THE SASKATCHEWAN WHITETAIL HUNT

THE HUNT THAT NEARLY KILLED ME

saskatchewan1Is that time a year to feed my obsession for whitetail. Here I am back on the target putting 30 to 40 arrows a day. Bow hunting is a discipline and you better take it seriously, you can’t never practice too much.

This year’s hunt is going to be a special one, something I have never done before and something I might never do again. I committed to a hunt that somewhat went against my ideals but I had good reasons to do it. No regrets, just my usual questioning and wondering of what is right and what is wrong. It didn’t matter at this point, I was going and I was pretty excited about it.

It all started when Rod Zullo moved next door from my photo studio.  Rod is a sculptor and does bronzes of wildlife, mostly related to hunting and fishing. Is not the art I am usually drawn to, as I prefer less realistic, more conceptual art but Rod’s pieces are pretty magic.  His work is realistic with an abstract stroke and his sensibility for the animal form and movement is absolute perfection.

Rod Zullo Working on his most recent elk.

I kept seeing him work through his glass door and then one day, curious about his sculptures, but also about his whitetail trophies hanging on the walls, I walked in to say hi.  “That’s a beautiful sculpture and by the way, where did you get that buck?”.  I just threw it out there to see if I could get some info out of the guy.  On the scale 1 to 10, in regards to hunting intensity, knowledge and passion, Rod is a 12.  But he is not shy about sharing his wealth of knowledge. “Canada” he told me. Before I met Rod, I believed I knew quite a bit about hunting but now, after talking with him in the years that came and went, I realize I have a lot to learn.

Rod became the guy to go to when I have hunting questions but even better he has become my hero when it comes to cooking game.  I have learned to cook and eat parts of the animal that usually get tossed or turned into burger like ribs, flank or just simply the fat.  Well cooked elk ribs are to die for and fat is not gamey like people kept telling me.  It’s flavor.  I learned to make a deer roast, so good, “that will make her take her clothes off”, as Rod likes to put it.  “You must pluck your birds” Rod kept telling me.  I always just skinned them.  The difference between eating a plucked bird or a skinned bird is like the difference between a juicy piece of meat and piece of cardboard.

Then this fall, after we had talked about hunting and eating game for a few years he told me that there was a space to fill in the Saskatchewan hunt, and that I could possibly work out some kind of trade with the outfitter Rod works with.  We figured out a deal and next thing I knew, I was packing my bags.

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I loaded up my truck and started my 12 hour drive.  I have mixed feeling about hunting with an outfitter.  How can you truly feel like an accomplished hunter when you have someone else make all the decisions for you?  You are only as good as your outfitter is and your only responsibility is to trust them, have the patience to sit on a tree stand from sunrise to sunset, stay warm and have the skill to shoot straight.  Nothing more, nothing less.  One of the hunters was bragging about being a better hunter than others, I am not sure why and how he came up with that idea.  The outfitter is doing the hunting for you, how can you call yourself a hot shot if you kill a big buck under the guidance of someone else?

Before agreeing to a guided hunt, I researched if I could do it alone, it was a no go.  Only guided for non residents says the Queen.  Another moral issue I had, is that in Saskatchewan they are allowed to bait deer and that’s what we would be doing.  Bucks during the rut don’t eat but does do and that’s what you are trying to attract with the bait.  Girls, girls, girls, the more the better.  Isn’t it always about them for them all boys?  People don’t use the word horny for no reason.  The horny, big horned buck will follow.

I agreed to hunt for the horny buck, even though there is something that doesn’t feel quite right about changing the course of nature with some bait and having someone choose where and how you hunt.  But I really wanted to experience it anyways and decide later if it was for me.  Mostly I wanted to see one of those beautiful, wild Canadian whitetails that are genetically so perfect.  Every place I stopped in Saskatchewan had huge bucks hanging on the walls.  Beautiful trophies I salivated over.  I was already thinking where my monster buck would go at my house, the perfect place.  But what I didn’t know, is how wrong I was in my expectations and how mentally hard and painful it was going to be and that the hunt was nearly going to kill me, not physically but in my head.

