Saskatchewan Whitetail, with a Smokepole
by Scott Haugen
The phone rang early one September morning. It was my TV producer asking if I’d like to go to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and try filming a whitetail hunt. When Saskatchewan and whitetail deer are mentioned in the same sentence, it gets my attention.
In a few week’s time—mid-October to be exact—I’d find myself in Saskatchewan, muzzleloader in hand, searching for one of the province’s trophy bucks. In the crisp, cool darkness of the first morning, I walked a quarter-mile of fence line to reach a timbered edge by first light. Hoping to catch a good buck in the field they’d been feeding in at night, only a couple dozen does and a few smaller bucks lingered, while a 135-class buck grazed contentedly. The buck wasn’t worth pulling the trigger on, not in Saskatchewan.
Checking another area, movement along the fence caught my eye. A closer look through binoculars revealed two nice bucks coming down the precise path the camera man and I had walked only minutes prior. For more than 500 yards each of their strides fell in our footsteps as they continued making their way directly toward us.
Diving into the corner of a brush-choked fence, I continued glassing the bucks, trying to estimate their antler size. The deer had no idea we were there. By chance we were fortunate to be in their path of travel as they returned from their nocturnal feeding grounds to their place of sanctuary for the day. An expansive, lowland forest lay at our back, and the bucks had to pass right by us to get there.
Safety off, I readied the muzzleloader for what would have been a simple shot. Then, another buck emerged from a grove of thick brush to our left, intent on making his way to the woods where the two bucks were heading. At 400 yards the lone buck’s antlers stood long and tall above his head. Prancing across a meadow to reach cover, he closed the distance to 250 yards, well out of muzzleloader range.
Without question, this was the biggest whitetail I’d ever seen. Long tines with a main frame extending beyond his white muzzle, he’d measure all of 190-inches, maybe more. His behemoth body resembled more that of an elk than any deer I’d laid eyes on.
Glancing back at the two bucks approaching down the fence line, they were now within range. They continued to come closer, and then cut the corner at 60 yards, offering a perfect broadside shot. The smaller of the bucks would have stretched the tape to over 20 inches with his wide rack, but his lack of high tines shifted my focus to his companion.
Putting the crosshairs on the shoulder of the larger buck, his 140-inch class frame tempted me. But, the vision of the monster I’d seen seconds prior loomed heavy in my mind. It was early in my seven day hunt, and knowing where the giant buck lived, I wasn’t convinced I needed to fill a tag just yet.
“I’m on him,” whispered camera man, Shane Gruber. In other words, he wanted me to take the bigger of the two bucks. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, and several thoughts raced through my mind in a fraction of a second. First there was the time factor. Though I did have seven days to hunt, three days from now, my producer at the time, Steve Gruber, would be flying in to hunt this place, and with only one camera man to share between the two of us, it would have been nice to get one tag filled. Then there was the size factor. Though this buck was not small by any means, he was nowhere near the monster buck we’d just seen seconds earlier. Finally, I’d not yet gotten to see a fraction of the land we were hunting, and who knows what other caliber of bucks were out there.
Processing all of this information in a split second wasn’t easy, but I decided to hold off. Right then, the two bucks busted us, bounded across the field, hopped the fence and melted into the forest. Though Shane wasn’t too thrilled, I felt confident about the decision.
Some of the bucks taken from this land over the years grace the bunkhouse walls where we were staying, showing the true potential of the region. A 26-point non-typical scoring over 270-inches first caught my eye. The 17-point, 190-inch buck, and several 160-inch and greater bucks kept me gawking, hoping that the next monster buck taken would be mine.
All foreigners hunting big game in Canada must have a guide, and on this hunt I was with Elliot Maduck. At the time, Maduck had access to more than 430 square miles of private, agricultural land. In addition, he had an exclusive government lease on 126 square miles of forest land. With so much land, it’s no wonder much of it hadn’t been hunted. It was obvious I’d only get to cover a fraction of it, so I had to choose the spots wisely.
This early in the season the bucks were still hanging in bachelor groups. While some bucks displayed pre-rut behaviors, the majority were intent on amassing weight for the winter. Knowing this, we focused our efforts on locating bucks, not does.
With nightly temperatures dipping into the ‘teens, there were some days the mercury popped above 80 degrees. When conditions are this warm, the big bucks sit tight in the brush during the day, but as the late afternoon temperatures rapidly decline, the deer can become active fairly early.
We hit it perfect, cool mornings and late afternoons, combined with a waning moon phase encouraged deer to be on the move. With each passing sunset, deer emerged from the woods earlier and earlier, setting the stage for a decisive outcome.
Over the course of the next few days, we hammered the territory hard where we’d seen the monster buck on opening morning. We never saw him again. But we did see many other bucks. Several of the deer we saw were 130–140-class bucks. But it was the five 170–200-point bucks I laid eyes on that kept me holding out for a giant.
There was no question, Shane was a little miffed at me for passing up multiple deer every morning on spot-and-stalk missions, and the numerous bucks we watched from treestands during evening hunts. That’s my downfall—once I know a big buck is in the area, I have trouble pulling the trigger on anything smaller.
