By Russell Thornberry
On your maiden voyage to hunt the ultimate whitetail in the sub-zero winterlands of the northwestern U.S. or western Canada, you will inevitably meet the unexpected, perhaps at just the wrong moment. It may cost you the trophy for which you’ve paid so dearly. Take the advice of those who have gone before you and go prepared. You don’t have to learn the hard way!
As I approached the buck, lying motionless in a foot of snow, I looked at his rather average 8-point rack (average at least for Saskatchewan) and felt a twinge of disappointment. It was a beautiful buck, but it was not the trophy for which I had traveled all the way from Alabama to shoot. Worse yet, it was substantially smaller than the 11-pointer I could have easily shot the day before, but turned down in hopes of something bigger. This was only the second day of my week-long hunt. How could I have dropped my standards so much in a single day? It was a very complex question with many answers, all of which boiled down to one over-riding issue—staying power—mental and physical staying power. I realized I had been unnecessarily robbed of both due to lack of proper preparation. I had taken some things for granted, which came back to haunt me. The following will explain what I did wrong and what I could have done right to bolster my mental and physical stamina: the keys to whitetail trophy hunting triumph in an unforgiving climate, all too willing to freeze its victim’s tears.
At the last minute of packing for my trip, I couldn’t find my Raven Wear Anti-Freeze Suit, my lifeline for surviving 10-hour shifts in a sub-zero treestand. (I’m forever loaning my gear to someone and then forgetting who.) So, I threw some things together, foolishly thinking I’d be alright. I should have known better. I outfitted deer hunters in Alberta for nearly two decades and I know how important the right clothing is. But I dropped my guard and found myself fighting the bitter cold with personal determination rather than warm clothing. Dumb! Dumb! Dumb! It was exhausting.
As fate would have it, I was covered up with deer all day, so close to my stand I couldn’t blink my eyes without being noticed. That meant sitting unusually motionless for hours. I couldn’t eat my lunch nor could I reach for my daypack containing my little thermos of hot tea. Talk about torture. After five hours I was as stiff as a very cold board.
At 3 p.m. the does below me came to red alert, looking deep into the forest, then they scattered like quail. I knew a buck was coming in so I grabbed my bow to ready myself for the shot. His steady, determined advance was broadcast by the sound of snow crunching beneath heavy hooves, and I caught teasing glimpses of heavy, black antlers as he worked his way through the stand of thick spruce. I came to full draw quickly as he stepped into view, shielded only by some transparent hazelnut brush. I held at full draw forever, waiting for him to move right or left. While I held, I counted points ... 11 in all. Both back tines were forked. He was a gorgeous buck, his rack just a bit narrower than his ears. It was just the first day of the hunt so I could afford to be picky. I decided to pass on him and let my arrow down.
It all seemed pretty straightforward at the time, but that night, back at camp, I knew all was not well with my back. I was in real pain. I slept very little that night and approached my stand the second day virtually exhausted from lack of sleep, compounded by the exhaustion of trying to tough out 31 below zero the day before with improper clothing. As I climbed into the treestand for day two, I knew I was in trouble. This was what I waited all year for and now I was caving in on my second day! At least today I had my lunch in my coat pocket, rather than in my day pack, and my thermos of hot tea was in plain sight and easy reach.
As on the previous day, does were all around me for most of the day. At 4 p.m. the 8-pointer arrived on the scene and even though he wasn’t nearly as good as yesterday’s 11-pointer, my decision was made. The fact was that I was psychologically and physically beaten by my circumstances.
This was the first time I had ever been beaten by the cold, and even though it was my own fault, it inspired me to review all that I already knew about cold weather deer hunting, and to the understanding of some new facts that will help avoid cold weather cave-in in the future. To those adventurous deer hunters who are looking to the frigid North for that ultimate buck, I offer the following information and suggestions to help you beat the cold physically and psychologically.
I have dealt with the issue of extreme cold weather clothing on several occasions in previous issues, and to date nothing has changed my position that the Raven Wear Anti-Freeze System is still the finest in warmth and quiet for the deer hunter. See “The Cold Hard Facts Of Cold Hard Treestands,” Oct. 94 issue, Buckmasters Magazine, or on our web site at www.buckmasters.com. I devoted an entire chapter on the subject of clothing in my book in the Whitetail Series entitled “Hunting The Canadian Giant,” Derrydale Press, Lyon, MS, which I recommend to anyone heading for Canadian whitetail hunting for the first time.