DAY 1

The guide dropped me off at my tree stand after driving an ATV through the thickest forest I have ever seen.  The sun still below the horizon, willow branches slapping us on the face, riding on a trail I couldn’t really see.  “Watch your eyes” he said as he pressed on the throttle.  “Slap, slap, slap.” willow branches whipping me on the face.  After he dropped me off, he whispered to me one last time.  “I will pick you up at dark, don’t get off the stand and walk as you will get lost, trust me.  If that big black bear comes to the stand and tries to climb it kick him on the face”  He spat some chew at my feet, by my scent free rubber boots, and was gone. The path he came from vanished.

The only time I have been charged by a bear was a black bear and I wondered if I should have been concerned.  These woods are so quiet you could hear yourself breathe.  Chipmunks sound like heavy footed animals and every time they moved I believed the big buck was coming in.  Or was it the bear? Sunrise to sunset, could I really do it? Not that I had any other choice.  I was there and I was there to stay if I liked it or not.  No you can’t move and if you do, you better do it slowly.

Rod told me “Is not as hard as you expect, there will be so many deer that time will go by faster than you think”  Three hours went by and all I saw was that chipmunk.  No bear, no deer.  The action must happen all at once.  Deer pouring out of the woods, I started imagining.  Nothing.  I was counting the hours and then the minutes.  Three more hours went by, nothing again.  My ass telling me it didn’t like it.  I tried to sit differently, it hurt more.  I wished I didn’t have such a bony ass.  More time went by, I know exactly how much.  1 hour, 24 minutes and 45 seconds, I started counting the seconds.  Now my ass was so sore that I didn’t even know it was there.  No deer.

Right before dark a doe and a fawn came out.  So wary and alert that I couldn’t even blink. “Oh, they are staring at me”.  No blinking, remember?  I had never seen deer so jumpy.  How could I even think about shooting a buck with a bow?

DAY 2

Day two was the day not to forget. As soon as the guide dropped me off two does with fawns moved in.  I wondered if the horny buck would be interested in single mothers.  These two does rotated throughout the day and were as tense as a piano string.  They totally knew I was there or maybe they just smelled human scent in the bait.  I didn’t want to blow them so I stayed still, wondering, if a buck came in, how I could possibly grab my bow, get up, draw, aim and shoot without being detected.  I can see why people don’t bow hunt around here.  Was I really sticking out like a sore thumb?  Chipmunks making havoc nearby, distracting the does for seconds.  I needed that distraction.  I needed to blink.

“If a doe runs away in a hurry, get ready, the buck is coming.”  One of the hunters told me.  Still no buck.  Then an hour before dark it all happened.  My first buck.  A spike and behind him a small 4×4 with a thick rutted neck.  The two started butting heads.  What was the spike thinking?  He was totally under gunned.  One of the does and fawn came in and started feeding. Then they bolted.  I was filming the little bucks when sure enough a nice, mature 5×5 came in after the single mother.

I timed my movements as he moved through the trees.  My heart exploding in my chest.  Put away camera, pause…  Get up, pause…  Grab the bow, pause…  Engage the release, pause…  Breathe deep, pause. He walked right underneath the stand, I was ready but I was unsure.  Rod at my house pointed at the biggest whitetail I ever shot and said  “You see Paolo, this is not what you shoot in Saskatchewan, you wait for the right one.”  Was he the right one?  It was last light and hard to clearly see. This was my first mature Canadian buck and their bodies are 100 pounds bigger than our Montana deer.  Is he as big as any buck I could shoot in Montana?  I just couldn’t tell.  Will I disappoint everyone if I let that arrow fly?  He was about to go through the last shooting lane, I drew my bow and got ready to shoot.

DAY 3

I never let that arrow fly, I just didn’t know if that was the buck I should have taken.  Later, talking with the guide and describing the deer in detail, including how far its antlers stuck out outside of its ears, the approximate length of his g1, g2, g3, we came to the conclusion that the buck was at least a 150 inch deer.  Not a monster, for these neck of the woods, but plenty of deer for me. I had just passed on the buck I wanted.  Inexperienced with Canadian deer, and the fact that their bodies are so big that it morphs their antlers, I made the wrong decision.

