As the sun breaks the distant horizon in a colorful display, the Ontario bush begins a new morning. This remote wilderness is full of activity; the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker, a flutter of a Chick-a-dee’s wings and one timid snowshoe hare doing his best to hide his incoming white coat from the owl hooting in the distance. Thoughts of projects at home and stresses of work begin to fade. Hours of daydreams about this adventure are finally met with the stark reality of being in this beautiful and mysterious place.
The bow, dangling a few inches from my left hand, reminds me I am not just a passive spectator but, rather, I am an active participant in this ecosystem. While my senses seem lulled into a haze by the wild symphony before me, I am quick to notice the slightest movement in the nearby spruce thicket. A flicker of an ear gives way to a long-faced doe nervously fidgeting. Upon closer examination, a glimmer of antler takes shape trough the screen of spruce and alders. Immediately, all other sights and sounds are muted and the entirety of my focus is at the dark antlered bruiser.
“Patience is the key to success hunting here,” said Hank Smoke of Indian Point Camp. “You must be willing to sit all day long every day you are here to give yourselves the best chance at a good buck.”
As I inquired about booking a hunt at his camp, Hank went on to say that I should plan to endure bad weather too. Weather fluctuation in Northwest Ontario can vary greatly during the hunting seasons. The Ontario way typically relies on bait to pull the deer out of the miles and miles of thick bush. It also relies on putting in many hours sitting quietly and patiently over that bait to await one of the heavy-weight bucks Ontario is known for.
“Hunting here is very different from hunting in the Midwest,” Hank told us. “The deer numbers are much lower here. Without the use of bait, you might not even see a single deer in a week of hunting.”
The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources confirms what Hank knows. The area near Dryden that we were hunting has an estimated deer population of 9 to 10 deer per square mile, which is significantly less than what I’m used to when compared to my home hunting area in farmlands of Wisconsin.
Hank’s blatantly honest depiction of tough hunting conditions and rewards coming to those who hunt hard was music to my heart. Feeling confident that his operation was perfect for what I was looking for, I reserved four spots for the last week of October. I was planning the hunt for my father. As a retired teacher, he now had the time to go on some well-deserved hunting adventures. Joining us would be two great friends and fellow IAFF firefighters, Matt Feder and Jason Joling.
We would be hunting during the last week of muzzleloader season, which overlapped archery season. This would give us the option to switch from bow to a muzzleloader if the hunting got tough. We would have to wear blaze orange regardless of which weapon we would be hunting with. We would bunk in one of Indian Point’s comfortable wood heated cabins and do our own cooking for the week.
The whitetail rut in Ontario generally peaks in mid-November depending on the moon phase. Our combo muzzleloader/archery hunt would fall during the pre-rut. The pre-rut can be an excellent time to catch the mature bucks on their feet during daylight starting to search for that first doe coming into estrus. Cold weather could help our hunting plan by increasing daytime deer movement.
Soon we were following Hank down a winding two-track to the property we would be hunting. Matt, Jason and I hung tree stands while my father chose a pop-up blind. While hanging stands, we were surprised to have two does approach seemingly fearless of our presence. That afternoon, we all saw several deer. The highlight that day was an encounter Jason had at last light. He had a large ten-point within 30 yards but, with fading light, was not confident in making an ethical bow shot. That evening, he lamented in not making the shot, but we all reassured him he made the right choice and had proved his worth as a hunter for it.
This brings us back to where we started on our second day of hunting. The wind was in my favor, and the doe and buck were clueless to my existence. I watched his large antlers swing back and forth with every movement the doe made. She quickly ate a few mouthfuls of bait and ran off with the buck in tow. I desperately grunted but to no avail—he was gone. The next hours passed easily with a parade of does and small bucks. All the deer acted calmly as if not to have a care. Early in the afternoon, that fidgety doe was back, and that big buck was still following her. As quick as she appeared, she ran off again. His head swung back and forth between an easy meal and the direction his reluctant girlfriend left. His dilemma was obvious, food or love.
Choosing his stomach over his heart proved to be a fatal mistake. As I drew my bow a whiskey-jack landed right in front of him. He was focused on the bird a few inches from his face when the arrow zipped through his lungs. Soon Dad and I were admiring how stunningly beautiful and absolutely huge he was. It was a fantastic father and son moment.
The remainder of our week, the weather took a nasty turn. A cold, wet mix of rain and snow fell throughout the next days. While Matt and Jason fought hypothermia in their tree stands, Dad was warm and comfortable with a small heater in his well-concealed blind. The deer movement was unaffected by the weather, and lots of does and small bucks frequented the baits. A little after noon on the third day of the hunt, the steady downpour was disturbed by a single shot from Dad’s muzzleloader. A beautiful white-racked ten pointer was on his was home to Wisconsin too.
Matt and Jason continued to endure the foul weather. Matt’s chance finally came on Wednesday, but something went wrong with the shot, and the tall eight-point will haunt his dreams for years to come. Matt and Jason logged 70 hours of hard hunting that week through the foulest of weather but, as often is the case in hunting, they returned home with only memories of their time in the wild remote place. I greatly admire their positive/never give up attitudes. In the end, all of us had shot opportunities and we took home two great bucks. This hunt had exceeded our expectations, and we will be returning to hunt the Ontario way in 2012.
Hunting in Ontario is easy, affordable and a short drive from the Midwest. Crossing the border with a bow doesn’t require any special paperwork, but any firearm does require some simple paperwork be filled out in advance and presented upon arrival at the border.
Ontario is quite large and offers a diverse variety of hunting. We hunted near Dryden in the northwest portion of the province. Non-residents can hunt whitetails without the use of an outfitter on the millions of acres of public land commonly referred to as the “Crown Land.” However, outfitters like Indian Point Camp are reasonably priced and provide private property with little hunting pressure. These camps will also pre-bait stand locations and offer a vast amount of local hunting knowledge. Either way, hunting in Ontario is a rich and rewarding experience.
Bob Barteck is an IAFF Local 425 Alumni and Wisconsin Rapids Fire Department Captain.