It seems fair to say the 2016 firearm deer season was a grind for northern Minnesota hunters. Unseasonably warm November weather may have been a comfort to hunters in stands, but it was good for whitetails, too. During the heat of the day, deer movement was minimal.
We didn’t see a deer on opening day in a tried-and-true location. I did, however, take a nice nap in the noon day sun, waking to the croaks of a distant raven. Napping is not part of my normal hunting routine, but it was so doggone warm that I figured the deer were likely taking a siesta, too.
Unwilling to give up on a favorite place, we returned the following morning. At 10 a.m. my friend Alan Lutkevich of Duluth radioed me to say, “Are you ready to move?” Yes, I was. We still hadn’t seen a deer.
That afternoon I sneaked along a trail in a different location. It was marked with a continuous series of scrapes. Within 100 yards I bumped one deer and, an hour later, another. Both were almost certainly bucks, although I had no more than a glimpse of either of them. Using a bleat call, I played with each of them for 10 minutes or more, but neither approached close enough for a shot. Walking out of the woods that evening, I jumped a third deer in a balsam thicket and heard his antlers clattering in the brush as he bounded away. Things were looking up.
We returned at daybreak the next morning, knowing unless wolves moved through during the night, the deer would still be there. This time, I got the drop on one, hearing its footsteps and the distinctive crack of a broken stick before it was aware of me. The only problem was the deer was out of sight behind some balsam trees. If it stepped into the only opening where I could see it, inevitably it would see me, too. So it goes when you try to sneak up on north woods whitetails.
I waited and watched. Then I waited some more. Even though I hadn’t heard any more footsteps, I was pretty sure the deer was still there. When you do the sneak up on whitetails, you learn they have remarkable patience. Even knowing that, my own patience began to waver. Maybe the deer had moved. I took two, quiet steps forward. Big mistake. I just caught a glimpse of a big-bodied deer bounding away. I then discovered he was standing at a fresh scrape. Once again, the whitetail won the encounter. Hey, if I wanted easy venison, I’d sit in a box over a food plot.
Duty called, (work, that is), so we took a hiatus for a few days. The following Friday morning we were back in the same place. This time, Al got a brief look at a buck as it crossed a distant opening too quickly for him to get a shot. Although we’d spent four days hunting without getting more than glimpses of bucks, we remained optimistic.
Saturday morning delivered a welcome change in the weather—gusty breezes. It is easier to sneak on such a day because the wind disguises your sound and motion. I worked my way through a balsam thicket that was full of fresh deer sign. Al was sneaking up the trail where he saw the buck the day before.
Around 9 a.m. I heard a shot, quickly followed by a second round. It sounded like Al’s .260, provided he worked the bolt awfully fast. Moments later I heard a third shot from the same direction that sounded very far away. Maybe it wasn’t Al. Then my radio crackled.
“I’ve got a pretty nice one down over here,” I heard him say.
Later on, as I helped him drag the buck out of the woods, I heard the full story. He’d seen a buck immediately when he started hunting, but couldn’t get a shot through a thick screen of brush. An hour and a half later, he caught the flash of a deer crossing the trail ahead of him. He thought it was a doe. He waited to see if a second deer was following it. The buck stepped into the trail and stopped. It was now or never. He fired. And the deer didn’t move. He quickly worked the action, took aim at the base of the whitetail’s neck and fired again. This time the deer went down. He finished it off with the third shot.
The buck was a symmetrical 10-pointer with four extra brow tines, bringing it to 14 points. He was correct to describe the animal as “pretty nice.” The drag to the truck was either downhill or level ground. That was pretty nice, too.
On Saturday afternoon, I saw nothing. At the end of the day I reached a secluded beaver pond. I stepped up on the trunk of a massive, beaver-downed aspen to get an elevated view. That’s when I heard soft footsteps padding my way. It sounded like a wolf, which is what it was. The mature animal was coming straight to me, as if it was dog answering a whistle. When it was, well, close enough, I made a slight noise. Wholly ignoring my presence, the wolf veered to my right to get around me. It paused for a moment when it reached my tracks, then silently vanished into the woods. I decided to hunt somewhere else the next day.
We returned to our opening day “hotspot” on Sunday morning. We planned to hunt until 11 a.m. and then head in to process Al’s buck. Once again, deer seemed scarce, but I have faith in this place. About 10 a.m. I saw a deer coming toward me through the blowdowns. When I got a look at its head, I saw two long spikes rising above its ears. Within moments it was 15 yards away.
It’s been a long time since I last shot a spike buck. As this one passed me, a few thoughts crossed my mind. First, this was a relatively convenient location for getting a deer out of the woods. Second, it would be convenient to process two deer at the same time. Third, the young buck would be tender and tasty. By now the buck was walking away. I put the cross hairs on him and when he presented a quartering away shot, squeezed the trigger. It was all over but the butchering.