I was now sitting on day 3, hoping that the buck would come back.  This made me think of why and how I became a trophy hunter.  Just the word “trophy hunter” makes me cringe.  I would like to say that I just hunt for meat but it would be a flat out lie.  I kill animals because I am a meat eater and I do believe that if you eat meat you should be able to kill, field dress and butcher what you eat.  But if that was the only truth, I would grab a rifle, drive a few minutes out of my home town and shoot a doe in probably a day.  But instead, I have enough of a fascination for antlers, to drive 12 hours and sit days on end for that perfect buck.  It’s the honest truth and I am ashamed to admit it.

I tried to understand why so many of us hunters have this desire to kill a trophy and I have one theory.  For me it’s a very instinctual need, so instinctual that it’s difficult to fully grasp.  I believe that for our ancestors, killing a big male animal, meant bringing back more meat, which translated into survival.  We have become so detached to this basic need, to kill to survive, that we forgot the number one reason why we kill.

I asked Rob why he likes to shoot a trophy.  Being a sculptor he likes to hold the antlers in his hands.  I can relate.  I love the way they look, not necessarily to touch them but to admire them.  Every trophy hanging in my house is a memory and I stare at them daily, I can never get tired of it.

Another friend told me he likes the challenge of killing an old, smart animal.  I agree wth that as well.  You could hit a bull spike elk in the head with a rock, there would be no challenge in hunting a spike.  Enough talking about why we hunt for trophies, for now, let’s go back to day 3.

I am still sitting here and haven’t seen a damn thing. Right before dark the same doe with two fawns showed up and finally at dark plus I heard the sound of the ATV to pick me up. My ass ready to get the hell down. Even though it was not particularly cold, I was chilled to the bone.  Tomorrow was going to be a new day but I couldn’t say I was particularly thrilled to spend another day staring at those woods.

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saskatchewanwhitetail5DAY 4

I started questioning my chance of success with a bow.  Unusually warm conditions made the hunting extremely tough.  The deer had no reason to move to find food.  Out of five hunters, four of them with rifles, none had filled a tag.  Two of them had left.  Rob Dunham back at the lodge was saying how any buck with a bow is a trophy.  It just wasn’t looking promising.  I had brought my Ruger 270 and it was sitting in my truck ready for desperate needs. I debated bringing both rifle and bow but that seemed lame and confusing.

Mama does and respective fawns showed up once at different times that day but other than that complete nothingness.  My friend chipmunk became the most welcome entertainment.  I swear, I envied his climbing up and down the tree and screaming to the top of his lungs. I wanted to climb up and down and scream to the top of my lungs.  The little thing was busy, stashing, eating and being a reckless squirrel.  I wanted to be busy, I tried to write but my brain was mush.  I kept reminding myself Rod’s words “He who sits the longest, wins.”  And I sat and sat.  At that point my bony ass didn’t even hurt anymore.  It must have built a callus.  Tree stand callus ass.

I waited for that big owl, that occasionally flew through a narrow slot in the trees and would nearly miss me by a few feet.  It would look me in the eyes as it aimed for my tree and swerve last second.  One time it had a large white rabbit in it’s beak.  It was so cool.  I love these moments, these moments that make hunting so special and the reason why I hunt but these moments only last seconds. I listened to the sound of birds that I never heard before.  On my rides back I would try to replicate these sounds to Dan, my guide, to see if he knew what birds they were but the replica came out so wrong that he looked at me with a blank face of concern.  He probably wondered if this Italian was about to go nuts.  “UAHW! UAHW! UAHW!”  I would sing to him.  I would have never made it as a singer.

The sun was finally setting, another day was almost over.  “Are you having fun?” I asked myself.  As I climbed the tree to get off the damn stand I replied to myself “Fuck no!”

