Whitetail Hunting photo

A Buck Apiece: Two Washington hunters paddle out a pair of wilderness trophies. Photo by Lon E. Lauber.

Some wilderness bucks die of old age without ever catching a whiff of a stinky human. That’s because getting into their backcountry haunts by foot is a formidable task. So take a canoe instead. Here’s what you need to know to pull off a successful wilderness float hunt.

A canoe is a canoe, right? Actually, not when it comes to floating for deer. Aluminum is too noisy. Fiberglass is pricey and often needs to be sanded and camouflaged. Kevlar is lightweight but expensive. Royalex is silent, maneuverable, and priced right—it makes the ideal float boat.

Along with paddles and PFDs, make sure you store dry clothes, waterproof matches, a topographic map, a compass, and a flashlight in a waterproof bag. Install bow and stern lines, and get in the habit of tying off the craft when you disembark; you can lose a canoe to a gust of wind in a heartbeat. Bring your rattling antlers and calls, and pack a couple of lightweight stands, too.

Float and Hunt
The basic float strategy (where legal) involves quietly slipping downstream or along a lakeshore, hoping to catch a buck flat-footed as the canoe swirls around a bend. Think safety first. Only the hunter in the bow should be allowed to shoot from the canoe. The stern man’s job is to steer the craft to avoid rocks and snags. He must also choose a route that offers the person in the bow the best opportunity at a shot. It is critical to paddle slowly and quietly. Pad the gunnels and thwarts with a blanket or old carpeting.

As you float, keep an eye out for water crossings littered with fresh tracks. These make good ambush sites themselves, and you can bet they connect to active bedding and feeding sites. Grab a stand and find a good spot to set up.

Look, too, for that magic line between mast-producing hardwood ridges and the security of lowland conifers. Such boundaries are great places to walk up a buck, and float hunting allows you to make several short still-hunts in the best-looking sites.

Or grab your rattling antlers. Clashing horns can be very effective for wilderness bucks just prior to the peak of the rut. Slide your canoe ashore, rattle off and on for no more than a half hour or so, then move on. Bucks are scarce in the big woods, so use your canoe to check dozens of different spots. Play the wind and set up with the river to your back.

Finally, because bucks routinely feed and travel along the edges of waterways, float hunting provides a chance to stage simple, effective hopscotch drives. Just drop off the bow man and paddle downstream a half mile or so. The bow man can then still-hunt toward the canoe, or both hunters can walk slowly toward each other.

And don’t forget perhaps the biggest advantage of a canoe: No matter what strategy you use to bag your wilderness buck, you can use the vessel to carry him out.