Before I left, it was the question that I knew would inevitably come from at least two-dozen different people upon my return. After more than two years of planning, and trying to deal with my excitement by telling people about this trip, there was absolutely no escaping it. Not a chance.
I had visited the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel Sports Show in March of 2004 with two buddies, Wayne Blanchard and Chris Such, and we had only one purpose. We were going to book a whitetail hunt with Bayview Lodge in Minaki, Ontario. Sure, we would pick up our Wisconsin licenses at the DNR booth, tip a few weinies, and drool over the latest fishing boats, but there was a clear purpose for this trip.
A year earlier Wayne and Chris had talked to Bryan Rheault, owner and head guide of Bayview Lodge, and we had decided that it was time to put up or shut up about that trip that we were always promising ourselves that we would take. We put up, and reserved our spot in November of 2005. While the cost was going to mean some sacrifices in other areas, there was no question that it was among the less expensive options that we had researched. In time, we would realize that the value received would make up for the cost many times over.
So here’s where it gets ugly. Try booking a trip that you don’t get to enjoy for 20 months. It didn’t help that Bryan opened his albums at the show that were full of pictures of past successes. It also was made worse when we would receive e-mails of the bucks harvested during the 2004 season. Bryan’s daughter Jennifer handles the lodge’s business affairs, and in addition to all her other duties she was saddled with one more. Deal with all of the e-mails that those new guys from Wisconsin are sending. Somehow, Jennifer managed to not only answer all of the e-mails promptly, but her personality came shining through in each and only left us wanting to get up there sooner.
After what seemed an eternity, the three of us, along with the addition of Jeff Spotz, made the 13-hour drive north to Minaki. To make sure that we timed our arrival well, we broke the trip into two days with an overnight stay in International Falls, MN. After dinner and a good night’s sleep, we passed through the Canadian border at Fort Frances, Ontario just before 6:00 am and were again headed north. Thick fog held us up a bit, but we finally pulled into the Minaki marina at about 10:30 a.m.
One of the beauties of this trip is that you had the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of a remote hunting trip, but without the seaplane. We made a quick call to the Lodge from the Marina, and then proceeded to Bayview’s private parking area where Bryan met us a few minutes later. After loading two trucks worth of gear and four more bodies into the boat, we were off for the quick trip to camp.
Not having been to a Canadian fishing or hunting lodge before, I had no real sense of what to expect. All I can say is that it did not disappoint. While it does lack the spa treatments that some might prefer, it had everything that we needed, and then some. The cabin that we stayed in (and those that I poked into my head in throughout the week) had the charm of a real outdoorsman’s cabin that you can’t reproduce by shopping the gift section of Cabela's. These were real cabins that were meant to be used, but at the same time clean, spacious, and complete with everything that you would need. The beds were even topped off with the genuine article…Hudson Bay blankets. And just as an FYI…you need not worry about hot showers here. We had four guys showering within a 30-minute window every morning at 4:30 am, for the full scent-free effect, and never experienced anything but the perfect temperature…as hot as we wanted it.
When you hire a guide, there is always that question of, “Will they be willing to work as hard as I do?” That was answered quickly. We had no sooner gotten the last of our belongings into the cabin when Bryan came up and told us to get up to the Lodge as soon as possible so that we could get our licensing done and get out for at least a half day of hunting. He didn’t have to ask twice.
An hour later we were standing on the pier loading the boats. Jeff and I would head off with Bryan, and Chris and Wayne were headed off in a second boat with their guide, Gordy Smithson, a retired elementary school principal and another lifelong Minaki resident who knows a thing or two about this area as well. One thing that we came to find over the course of the week is that not only did Bryan and Gordy work hard, but they also did their homework and knew the nooks and crannies of the area that you only find by spending time a huge amount of time in the bush. I found out later that Bryan has 39 years professionally guiding this area, and it shows in the results.
There are two types of guides in my book; those that put you where game has been, and those that put you where game is going to be. As we found out, we had that latter.
That first Sunday we all ended up back at camp with nothing but stories, but there were some good ones. All but Wayne had seen deer, including a couple of nice young six-pointers that Chris had watched for more than a half-hour. As I sat and watched over a small inlet, that was now a beaver pond, I thought my trip would be ending early. At about 1:30 that afternoon I perked up as I heard the clear sound of a whitetail descending down the slope on the opposite side of the inlet. As he finally came into view, my only thought was, “that is the biggest spike that I have ever seen.” His body reminded me very much of a perfect Wisconsin 10-point that I had seen earlier in the year that had been taken by a fortunate bow hunter. While he was not the buck that I had come for, I just kept thinking that a deer with that type of body was extraordinary and would be an amazing trophy in 2-3 years. As he was joined by another spike, and then later a young fork buck, I realized that he was not extraordinary. Every deer up here was big.