Food: Fuel For The Fire
Clothing is your outer shell which attempts to maintain the heat produced by your body. After 10 hours of inactivity in a sub zero treestand, if no fuel, or improper fuel, has been used to keep the body’s fire going, you will likely be frozen out. The colder the temperature, the harder the body must work to generate heat. Scientifically speaking, what is required is diet induced thermo genesis. This simply means we are trying to raise the body’s metabolic rate to generate heat through food intake, since the body can’t contribute much if anything through actual movement.
Naturally, hot foods would be helpful, but other than liquids contained in a thermos bottle, this is relatively impractical. However, hot liquids are wonderful, both physically and psychologically. Both coffee and tea naturally contain caffeine (unless decaffeinated) and are diuretics, which promote urination and cause dehydration, neither of which are beneficial in a confined treestand. A better choice than coffee or tea would be hot beef or chicken bouillon, or any hot soup.
Speaking of urination, which is inevitable, you’ll have to come to terms with how that’s going to happen in a treestand. My recommendation is a wide-mouth ice bag with a rubber bladder. It collapses neatly for storage in a day pack and it will not split or crack even in bitter cold. The simplest means of keeping the body’s fire going is with trail mix or “GORP” as some call it. A simple recipe for GORP is mixing equal parts mixed nuts, raisins, and M&Ms. Portion out a daily amount of GORP which will allow you a good mouthful for every hour you’ll be in your stand. I carry GORP in a cloth drawstring bag, which is quiet and easily stored inside my coat. It keeps my body fire going all day without overfilling my stomach.
A nut-filled chocolate bar might serve the same purpose, except that the sugar content is much higher, causing a quick burn rather than a long, sustained burn of body metabolism. Candy bar wrappers are a curse in the silent frozen deer woods. Entirely too noisy. Then there is the problem of keeping them warm without melting. A frozen Snickers Bar is about the consistency of a cinder block. This is where GORP has the advantage. That next hourly mouthful of GORP serves as a needed physical boost as well as a mighty psychological reward and breaks up the long vigil, as does the reward of a periodic hot drink from my little thermos. I can’t say enough about the psychological aspects of staying power. Your physical state will determine your attitude toward the hunt. While you may be able to tough out an entire day in your treestand without food or drink, it is hard on the body and subsequently hard on the mind. Such macho tactics may drain your long-term staying power which can easily cost you the trophy you came for. It may also make you sick!
Preventive Body Maintenance
When a hunter flies from his sultry southern home, where he’s been hunting in a T-shirt, and steps into a world as much as 100 degrees colder than the one he’s used to, something has to give. It puts a great deal of stress on one’s physical endurance and stamina. This stress often lowers the body’s immunity to colds, flu, and other viruses. Nothing is more disheartening than to arrive for your dream hunt healthy, only to come down with a head or chest cold, or the flu, the very next day. It happens all the time. At least 60 days prior to your northern hunt, be sure and get a flu shot to bolster your immunity. At the same time, begin a regular vitamin supplement schedule. Doctors recommend a good multi-vitamin containing vitamins C and B complex. Some hunters start cramming extreme doses of vitamin C the night before their hunt begins, only to experience stomach cramps and diarrhea on opening morning. A word to the wise: Don’t exceed recommended daily amounts.
Treestands That Make You Or Break You
Where I hunt in Saskatchewan, with Caribou Trail Outfitters, it’s an all day affair. You’re in the treestand before daylight and you stay until dark. Hunting in the big forest is not like hunting farm fields or timber edges. The deer circulate all day long and feel quite covered and safe. There is no good time to be out of your stand during legal shooting hours. I have taken many of my bucks over the past eight years between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., when many hunters choose to abandon their stands.
So, if you’re going to live all day in a treestand, it’s got to be spacious enough to allow you some living room. You’ve got to be able to stretch and stand with ease. In extreme cold, available living space is often consumed by the bulk of additional clothing and big boots covered with insulative boot blankets. Your once-spacious treestand shrinks dramatically under these circumstances. Being confined and cramped for long hours spells discomfort which results in a physical and psychological negative. In the long run it robs you of the all-important staying power required to be successful.
I’m no featherweight. (Now there’s an understatement!) I’m over six feet tall and tip the scales at a dainty 245 pounds, so all the bulk in my treestand isn’t clothing. I’ve tried every tree stand known to man, and even invented a couple, but I must tell you that API’s Baby Grand is my treestand of choice for several reasons. No. 1: It’s big and roomy, with a 24-x30-inch platform and a 12-inch wide by 24-inch long by 2-inch thick cushioned seat. The Baby Grand is built for optional attachment of a padded shooting rail which is a tremendous addition for firearms hunters. Of equal importance, it is absolutely quiet and does not snap, creek, or shift on the tree. Its rock solid attachment system is the best I’ve seen, and it does no damage to the tree on which it’s attached—good news for states where laws prohibit damaging trees. I’ve put this stand to the test in temperatures as low as -30 F. and have nothing but praise for it.