Back at the lodge I found out that one of the hunters had shot the monster.  The only one of five of us who had success.  A 180 inch symmetrical buck, a real beauty and the buck of a lifetime.  The hunter was bouncing around like a two year old, bragging about what a hot shot he was.  I just sat quietly wondering how an adult could act so immaturely, without any camaraderie towards the other unsuccessful hunters.  Fortunately Rod told him to “shut up” or I might have killed the guy.

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DAY 5.

Day 5 hit me hard. They put me on a new tree stand and I saw absolutely nothing all day, not even a chipmunk.  I started questioning my life.  I chose to follow my passions and live a life of adventure, figuring out ways to make it happen, but hasn’t always been easy.

Seven years ago, when I decided to spend my winters in Mexico, my girlfriend of the time, a beautiful woman in all aspects, sat me down to give me a little talk.  She told me that it had been 3 exciting years, she had learned many things, especially to live with passion but I had to decide between her or Mexico.  She wanted to be part of a community and in my “selfish pursuit of adventure” as she put it, it would never happen.  I think she was really trying to tell me that she wanted to settle down.  I chose Mexico, not because I didn’t love her but because she was looking for a different man.  She started dating someone else and 2 years later she died in a car wreck.  She was 33.

At her memorial you couldn’t find a place to park for several blocks around the venue.  In only two year she had made all those friends and became part of the community.  I think about her all the time, she was too beautiful and too young to go.  If she and I were still together she would still be alive but she wouldn’t have made all those friends.  You don’t make friends sitting on a tree stand days on end, 12 hours away from home.  You don’t become part of a community by disappearing in Mexico for months.  Many of my adventures have become solo pursuits.  It’s a way of life I have chosen and love, but that doesn’t come without paying a price.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one feeling sorry for myself. Rod only a mile away from me as the crow flies, was feeling SAD. He said that, inside the blind, not seeing sunlight for days gave him Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). He was desperately trying to catch some light by sticking his head outside of one of the openings. I pictured that big buck, about to come in, seeing his big head sticking outside of the blind.

Rod hadn’t seen a thing for days.  He had even brought some nuts to feed his local chipmunk and not even the chipmunk showed up anymore.  “I would have been trilled to see a crow” he said one day.  I truly believe he was feeling N.D.I.S.F.D.S. No Deer In Sight For Days Syndrome and feeling SAD.

Tomorrow was going to be our last day.

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 My dear friends

DAY 6.

I was back in my original tree stand, happy to see on the last day my chipmunk friend and my does and fawns that by now had become accustomed to me.  I started talking to them, making little sounds to have conversations that made no sense to anyone.  They would stare at me wondering if I was ok.  I could see the fur spot on the little guys heads where the antler would grow.  They were young bucks and was thinking that one day I could be pulling the bow on them.  My cute friends.

I had pretty much given up all hope on filling my tag.  I set up a camera on one of the branches and was taking selfies, trying to look as handsome as possible, hoping to rake in a few more likes on Instagram, like the hot blond huntress do.  But blond and bold is a different story.  I was leaning back on my stand, giving the camera a James Dean look when on the corner of my eye I saw it.  He was right there.  Not more than 20 yards away, right below the stand, the big buck.  I was paralyzed.

He was standing behind some thick bushes and I could see his massive body and part of his rack.  He was on the opposite side of where I had expected any buck to come and moving behind my stand.  Fortunately I had cleared two shooting lanes there. A 20 yard easy shot and a 30 yard, not ideal shot, with just a two foot window.  I had to get up, grab the bow, turn, engage release, draw and shoot and I only had three trees on his path to cover my moves.  He was wary to say the least.  He sat there scanning his surroundings forever.  He sensed something wasn’t quite right.  Then he started moving and walked behind the first tree.  I got up and grabbed the bow.  He froze, I froze.  He lifted his nose smelling the air, I was sure I was busted.  After an eternity he moved again, at the next tree I turned, engaged the release and lifted my bow.  He froze again smelling the air even more intensely.  I knew that was it.  If I wasn’t trying to look like the hot blond I might have been more ready.  My arm was cramping but couldn’t move. He just sat there with his nose high in the air taking deep breaths “please stop sniffing and move 10 more yards…”

