Hunting Saskatchewan for Giant Bucks

A deer hunter's dream comes true in whitetail paradise.

AT 32 DEGREES water freezes. At zero degrees, uncovered skin will start to freeze, with frostbite and hypothermia being not far behind. Below zero, and all sorts of weird things happen. Get to 20 below, and the tires on parked cars freeze flat'driving down the road is like navigating on square wheels. Gun oil also solidifies at that temperature; if you haven't wiped off your bolt and dusted it with graphite powder, your rifle will be useless. "These are the things you learn when you hunt deer in northern Saskatchewan." You will hear stories, too. My friend Peter, not adequately prepared for the numbing cold, had been dropped off at an unheated shooting house early in the morning'and not picked up until eight hours later. His guide's ears are still ringing. My buddy John from Alabama was so cold that he duct-taped hand warmers around his boots in an effort to keep his toes at least somewhat warm. It didn't work. Nor did my friend Slaton's plan of having a propane heater in his shooting box. The propane ran out after three hours, and he was colder than ever.

"If you're a serious whitetail hunter, and if you have the time and the resources, then you will do this trip. There is no doubt."

Counter the cold facts and stories with tales about Saskatchewan's deer. Milo Hansen's 213 5/8-inch world-record typical whitetail, taken near Biggar in 1993, is the headliner. But there are others, many others. A scan of the Boone and Crockett record book shows a 16-point 193 3/8 taken in 1998 near Witchekan Lake; a nontypical that scored 205 points taken near White Fox in 1997; and a 237 2/8 nontypical taken in 2001 near Turtle Lake. In 2007, the biggest typical to come out of Saskatchewan scored 187 4/8. That bruiser was shot near Meeting Lake. And the list of big deer goes on and on.

What the book doesn't tell you is that, besides having enormous racks, most of the deer weighed 200, 250, 300 pounds, and up. And this is why you go north to Saskatchewan, to go live in a box from dawn to dusk, surviving the cold and the loneliness and the boredom. It's a true, real chance for the trophy of a lifetime. If you're a serious whitetail hunter, a deer junkie, and if you have the time and the resources, then you will do this trip. There is no doubt.

When my buddy Andy Dyess of Jackson, Miss., hunted in Saskatchewan in 2006, he shot a monster that scored more than 165 B&C points. He sent me a photo over the winter, said he was going back in 2007, and asked if I'd like to go. I suspect he knew the answer before I even responded.

We booked with the guiding service that Dyess hunted with and now represents, Winding Creek Guiding. Owned by Wayne Wright and John Joa, Winding Creek'a member of the Saskatchewan Outfitters Association'has an exclusive lease to 150,000 acres four hours north of Meadow Lake, above the Air Force bombing range. A year of planning and packing flew by, and before I knew it I was on Air Canada, headed to Saskatoon. After an overnight and an eight-hour drive north the next day, I found myself in the deepest whitetail woods I have ever been in. Even the zero-degree weather couldn't erase the smile on my face.

WHITETAIL WONDERLAND

Biologists will tell you that northern whitetails are a different breed, a subspecies of Odocoileus virginianus adapted specifically to withstand the brutal winters of the far north. They are the opposite of the small-bodied deer of the Florida Keys, whose diminutive size helps them stay cool in the subtropical heat. Northern deer have big bodies, layered with fat and covered with thick hairs, perfectly suited to hard winters and little food. They are able to live off their body fat for months. Saskatchewan biologists estimate that the average deer density is seven per square mile'just enough for the habitat to support. Compare this to Iowa, which is well known for producing trophies. According to biologists there, deer habitat in that state carries up to 25 whitetails per square mile.

SOME FINE SIGN

The first day at Winding Creek was a Sunday, when no hunting is allowed in the province. To get the lay of the land, and to help Wright and Joa with the chores, we all hopped onto ATVs and drove out to refresh some of the bait piles spread across the property. At one station, No. 31, we pulled out an old shooting house and replaced it with a larger one with sliding Plexiglas windows. I liked the setup there, having noticed some large deer tracks in the snow, and asked Wright if I could hunt there in the morning.

"Absolutely," he replied. "Of course, you might want to see station No. 29 before you make up your mind. The deer have really been hitting the bait there hard."

A note on bait: It's legal to bait deer in Saskatchewan, Ontario, and British Columbia. With so few deer per square mile and such large country, the theory is that you won't see deer if you still-hunt or set up a tree stand over a trail. The land is too big, the herd too small.

Another note: I had never hunted deer over bait before and wasn't sure how I would feel about it. My personal conclusion was that it's little different from hunting elk over a water hole or deer in a thick clover patch. Some hunters might come to other conclusions, and that's fine. Either way, bait is no guarantee of anything, as Andy and two other hunters in camp were to find out.

A BALMY DAY

Monday morning dawned clear, still, and remarkably warm at 18 degrees F. Having packed heavy base layers, Arctic boots, and more hand warmers than one man should own, I felt almost cheated…but not completely. Wright dropped me off near stand 31 at 6:30 A.M., well before dawn this far north. I hiked in to my shooting house and settled down, ready for a long, possibly excruciatingly boring day. Possibly, also, one of the most exciting days afield I would ever have.

