Canoeing for Whitetails

Tamarac Lake, Northern Minnesota.

I have hunted my entire adult life for the elusive Whitetail but had not considered canoe-in hunting until I picked up a bow for archery season a few years ago. I was hooked. Water access adds a whole new dimension of adventure and stealth to the hunting experience. I began scouting canoe-in sites on my cross-country skis and before I recount my first outing, I want to offer some advantages to the boat-in approach.

Waterways allow the hunter to set up on the backside of hunting plots and get into areas that are nasty to enter from a trail. In this way busting brush is avoided and you can slip into locations bucks do not generally encounter hunters. This also reduces exposure to deer ticks. Often, you can hunt very close to the water which eliminates those long deer drags. Setting up along a shoreline also serves as hunting a water hole and helps you take advantage of a deer’s need for H2O. I have noticed that Whitetail’s use water structures as buffer zones from predator pressure so you can use this as an opportunity for getting close to deer when they feel safer. Setting up with a river or lake as a backdrop also guarantee’s that your hunting action will be in front of you and reduces being busted from behind, especially in a ground hunting scenario. The sheer fun of incorporating a paddle into the hunt brings a fresh element of adventure, solitude, and wilderness feel, that puts the Whitetail pursuit into a new category of hunting experience. I will add one note of caution. Do not underestimate the added safety concerns that go with canoe-in hunting and become a hunter news story. Always wear a life jacket and tie off your gear for the possibility of an unexpected capsize. Getting wet is one thing, but having to explain how your bow or rifle is at the bottom of a lake, assuming you survive the water, would be hard to live down!

The first canoe-in hunt is finally here.

The ratchet strap snapped off the canoe with a metallic ring as I unloaded my craft. I was parked on the Dike Road access, a quiet duck hunter’s landing on the south end of Tamarac Lake situated, on the Tamarac Wildlife Refuge in Becker County, Minnesota. It was mid-October and the sky was overcast with a gentile cross wind blowing out over the Wild Rice.

The quiet approach.

I had waited for this opportunity from the moment I discovered this enticing shoreline and the deer corridors it offered while scouting on cross country skis the previous winter. I drank in the excitement and recalled surprising a mature buck, walking out of a rain-soaked afternoon sit, several hundred yards up from the shore I was about to set up on. That thought, and the discovery of a buck bedding area near my canoe-in site, fueled my imagination of the possibilities for a water stalk.

Navigating to the distant point.

The forest was dark from my vantage point, yet inviting, and reed’s scraped the canoe’s bottom as I floated past the buck bedding area I had scouted several weeks before. The solitude removed me from the present and transported me back in time. I could see a stand of Norway Pines materialize through a small point I paddled around. The sentinels bordered a field that held several Willow stands, small sloughs, many crossing deer trails, and doe bedding spots. I directed my craft toward a fallen pine that laid along the raised beach that had been pushed up from years of lake ice doing its work of erosion. I tied off behind the cover of the collapsed timber, readied my gear, and slipped under the dead-fall into a natural ground blind I had brushed in on a previous preseason outing. With the lake a mere five yards behind me I felt hidden within the broken tree as I overlooked a deer trail that paralleled the lake and another connecting trail that ran along the field edge. Pines were scattered in my sight line and another wooded point to my left converged with the grass. I settled in for the next several hours and became an observer.

Soft rain drops increased to a steady offering. Beads of water clung to my bow and fell off my cap brim. The pines and meadow captured the descending darkness and turned the landscape into a shadow land. All was quiet except for the sound of water on earth, a symphony of woodland music. Forty minutes remained until shooting light was over, the soft rain increased, with no sign of the downpour letting up. The thought of tying down my canoe, drenched in the darkness, won out my decision-making process. I pushed off and watched my first canoe hunt site drift away as the wind pushed my craft into the deep.

The silent sentinel’s drift away.

The lake was alive. Thousands of droplets danced on the surface and tapped the bottom of my boat. The distant shore was shrouded with on-coming night and a sense of remoteness filled my heart and mind.  

I did not see a deer on my first canoe outing but I felt very satisfied and accomplished at the attempt. I knew this was just a first. I would be doing much more bow hunting by water.

