Whitetail Deer Hunting with Sandy River Outfitters in Manitoba

Whitetail Deer Hunting has been a tradition in our family for a few decades. My dad (John Sr.), brother (Mike) and I (John Jr.) spend as much time as we can in the woods together and have made it a practice to share in one another’s success by celebrating when we butcher and process our own deer. It was during such a celebration after the 2008 New York deer season that we decided to book a whitetail hunt in 2009.

In February of 2009, we attended the Eastern Sportsman’s show in Harrisburg, PA. This is where we met Harry Walker of Sandy River Outfitters located in Manitoba, Canada. We could tell right away that Harry’s operation was different. His booth was staffed with long term clients hunters who politely answered questioned and told us about the type of experience we would have at Sandy River Outfitters. After spending a good amount time talking with Harry and some of his returning hunters, we were confident that we could be successful at Sandy River Outfitters in the fall.

We booked the trip with Harry a few weeks after the show and spent parts of the summer periodically corresponding with him and Angie via e-mail. Before we knew it, November was here and we were on our way.

We flew in to Winnipeg on Saturday, November 14th and spent a relaxing night anticipating the upcoming week of hunting. On Sunday, we were picked up by Jim, one of the guides at Sandy River. Surprisingly, Lee Milas, one of the return hunters who was at the Harrisburg show, was with Jim and was going to be hunting with us for the week. We spent the three-hour drive to camp talking about everything from family to business to hunting and reloading. We checked the sighting on our rifles along the way at a local sandbank and by the time we pulled into camp, we felt like Lee was just another member of our family.

We moved in all of our gear and were treated to a great dinner Sunday night. We met a couple of other hunters from the Gettysburg, PA area who were also great guys. Harry told us about the areas we were going to be hunting. The only choice to be made was for a stand that Harry had recently hung called the “High Stand”. It was about 30 feet up in a Spruce tree. My brother and I were the “Candidates” for that stand and Harry had made a big deal about it being in a good location with great potential. We didn’t make any decisions Sunday evening relative to who would hunt the stand. Instead, we spent time after dinner preparing our packs and getting our gear ready to go. One tradition I always observe is laying out my “Lucky” thermal underwear the evening before a hunt. I had them propped up on my suitcase along with my socks so I could put them on right after breakfast on Monday morning.

Morning came early with first alarm at 4AM. Everyone gathered in the dining room for a hardy breakfast. After downing my last swig of coffee, I made my way to the bunkroom to get dressed. To my amazement, my underwear and socks were gone. I looked at my brother to see if I could get a smile out of him thinking it was an opening day practical joke…nothing. Then, with a glance toward my dad, I noticed that the thermal top he had on had a similar resemblance to “my” underwear. I asked, “Dad, where did you get that underwear you have on?” He replied, “It was on top of the suitcase there”. After telling Dad that he had mistakenly put on my lucky underwear and new socks, he offered to give it back but I figured that any luck that was in them had run out after his first trip to the bathroom that morning. I grabbed another pair of thermals and socks.

After getting dressed, my brother and I needed to make our decision about the high stand. We were both interested in hunting that stand and the challenge associated with getting up in the stand was appealing to us. We decided that the fairest thing to do was to flip a coin. Mike pulled out a Canadian $1 “Looney”. I chose the loon (tails), he chose the Queen (heads). Mike flipped and let it hit the floor. Heads it was…Mike was going to the high stand.

At 5:30, Dad, Mike and I were ready to go. We piled into our guide Ryan’s truck. On the way to the hunting area, we all wished each other luck on the first day. If one of us was successful, we were all successful…just like at home. After a short drive, Mike was first to get walked in to the high stand. I reminded him to be careful climbing up into it and graciously offered to take that burden off of him if he was worried about climbing that high..no chance. After 10 minutes Ryan returned to the truck, we drove a ¼ mile and Dad was walked to his stand. My stand was about 10 miles from Dad and Mike and involved a 10 minute ride on four-wheeler.

I settled into my very comfortable stand and watched the four-wheeler lights fade away in the distance as Ryan drove off. I had about 30 minutes to sit in the dark and reflect on how lucky I was to be here with my two best hunting buddies. My wife’s patience with me for the obsession I have with hunting and about how my kids were coming of age and would soon join me on hunting trips. As dawn approached, I spotted four cow elk coming down the slough. A new experience as I had never seen elk in the wild before. I wondered what new experiences there would be at the high stand.

