Deer Hunting As Good As It Gets

One of the oldest and largest private forest reserves in North America, Kenauk no longer operates as a private club but is managed for public hunting at surprisingly affordable rates.

Field & Stream Online Editors

"Deer country doesn't getbetter than this!" said Roy Knights. As far as we could see, hardwood-covered hills rose above softwood bottoms where careful forestry had produced strips of new growth sheltered by stands of older trees. Deer tracks scuffed the road wherever we looked; ruffled lines of heavily used deer trails wound through the woods.

We had entered Kenauk Reserve just north of Montebello, Quebec, halfway between Montreal and Ottawa. One of the oldest and largest private forest reserves in North America, Kenauk no longer operates as a private club but is managed for public hunting at surprisingly affordable rates.

The reserve includes a 104-square-mile block of forest near the northern limit of whitetail range. Within its boundaries are ranks of mountains cloaked in red oak and beech, more than 70 lakes, and miles of free-flowing streams. On 13 of the lakes are isolated cabins accommodating four to 12 guests. Each cabin commands more than 2,000 acres of prime deer range on which only the cabin's residents may hunt.

Kenauk's deer population averages 12 to 15 deer per square mile. Hunters annually kill 60 to 70 deer in the reserve during Quebec's two-week, mid-November season. In 1997 the Kenauk harvest included 54 bucks and nine does. Sixty-two percent of those bucks carried racks of 6 points or more, and 10 bucks dressed out at more than 200 pounds (the largest, a 13-pointer, weighed 230 pounds). Twenty-five bucks carried racks of 8 to 10 points.

Surprisingly, hunting at Kenauk costs about $100 (U.S.) per day, per man, with a three-day minimum. It's a deer hunter's dream come true.

Roy Knights and I were driving into Kenauk to meet two friends from Montreal. We would hunt for five days from a remote cabin with the ignominious name of Chalet Muskrat, a clean and comfortable four-bed abode overlooking a wide bay on the Kinonge River.

We had just arrived at the chalet when Siegfried Gagnon spread a map on the table. "Look at this territory!" he declared, his finger tracing our hunting zone. "We have a range of mountains, a couple of lakes, miles of riverbank, and a great big swamp to hunt. We all ought to have bucks on the pole by tomorrow night!"

Unlike most Kenauk hunters, the four of us are still-hunters. "That's the best way to get the big ones," explained Bill Nowell, Kenauk's recreational director, when we checked in. Traditionally, Kenauk's club members had hired local men to drive deer. "That's the way it was always done here, and many of our hunters and guides still like to hunt that way," said Nowell. "Trouble is, the older, bigger bucks have learned to avoid the drivers."

We had arranged for guides on the first two days to acquaint us with our territory. Michel and Daniel appeared at our cabin before daylight, eager to do a good job. "We will put you at the major crossings, then we will chase the deer to you," Michel insisted. We said we preferred to still-hunt.

"That's okay for later," Michel said. "But first we must have a chase."

Reluctantly, we agreed to one drive.

When I slipped in to the spot where I was to stand, I found two does already there. I settled silently against a tree and watched them paw for acorns.

Half an hour later they were still feeding 40 yards away. Suddenly, the heads of both does went up, and they stared intently uphill. In the distance I heard our drivers barking. As they approached, the deer switched their tails and moved-not away from the barking guides, but uphill toward them-before vanishing into a small thicket of evergreens. When the drivers came into view, the deer held their position as the barking guides passed on either side. As soon as the drivers were below them, the deer emerged and began pawing for acorns once more. No deer were driven past any of our stands.

"No more barking," ordered Siegfried. "We just want you to show uus some good places, and we will separate and hunt quietly alone."

Carrying sandwiches, maps, and compasses, we filtered out into the remote regions of our territory. Where three ravines came together and a maze of deer trails mingled, I found 13 scrapes and more than a dozen rubs. Tracks, droppings, and beds were everywhere. I settled against a stump overlooking the area from the downwind side and waited until it grew too dark to shoot. Two spike bucks and two groups of does came by, but no big bucks showed.

The next day snow began to fall. I was on a mountaintop near a big trout lake where deer trails were so wide and rutted they could have passed for bridle paths. I found a small cedar swamp and settled down, waiting for a buck to come in seeking shelter.

After an hour I saw a good-looking buck cross an opening. He was headed my way, but then he disappeared into the heavy cover and never reappeared at my end of the swamp. I circled until I picked up his track and followed him, hoping that he had bedded down. Two hours later, more than a mile from where I had taken the track, the snow picked up, making it difficult to see far ahead, but the buck's track was very fresh.

I had just rounded an outcropping of ledge and was moving through open hardwood when I saw the buck skulking below me less than 100 yards away. As he turned broadside to cross a brook, I yanked the cover off my variable scope, screwed it up to 4X, and mounted my rifle. The single shot was muffled by the falling snow. A fat 6-pointer dropped clean.

The day after the snowstorm the skies were gray; deer were on the move everywhere. By noon Roy had tagged a nice 8-pointer that he had shot through the neck as it lay in its bed.

"I could move quietly in the snow," he explained. "He never knew I was there." Earlier, Pierre had taken a 6-pointer similar to mine. That left Siegfried to trudge the snowclad hills alone.

His shot came the fourth morning, when a nice 6-pointer moved out from a thick stand of fir and turned to look back.

On our last morning, when we all had our deer loaded and were ready to leave, Bill Nowell stopped by to tell us that Tony Merlo, a hunter in another Kenauk cabin, had killed a very large buck and needed help getting it out of the woods. Merlo is an older man whose health limits his ability to get around in the mountains.

He had already missed two bucks and was so discouraged that the previous afternoon he had told his hunting partner, Werner Sapp, that he didn't want to hunt anymore.

But Werner, who already had a good buck hanging, had seen the tracks of a big deer not far from a logging road. He convinced Tony to go there and stay until dark.

"He sat down and 10 minutes later shot this thing," Werner told us, pointing to the great buck that lay in the snow. The deer was a wide-racked 11-pointer that dressed at 228 pounds.

"I found a good place to sit near the edge of the swamp, and right away I saw him coming through the woods," Tony said. "The first thing I saw was his rack, then I saw the deer. He was huge." Tony took the buck with a single shot at more than 100 yards.

"You're lucky you didn't miss this one, too," Werner told Tony. "Your heart couldn't have stood that."

"My heart never felt better," Tony replied as we dragged his enormous buck out of the woods.