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I could see Tobi’s ashes on the broadhead catching the light. Taking him hunting with me has become a tradition.  Every arrow in my quiver is dipped in Tobi’s ashes and I have a shotgun shell filled with his remains for when I go bird hunting.  Gives me comfort, as it makes me feel like he is still around.  The buck started moving again towards the 30 yard opening.  Now I could hear my heart pounding.  I had to draw, while watching his vitals, to stop him right in the 2 foot opening.  Not a foot behind, not a foot in front.  That arrow then had to fly right in the middle of the opening without touching any branches.  The buck kept walking “Breathe Paolo” and then his head moved behind the tree and I drew.  Two more steps and “WUEEHHH”, that’s the weird sound I make to stop animals.  Initially it was a cow elk call then over the years it morphed into a cow, frog, duck DJ mix that never fails.  He stopped perfectly in the zone, quartering away and looking my way.  This is when you feel time STOP and all you are aware of, is your heart in your chest thumping.

I had to put that arrow on his second back rib to get a double lung shot.  I talked myself through the motion “BREATHE, AIM, RELAX HAND, HOLD YOUR BREATH, DON’T FUCK UP, BACK TENSION” and the arrow with Tobi’s ashes flew once again. I watched it hit where I had put it and then that damn feeling of sadness that always hits me when an arrow flies.  Poor thing is the only thing I can think of.  He disappeared in the woods.

I txted Dan “I GOT HIM!” “I’ll be there in 40, don’t move”. he replied “Make it 60, I want to make sure he is down, I think is a good shot but don’t want to push it”. And then that miserable hour waiting on the tree stand to make sure the deer is dead. Trying to replay the shot and starting to question everything you did. “Was he really quartering away that much?” “Was the shot maybe a little too far back?” “Why didn’t I see it go down?” and you screw with your brain until you are sick.  Finally the sound of the ATV, he was twenty minutes late so I had already started tracking.  Only tiny specks of blood, I had only covered 25 yards in 20 minutes.  Now I was really sick.

I had my nose in the grass, trying to find the tiniest specks of blood as I moved one inch at time, when Dan walked up to me with Argo.  He paused for a second, spit some chew on the side and pointed fifteen yards from me.  “He is right there” looking at me like saying  “what the heck are you doing with your big nose in the grass, just look up…”.  Tobi did the tracking for me for years, I never said I was good at it.

When I walked up to the buck, I realized I had shot the wrong deer.  He was not the 5×5 I had passed on, this was a smaller buck I had never seen before.  I was looking at Dan’s unimpressed faced with my deer and felt a little embarrassed.  I didn’t shoot the trophy I had driven 12 hours to get and sat for days on end, I had shot a buck I could have taken in Montana.  Then I was disappointed, embarrassed and ridiculously stupid about it.  Now I giggle at the fact that it did happen, I look at that special spot in my house I had dedicated for the monster Saskatchewan deer that sits empty.

Previously I had talked about my theory of why hunters want a big trophy and how for our ancestors a big trophy translated to more meat and survival.  This buck had a massive body.  Dan, a pretty burly Canadian and I, as burly as Italians gets (we don’t have the Saskatchewan genes) could barely lift the deer into the ATV.  I had the meat for survival but I was still disappointed, I wanted the antlers.  I had initially spotted this deer through the bushes, I could see his massive body and part of his antlers and presumed he was the big buck I really wanted.  Once I went into “kill mode” I never looked at the antlers again, even though I had plenty of time to see them.  I was too focused on what needed to be done, kill and do it right.

The arrow with Tobi’s ashes went through both lungs, the shot was absolutely perfect just like the elk. “Thank you again Tobi”. My unimpressive Sasktchewan buck will be hanging with the rest of my trophies and will be a beautiful memory of a great and painful hunt.  Now I have something to look forward to, go back to Canada next year and get the real monster.

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