Dawn at the high stand had Mike going through the same preparations. Binoculars… check. Grunt call…check. Scope covers off…check. The high stand offered outstanding views not only of a couple clear cuts but also down into some prime patches of thick Canadian bush country. 15 minutes after dawn, Mike spotted a large buck on his left just as it crossed a clear cut and entered the bush. It was on a steady walk moving left to right. Mike raised his 30-06 topped with a Leopold 3x9x50 scope. He was catching glimpses of the buck but couldn’t get a feel for how big he was. No doubt, he was replaying the words we had spoke about for months “If you’re going to shoot on the first day, it had better be a good one! One shot ends the hunt and there is only one guarantee: if you shoot a small buck, you won’t have a chance at a big one”. As the buck moved across the front window panels of the enclosed blind, Mike realized that he would need to move the rifle to the right side panel openings to continue to follow the buck. In one motion, he pulled the gun back in from the front panels with his left hand and removed the plexi-glass panel from the right side windows with his right hand. Mike was back on the buck and it was about to walk into a small clearing about 70 yards away. Mike grunted at the buck as he entered the clearing. The buck kept walking but paused and looked in Mike’s direction just before re-entering the bush. Mike instantly judged that the buck’s rack was tall and its width extended beyond the ears. He immediately threw off the safety, dropped the crosshairs on the vitals and squeezed off. The buck bolted through the bush continuing to the right in a half circle, crossed a 50 ft wide clear cut about 90 yards out from the stand and then disappeared into another large section of bush. Mike listened for a crash but heard nothing. Looking at his watch, he had been hunting for exactly 15 minutes. The doubt set in, “…was he really big enough? Did I shoot too soon? Was it a good shot?”

After waiting 15 minutes, Mike climbed down from the high stand and walked to the last place he had seen the buck cross the 50 foot clear cut 90 yards away. His heart sank as he saw no blood, no sign of a good hit. He collected his thoughts and decided to go to the spot where the buck was standing when he shot.

Mike got to the spot where the deer had stood to look back at him and his spirits soared as he saw clear signs of a good hit. Bright red, frothy blood, probably a lung shot. He slowly followed the blood trail, visible not only on the ground but sprayed against the sides of the white poplar trees. Mike came to the clear cut he originally searched and was surprised to find that the buck had crossed the 50 foot opening much closer to the stand than he had suspected. When Mike first got down to investigate, he had walked right over the spot where the deer had crossed the clear cut.

Mike entered the big section of bush and saw that it was actually an area of interspersed bush and clearings. There, only about 40 yards ahead laid Mike’s High Stand Buck. It had fallen in an open area which is why Mike never heard a crash. As Mike approached the buck, there was absolutely no ground shrinkage. The rack grew bigger and bigger with every step. Mike gave thanks for his good fortune and reflected on all the good things in life. He then spent the next hour admiring the buck, and dragging all 300 pounds of him back into the clearing where he observe him from the stand while he waited for Ryan to check in at mid-day.

That evening, after all of the admiring and congratulations were given, I toasted Mike. I can’t think of anyone as deserving of this Buck as my younger bother. We rough scored the buck at 168 5/8″ B&C. He has a basic 10 point frame with small 1″ kickers off the G2’s and incredible mass that carries all the way to the ends of the main beams. He had a broken off a drop tine from the right antler sometime earlier in the year.

Dad and I hunted hard the rest of the week. The weather was unseasonably mild with daytime highs in the mid to upper 40’s. There were no fronts moving through and everyday was filled with bright sunshine and wind. Dad saw two shooters but was not able to put anything down and I saw a total of seven bucks but all too small to shoot. Four of those seven bucks were observed from the high stand which I hunted two of the six days. Harry and his guides had a new stands for me to hunt everyday and took the time to explain the advantages of each. In addition, the guides scouted hard and hung new stands near scrape activity on a daily basis. However, the bucks were doing their business at night and daytime movement was kept to a minimum.

Although Dad and I didn’t fill our tags, Mike’s harvest spelled success for all of us and we look forward to our next outdoor adventure. It doesn’t have to be a weeklong Canadian hunting trip. Something as simple as a few hours on the lake or a morning pheasant hunt can be just as special – as long as we do it together as a family. We’ll also be asking Lee to come along for some of those outings. The friendships we made on the trip will last a lifetime.

As for that coin Mike and I used for the flip, I’m trying to get him to let me borrow it. If he ever does, I’m going to melt it down in a fire that I start with the lucky underwear Dad returned to me after the trip!

Sandy River Outfitters