Saskatchewan, 5 – 15 Nov 2009
Thursday afternoon I flew out. Don met me at the airport and we spent the night in Saskatoon visiting my Grandma. The next morning we headed for the farm.
This is my maternal grandparents’ farm. When they retired my Dad’s sister and her husband bought it and use the land for a berry farm and market garden and the house for storage and a place to eat lunch. Kelly and I often stay here when we’re home with Chester – and although it’s starting to show its age it makes a great hunt camp.
Although we were both anxious to get right at it, we decided to get the family obligations and supply runs out of the way first so that once we started we could devote 100% of our time and effort to hunting. We stopped at the farm only long enough to unload our gear before heading to his in-laws and a supply run in town. Things were looking good – on the way into town we spotted several does feeding and bedded in plain view – a good sign considering, although it was day one for us, it was the second week of the season and the local preference for road hunting.
One of our errands in town was to pick up their dog Buffy who needed a sitter for the week. She quickly became our mascot and taking care of her turned out to be almost completely issue-free. But the name “Buffy” just didn’t cut it for a hunting dog. We toyed with “Buffy the Whitetail Slayer” before finally settling on “Killer”.
We arrived back at the farm Friday evening, unpacked and began planning the next few days. The forecast was for stable weather: wind from the SW; night time lows in the negative teens, positive single digits for daytime high as far ahead as they were forecasting. Of course the Captain was thoroughly briefed on all plans and intentions. He agreed that we were friggin geniouses, and the more we discussed things the smarter we got. By the end of the night, the Captain declared that with the arsenal we had at our disposal no white tail stood a chance against us and it was time for bed.
The Preliminaries (7-8 Nov)
We started at first light. The plan was to head north to our new hunting grounds, glass some of the surrounding fields and then head into the bush, check the trail cams which had been sitting since Thanksgiving and from there decide whether to continue exploring the new territory or head back to our usual spots.
The deer were active, which was very encouraging after the disappointment of the previous season. On the way we almost filled one tag with the truck when a 3x3 ran bolted from the bush in front of us. He was nice meat buck: a heavy 3 year old, very narrow spread with long spindly mains and no length to his tines. But it was a buck, which meant that in the first 30 minutes we had seen more bucks than all of last hunting season. We only saw one other truck – empty and parked at the beginning of a cutline (a real hunter, thank God). The does were out in force as well and, best of all since by now it was full daylight, they barely paid the slightest bit of attention to us as we stopped to look them over from the road; all sign indicated that hunting pressure in to date had been virtually non-existent in our area. Even this little fella was relatively indifferent to us, even posing for the camera at just over 200yds before nonchalantly cantering away.
I hope the little guy makes it, but he’ll need to learn not to hang around so close to road in daylight. I’d love see what he looks like in 2 years.
When we tried to get in to get the cams, we ran into our first snag; it had been a very wet fall and a culvert had washed out a mile before the trail. We parked the truck and continued on foot. When we collected the cams we were disappointed to find that apparently they don’t like northern Sask’s weather as both were dead without a single picture despite being left with brand new lithium batteries. Also we discovered that an outfitter was operating in that area as we found nice comfy plywood shooting houses (wimps) and bait piles (cheaters) in a couple spots we had on our hot list.
There was good sign present, but with memories of last year haunting both of us we wanted to get as far away from any baiting as we could. That and the extra mile walk added to our ingress caused by the washout we decided to head back to familiar ground.
There wasn’t a single vehicle track leading into the area we usually hunt. SWEET!!! It is generally a large, fairly open jack pine flat roughly 2 miles N-S and 3 miles E-W, broken by series of low ridges. The sides of the ridges are heavily covered with impenetrable tangles of dwarf poplar, birch, alder and hazelnut. Deer bed on the south slopes of these ridges and, as much as possible, use them as travel corridors. As well the alders and scrub brush provide browse for when hunting pressure makes travelling to and from nearby fields too dangerous. The sandy soil made it not worth anyone’s time and effort to clear it so the area remains Crown land. The grid road running N-S more or less divides this area in half.
When the area was first settled and long before the grid came in the homesteaders cut a wagon road through the bush running E-W crossing the modern road. Through tradition and preference Don and I evolved a mutual understanding: we park the truck just off the modern grid road where the old wagon trail crosses it. He heads west down the trail and I head east.
On Don’s (west) side, this old wagon road is still actively used by a farmer as a shortcut to some land he owns further west. On my (east) side, the only vehicle traffic it sees is the occasional hunter. Since the soil is very sandy most of it never really grew back despite not being actively used for 50 years or so and it serves as a natural travel corridor for anything with two or four legs moving E-W through that area.