Dawn broke slowly. A hazy sun struggled to make its way over the treetops to the east. Soon shadows started lacing the land as the sun rose higher. By 7:15, I had total light.

I thought about what I would do if I saw a big buck that first morning. Should I shoot; should I wait for something bigger? What if he were to be the biggest buck of the week? What if I shot him, and then saw other, larger bucks? I decided I would just have to see what happened. If I saw a buck and wasn't sure whether he was a monster, then I wouldn't shoot. I'd know immediately, I figured, if the type of buck I wanted showed up.

At 10 o'clock, a doe came down the trail in front of me, moving quickly, tail clamped down hard. She didn't stop or even look at the pile of sweet peas, alfalfa, and wheat. Her body language told me she was being followed… and she was, 15 minutes later, by a large-bodied 10-pointer. He passed within 50 yards of my position, a chip shot for my Ultra Light Arms .30/06, and I decided to pass. Back home in New York, he would have been a no-brainer, but he seemed small for Saskatchewan. His rack was high but there was no mass, and many of the tines were on the short side.

Congratulating myself on not going crazy and shooting the first nice buck I saw, I eased back, pulled up my beverage bottle, and poured myself a cup of coffee. A doe and her buck had come by, so it would be quiet for a while. As I raised the cup to my lips, though, I saw movement behind some trees, on the trail the 10-pointer had taken.

This deer was moving quickly, and I had my coffee cup down and rifle up in seconds. Peering out the window, I watched as the buck--a large one--came out from behind the trees 100 yards away. Nose to the ground, he was following the buck and doe that had passed earlier. With a dark-chocolate rack that looked big even when compared to his large body, he was a true trophy, one I had no doubts about. I clicked off the safety, settled the crosshairs on his heart-lung region, and within seconds my Saskatchewan hunt was over. The buck later proved to weigh 290 pounds. His 12-point rack green-scored 1556 6/8. Unbelievable.

Looking back, I was lucky. The weather was warm, and a trophy came by on the first morning. That makes up for all the deerless mornings I have had in my lifetime.

As it turned out, Andy never got a shot that week, though he'd been determined to top his 165 of the previous year and passed on some bucks in the 140s. Two other hunters who showed up later in the week got nothing. Nor did a group of six who showed up the following Thanksgiving week'at least, not until the weather turned. Andy, who stayed in camp that second week, told me that the hunting was slow until an Alberta clipper blew in; then the temperatures dropped to zero and below, a foot of snow fell, and it was as if a whitetail faucet had been opened. Big bucks were suddenly everywhere, and all six hunters shot nice ones, with the largest going to a 15-year-old who was there with his father and brother. His buck scored 158 2/8 and hit 310 pounds.

It's April as I write this, and Andy just called. Said it was in the 80s in Mississippi and he was catching crappies. I told him I was getting ready for turkey season.

"Cassell, I've been thinking," he said in his Southern drawl. "I'm thinking we ought to be making some plans."

He didn't have to say another word.

Trip Planner

BOOK NOW IF YOU WANT TO HUNT THIS FALL
You won't find any services once you get out of Meadow Lake

Qualitydeer hunts in Saskatchewan are expensive. As with everything else, you get what you pay for'in this case, the opportunity to be in the middle of the finest trophy whitetail hunting in the world.

If you want to book a hunt at Winding Creek, do it now. It's a small camp, and it fills up quickly. Accommodations are comfortable but spartan; Wright's home-cooked dinners are excellent. The cost is $5,000 for seven nights, six days of hunting. All meals, guides, and amenities are included. Hunting license, airfare, and rental car to camp from Saskatoon are extra. Visit windingcreekguiding.ca or call Andy Dyess of Pearl River Outfitters at 601-856-0933.

Winding Creek is a member of the Saskatchewan Outfitters Association; if it is booked solid, or if you want to shop around a bit, go to the website soa.ca.

I also know a number of hunters who booked Saskatchewan deer hunts through Cabela's Travel Service: 800-884-9332; cabelas.com/explorations.

Recommended Gear

STUFF THAT HELPS YOU DEAL WITH THE COLD
Hunting in the far north is serious business, and you have to prepare as if your life depended on it'and it may. These are items that you might not normally pack for a hunt in the Lower 48.

1.Base layers: I took Patagonia's heaviest' merino wool, level 4' designed for frigid conditions. patagonia.com

2. Boots: The Sorel Glacier Boot is this company's warmest. Built for extreme cold, it's rated to minus 100 degrees F. Wear with thick socks and liners. sorel.com

3. Parka, coat, pants, hat, and gloves: Vaetrex is the warmest cold-weather clothing I've found. northernoutfitters.com

4. Backup clothing: Take along extra garments, just in case something happens to your first set. I took heavyweight Raven Wear' often the first choice for northern hunters. ravenwear.ca

5. Warmers: HeatMax HotHands and Toasti Toes'take not only the smaller pads for gloves and boots but the larger pads that you can wear over your kidneys. heatmax.com

6. Comfortable seat: Use a FatBoy seat pad'you'll be sitting a long time.huntcomfort.com

--Jay Cassell