A Generalist’s Approach To Canadian Whitetail Hunting
It’s 0 – dark thirty as you climb out of your nice warm blankets and begin to prepare for your days hunt. The weather reads a crisp -5C (23F) with a promise of snow in the afternoon as you eat a big breakfast at camp and prepare your gear for the day. 5 giant bucks have been caught on game cameras in the area and while there are no guarantees in deer hunting you’ve got your eye on the mammoth bodied atypical that has shown up every morning since before the rut, grazing his way past the game camera or chasing does without a care in the world.
You have put in the time with your bow. Every group is dead on out to 30 yards and you are ready for this. Hell, you were born for this. These thoughts consume you as you climb into your tree stand. Perfectly placed to give you perfect views through the trees where you have cut perfect shooting lanes and you know in your bones a buck of a lifetime is going to appear.
A gentle doe bleat floats across the air, the machine gun staccato of antlers clashing in what sounds like a Cervid civil war. Volleys of sound bounce through the trees and then time stops. Your atypical makes his first appearance of the day… First, he cautiously lifts his nose to test the air, and then he takes a few tentative steps into the clearing, turning broadside and then slightly quartering at 20 yards.
Deep even breaths to slow your thundering heart. As the big buck’s head disappears behind a tree, your bow comes up…. Wait…. A few more steps and his sightlines are blurred, time to come to full draw… Another few steps, you’re able to release your arrow and…. Buck Down. It reads like a deer hunters fairy tale but every fall, for thousands of hunters this is a deer hunting reality.
Deer Through The Seasons
During the winter, post rut deer start looking for 2 things: Food Security and Shelter. Canadian winters are cold and, in some years, so extremely cold that survival becomes a major concern for deer. While hunting season is closed, it is important to identify feeding locations and good shelter. This gives you a strong idea of how deer populations will be affected in the spring. Are the does able to find enough food for them and their fawns? Are the bucks able to find enough to replenish energy spent during the rut to fatten them up for the truly lean months of January and February where temperatures can reach -30C (-22F) or below and snow depth can measure in feet instead of inches. When looking at shelter, thick brush provides cover from predators while dry sloughs and heavy canopied old growth provides shelter from wind and snow.
Predation is a major concern during the winter months as a high wolf or coyote population will negatively impact deer numbers as they pick off does and fawns as well as bucks, weakened from little forage in the dead heart of winter.
When spring hits, deer are feeding on leafy greens and spring vegetation. In the search for nutrient rich foods whitetail home ranges increase and does begin to give birth to their fawns. A good hunter knows how important it is to keep a close eye on herds occupying their hunting areas. These tiny fawns are a strong indicator of the health of the deer populations as in fruitful years many does will give birth to twins. In lean years where predation is heavy and food is scarce, does will often only give birth to a single fawn.
It’s always in your interest continue to keep a close eye on deer movements and population throughout the late summer and into early autumn as hunting season gets closer and while you may have an intimate understanding of the herds on their land, whitetails are still wild and so hunting can still be a challenge and a trophy deer is always an accomplishment.
Whitetail hunting is always an adventure. It’s challenging, exciting and while deer populations climb and fall over the years, the reason why so many trophy class bucks are taken every year boils down to one thing – the hunt itself. Expect to hunt from dark ‘til dark. The key to Monster Whitetails is to hunt hard, hunt long and hunt frequently.
When To Hunt
Early season hunting (Beginning of September through early October) means pre-rut so expect to see groups of three or more bucks still hanging around together, feeding near dusk and exhibiting minimal territorial behavior. That said leaving the rattle bag at home would be a mistake. As the season progresses and the velvet starts to come off, sparring picks up between bucks as they jostle for top dog position.
While in the pre-rut period, scent is just as important as during the rut. Whitetails have almost superhuman like noses and while most does aren’t ready to breed there are still many that have gone into heat early. This is why it’s a good plan to fire up an estrous scent stick or two maybe mixed with a honeysuckle stick to pique a buck’s interest. This is super effect through October as the rut moves closer and closer, and bucks grow more intolerant of each other as their minds turn to the pretty young does running through their territory.
Mid-Season through the rut means Muzzle Loader season and then Rifle season in most game hunting zones. In central Canada, the rut truly starts at the beginning of November and is at its peak usually during the second week of rifle season (generally the third week of November).
Hunting the rut in the Prairies often means cold weather so prepare by investing in heavy winter weight camo and the best cold weather boots you can afford. Expect to spend the entire day outside so dress accordingly and you’ll end up with great memories of beautiful scenery and massive bucks instead of frozen toes and uncontrollable shivering.
During the rut bucks abandon their suspicious and careful nature and will chase does through the night. Setting up near bedding grounds and feeding spots will be the strategy most outfitters will run with. Because bucks are at their most territorial, rattling and grunt tubes are super effective during this time. Most hunters will rattle for up to 30 seconds and then stop for minutes. Rattle long and rattle often. Get on the rattle bag and get aggressive for as long as you can sustain. Break for 5 minutes, hit the grunt tube and then rattle again. A knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out fight will pull bucks from far and wide. Especially important for mature bucks that tend to hang up and will not commit, constant and consistent rattling is just one trick that fills tags time and time again.
Of course, entire books can (and have) been written about how to pattern and hunt whitetails, however these tips have worked for me repeatedly. Through early season archery to late season rifle, hunting whitetails is more than a hobby, it is a way of life. The result of a successful hunt can be seen, heard and tasted at countless deer camps through deer steaks, laughs and tales of adventure and hunting the Prairie Provinces can offer up a bounty of trophy sized whitetails, and trophy sized memories as well!
By Noel Linsey