Hunting > Whitetails

Waiting for a Whitetail

If you hunt whitetails in Saskatchewan, odds are you will sit on a cold stand all day long. Be prepared, because waiting, as they say, will be the hardest part.

7/26/2010

I never really thought of cold as a patriotic thing, but I find that I can only relate to the American way of measuring temperature. I know what zero degrees Fahrenheit feels like. How the snow squeaks when you walk on it, how the air stings your lungs those first couple of breaths and how a cloud of steam will form around your face on a still day. I know at that temperature ice will form in your beard, pins will prick at your fingertips and it’s a darn cold time for waiting.

Here in Canada they use the Celsius scale, and no matter how hard I try I never can quite understand what it means. At their zero degrees, most don’t even worry about a jacket. (Canadians are a hardy breed.) They talk about 32 degrees (our freezing point) being too hot to do anything except pant. In my mind that’s the temperature needed to make the ice that goes in my drinks. (A glass of something smooth and amber might make me pant, but for a much different reason.) If it hits 50 degrees we Americans think about taking off our jackets, while they call an ambulance. It’s all very confusing.

Even this zero-degree day of hunting is subject to international attitudes because according to the guy on the Internet who did the calculations for me, the Canadians would say it’s minus 17.7777778 degrees. Somehow, saying “I sat in a deer stand all day at minus 17.7777778 degrees” doesn’t carry the same romance or have the same rhythm in the language as the American version.

The odd thing, though, is that zero (or minus 17.7777778, as you prefer) is a bit of a heat wave for November in Saskatchewan. This had the locals scoffing at our bundled clothing, snug sacks and heavy boots. But then they are not sitting for 10 hours straight every day in unheated blinds, so let them scoff; I am going to be warm.

Warm, however, doesn’t necessarily mean happy. I don’t mean to imply that I am unhappy, as happy is a relative term. I am hunting, not mowing my lawn, so in that context I am very happy. But when it comes to hunting styles, this is not what makes me most happy.

I am not a passive-approach kind of guy, and sitting on a stand all day is not my preferred hunting method. I am more of an action junky who likes to make things happen. I want to move, explore, spot-and-stalk, track, still-hunt and on these cold days do something—anything—to keep the blood flowing. For me, sitting still on a stand all day is much more of a challenge than climbing a steep mountain for goats or tracking a buck for miles in the snow. When it is cold, even by international standards, that challenge is compounded.

But if you hunt whitetails in Saskatchewan, odds are you will sit on a cold stand watching a bait pile. In most circumstances you will do that from “can’t see to can’t see,” which is how an Indian guide I once had in British Columbia described a dark-to-dark day.The bait piles are deer magnets and will attract whitetails from miles away and concentrate them in that location. Some will criticize this as non-sporting, but that’s simply how it’s done here. If you are going to hunt Saskatchewan you must adopt a “when in Rome” attitude and learn to accept this hunting style.

The plan is that sooner or later, a buck will be overcome with lust and try to grab a doe off the bait, or simply get hungry. If the hunter is alert, he shoots the buck and the guide’s legend grows larger. Sometimes it’s the monster we all lust after. But, typically it’s a younger, more impulsive buck. However, in Saskatchewan the deer grow big and even a modest buck is often the biggest whitetail a visiting hunter has ever seen. Thousands of hunters every year invade Saskatchewan and depend on this system to deliver a big whitetail buck. With high success rates on big antlered bucks, clearly it works. So, that’s how you hunt in Saskatchewan because what works doesn’t change, unless of course politicians decide to get involved.

For the guys who are good at sitting on a stand all day, like my friend and Nikon’s PR guru Jon LaCorte, this is the best path to trophy bucks. He loves to sit, watch and wait, and is often rewarded with a shipping bill to get a big set of antlers back to his New York home. This year was no exception, as Jon was the first of our group to connect. He took a 160-plus-class buck the third day, shattering the ice (which may or may not form at 32 degrees, depending on nationality).

Jon loves sitting on stand, but I do not. My body is geriatric in appearance, which hides the tyrannical toddler that is its true identity. When I try to sit still my body turns to its inner kid. It throws a tantrum; it wiggles and squirms, goes limp, wants a drink, is hungry, has to go to the bathroom and keeps moaning in a whiny voice “is it dark yet?” In short, my body, when ordered to sit still, is like a puppy with attention-deficit disorder.

But I love a challenge and that’s why I am here. The stubborn Irish in me says, “I can and will do this.” No pain, no gain, right? Like I said, it’s hunting, which is my passion in life, and way better than yard work, which is not. But it “ain’t easy.”

I have been doing this for more than 40 years and would love to have back all the hours spent in a deer stand. Not that I regret a single second, but I could use the time. Anyway, I have developed some mind games to cope with the boredom. I have been blessed (or cursed, it’s hard to tell which for sure) with a mind that runs wild at times. So I often sit and let it do that, just to see where it will go. I have had some marvelous adventures while sitting in deer stands and have also explored black holes that are best kept hidden from sight. Both pass the time.

Normally when I am on stand I am using my binocular, searching the landscape for any hint of a deer. Some of my best bucks have resulted from this “working-the-glass” approach. On my office wall are several I have found back away from the activity, hiding in the shadows and waiting for something to break their way. Glassing passes the time and turns waiting into active hunting. But from my first blind there was nothing to see. It was a ground blind with one open window. It overlooked a path cut through the high grass to the bait. Nothing was visible to either side or beyond. It was like looking down a tunnel all day long.

Every few hours for the first several days the same buck came to the bait. It was a young, wide 10-point that would score well into the 140s. But it was early in the hunt and I knew if I shot it my chances for one of the legendary monsters of Saskatchewan would diminish to zero. As the days rolled by I found I wasn’t even picking up my binocular when the buck showed up, which is a bad sign and an indication that it was time to move.

This morning, the last of my hunt, I entered a new blind with a renewed sense of purpose.But by mid-afternoon I find myself lagging. My sandwiches were gone by 9 a.m., and I spent the rest of the morning sipping the excellent soup the cook packed in my lunch each day. I had eaten all my dried fruit, clipped my fingernails twice and counted every branch on the tree in front of me 10 times. I had twiddled my thumbs until they were raw and bleeding and explored all my mind had to offer.

My butt is numb and my knees insulted. My brain is wounded and bleeding, my mind has shut down and the little kid inside my body, exhausted from the effort, has decided to nap. I am sitting in the “zone” between consciousness and sleep that any experienced stand hunter learns to develop. My mind is turned off, but my eyes are watching. Which is a good thing, because it happens fast.

A buck suddenly appears to my right. It stops 50 yards from the bait, looks at the doe feeding there for about a second and then decides this is a very bad idea. It turns and starts out of there with that fast walk of an embarrassed buck trying to look cool after a major screw-up. I grab my rifle and get it out the window, just as I have visualized 1.7 million times in the past five days. (Counting passes the time.) The buck goes through a gap between the trees about 100 yards in front of me, which opens a small window of time to shoot. As soon as his shoulder is in the crosshairs the gun fires. I know it is a little bit high, but I don’t have time to correct. I spot the buck even farther to the right, running through another small, snow-filled opening.

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