Take it from one who knows, no matter how quiet your treestand is in the sultry south, if it’s got plastic parts, or is assembled with nuts and bolts, rather than welded joints, you’re in for a lot of noise and perhaps even a degree of danger. Plastic responds quite different to stress in severe cold than it does in warmer climates. A couple of years ago, while sitting in a treestand equipped with a plastic seat, the seat suddenly snapped off beneath my posterior and before I could even think, I was dangling from my safety belt. The same thing happened to another hunter I know with a similar stand. In warmer weather that same stand had served me well. Stay with all-metal construction with welded rather than nuts and bolt-style construction.
Can a treestand affect the psychological well being of the hunter? You better believe it. I look forward to my day in a spacious, well-built stand, which means I’m going to stick out my shift with a positive frame of mind. Conversely, I have climbed into restrictive, uncomfortable stands with total dread. All day long my major focus was on enduring the discomfort or coping with the noise, rather than focusing on deer hunting. The wrong treestand is a one-way ticket to burnout. Last year, while hunting for the eighth consecutive season with Caribou Trail Outfitters, among the ranks of hunters in camp were some veterans of ice-wars deer hunting, along with some first timers. All of them were from the southern states. I asked them each to think about what hunting in the cold had taught them that I might share in this article. The following valuable tips were offered.
First Time Northern Hunter
Greensboro, North Carolina
“I’ll definitely have my rifle stock shortened by a full two inches before I come back. With all my bulky clothing on, my eye relief was extended so far that I had real difficulty in getting my head down on the stock in a position that allowed me to see through my scope. I’ll have a shorter synthetic stock made for my rifle to accommodate for the bulky clothing and I’ll have a lighter trigger pull to help accuracy on offhand shots.”
Two-Year Veteran Northern Bowhunter
Greensboro, North Carolina
“I reduced the draw weight of my bow by about 10 pounds for drawing in extreme cold. When your muscles are cold and stiff, 70 pounds feels like 90. I also shorten the draw length of my bow by a full inch for extreme cold. It’s almost impossible, while wearing all the bulky clothing, to draw as long as you do in light clothing. I also find that just being in top physical condition helps me endure the cold weather and feel positive about the hunt.”
First Time Northern Hunter
“In my excitement the first morning, I climbed into my stand real fast and exerted a lot of energy and really got overheated and sweaty. I had to open up my clothing to cool off. I found it’s better to walk to your stand nice and slow with your clothing opened up so you don’t overheat. Climb into your stand slowly, too. Then, get all zipped up and ready for the long shift. I was also amazed at the deer movement I saw all day. In this big forest I would never want to be out of my stand.”
First Time Northern Fall Bowhunter
“I’m going to find a different arrow rest. Mine has heat shrink tubing over metal contact points. In the cold it sounds like metal against metal. I think a Teflon covering would be much better. I would also lighten my draw weight next time, and back off to 65-68 pounds. Drawing a heavy bow when you’re cold is really tough. I can’t emphasize the importance of practicing with your bow and all your heavy clothing before you leave home—even if you have to get in a walk-in freezer to do it. If you don’t, you’ll be guaranteed to find something unexpected in the way your draw is altered, or new unexpected noises.”
Four-Time Veteran of Northern Hunting
“After working out the survival part of northern deer hunting, being always alert and knowing how to judge a northern buck is what will help first-time whitetail hunters in western Canada. I’ve shot three bucks in Saskatchewan and all were shot within 10 seconds of the time I first spotted them. You have to make up your mind fast. Videos helped me more than anything when I was getting ready to go to Canada for the first time. I watched “Saskatchewan Giants” and “Saskatchewan Trophy Bucks” by Bentley Coben and Craig Larsen’s videos, “Manitoba Big Buck Challenge” 1-4. Just seeing those big bucks helped me learn to judge them before I got there.
”Well, there’s plenty of food for thought as you begin to prepare for your next cold weather dream buck—the key word being “prepare.” So often, even us veterans are so intoxicated by the lure of the north and those big, cow-nosed, bull-shouldered whitetails, that we forget the importance of proper preparation. Your preparation should include winterizing everything from your firearm, bow, and clothing to getting into good shape and good health and utilizing preventative maintenance to stay that way. And don’t forget that fuel for the body’s fire. The right food and drink is essential. As a bit of parting wisdom, may I also encourage you to take along enough chemical hand warmers to heat your hand muff and some extras to roll up in a bandanna and tie around your neck. There’s nothing so wonderful as that hot pack radiating warmth on the back of your neck when it’s 30 below and the snow is piled up on the branches around you.
– Russell Thornberry