It was 3:48 a.m. before my sanity completely collapsed. Someone down the hall had gotten up at 2:21 a.m. for a mid-sleep bathroom break. Two guys in bunkroom No. 5 had been having an all-night snoring competition since 11:07 p.m. The furnace was rhythmically igniting every 17 minutes, desperately trying to keep the frigid November air of northern Saskatchewan at bay as I struggled to find comfort in my bunk.
My memory wandered back to October, where the Minnesota archery season had been particularly cruel. There must’ve been extra iron in their diets because I couldn’t make a whitetail tip over—no matter what I did.
And now, 900 miles away, it was happening again. My mind drifted back to the shot I’d taken 10 hours and 31—no, 32 minutes before. How could a 300-pound whitetail simply vanish into a few inches of snow, anyway? The shot looked good and felt even better. But no tracks, no blood—nothing.
I stared blindly at the ceiling and went through everything one more time.
34 Hours, 26 Minutes Before The Shot:
I casually fingered through the Overflow River Outfitters brochure in the backseat of the Ford Excursion as Swarovski Optik’s Dean Capuano pressed northward, determined to beat the “estimated travel time” from Saskatoon to Hudson Bay provided by Google Maps. Scattered blocks of scrub brush sparsely dotted the open prairie as the miles rolled past—a terrain completely different than that of which I expected—and the padlock of my gun case in the rear of the vehicle jingled annoyingly with every bump the truck encountered on the frost-beaten highway.
“Are we there yet?” I questioned, drooling over a photo of some guy from Ohio holding a Boone and Crockett whitetail. Dean answered my inquisition with a quick glance in the rearview mirror and an ill-attempt to suppress a smile. My backseat companion, Rob Lancellotti, provided a bit more insight.
“Gerald told me to expect a 4-hour drive from Saskatoon, and once we reach his mailbox address, continue another 8 miles out of town.”
“Eight miles past the mailbox?” I questioned. “Are we trying to get lost?”
“That’s the point,” Dean smirked.
27 Hours, 17 Minutes Before The Shot:
Gerald Melnychuk, owner and operator of Overflow River Outfitters, possessed more knowledge about big whitetails than the other members of camp combined, and he never seemed to tire of my endless questions.
“I know you have all week to hunt,” Gerald explained, “but if you see a buck you like tomorrow, don’t hesitate. The weather is forecasted to get warm later in the week, and the big bucks are likely to hang low if that happens.”
“But if I shoot a deer tomorrow, my hunt’s over for the remainder of the week,” I said, more thinking aloud than asking a rhetorical question.
“Shoot a shooter,” Gerald replied. “No matter what the calendar says.”
11 Hours, 48 Minutes Before The Shot:
Gerald’s son, Mark, deposited me in the bush a bit after 5 a.m., gave me some brief direction and a handshake, and quickly drove away.
As Mark’s diesel hummed down the trail, I knew it would be well into the evening darkness before I saw those headlights again. I smiled at the solitude, then turned to follow the winding two-track into the pre-dawn darkness.
Despite the sub-freezing temperature, I was carrying my parka by the time I reached the box blind—my one-room castle in the middle of a Northern paradise. A winding creek circled the back of the ground blind, and the view of the on-setting sunrise was nothing short of breathtaking. It’s gonna be a good day.
14 Minutes Before The Shot:
The old doe wandered back out of the birch-dappled willow thicket for the umpteenth time at 5:01 p.m, and just as she had been on every other appearance throughout the day, that old doe was alone. I’d spotted a beautiful young 10-pointer wandering about earlier in the morning, perhaps searching for this lovely lady, but that had been it—one young buck, the old doe and nearly 12 hours of uninterrupted waiting.
I eased back in my seat to stretch my legs, taking special care to pamper my throbbing tailbone, and grabbed the binos to scan the brush through the quickly approaching darkness. 5:03 p.m. Seventeen minutes of legal shooting light left.
And then there were two.
Honestly, I thought it was a fawn at first. I caught a glimpse of a white throat patch through the thick willow bushes behind the doe, then an outline of an ear and then a pair of eyes—eyes fixed on every movement made by that browsing doe. So I waited. Whitetail knowledge check: Doesn’t a fawn usually walk in front of the doe? I think so. And it’s now 5:12 p.m. Does a fawn have the discipline to stand completely stationary for nearly 10 minutes? I don’t think so.
Quietly placing the binoculars on my quivering knees, I propped the rifle on the sill of the shooting window and cranked the scope up to 10X.
I can still remember involuntarily gasping for air when the buck cleared the brush. I knew the whitetails in this part of North America were bigger than most—which was exactly why I was in Saskatchewan—but the sheer size of his body was overwhelming: He looked like a 4×8 sheet of plywood with legs, antlers and attitude.
I set the rifle back in the corner and grabbed the binos again, bracing them against the sill once more to offset my trembling fingers. Be sure he’s a good one, Luke; it’s only Monday, Day No. 1. Range check: 126 yards. Back to the riflescope. I think he’s a 10—but how long are the tines?
Back to the binos. Steady. One, two, three …yup—10 points. And then it happened: He stood broadside and turned his head, looking to something far off over my left shoulder, exposing forked brow tines.
I slid the binoculars to the floor this time and eased the rifle to my shoulder, now silently applauding the buck’s reluctance to move. He remained stoic as I braced the rifle against the wall, clicked the safety off, forced my screaming heart out of my ears and back into my chest … and tickled the trigger.
