Days Spent On A Frozen Stand Define Patience And What Deer Hunting Is All About

     

When it come to persistence on a deer stand, Frank Lyon will match his handyman, Leotis Keaton, against anybody.

“Leotis will go off into the woods toting nothing but an old World War I–vintage Springfield .30/06 and a pickle bucket that he turns over next to a tree and uses for a seat,” says Lyon, the owner of Wingmeade Hunting Club in eastern Arkansas. “That’s it–he doesn’t take anything else with him except for some water and snacks. And he’ll stay out there from daybreak to dark unless he gets a doe first. Once when I spotted him heading off into the woods with his gear, I asked Leotis what in the heck he did all day to pass the time.”

“‘Well,’ he told me, ‘sometimes I sit and think, but mostly I just sit.'”

Being able to sit without thinking is an attribute devoutly to be wished when you hunt in Saskatchewan for six consecutive days and spend 12 hours a day in a stand. I know–I’ve done it, and now, as Friday fades, all I have to show for it is a thousand-yard gawk that focuses on nothing and nowhere.

I began well. The anticipation I felt when I climbed into the tower blind that first November morning fueled an adrenaline fire that kept me toasty even when the temperature dropped to minus 10. Toward midweek, however, doubts set in, and I started wondering what it would take to see one of the giant bucks that had lured our party of 10 hunters to the Saskatchewan hinterlands. By then I had a full appreciation for Leotis’s patience and envied his ability to close off all thought and just watch. Let consciousness crumble and bring on the vapid stare.

It’s not that there weren’t plenty of deer around. The second morning, Chad Schearer brought down a 136-inch 10-pointer that had been lured out of the undergrowth by a couple of does. The following morning, Chris Lalik downed the biggest buck of the hunt, a 153-incher that was running does. The next day, it was James Guthrie’s turn. He shot a 146-inch 10-pointer. Then my fellow editor Slaton White killed a 130-inch eight-pointer. He had seen it on the first morning but wanted to wait until he was sure nothing better would come along. Not put off by White’s fickleness, the buck obliged by returning three days later.

Friday evening seems darker than usual. All week, the winter sun has risen coyly off my right shoulder and slinked just above the horizon until nightfall. Days are cold and halfhearted, like me. I realize I’m not going home with one of the giant bucks for which the province is famous. I’ve seen bucks, but nothing I wanted to have my photograph taken with. First, there was the 10-pointer on Monday morning. What a start. Let’s see, tines longer than 8-inch-long ears? Nope. Main-beam bases at least as big around as the buck’s eyes? Scratch that. Antler width out to the ends of its ears? No way. All week I saw bucks that ranged in age from yearling spikes to a 21/2-year-old 12-pointer whose longest tines were only about 6 inches.

No complaints about the number of deer seen. The woods in the 187,000-acre Prince Albert National Forest are dense, which explains why whitetails seem to pop up from out of nowhere. This is no place for the claustrophobic. The thickly packed woods of balsam, spruce, willow, maple and alder create a vertical abatis, and within this confined space, I am further squeezed into a camouflaged nylon shooting house perched atop a metal ladder stand. A comfortable canvas chair sits in the blind, and each day I cover the floor around it with my backpack, coffee thermos, gun case, pee bottle and a couple dozen empty plastic envelopes that once contained chemical heat packs. I have the packs stuffed into every nook and cranny of my clothing, as well as in my backpack with my sandwiches and bottled water.

I’m only a fair shot. I don’t see as well as I used to, but Mo Heisler, the outfitter who has the run of this vast forest, told us that most of the shots would be within 100 yards, and my eyes can handle that. The scoped CVA Omega .45-caliber in-line I have pointed out at the bait pile is dead-on at 50 yards and a couple of inches low at 100 yards. Last year, I took a pronghorn buck with the rifle at 188 yards.

Shooting aside, what I’m really good at is waiting, and being able to wait from dawn until dark is a virtue here. My friend Pete doesn’t wait well. If a buck doesn’t stroll by his stand within an hour or so of sunrise, Pete will climb down and begin still-hunting. I recall one crisp Missouri morning when I was in a stand and suddenly saw deer bounding quietly past me across the creek on which I hunted. Ten minutes later, I caught glimpses of Pete slipping through the woods. You have to tie Pete to a stand to make him stay in it. Even then, he might try to shoot the rope in two.

When I go on hunts where I depend completely on somebody else’s hunting ability–that is, a guided hunt–I often wonder why the guide put a stand where he did. In fact, there is nothing to recommend this particular spot I’m hunting in Saskatchewan, or nothing apparent to me, though I haven’t scouted it. There is no connection with the area whatsoever, which bothers me as much as trying to understand what it was about this place that appealed to the guide.

Of course, I know that a good guide’s keen eyes will see things I can’t. There is something here that made him decide to put out the barley and hay, even if I can’t detect it. There is some hidden rhythm that connects the land to the deer. Maybe there are bedding areas nearby, or the natural browse is good, or the predominant breezes generally blow to suit the whitetails’ genetic sensibilities.

