Nearly two days had passed since Stu Osthoff last saw a deer, and his prospects looked dim as a cold November drizzle drained daylight from the forests of northeastern Minnesota. He figured 45 minutes of hazy shooting light remained when the deer snorted. Four whitetails then bounded away through the beaked-hazel thickets ahead.
Figuring he had nothing to lose, Osthoff raced up the hillside and hopped atop a granite slab at the crest for a better view. As he scanned the maples, pines and poplars, a doe burst past him to his right, its lower body shielded by a ledge between them.
Osthoff pivoted while shouldering his rifle, just in case. Seconds later a 10-point buck trotted after the doe, and crashed onto the lichen-coated granite when Osthoff's .270 slug shattered its spine.
He briefly admired the height and symmetry of the buck's antlers, then tagged and gutted it in the dying light. After dragging the buck several yards to thick cover, he lashed it to a jack pine to prevent wolves from dragging it away overnight. He then flicked on his headlamp, locked in the location on his GPS unit and started the 2-mile hike to our truck.
Ninety minutes later Osthoff shared his story while cooking venison stew atop the woodstove inside his wall-tent. We decided to get a full night's sleep and retrieve the buck at first light. As we ate and basked in Osthoff's success, the drizzle turned to snow, its weight slowly silencing the canvas roof that had been rippling in the wind.
We knew many places harbor more deer, and most offer easier access and warmer quarters. But we also knew no region with whitetails offers more satisfaction and elbow room than the public forests of northeastern Minnesota, as well as those in northwestern Wisconsin and the western half of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Osthoff has hunted the forests around Ely, Minn., for 30 years and kills most of his bucks by still-hunting. Our small group also uses portable treestands and improvised ground blinds, sometimes sitting dawn-till-dusk along bogs, forest meadows and terrain funnels. Forest deer move throughout the day, and we've often shot good bucks at mid-morning and later.
Even after three decades, Osthoff still feels privileged to hunt these forests of the Canadian Shield, which carefully screen those who hunt them. Many hunt the country once, but far fewer return. These big woods require patience, fitness and an enduring faith that enough bucks will survive the winters, predation and maturing habitat to make hunting worth the time, travel and expense.
"You have to like to wear boots and walk," says Tom Rusch, an area wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Tower. "North Woods hunters deal with low deer numbers, multiple predators and fewer hunters, but that's what draws them here. If we had 40 deer per square mile, we'd have a lot more hunters and probably less chance of seeing deer in older age classes. Hunters here like that balance."
Here's a look at some of the Midwest's-and North America's-largest, wildest and most publicly accessible forests for hunting whitetails.