The recurring high points of the trip were our morning and evening visits to the lodge for meals. We had decided to spend the extra money on prepared meals because we knew that we would not feel like cooking upon our return from a day in the field. Other that the initial decision to come to Bayview, this was the best decision that we made. For a very reasonable fee, we were provided with big breakfasts, sandwiches to take into the bush, and evening meals that would make your mother jealous. We argued incessantly about which meal was the best, but one thing was clear, Kay, who also served double duty as Bryan’s wife, certainly knew a thing or two about being a camp cook. We never left the table without full bellies, and with offerings like Kay’s chicken kiev, stuffed pork chops, and barbecue ribs, it was clear that the food service at Bayview was not about generating a profit. It was about providing the best overall experience for the guest. They succeeded.
My trip, in some senses, ended that next day at 3:41 p.m. Bryan had placed me in an old grown over beaver pond that was encircled on three sided by sheer rock outcroppings that shot straight up for as much as 50-60 feet. The remainder was bordered by thick forest, and a trickling waterfall from the outcroppings completed the experience. Bryan knew that the wind was perfect for the site on this day, and quick scout of the area revealed a couple of new scrapes just off two main corridors that ran along the edge of the forest. I hung a few scent wicks along the trail, about 20 yards into the clearing, and settled into the knee-high grass under a dead bush that concealed me perfectly.
It also kept the rain off me. Our morning boat ride through the pre-dawn light revealed that skies were overcast, but I had not planned on rain. It never rained very hard in the morning, but every so often it gave you just enough to remind you that hunting is not supposed to be easy. It certainly helped that a perfect 7-pointer came in from behind me just before 10:00 a.m. and gave me one of the thrills of the trip. He had snuck in through the taller grass and I first caught sight of him as he moved to one of my scent wicks that was directly at my three o’clock position. As he moved around in front of me he actually curled closer until only ten yards separated us. Again, he was not the deer that I had come for, although I would have thought twice about taking him back home. After allowing me ample time to inspect his rack and note some of his behaviors, he looked me in the eye and casually continued down the trail.
Then things got quiet for a while. I probably even drifted off midday, as I understand that Bryan had quietly snuck in to check on me, but I never saw him. A pretty good rain fell for nearly an hour beginning at about 2:30, and just when I thought I might never dry out the sun came out and provided enough warmth to make things comfortable.
And then things got fun in a hurry.
All I remember thinking as the buck materialized to my left was, “That’s the biggest deer I’ve ever seen.” He took a few steps out of the trees and into the clearing exactly where Bryan had predicted. He’d come off the main trail in the thick timber intending to run the edge of the forest as he set out to check the line of scrapes.
I was fixated on his large body, and knew that he was exactly the type of deer that I had come looking for in Ontario. As he sauntered along, I looked only long enough at his headgear to know that he was at least a solid eight point with excellent mass. He didn’t appear to have any intention to stop, so as he reached a point 35 yards in front of me I did what any reasonable hunter would do. I followed him with the crosshairs of my scope just behind his shoulder and said. “Hey Buck!” He stopped exactly where he had to, my Ruger .270 popped, and after an initial stumble he went head long into the timber at full speed. The last place I saw him was at a break in the trees where the two trails met.
I took a moment to stifle a shout and regain composure. After checking my watching I walked to where he had been standing and looked for a blood trail. Initially I found nothing, and as I walked back to my hiding spot to reaffirm where he was standing at the shot I thought, “How could I miss at 35 yards?” I re-established his location when the shot went off, walked back to the trail and marked it with an aspen branch. After two minutes on my hands and knees my fingers came up red. There, six feet beyond the stick, was my blood trail. Not pink and frothy as I hoped, but instead a deep, deep, red.
At this point I began to worry about where I had hit him, but knew that I did not want to lose this animal to impatience. I had plenty of daylight left and hadn’t seen any wolves, so I set 4:11 as my “sit tight” time and waited. After sitting under my bush for only five minutes I realized that I had to do something as the wait just might kill me.
