd normally shoot—at least early on in 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 not taking a deer.
The Waiting Game
Be forewarned: If you're not a big fan of sitting on stand for extended periods of time—make that 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. And oftentimes the temperature will be way below zero. Gerald says "staying put" is the most effective way to hunt whitetails in his area because the landscape is so vast. Baiting for deer, which is legal in Saskatchewan, helps to concentrate the animals. "It's better than having hunters wandering all over the woods," he said, "and a lot less dangerous." Gerald says if hunters dress for the cold it generally isn't a problem.
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 5-day hunt, I rattled in six bucks, one from 500 yards away.
On day No. 3, Gerald's son Mark moved me by Argo to a desolate island in the middle of a huge 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. Body-wise he was one of the largest 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 he was a 130-class buck or a 150 whose body dwarfed his rack.
The Witching Hour
It was the witching hour—the final 60 minutes of my 5-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.
After a quiet morning, Mark moved me to a honey-hole 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 1/2-hour 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 melting back into the underbrush. With about half-hour 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 main beams. I wasted no time in 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 tickled the bridge of my nose got my attention. 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 heard Mark's ATV in the distance and climbed out of the stand to have a closer look at my Saskatchewan trophy.