My experience targeting the American Whitetail Mature Buck in the Minnesota Northland.
As some of you know my eagerness for targeting mature whitetail Northwoods bucks has grown tremendously over the past several years. I have always had an unwavering passion for whitetail hunting growing up hunting farmland deer in the Bertha-Hewitt area since 1998, where I still hunt there from time to time. Now, the challenge of tracking down these tough, free-roaming deer in the North have me captivated. These elusive animals are like an entirely different breed of bucks all together.
Our hunt starts well before season
Our season started off spending hours upon hours driving around and utilizing the OnX app scouting and searching for prime areas, followed by days upon days rotating game cameras and looking for suitable sign. We put an immeasurable number of miles on by both foot and wheeler to locate consistent activity and sightings leading us to discover at least four different target bucks we were set on to hunt. We were ready to set-up. Although, not too long after, we were quickly presented some significant challenges.
A few weeks prior to opening day we caught the first wolf on camera. Not unusual for our area of course, but soon we started to notice far more wolves than deer. And over the course of the next couple weeks, it became evident that the growing pack had moved into the area we were hunting and hence pushed the deer elsewhere. Now, everything had changed, and it was time to go back to the drawing board and formulate a new plan of action. New plan, new setup, newly regained confidence, we were ready once again.
It was a tough start
Opener rolled around and we started this opening weekend just as we have all the years prior, chugging coffee and full of excitement. The forecast was calling for much warmer temps than we had hoped for. I quickly opted out of my late season gear, thankful I had washed and prepped my Sitka Stratus System just in case as it made for a much more comfortable sit in the seemingly balmy temps. The weekend came and passed with me only seeing a few does and fawns, not to mention the countless number of red squirrels. By the end of that second day, we had learned that two of our target bucks were shot by nearby hunters. Though, we were quick to offer our congratulations and express our happiness for them for such incredible harvests.
Day three arrived, and some new hunters had moved into one of the areas we were hunting. We respectfully decided not to go in, after all, it is public land and there for all of us to enjoy. There goes target buck number three. We were down to one area, and one “hit-list” buck left. And from the most recent photo of him on camera featuring a broad daylight close-up of him, he was our number one! We still maintained a small shred of hope. This was a very promising area, with tall pines, poplars and maples, high ridges on both sides which acted as a funnel, butted up against a vast spruce bog. Not to mention a plethora of hot does around to keep him well occupied. We staged in that area for four days only seeing does and one small buck.
Time to get something in the freezer
The second weekend of season, and not having tagged a deer yet I decided to take our three-year-old son, Finn, down with me to farm country. We saw several deer, and finally managed to harvest some meat for the freezer. Finn was happy to enjoy some time in the stand with me, although I don’t think he realizes that I probably enjoyed it more. Finn and I returned home late that Sunday night, and spent the following two days completing a few unfinished tasks. It was Wednesday morning when I got up early to hit the stand.
I decided to go back to the “funnel area”. It was clear all the does were still around, but there was no new “buck sign”. He hadn’t been back to check his line, no new scrapes, not even a track. My frustration grew and I had a feeling of angst as I was wondering where he may have gone, even more as I wondered what should I do next. The cooler weather had finally set in and we had a fresh blanket of snow. I decided it was time to get my boots on the ground on the search for some fresh sign, or just anything at this point. After walking in the timber for about three miles, I stumbled into an old blowdown area covered with thick swamp grass. Here I noticed a massive bedding area full of fresh deer beds, fresh scrapes, and the overwhelming (and quite unpleasant) fragrance of deer urine. This was it! I hurried back to the truck and raced home to grab one of our Muddy portable stands. I returned a short while later, well before prime-time, managed to get the stand up with little disruption and noise. I was determined to hunt over this bedroom that evening.
There he was… gone!
As I got situated in the stand for that afternoon, I really wasn’t expecting much, but the wind was in my favor at least. Not long after I caught a glimpse of a large bodied deer through a clearing in the tall pines about 100 yards away. Just a glimpse was all I caught; no shot was provided as I watched this deer disappear. All I was thinking was “Crap! That was my chance!” After all, I knew very little about this buck, and this was an entirely new area to me. As my adrenaline ceased, my frustration had turned to understanding and furthermore appreciation. As a hunter, you do not find glory solely in the harvest but more so in the pursuit. You gain a deep appreciation and sense of gratitude for God’s beautiful creation that surrounds you, and realize these animals have become rather worthy adversaries in this unending game of wits and tactics. And with each play and counterpart, your knowledge continues to grow.
The Big Boy in all his glory
As I sat there and reflected on these matters, a doe came running out from the direction that buck had walked in. No more than 10 minutes later, he came out, hot on her trail. I raised my rifle and gave a short grunt in effort to stop him. Though it was plain to see his focus was on that doe, there was no stopping him. I followed his steady trot refusing to let this opportunity to pass me by. Luckily to my good fortune he made a quick move which presented me with the perfect broadside shot. I squeezed the trigger on my Ruger 7mm, and heard the bark of the rifle echo through the pines. He no more than stumbled before collapsing to the ground. The stars had seemed to align in my favor, and I became flooded with emotion, as I realized I had dropped “The Big Boy.” All the impediments leading up to this point had vanished.
I climbed down from the stand and admired my trophy. I realized quickly the real work was about to begin as I contemplated how I was going to get him out. I could have quartered and packed him out, though wearing full gear and knowing we would be losing light soon I knew I would not be able to get the whole deer in one haul. With wolves running heavy in the territory I didn’t want to take my chances on leaving anything behind. Not to mention, we utilize the whole carcass. My mouth began to water as I started to think about Traeger smoked venison ribs, and my wife’s homemade stew from bone broth. To say the drag of this beast was pure hell would be an understatement as I drug him up the valley ridge all by myself to the nearest trail. But I still smiled with every step, grunt, and back breaking tug the whole way out.
What it really comes down to…
This hunt reminded me that effort, dedication, and perseverance will ultimately pay off. Never give up, even when everything seems to be an uphill battle, and you have lost all shred of hope. You can’t expect accolades from little effort, give it your all and keep grinding. The harder you work for something the more you will appreciate that reward. As I close out this 2021 Minnesota Whitetail Rifle Season I reflect on a quote by the late great Fred Bear, “A downed animal is most certainly the object of a hunting trip, but it becomes an anticlimax when compared to the many other pleasures of the hunt.”
Now it is time for me to open the drawing books in preparation for the 2022 season. We hope you all had a great season be it from a freezer full of meat, traditions embraced, or new memories made with family and friends. And best of luck to those who are still out there for this final weekend and into the upcoming black powder season. God Bless!