Just for insurance, I started by heading in a little further than usual to a black spruce swamp that sits smack in the middle of “my” territory. There was plenty of sign – active trails, scrapes and rubs. Getting a sense of deer movement was a bit tricky (especially with no functional trail cams). The ground in the bush was frozen solid; with a light skiff of half-ice frozen snow in any shady areas the sun couldn’t reach. The main deer trails showed sign of regular traffic right up until it had frozen so it was a pretty safe assumption that they would remain in use since there had been no real pressure.
I set one blind at a spot I scouted last year – right where another hunter and high school friend had dumped a bait pile. Just off the end of the old road two heavily travelled deer trails emerged from the scrub and converged in a small clearing. We counted 3 scrapes around the edge of the clearing – with plenty doe traffic and buck sign I was really excited about this spot and set one of my blinds for a SW wind:
The other was set a quarter mile west of there on a different ridge. This spot has been very good to me over the years. It doesn’t look like much at first: just a single trail crossing the clearing on the ridge-top; but if you snoop around a bit you’ll find that the poplar scrub narrows into two fingers on the ridge slope creating a bit of a funnel effect at the top of the ridge. There are three trails that converge here into 1 to take advantage of what little cover there is to cross the clearing. This was my N or W wind spot.
“The Ridge Blind”
Don had his spots picked on the west side of the road. He hit the jackpot as the fields there still had standing oats and the deer were on them hard. There were rublines all around the field and trails leading to it.
Stands were hung, blinds erected…we were ready.
The Opener (9-10 Nov)
Monday morning I headed to the trail end. I settled into my blind just after 0700 and waited another agonizing 45 minutes for legal shooting light. I’ve never met a hunter yet who doesn’t find this the most magical and wonderful experience - watching the bush wake up. Slowly the pitch black turned to gray twilight. Almost imperceptibly the clearing took form as the sky became more blue than gray with a hint of yellow in the east. Then, as if on cue, right at 0745 the chattering of the squirrels announced that it was now legal shooting light.
It was a perfect opening morning. I waited for the deer to start moving…nothing. By now it was full daylight and nothing had come down any of the trails…WTF? Now the doubts and second guessing began…”I should be on the ridge - there were always deer there in the morning”…”the reason we couldn’t definitively see any fresh tracks was because there weren’t any - all the deer must be over on Don’s getting fat on oatmeal”…I was in the wrong spot again…
The sound of a branch breaking over my right shoulder ended the debate. Squirrels and grouse don’t break branches. Slowly I turned in my chair toward the sound and strained to pick out the source.
Crunch…crunch crunch crunch…thump….snap.
It was a deer…it had to be.
It was coming in now, I could clearly hear every hoof breaking the crust of the snow in the shady little gully. It was close…real close. Why couldn’t I see it? In manner that bordered on the meta-physical I reached out with every sense I had to spot it. Finally, at 30yds, I caught a flicker of movement in the scrub…an ear? No - a tail! There it was…a young doe, alone off the trail and picking her way through the scrub. I had no shooting lane behind me. Nothing to do but wait and pray that she would amble to her right and pick up one of the trails in the clearing, not left and get downwind into my scent stream. She did neither, and continued straight ahead. She reached the clearing and paused, testing the wind – no more than 20yds from me now. One step, another…only one tree in the way now…
”Dear God, please let her take one more step”
She did. Instinctively the rifle was up, the crosshairs settled perfectly just behind her shoulder. It was perfect. Don wanted a good meat deer to free him up to head hunt. Here was a young solo doe, no fawns to orphan, in my cross hairs at 20 yds and completely oblivious to my presence…it was a gimme.
But it was 0915 on the first day. To shoot or not to shoot, that is the question.
“Not today”, I said to myself and eased the rifle down. For the next 20 minutes I watched as she worked her way into the clearing. I can’t get over how slowly deer move sometimes; one or two steps at a time she worked across the clearing, across the first trail, and picked up the farther and headed off to the north.
In that instant I knew that one encounter made my whole trip. Barring grave tragedy or calamity, even if that turned out to be the only deer I saw, it would be a good hunt. I was right. I’m still smiling about that one 2 weeks later.
She wasn’t the only deer I saw that morning. An hour later four more (2 does and 2 fawns came down the trail in front of me. Another chip-shot but, meat hunter or not, I had already decided that I wasn’t shooting a doe on opening morning.
At 1130 I headed back to the truck. Don had similar action – a handful of does and even a young 4x4 come past him. We were all smiles as we munched our sandwiches, tea and satisfied our nicotine cravings.
That afternoon, mostly on a whim, I stump sat at the base of the ridge that my blind is set on. I had barely settled in when I spotted a doe about 75yds in front of me – I just happened to be looking in the right spot when she materialized out of the scrub and started up the ridge. Once again the rifle was up and she was in my crosshairs. Unlike her counterpart from the morning she was on a mission and paused only once briefly. I never really had the chance to debate “shoot or don’t shoot” before she moved on and was swallowed by the forest again.