Northern rain on a wilderness lake.


Summer Deer Scouting: Find the Transition Zones

The flies, wood ticks, and mosquitos can be brutal during a Minnesota summer, so warm weather scouting is only tolerable on those rare, cool, and breezy mid-summer days. An opportunity like I just described presented itself a couple weeks ago, and I was able to take advantage with an afternoon foray to explore one of my hunting areas better. In the following paragraph’s, I want to outline a scouting technique I use in the Northwood’s which should be applicable to any deer hunting area. That concept is to find the transition zones between bedding and feeding.

Zoomed in on a Whitetail during summer scouting.

I know the idea of finding transitions zones between bedding is deer hunting 101, so I want to target the big woods hunter who does not have the luxury of setting up between cover and corn. For the wilderness hunter who needs to figure out miles of forests and swampland, with no agriculture in sight, the task of narrowing down a feeding area can be a daunting task. The Whitetail tends to meander in deep woods structure, so understanding how to utilize good ambush points takes a little more work. That’s what I call finding the transition zones, and the heart of this article will discuss working two types of transition zones, pinch points, and natural meadows.

Because deer tend to move, like I stated, at a random pace in big public tracts, pinch points are a great way to hunt large areas and increase your chances of getting a bow or rifle shot off on a deer. A pinch point can consist of narrow land bridges between water structures, swamp edges, beaver dams, and hardwood ridges that provide easy travel routes between heavy cover for deer. One idea to keep in mind when hunting the back woods, is that unpressured deer, much like people, will take easy walking routes versus maneuvering through heavy cover. So, these pinch points, or transition zones in large forests, can funnel deer activity right past your stand, or ground blind, as your quarry moves from bedding to feeding areas.

A transition zone leading from bedding to meadow.

The other type of structure I like to hunt is natural meadows. I have noticed on many occasions that lush, grassy, natural meadows are deer magnets. I use this to my benefit on the Tamarac Wildlife Refuge near my home. As I scout these non-agriculture fields, I will use my previous idea of pinch points to find where deer enter these feeding areas and locate a high percentage transition zone.

On my last scouting hike that I mentioned at the start of this writing, I found a transition zone which lead into a big natural meadow. As I walked a maintenance road, I spotted a lone deer several hundred yards out, grazing along a tree line. After the deer moved on, I found the pinch point it used to transition from thicker bedding areas, into its late afternoon feeding excursion. By employing the use of finding transition zones, my summer outing turned into a profitable summer deer scout. By using the strategies of finding pinch points, and natural field edges, you can narrow a large, intimidating piece of wilderness, into manageable transition zones that can lead to filling your tag. Happy scouting and much hunting success.

Natural meadows are deer magnets. I like to find deer access points and hunt the tree lines.


Rain Corn Doe

The plowed field was soft under my boots. I walked toward a stand of corn in farm country north of my home on a deserted country road. A clouded sky and light rain painted a lonesome landscape. The stalks, waiting for harvest, swayed and rustled in the breeze.

I enjoy bow hunting in the rain, many experienced hunters will confirm that it is a beautiful time to tag a mature Whitetail. I agree. There is a memorizing effect on the individual who ventures out in contrary weather. I cannot confirm this, but it has been my experience that for some reason, deer like to get out and move during inclement conditions. My hope was based on this thought as I made my way across a discked field to the edge of a corn planting I was sure held deer.

My hopes were not miss-lead. I skirted the edge of the corn that butted up against a section of natural conservation grass which served as a popular bedding area. The corridor of rain-soaked earth between the corn and grass was a highway of deer activity. Well used trails connected the prairie reserve to the corn. I stopped often to watch, listen, and still-hunt my way to a prime location and set up my hunting stool in the corn. About one hundred yards into the hunt, the corn rows thinned, creating a natural funnel into the main plot. I could tell by the increased deer sign that this was a feeding destination. The deer had been pulling the corn husks right off the stalks. The hollow appeared to offer a sense of safety. I knew this was the place for an attempted ambush. I decided on a vantage point that offered a fifteen-yard shot toward the point of the funnel. The corn behind me was tall and healthy, while the rows in front of me were stunted, and tapered off, allowing ample cover with accessible shooting lanes.