When Steve rolled in to camp around 9:00 a.m. on the fourth day of my hunt, I was prepared to take a lashing for passing up so many bucks. We sat down to review the footage of the bucks I’d been passing, including two nice bucks that morning. When the camera man finished rewinding the tape, then hit the “play” button, the screen was blank. Nothing. Nervously, he ejected that tape and inserted another that we’d filled with buck footage. Nothing on that tape either.
We went through three hours of tape we’d accumulated up to this point, and only garbled footage of a buck here and there appeared. None of the footage was usable. This is one of those times when filming TV shows for a living makes you question whether you’re in the right line of work.
Here we were in one of Canada’s top whitetail grounds, and we didn’t have one second of footage to show for nearly four days work. The outfitter wasn’t pleased, for he was giving us this expensive hunt in return for a TV show, which would bring him business. The production company also had some money invested in this project.
At this point, there’s nothing to do but stay positive and start over. The camera had simply quit recording and none of the warning signals that should have alerted us to such malfunctions, engaged.
Without hesitation, Steve and Shane hopped in the rental car and headed to town to find a new video camera. “If I’m not back by the evening hunt, don’t wait for me,” Steve offered. “If a big buck comes in, shoot him and we’ll film a recovery.”
It was a long drive to town, so I knew I’d be hunting alone that evening. It was odd, hunting by myself after having a camera man attached to my hip the whole time.
Perched in a tree stand by 3:00 p.m., it didn’t take long for two small bucks to wander by. By 4:15, five bucks had worked by the stand on their way to feed in a green meadow. The air was cool, the shadows from the trees grew long and bucks were moving early. My gut feeling told me something big was going to happen.
By 5:00 p.m., smaller bucks and does raced to the edges of the crop fields along which I sat, and the fact I had a 125- and 135-class buck feeding below me made it be known to other deer in the vicinity that all was safe.
For two hours I watched deer as they continued pouring out of the woods to graze. Not wanting to move for fear of spooking any deer and disturbing the woods, I sat statue-like, trying to ward off the evening cold snap. Deer were more active on this afternoon than any other and I could see several feeding into the middle of fields to the north and east of my stand.
I’m not one for sitting much in stands, as I’m always curious to see what animals may be active around the next corner. Then, a little seven-point that was walking underneath me snapped his head up, turned and faced west, into the timber.
I didn’t hear or see what alerted the little buck, but the fact he turned 180 degrees and remained there for 10 minutes convinced me to stay calm and steady. Finally, the faint sound of a snapping branch caught my attention. The sound came from the timber, but because it was so subtle and so distant, I questioned whether there was a prayer of seeing the source of the sound prior to darkness engulfing me.
Five more minutes crept by, and finally the sound of another snapping twig riffled through the air. This time a gray back slowly prowled through thick underbrush, its head obscured by heavy cover. Each of the deer’s strides was intentionally slow and precisely placed. Though I couldn’t see antlers, the demeanor of the deer left no doubt it was a buck. The question was how big was it? Unlike the younger bucks who came crashing through cover to feed, this one was wary and on full alert.
As he slipped behind a fallen tree, I slowly shouldered the muzzleloader. Anxiety escalated as I waited for the deer to materialize. Finally, the tip of a moist, black nose appeared, working the wind.
Three quick strides sent him in and out of view and safely behind another fallen tree, where he stopped, out of sight. What I’d seen in that brief moment he flashed in front of me left no doubt he was a shooter. Though not the giant deer I had hoped for, his long, even rack and forked eye-guards made him what would be my biggest whitetail to date.
Slowly stepping out from behind the tree, the buck’s 12-point rack appeared more massive than I’d thought. At this point it was obvious the buck was not going to follow the same trails the other deer had been traveling on, rather slip through the thick poplars which offered cover. With darkness only minutes away, the time was now. With a solid rest on the frame of my stand, and given the fact the shot was barely over 50 yards, the outcome was inevitable. Heart thumping, the gun felt surprisingly steady as I applied trigger pressure.
Pushed by a cloud of white smoke, the 295 grain PowerBelt hit the mark. Blood streamed from the crease behind the buck’s shoulder as he went on a final sprint into the forest from which he came. Watching the prized deer crash through brush, he finally piled-up, not 20 yards from where he’d been hit.
Walking out of the woods, I was surprised with the amount of daylight still remaining in the open fields. Midway across the field, I was met by Maduck, Steve, and Shane, toting his new camera. “How big is he?” Steve quizzed.
“How big is what?” I shivered. “I got so cold sitting in the stand I had to get out and move around.”
“Knock it off,” Steve smiled. “We heard you shoot.”
The moment the guys drove back into camp with a replacement camera, I’d shot my buck. The only time in four days I didn’t have a camera man with me, and I kill a whopper whitetail.
In the dark, we filmed a quick recovery of my deer. To be honest, his rack was bigger than I’d thought, dwarfed by his body that would be pushing the 300-pound mark. It was the biggest bodied deer I’d ever taken, and it made his 155-inch rack appear smaller than it really was.
I left camp the next morning, when Steve’s hunt began. He took the time to get the job done and ended up securing a good TV show which later aired on Outdoor America, a show I co-hosted for a season.
When I watched that program, I couldn’t help but recall all the big bucks that weren’t shown due to a camera malfunction. Each day I glance up from my office desk and see that gorgeous buck gracing the walls of our den, I’m also reminded how I need to get back to Saskatchewan and go after one of the monster bucks roaming the woods.