I was grinning now – it wasn’t even 1500 and already they were moving. As with the morning, she wasn’t the last. At one point yearling doe came down the trail alone. Just for giggles I let out a little grunt on my grunt tube and sure enough here she comes, heading right for me.
At 15ft she skidded to a dead stop staring right at me, tail up and stamping her feet. This was actually a problem as I could hear more deer coming behind her – I had no intention of taking her but needed her to get lost before she spooked the others. There was no chance of me getting the rifle up if there was a shooter with them while she was staring at me no more than a good putt away.
She didn’t hang around long, but her antics obviously affected the others. They came on anyway, but circled around off the trail downwind of her (and me) and came in very cautiously. At about 50yds they emerged - a pair of two year olds, caught my scent and bolted.
Day 2 the forecast was calling for a due south wind so I decided against either of my blinds for the morning and set up in the bush north of our hay field. There are dozens of trails leading away from the field, so which one they’ll use on a given day is a bit of crap-shoot, but the bush is fairly open so if you can find a little hump to elevate yourself even a couple feet you can see most of them. Right on cue just after first light here they come…more does all with fawns in tow so I let them walk. Call me a softie but I just can bring myself to shoot a doe when her fawns are still with her.
It was good to see. Unlike last year we were having no trouble finding deer and they weren’t very skittish. For a meat hunter like me it was just going to be a matter of time.
The Doldrums (11-12 Nov)
Wednesday was a planned no-hunt day. You can’t come back from away and not spend some time with family, even if you’re there to hunt not visit. Remembrance Day service in the morning and mom’s for lunch. It was nice to sleep in a real bed and especially have shower to get rid of 5 days worth of bum butter.
It was now Thursday. Time to get it done. Unfortunately the deer had other plans. I spent the day on the ridge blind but my only action was having a young weasel share my blind off and on throughout the day. `Cute for such a vicious little bugger. I wish I had some pics of him, but my camera was buried deep in the many layers of my clothes and I didn’t want to risk blowing my cover trying to dig it out. It passed the time.
Close…But No Cigar (13-14 Nov)
Friday I went back to the trail end blind. Before leaving on Monday I carved a shooting lane to the rear of my blind just in case. The bush was still. I was in serious self doubt now – it had been 2 full days since I’d seen a deer, something was wrong. I kept telling myself “Stay put. Be still, when it happens, it can happen fast”, remembering the year I took my 140; that morning I saw nothing except for bumping a doe on the way into my stand until 1230 when, what seemed like out of nowhere at the time, (in hindsight there were clues that they were nearby) he chased a doe by me and I got him to stop for a shot. It was all over and done in less than a minute.
I had no idea how prophetic those words would be. At about 1015 I heard a hell of a commotion deep in the scrub tangle, followed by the sound of two deer running full out through it grunting loudly…occasionally I could see the brush moving but never saw the deer. I grunted once for all I was worth, trying to at least catch sight of whatever it was. Instantly the commotion stopped. They were stopped, probably looking my way but I just couldn’t make them out through the brush and against the brown of the bare ground.
I grunted again and I saw a white flag shoot up and a deer (presumably a doe) bounded through the last bit of scrub and over the next ridge 80yds away, followed a second later by another much larger huge deer. I never did see antlers but he was massive and he kept his tail down as he ran. In the past watching deer run across the fields I’ve noticed that the really big bucks keep their tails tucked down when they run. I think the white flag of the others not only serves as warning for other deer – it also decoys the danger away from the alpha animals to lesser bucks and does. Just another one of my pet theories that may or may not be true.
That was the last deer I would see in the field. Sat was a bust, and immediately after leaving the stand I was off to Saskatoon to catch the plane the next morning. Tag soup, again.
Last year it was tag soup and it left a bitter taste in my mouth. I never had a real chance at a deer and all I saw was the odd white flag while moving from one stand to another. I hunted as good as I know how but just couldn’t get them to leave that bait pile. It was frustrating beyond words. I was choked and it was weeks before I could even talk about it without wanting to punch something.
This year was different…I certainly had my chances, several of them, and chose to pass. If my blind had been 50yds to the east or if there had been snow on the ground I’d have probably got a look at that big guy, maybe even a shot.
That’s why it’s called hunting.
During our scouting the first day, not far from the farm we were staying at, we came upon this little piece of inspiration:
I’m already planning for next year.
Epilogue (15 – 22 Nov)
Don stayed on for another week. He had a sense that the rut hadn’t really kicked in yet and once it did, the does hitting the oats would bring in a shooter. It wasn’t to be. He saw no shortage of juvenile bucks and does but nothing even close to a bragging rights buck. On Tuesday my cousin, Curt, came down from Calgary and joined him for the rest of the week. Friday morning, with their hunt drawing to a close and a still empty freezer, they decided to give up on the horn hunting and get some meat. By noon 3 does (Don’s 2 resident tags and Curt’s) were skinned and hanging in the local butcher’s cooler.