I took on the form of a statue, a requirement, and practice of patience, for the ground hunter. The hundreds of hoof marks in the black soil filled with water, becoming tiny pools that rippled with each splash of rain. The movement of corn stalks and rain combined to create an orchestra of natures symphony. I watched the day slowly slip behind the steel gray of autumn sky and sharpened my focus after a two hour sit in the magical rain and corn. It was that golden 30 minutes of daylight every hunter plans around.

With each beat of my heart I imagined a buck or mature doe cautiously making their way down the edge of the field. At this point, the moist ground worked against me as the deer would be utterly silent in the wet sod and could potentially walk right up behind me without my knowledge. The anticipation was intense. With all the recent deer sign, I knew it was just a matter of time before things got exciting.

I fought to keep my composure during the last minutes of light. This is always the hardest part of the ground hunt for me. Everything in my body says move, stretch, re-position myself for a little more comfort. But I know staying rooted like a tree, and remaining motionless, is the key to success.

Then the atmosphere changed. A few feet over my right shoulder and only moments before a beautiful doe would have stepped into view, and my scent betrayed me. The wind swirled just slightly, or perhaps my camouflaged shape in the corn gave her pause, whatever the reason, the hunt was busted. The doe blew and bounded off toward the safety of her bedding area in the conservation grass. I saw the big animal silhouetted against the prairie growth, trying to determine what I was. The rain was unbiased. It continued to lightly fall as I walked back along the corn in a first minutes of night.


Perseverance Pays

I have an apple orchard in my back yard that is a remnant of an old farmer who exercised some foresight.

Every fall and spring the migrating Robins and other song birds stop in to feast, and build their stamina, before continuing their journey. It’s inevitable that these little creatures get caught in a Minnesota snow storm en route to the nesting grounds, and this year was no different. As I sat tucked in behind the protective walls and windows of my home I could not help but feel some empathy, and respect, for the winged wanderers who braved the elements.

I have learned a great lesson from watching the yearly spectacle of bird migration unfold in my yard and the wilderness haunts I hike and hunt. That lesson is to keep on going and never give up.

The formula for success in life is simple really. Be consistent. You see, the returning melody makers, powerful Canadian Honkers, and all the other woodland creatures that make a living at survival have one thing in common, they press on and overcome hardships at all costs. The forest engineer constructs dams to create an environment of safety in its backed-up waterways, the eagle tirelessly tends to its aerie and gathers food for its young, the fawn is hidden under the protective care of its mama, and on the tale goes, each following the instincts instilled within them.

In a way, the birds and animals have an advantage over us Homo Sapiens when it comes to managing their time and putting all their energy into what they were created for. They don’t have distractions. That’s where the lessons they teach have practical application, to help us discover our motivations and keep at it.

I can apply the resilient consistency of the fragile songbird to my pursuits of archery and writing. There are days when I feel to tired, after a long work day, to sit and crunch out a few hundred words or step out when the weather is not favorable to keep my shooting form and accuracy intact. But then I think of the hardy Robin gathering those crab apples in the driving snow. I press into what I was wired to do. When the storm passes, and I am still practicing what I love, with the people I love, overcoming the daily hardships becomes well worth the effort.

What motivates you? Find your passions, work at them daily, and you will discover joy.


Late Season Outing

I was kept company by an occasional lonesome Crow, busy Woodpecker, and haunting winter wind. Snow clumps dropped, dissipating in a swirl from pines that towered over me.

Tucked in a stand of Norway’s, I watched a clearing which served as a well used feeding ground for area deer. It was an uneventful day with one flurry of adrenaline after hours of sitting. That is bow hunting.

Time slowed and a sense of natures patient but steady process filled my thinking. Here, there are no second chances, every day is an activity of survival for the woodland creatures that live in the vast winter expanse.

Eventually, daylight slipped and a massive Whitetail ambled down a distant hillside, out of bow range, a hundred yards out. Ten anxious minutes passed with futile attempts to draw the animal towards me using a few grunts from my call. With all shooting light gone, and the cold that follows a long sit gripping me, I gathered my gear, rose from my ground ambush, and slogged through the dark snow covered forest towards my waiting rig.