I took this as an opportunity, and I began to pick up my scent wicks so that they were not forgotten in the excitement that would hopefully ensue. As I took the last one off a large pine that had been directly in front of me, I looked back to the break in the trees where I had last seen my buck. I couldn’t believe my eyes, there he was standing up and looking straight at me…and he looked angry. I raised my .270 again and put the crosshairs square on chest, and then stopped. It wasn’t him. Apparently my activities had drawn the interest of another rogue buck and he had come by to check out all the noise (Bryan warned me about this). We stared each other down for about 30 seconds, and then he took two leaping bounds into the dark of the woods. Not only did I have enough time to realize that this buck looked angry, but also that he was significantly bigger than the buck that I was now about to trail.
That moment of disappointment was replaced by excitement a few minutes later as I found my buck in the last place that I had seen him. It turned out that while I thought my shot placement was further back than I wanted, it had in fact gone directly through his heart. He was able to sprint for only 28 yards before a quick and merciful death overtook him. And he was magnificent. Like the deer a day earlier, he was a big-bodied buck that weighed in at 198 pounds after dressing. His rack, while only extending to the tips of his ears, sported 10 ½ beautiful points with enough mass to let me know that this would not be my last hunt in Ontario. I haven’t had him scored yet, and don’t know that I ever will quite frankly, but the consensus has been that he is in the high 120’s to low 130’s. While I could have been more patient, since I had four more full days to hunt, there was no question in my mind that the decision to take this buck was the correct one.
I returned to camp that evening to a few good naturedly disparaging names, and to enjoy the Canadian brewed Labatt’s that Jennifer had waiting in our cabin upon our arrival. The Cuban cigars that she had picked up, however, would have to wait until someone else could share as well.
With the main objective accomplished, I was set to wonder what I would do for the remaining days of the trip. In fact, those days proved to be more enjoyable in some ways than the hunt itself. I took a few opportunities to sneak in “kid free” cat naps, chased bald eagles for photographic purposes, and logged many hours catching northern pike and sauger off the Bayside piers. I also had the opportunity to spend a few afternoons with Bryan as we scouted established stand locations and looked at a few promising new locations for next year. I was already amply satisfied with Bryan’s prowess as a guide, but after watching him scout I better understood why he was successful. In the course of four hours, we covered more ground than I could believe through the thickest forest that I have ever experienced.
Chris brought in his eight pointer with the carmel colored, high-tined rack the day after I took mine. And on Thursday, after a day paralyzed by high winds and snow (and with doubt beginning to creep in), Jeff shot a beautiful 10-pointer after Bryan relocated him to an inlet where he and Chris had spotted the buck chasing does. A clean 75-yard shot later, more or less depending on who tells the story, Jeff had his largest buck ever which scored a preliminary 158 ¾. It was not the biggest buck at Bayview for the year, but it would still be a trophy in anyone’s book.
The only negative to the trip was that Wayne would not come home with his buck. He had seen deer, including one doe that got so close that she actually poked the barrel of the rifle with her nose, but nothing that he had come for. Wayne would become one of only two hunters that season, out of 24 that visited, to not take home a deer. In watching his trials and tribulations, however, I developed a deep sense of respect…twice.
I’ve known Wayne since high school, and he’s always been a quality guy. Even so, his conscious decision not to “shoot anything with antlers” as a means to justify the cost of the trip earned him additional respect in all our eyes. I also came to appreciate the work ethic at Bayview Lodge that much more, as Bryan and Gordy continued to work at full throttle to find Wayne his buck. Originally, our trip was supposed to end after breakfast on Saturday morning with a boat ride back to the trucks. As we sat at breakfast watching the winds outside whip the snow, Bryan simply looked at Wayne and said, “You’re not done yet. You want to go into the bush for a few more hours?” And with that the two of them disappeared for one last effort. True, they came back empty-handed a few hours later. Even so, no one came back from our trip with more respect for our guides then Wayne did, and despite the bad luck we all knew that there was nothing more that we could have asked of them. Sometimes, it just isn’t meant to be.
Will I be back at Bayview? You can bet on it. The addition of a new child will keep me from returning in last year, but the rest of my party will be making the return trip. At least I’ve got my reservation in for November next year already, and there is a big, angry buck at the beaver pond that I need to see again. So long as he is in my memory, and the taste of Kay’s chicken kiev is on my palate, I will have to return.
So how was it? Perfect!.
Robert T. Dignan