At the shot, the recoil from the .300 Rem. Ultra Mag. drove me deeper into my chair and the muzzle flash cluttered my vision. Without taking the time to chamber another round, I quickly focused back on the buck’s location, and there he was—gone. He wasn’t standing there, wasn’t laying there and wasn’t running away. My heart began to crawl back up my throat.
37 Minutes After The Shot:
The darkness was blinding as Mark and I scoured the ground for a sign. “You’re sure you hit him?” Mark questioned.
“No,” I replied, flipping a leaf in search of that single miraculous drop of blood that would give me some sort of direction. “Like I said, the buck simply vanished. Gone.”
And then Mark said it—the phrase I knew was coming but so desperately didn’t want to hear: “There’s little we can do tonight. We’ll be back in the morning with more help and better light.”
10 Hours and 32 Minutes After the Shot:
And so it continued. I was sure the waiting I’d endured with this buck was going to cause a complete lapse of sanity—or worse, premature balding. How could a 300-pound whitetail simply vanish into a few inches of snow, anyway? No tracks, no blood—nothing.
I swallowed my emotions and stumbled out of the bunk. The snoring, the furnace, the emptiness—I couldn’t take it anymore. I tip-toed down the hallway, dressed and sauntered outside.
The stars were as bright as I’d ever seen them, and my quickly condensing breath formed frost on my goatee. Sitting in a snow-kissed lawn chair outside the cabin, I tried to force sleep.
My insomniac stupor was interrupted an hour later by the arrival of the cooks. Mark and his brother, Dean, would be along shortly.
And Then There Was Light
Dean, with Mark and me in tow, drove the quad directly to the spot the buck was standing when I pulled the trigger.
In attempt to give Dean my best rendition of what had happened, I started from the top. “The buck was standing right about here when I shot. He must’ve gone to the left because of the thick brush and …” But Dean wasn’t listening; he was heading in the opposite direction, already too far away to hear a word I said. Gee, thanks for the help.
Mark looked at me and smiled. “Your deer is here.”
“Man, I hope so.”
“No, your deer is here,” he stated. I focused my attention back to the ground in search of signs of a hit. Nothing.
“Hey American, got your tag in your pocket?” Dean boomed from within the timber, like a voice from the heavens taking a moment to smile down upon me.
“Yeah,” I said, eyes still glued to the ground. I struggled down the tangled deer trail Dean had so quickly traversed. Sixty yards from the quad, in the complete opposite direction of where I thought the buck had gone, stood Dean next to my deer.
The shot was perfect—blood trickled from a neat little pencil-sized hole directly behind the buck’s shoulder.
His body was as massive as I remembered, and he sported a beautiful 10-point frame with two symmetrically forked brow tines.
“How did you …? I mean—I thought he went …” My mind was incapable of processing such a quick and glorious end to hours of emotional struggle and despair.
Dean’s eyes locked on mine, and without a word he pointed upward. There, still perched on a branch directly above the expired buck—silhouetted against a crystal-clear sky—was a single, jet-black raven.
“I saw him sitting there when we pulled up on the quad,” Dean said. “Ravens follow death like rutting bucks follow does. I think he’s waiting for a meal, but we beat him to it.”
I reached down and caressed the chocolate tines. “Yeah,” I replied. “We sure did.”
Swarovski’s Z6: Agility Meets Attitude
The ticket to success while hunting bruiser bucks in Saskatchewan lies directly on the shoulders of high-quality optics. The semi-open terrain demands a riflescope that’s fully capable to handle both extremely close and extremely long-range shots, and the high potential for inclement weather requires that the scope be extremely durable, too. Enter Swarovski’s Z6 riflescope, which compromises nothing when it comes to precision and ruggedness. I became intimately familiar with the 1.7-10X42mm model, and though I used it exclusively to hunt whitetails, the versatility of the Z6 would make it a great companion for hunting everything from brown bears in the tight quarters of an alder thicket, to pronghorns on the wide-open Western plains.
From The Inside Out
6X Zoom: Swarovski’s 6X magnification range is the first of its kind to be offered in a riflescope. At its lowest setting of 1.7X, the field-of-view spans 76 feet at 100 yards. At the highest magnification setting of 10X, the field-of-view covers 13 feet at the same distance. This allows for maximum field-of-view, and maximum clarity and precision—all in one. When that old doe wandered out at 5:01 p.m., I had the riflescope set at the lowest magnification power, maximizing the field-of-view while scanning the brush behind her for a buck. And when I saw the throat patch of white hair, I zoomed in to 10X for the shot with one swift, fluid and lethal adjustment.
The interior light-transmission optical system provides much needed edge-to-edge clarity while retaining a stable reticle position. In other words, the interior lens design provides the hunter with crisp images, whether attempting to take a shot in the bright sunlight of midday or in the dim light conditions on the fringes of legal shooting hours. Even though I had no intention of shooting a doe, I was eyeing her up in the crosshairs when she appeared at 1:16 p.m. on that sunny afternoon, and I could see her as crisply and cleanly then as I could when she led the buck within shooting range later that evening. Plus, because the reticle is located in the second image plane, the size of the crosshairs remained constant while I magnified the image of the buck from 1.7X to 10X, giving me a crisp aiming picture.
I had the rare misfortune of drawing a window seat directly above the cargo loading bay of my 737, and watching those gun cases being “loaded” into the aircraft made the chicken sandwich I had for lunch churn in my stomach. However, I was pleasantly surprised when my rifle was dead-on at the camp shooting range. Swarovski’s four-point recoil spring system ensured the intricacies of the scope remained constant bump after bump during travel, and shot after shot from the recoil of the .300 Rem. Ultra Mag. Confidence is everything in the whitetail woods, and the Z6 riflescope provided me with plenty of it.