Another late winter outing before season’s close.


Still Movement

Captured in frozen stillness

I move through boundaries

Highway in the wilderness

I dance within these lines


Within these confines

I have learned




There are no shackles for the soul content

I am River

Photo: Matt Bernier


The Porcupine Sit

I rolled into the Twenty Eighteen Round Lake Bow Camp with just enough time to walk out for an evening sit. This would be the third annual gathering at my old stomping grounds with my buddy Bill at his cottage. We spent our summers on the same shoreline, when my family had a cabin just down from his, on Round Lake in north central Minnesota. It is always a great feeling to get back!

The half mile walk on a trail we call Ruby’s Road served to ramp up my anticipation. I took in the aroma of the mixed hardwoods, scattered wetlands, and faded colors of the fall setting. After crossing an old, untended Beaver Dam, I arrived at a thin strip of ground, about fifty yards wide, between the marshy edge of Sucker Creek, and the long grassy formation we call Ruby’s Slough. Bill had dubbed this spot the Narrows Stand, and it is a great pinch point for all sorts of critters. The wind was beginning to pick up, which was not a good indication of the weather to come, but I hunkered down in the ladder stand Bill had set up and enjoyed the scenery.

The views were spectacular from this vantage point. In front of me the narrows offered open terrain, and just beyond a wall of brush, the sides of Ruby’s Slough could be seen for several hundred yards. To my rear the Sucker Creek floodplain sprawled out for another couple hundred yards, and the Oak Ridge I shot a nice buck two years before, jutted up from the grass like a timeless fortress wall. As I scoured the swap edge and crossing trails, a chubby Porcupine waddled past my stand in a moment of comic relief. This proved to be the only action I witnessed for my first stand of our three day camp.

Back at the cabin I discovered the afternoon sit was slow for Bill in the wind as well. After getting my gear situated, we cooked up the traditional first meal, a Papa Murphy’s pizza, enjoyed a few hunting shows, swapped well-worn stories, and planned our attack for the weekend. Everything was good with the world.

I was back in my favorite place, at my favorite time of the year…Round Lake Bow Camp.


Photo Credit: The Narrows; Bill Berquist

Twas The Night Before Rifle Season

“Twas the night before rifle season,
and all through the land,
orange garments appeared,
while hunters dreamt of their stand.
And inside the homes,
preparations were laid,
guns, ammo, tags,
and sandwiches made”.

A Safe & Merry Hunting Season To All…
And Peace On Earth!

The Trilogy

A Bear, a Beaver, a Buck? This was how I thought the evening would play out.

I was driving to one of my hunting spots on the Tamarac Refuge when I witnessed a big old Black Bear sitting on his haunches and pulling down corn stalks for supper next to an empty county highway. Latter, while I walked to my ground hunting area, a Beaver scooted across the path and plunged into its run, splashed, and disappeared to the safety of a pond. I took these sightings as a sign I would close the evening with a set of three, and bag an early season buck!

The wind was right for an afternoon hunt. It was the same location I wrote about from an outing last year with a story titled, The Rattled Deer. On that hunt, I was busted trying to lure in a buck while hiding up against a downed tree, when I employed an old set of rattling antlers. I hoped for better luck this time around.

I was ecstatic, and filled with the wonder of being in the field again with my bow.

I left my vehicle on a maintenance access and set out on a ski trail that led to my destination. The area offered two big wood formations with a large field of wild grasses and Willow stands which served as a divide. Tamarac Lake hugged the far end. It was a mystical place. After a half mile of slow walking along the tree-line I slipped into a funnel that jutted off the field, found my ambush, and settled in.

Autumn Sit

Burnt orange ceiling


Over yellowed green

White Pines tower

Wait for winter rest

Impatient Geese break silent anticipation

The day spent itself. I waited until the last glimmer of shooting light dissipated, gathered my gear, and hiked through the dusk laden field with a full heart. I was immersed in timelessness.

The trilogy did not materialize, but these images, and this complete joy, never become weary.

A part of me,

remains in the wilderness.

A part of the wilderness,

remains in me.