I remember when I hunted with Gerald Crawford, a professional photographer. I always marveled at the number of big bucks he killed, usually from the same stand on top of an Alabama oak ridge. I always rationalized that Gerald saw bucks partly because he had a photographer’s eye for detail. More important, though, he wasn’t corrupted like his jaded companions, who didn’t expect to see much anyway. Gerald always expected to see something, and he stayed attentive from first light to climb-down time.

When the ridge was clear-cut, the place’s secret was revealed to us. Within about 100 yards of Gerald’s stand, a fairly broad gully meandered up the flank of the ridge to the top, where the ridge was at its narrowest. Another gully picked up on the other side. The deer could appreciate the immediate advantage of walking up through the cover of one gully, exposing themselves only momentarily as they crossed the ridge, and then going on their way down the gully opposite. Even with trees covering the ridge, the gullies were there to see, though somehow they weren’t as conspicuous to human eyes.

Here, bucks have all the cover they need in every direction. Still, bucks are killed, albeit not always the bucks that hunters come here for. Thousands of hunters from the States flock to the province each year to tag their own monster buck, and only a relative few return with anything approximating a Boone and Crockett Club qualifier. But many of them are bound and determined to return with something to show for the expensive trek. Nowadays, I’m told by one U.S. hunter who makes an annual pilgrimage to Saskatchewan, 21/2- to 31/2-year-old bucks in the 120- to 135- inch class are the norm for many U.S. hunters.

At the Saskatoon airport, as we were headed back to the States, I recognized one of the hunters who came in when we did and asked how his party had done. The best taken by his group, he told me, was about 128 inches, but everybody had gotten a buck. Nothing wrong with that, but the woods back home swarm with such whitetails.

Having hauled enough chemical heat packs to warm an Eskimo village through a cold winter, I realize the Saskatchewan climate isn’t the big problem. Rather, it is the tedium you feel after spending hours looking out onto a static landscape, where nothing moves most of the time except the magpies and ground squirrels that have made your barley bait pile the center of their universe.

I think about Rose Ann Viozzi, a retired health-care administrator from Pennsylvania, who, a mile or so away, is also waiting. In terms of patience, Rose Ann has everybody beat. Friday is the ninth 12-hour day of her hunt. Rose Ann is focused and doesn’t put up with any guff from the young guides that Heisler has hired to haul hunters to and from the bush on ATVs each day. She was the first one dressed and waiting for the shuttle van to the ATV yard each morning, and if she ever doubted that that day was going to be the day, she never showed it.

After nine years of hunting here, in 2003, Rose Ann downed a 150-inch buck. That same year her husband, Frank, a former medical facility director, shot a buck that scored 184 5/8. A photo of Frank and the buck is positioned in a prominent place on the wall of hero shots at Heisler’s Garden River Outfitters Lodge. Rose Ann isn’t trying to beat Frank, though; she’s just trying to better her own personal best, and everybody admires her gumption.

At the start of the hunt, Frank shot a 125-inch buck the first afternoon and spent the rest of the time piddling around the lodge or shopping in the local towns. Rose Ann won’t settle for anything less than a 160-inch buck, and she is fated to make the long drive back to Pennsylvania empty-handed after all the horrendously cold, monotonous days of waiting. Perhaps next year her latest quest will end, and the new torment of hunting for a 170-inch buck will begin.

Five o’clock. Fifteen more minutes of legal shooting time. This is the part of the story where a giant buck materializes in the fading light and begins to feed in front of me. I hear it. At first there is the sound of crunching snow and cracking brush; something big is on the way. Then wisps of gray and white swirl through peepholes in the wall of gray maples. Finally, the buck steps into the clearing. As he walks toward the barley pile, his head rocks back and forth slightly under the weight of those massive antlers. Then he stops, begins to feed and presents me with a broadside shot.

Except it doesn’t happen. The only sound I hear is the peculiar faint roaring that an empty woods makes. The sky darkens and the day gives up its struggle (though it never had much of a chance anyway).

The hunt ends not with a boom but with the hollow, whispered scraping of boot soles on steel rungs. This is really what hunting in northern Canada is about, or what hunting whitetails anywhere is about, for that matter. The television and video guys don’t show you the downtime, but whom are they kidding?

More often than not you sit and watch still woods in the cold, though it is never so cold that it overwhelms the tiny spark of hope that keeps you warm. If you’re honest with yourself, you know that you have no right to expect that any buck you’re going to see will be anything like Milo Hansen’s world record. But here is what Rose Ann Viozzi and I also know: There is a glimmer, a faint nimbus on the horizon, and you’re like the poor man who spends a chunk of his meager income to buy lottery tickets for the Mega-Million-Dollar Jackpot.

The odds are a trillion to one that you’re going to win a fortune, but you’re not buying probability, you’re buying hope. If it only costs a few dollars or a few long days waiting in a quiet forest, it’s still a bargain.

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